Minnesota River Valley: Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Part III

Encyclopedic readers will recall that back in April 2012 I announced that My wife and I were on a quest to explore the labyrinth of soft-surface trails within the Minnesota River Valley. The valley has always intrigued me because it’s a mile-wide swath of undeveloped space full of wetlands, the river, lakes, and power plants. Pretty much every branch of the government at all levels that has anything to do with parks, trails, or wildlife has their fingers in this valley in one form or another. You can read about our other attempts to explore the valley here.

Here’s where we walked:

View Larger Map
I learned from the internet that the specific trail we walked is called the Bluff Trail. We started at the Old Cedar Avenue trailhead and walked west for about 1.5 miles and back for a 3 mile round trip.

OK, now for some pics. It was a grey (yes I spell it with an “e” because it looks greyer) day, and I loved the views out across Long Meadow Lake of the Old Cedar Avenue Bridge and the Black Dog Power Plant.

Old Cedar Avenue Bridge

Old Cedar Avenue Bridge

Black Dog Power Plant

Black Dog Power Plant

The trail was pretty cool. It’s marked NO BIKING ON TRAIL, but clearly people are biking on it. I was wondering if we would encounter any bikes down there, and if so, if it was ok for people to walk down there as well or if the mountain bikers were a bit territorial about the space. We encountered one bike. He did not show much interest in slowing down as he passed me and my children on the narrow trail corridor, but he also did not punch me in the gut or anything like that.

NO BIKES ALLOWED

NO BIKES ALLOWED

Anyway, here’s a bunch of pictures of me and my kids and the trail.

Cool boardwalk out into the lake.

Cool boardwalk out into the lake.

Some dumb trail.

Some dumb trail.

Co-Captain and Chief Lieutenant Scribe.

Co-Captain and Chief Lieutenant Scribe.

I love crunching through leaves on the ground.

I love crunching through leaves on the ground.

Me and my co-pilot.

Me and my co-pilot.

This is a weird bridge or boardwalk thing.

This is a weird bridge or boardwalk thing.

This boardwalk thing is awesome.

This boardwalk thing is awesome.

Well, we only made it out into the valley once in 2013. Maybe we’ll try again next year.

Hiking Eagle Mountain MN

Anyone following me on twitter saw the following two tweets from me last Friday:

Fever finally broke. Going camping in the rain with two kids under 3. Hiking eagle Mountain tomorrow. Life is pretty good.

And when i say “camping in the rain” I probably mean a hotel room in Duluth.

Well, here’s the whole extended story. Grab some popcorn.

Friday was one hell of a day. I was sick half the day and spent all afternoon trying to figure out if I was going to leave work early or not. But I thought about it too long and just spent the whole afternoon watching my cube spin in circles.

Mel and I had been planning on waking up early Saturday morning and heading out for the North Shore for a camping trip, since our son CH is over 3 months old and hasn’t been yet, but I was feeling lousy and didn’t think it was gonna happen. I fell asleep around 8:00 PM and slept through till around 9:00 AM the next morning. I woke up feeling great, though, so we loaded up the car anyway and started driving north, despite the fact that it was raining.

We felt a little dumb going camping in the rain, but we knew if we didn’t go for it this weekend it wasn’t going to happen at all this year.

Well, I thought I was over the fever, but it returned with a vengeance right around Duluth. Compound that with the fact that it was still raining, and camping was looking pretty unattractive. Left with a few hours to kill, we hit up the Great Lakes Aquarium, which probably would have been better had it not been spinning around in circles. I’m pretty sure that for at least a few minutes, my daughter KP was running around on some indoor slide while I was slumped over a fake log.

But then, the fever actually did break, and the rain stopped. Next thing I know, I’m doing this:

Me and CM checking out stars and stuff. CM loves stars.

Me and CH checking out stars and stuff. CH loves stars.

And my wife was all like:

Dinner was a delicious cold-cut pulled off a deli sandwich.

Dinner was a delicious cold-cut pulled off a deli sandwich.

And the tent was like:

Dumb picture of an old tent.

Dumb picture of an old tent.

I was worried that sleeping was going to be a miserable time with a restless toddler kicking me in the gut over and over again, but nope. Smooth sailing. The kids were great and we were all just snuggled right in all night.

Mel, KP, Pink Penguin, Tiger, CM.

Mel, KP, Pink Penguin, Tiger, CH.

Mel and KP snuggled into bed.

Mel and KP snuggled into bed.

CM waking up in a foggy tent.

CH waking up in a foggy tent.

In the morning, we drove over to Eagle Mountain, the highest point in Minnesota, and hiked to the top. KP sat in her new “Special Backpack”.

"Special Backpack"

“Special Backpack”

Eagle Mountain Pathway.

Eagle Mountain Pathway.

Some dumb bridge we crossed.

Some dumb bridge we crossed.

Eagle Mountain from across the lake.

Eagle Mountain from across the lake.

Little Free-Loader.

Little Free-Loader.

The trail was pretty much just a bunch of rocks.

The trail was pretty much just a bunch of rocks.

Narnia.

Narnia.

Eagle Mountain Peak!

Eagle Mountain Peak!

Eagle Mountain Overlook!

Eagle Mountain Overlook!

Click to make bigger.

Click to make bigger.

Eagle Mountain is pretty underwhelming compared to some of the other great mountains out there to hike. At 2,301 feet above sea level, it almost qualifies as a foothill in most states. That being said, the hike was physically taxing, especially when lugging a two year old around on your back. I’ll admit, I pulled a few muscles and could barely walk the next day. I’m blaming the fever.

