A few years ago, a previous employer decided we were spending too much time indoors staring at screens. So we were each given a Minnesota State Parks pass, kicked out of the proverbial house for the summer and told not to come back until we were a bit scraped up around the shins.
The pass featured a beautiful image from Blue Mounds State Park of a tall rock wall lining the edge of a vast prairie. I wanted to see it for myself, but Google Maps told me it was located in the extreme southwest corner of the state, about a four-hour drive from Minneapolis. I put it on the “someday” shelf and explored other parks closer to home. Before I knew it, I was hooked on nature and had made my way through most of the nearby state parks. Suddenly, a four-hour drive seemed liked the perfect adventure for a long weekend.
Luke and I timed our visit to coincide with the Perseid meteor shower, which peaked on August 13th during a new moon. For optimal viewing, we had to get away from the city’s light pollution. Without any hesitation, we booked a campsite, invited a couple of friends to join us, and hit the road. The crew – Luke, Lindsey and Ross – went ahead of me while I finished working. Their job was to get out there, set-up camp and scout the park for interesting hikes. They were given strict instructions not to see or do anything ‘cool’ without me.
Later that evening, I was gunning down a two-lane road toward a massive upheaval of earth and rock in the middle of impossibly flat farmland. I arrived just in time to catch the sun dip into the horizon, shooting orange, pink and purple beams over the blood-red rock embedded into the surrounding grassland. After one or two wrong turns, I found my way to the main campground and located our site at the edge of the prairie. The cloud cover was thick, but periodic breaks allowed us to see a vast amount of stars. Every so often, we’d catch a small streak shooting across the sky, which made us shout, “Did you see that one?!” every single time. Luke was the real winner that night – he got to see an “earthgrazer” by dragging his camp pad outside and staying up past midnight while the rest of us read in our tents.
The next day was very hot, humid and cloudless. We set out through waist-deep grass on the Lower Cliffline Trail toward the park’s marquee feature. The Sioux quartzite cliff rises 100 feet from the plain, separating two entirely different worlds. A short, easy trail took us to the top where we stood high above the surrounding farms stretching to the horizon. Hawks circled and swooped from nearby perches. We were baffled and delighted to find prickly pear cactus blooms growing in abundance.
Our next destination was the 500-acre preserve that’s home to 100 bison. We followed the Mound Trail that runs parallel to the Bison Range but didn’t see anything except the fence line. After taking a short break back at camp, we drove to the other side of the park to see the Historic Quarry. We picked up the Burr Oak Trail located near the interpretive center, passing the mysterious Rock Alignment along the way. No one knows too much about why or how this 1,200 ft. long line of rocks stretching east to west exists. What we do know is that it perfectly aligns with the sun during the summer and winter solstices.
We made our way to the Historic Quarry and scrambled around on the pile of rocks in the middle of its hollowed-out center. Standing at the base of the rock face, staring straight up at the wavy, red rock felt a bit like standing inside a mini version of Zion National Park. Eventually, we retraced our steps back up the Burr Oak Trail to Eagle Rock. Perched on top of the large boulder, we strained to see anything in the distance that remotely resembled bison. Lindsey, our group’s voice of reason, looked to the right and spotted the herd standing about 100 yards away – right next to the fence. The bison eyed us cautiously as we approached, deemed us harmless and continued to take uninhibited dust baths.
Later that night, we threw our camp pads and pillows into the car and drove to Touch the Sky Prairie to watch the meteor shower. We dragged our pads through the damp grass for a quarter-mile and plopped down in the dark field. We laid there for an hour or so, gazing up at the dark night sky, counting shooting stars. Initially, it was a bit unnerving to be out there, but the novelty wore off and I quickly became one with the tall grass surrounding me. Not bad for someone who was once afraid of the dark.
In the real-world school of life, I get to proudly report back that my summer was spent climbing trees, rocks and trails. I got plenty dirty and did a proper job of beating up my shins and bare feet. I tried my best to evenly balance the use of screen time with sunscreen. I set up tents and group outings. I even went into the river willingly. A majority of my adventures took place in Minnesota’s parks and wild spaces and it was one of the best summers I’ve ever had. #onlyinmn