After a long and beautiful day guiding at Afton State Park for the Hastings Earth Day Bird Festival as well as presenting on the subject of birding gear I was certainly tired and ready for sleep. April had been so terrible though that I knew I wanted to put a big day in on Sunday and try to get to a couple State Parks.
So I set my alarm for 5AM and got on the road within minutes of my alarm, ready for what ever was to come my way. I was on the way to the gas station before I realized I had no idea what park I was heading towards. My general though was west and then perhaps south. After getting gas and some iced tea I landed upon Minneopa for no particular reason at all. I didn't build up with a ton of research laying down the best possible location for species X, while plotting out perfect timings, etc... I just picked a park and drove.
I'm actually pretty brutal when it comes to being spontaneous so this was a huge change for me. I want this big year to also be about surprise. Going into a situation and just happening upon the world doing it's thing. Yes, it would be awesome to have the entire year plotted out for max species count, but what really seems to inspire me now is the thrill of the unknown. The idea of showing up and finding a trail that looks fun after I arrive and see what is at the end of that trail.
At about 7:15AM I rolled into the entrance and snagged a quick sign selfie and quickly spotted a fly over flock of Tundra Swan on the move.
Only later did I realize my head was literally over the falls in the sign.
Notable to me was the limited structures and non-paved roads in the park. I also found that a large chunk of the park was actually an enclosed buffalo paddock. The drive was closed, but I later found the hiking trail completely circles the enclosure and a few buffalo were spotted grazing in the prairie. Much of the entrance area and land space leading up to the trailhead parking area had gotten an invasive removal effort so it looked a bit clear cut in areas. These fringe areas looked as though they were thick with buckthorn, sumac, and cedar trees. The cleanup though had the area looking fresh and the dirt roads seems to be well kept and new trail signage was in place along with really new pit toilettes that had the lumber smell fresh from the yard.
I do find a lot of value in being the only one present at a park. The lot was wet, but didn't appear to be crazy soft or anything so it held well.
I soon found myself on the trail enjoying the constant chatter of Dark-eyed Junco and Fox Sparrow that were both in great supply. The trail skirted the noted Buffalo enclosure and also the treed ridge line above a set of railroad tracks and the Minnesota River. From the vantage point I was able to catch some view of the winding river, but few waterfowl moved about on the muddy river and swift current. I stirred up a small flock of Gadwall sitting in a flooded pool off the one marshy area near the parking lot as dozens of Red-winged Blackbirds tried to lock down some territory.
The open prairie still melting off the snow. This is the main feature of the park and dedicated to the Buffalo herd with the exception of a drive through the paddock.
One of maybe 5 or 6 Buffalo I saw from a ways off.
By and large the trail sat just on the wooded edge of the greater prairie space as I found Hermit Thrush kicking around the leaf litter, having survived the winter storms or perhaps just arriving after they were gone.
Hermit Thrush playing hard to get along with 4 others on this stretch of trail.
I saw my first State Park rabbit of the year as an Eastern Cottontail scampered down the trail in front of me.
I found a small stream running along the prairie and flowing over trail. It took me a while to find a crossing as it eventually turned into a flooded forest zone with many thorn bushes protecting the wooded edges. When I found something narrow enough I was keenly aware I could make the jump, but the wet edges threatened to dunk my gear if I were to slip at all. I found a stout branch near my height and used it to pole vault over the gap so I could just push off and ride the gap.
Back to the trail I eventually looped back and decided against the 2 mile plus add-on for the entire loop. I could see an old wind mill over on that side, but also noted a county highway adjacent as well and felt the habitat wouldn't likely add much on this day. Perhaps a return trip would have the entire hike around and maybe even a drive through the Buffalo pen.
The historic mill that beckons for further exploration in the future. Maybe a combo of this park with Fort Ridgley would be a good day trip with my wife as we both enjoy history.
For what it offers Minneopa State Park is a decent hike and pretty much 1 long loop trail or a couple options to strike out and return on the same section. The habitat is limited, but I can see enjoying the space an potentially pulling in a rarity from time to time. As I left the lot I realized a sign was pointing me to the parks "Falls" area and that I hadn't even realized potentially the best feature was in a detached portion of the park.
I rolled into another dirt lot and found a well kept picnic and shelter area with a nice bridge over an initial drop in the falls putting it on top of the main falls. After crossing over you are shown a great view of the entire falls, which was moving very well with the higher water levels.
A view of the upper (pre) falls while standing on the pedestrian bridge.
The main falls as seen from the walkway showing the pedestrian bridge over the falls as well. It was a nice add for a park after a couple hour hike.
I could also see a path moving away from the falls that seemed to cross back over the canyon and back to the picnic area. I had an Eastern Phoebe singing a bit at the falls as I grabbed photos of my little sidebar adventure and made a note to return to the park with my wife for a fun day of waterfalls, Buffalo, and perhaps history by visiting the old mill I had seen.
The Great: Impressive Buffalo enclosure that provides an opportunity to see an animal we don't often get to see in nature settings. A trail that loops the entire area is nice and provide plenty of distance to cover. The falls when flowing strong were outstanding and certainly a draw.
The Meh: The largest feature could actually be the drawback for birding. A giant prairie you can only discover on the edges and by car might limit options for getting close to some bird species and leave you constantly pressed against a fence line squinting for species. Limited wet lands provide a very limited habitat mix so the park isn't likely to fill out a county species card super fast.
The Verdict: Considering a great waterfall and a unique draw of Buffalo, the park is a excellent visit location. From a birding standpoint I wouldn't see it being a must visit every year, but I did just get a 2 hour slice of time. Might be this prairie offers some insane birding post migration and it a must see all the time. Being honest, I likely only return this year if my wife is interested in the falls as a chance to get out of town for the day.