On the way home, we stopped off for a bit of sight seeing along the north shore.

Some Trail Somewhere.

Some Trail Somewhere.

Lake Superior.

Lake Superior.

OK. Well that’s the only thing I’ve done worth writing about in the past 6 months. How about you?

Mystery Cave State Park

A couple Saturdays ago Mel and I woke up a little bit before KP. We were laying in bed talking about our wide-open schedule for the day and neither of us were looking forward to wrestling KP inside the house all day. The weather outside was lousy, so we decided to take a little road trip out to Mystery Cave State Park in southern MN.

The drive took a couple hours, but KP is pretty good in the car, so no big deal. We got an early start because we wanted to be able to drive to the park, tour the cave, eat lunch, and then be able to start our drive home during KP’s usual naptime. So off we went.

KP’s favorite part was the bridge outside the cave. There’s a little creek nearby and she liked the ducks. Go figure, drive 2.5 hours and she wants to look at ducks, which we could have seen at home.

KP's favorite part was the bridge outside the cave.

KP’s favorite part was the bridge outside the cave.

The cave was pretty cool, and definitely worth the drive. Once we entered the cave, I dunno. It was a cave. We did cave-type things, told cave-stories, ate cave-snacks, sang cave-songs, and did cave-dances. Here are some photos:

Some dark room in a cave.

Some dark room in a cave.

Mystery Cave State Park is pretty kid friendly.

Mystery Cave State Park is pretty kid friendly.

Some dark hallway thing in a cave.

Some dark hallway thing in a cave.

I took about 300 photos of stuff like this that I will never look at again.

I took about 300 photos of stuff like this that are pretty cool but that I will never look at again.

I liked the places where there was a catwalk over standing water.

I liked the places where there was a catwalk over standing water.

I was a little worried about how KP would do inside the cave. The tour is about an hour, and she was pretty good, though she definitely got a bit fussy towards the end. However, I’m glad we went, I’d go again, and I would recommend this cave tour to anyone.

Ever been to Mystery Cave State Park? What did you think?

 

Winter Hiking: Kawishiwi Falls

Welcome to another installment of Your North Woods Hiking Guide, your guide to exploring the MN North Woods on foot.

I wrote previously about the lovely little stroll that is the Kawishiwi Falls Hiking Trail, 0.5 miles of trails that lead to a splendid little set of falls along the Kawishiwi River. On our most recent trip back to the North Woods, we stopped in on the trail again, this time completing the easy walk on a chilly 10 degree day in December.

To refresh your memory, here’s what it looks like during the summer:

Kawishiwi Falls Jumpers

Kawishiwi Falls Jumpers

And now in winter:

Kawishiwi Falls in winter.

Kawishiwi Falls in winter.

Below Kawishiwi Falls in winter.

Below Kawishiwi Falls in winter.

Kawishiwi Falls Hiking Trail in winter.

Kawishiwi Falls Hiking Trail in winter.

KP was my co-caption, a job she excels at, except for when her hands get cold. Then she just screams, which she started doing right after this photo. Darn, she was even wearing her monkey hat with matching mitts, but I guess it just wasn’t enough for her. She’s kind of a baby.

Still, the rest of our hiking team enjoyed the trip very much, and if you’re in the Ely area in the winter and are looking for an easy way to get out and walk through the woods with the reward of great views of the falls for very little effort, this is a great option.

Stay tuned for the next installment of Your North Woods Hiking Guide.

Willow River State Park

We spent some time at Willow River State Park (WI) today. It’s a pretty sweet park, and barely an hours drive from the cities. I’ve written about it a couple times before. As usual, Willow Falls are the highlight of the park, and they were packed with people swimming, wading, and jumping in the water.

Willow River State Park.

I even jumped in myself!

That’s a gold medal right there.

We also took the canoe out on the lake for a bit, and here’s a tip: right across the lake from the beach, there’s a cool rope swing for jumping into the lake.

Willow River State Park.

If you live in the Twin Cities and you’ve never been to Willow River State Park, I recommend you check it out. It’s a pretty cool place to spend a saturday.

Afton State Park

Happy late 4th of July. Oh jeez, it was hot as balls outside on the 4th.

It being independence day and all, Mel and I really wanted to do the most American thing we could think of. But sitting around in our cool air-conditioned living room watching MASH re-runs on MeTV and eating pizza just seemed a bit wasteful of a day off, so we decided to go to the beach instead. We wanted to go someplace we’d never been before, so we just started googling around and found Afton State Park, which offers a “swimming beach” according to the website.

We drove out to the park, and found it to be beautiful and pleasant.

Beautiful Trails.

Except for this:

Sad Trombone.

Nothing says state park like a high-voltage transmission line.

At any rate, we discovered that after you park the car, the beach is about a half-mile walk down some trails.

Fat Lips won’t stop us.

The beach wasn’t what we were expecting, but it turned out to be pretty perfect for us. The beach is actually more of a small sandbar along the river with trees growing all over it. If you were expecting a wide expanse of sand, or great tanning conditions, you’d be disappointed.

“Beach”

But anyone with a toddler knows that direct sun isn’t always the best thing in the world because we don’t want to accidentally burn our daughter and end up like¬†Tanning Mom.

Shady Beach.

So we enjoyed the shady beach, went swimming in the river, and had plenty of time to play in the sand.

St. Croix River

fun stuff happened

All in all, the beach at Afton State Park turned out to be a pretty family-friendly place to hang out, and great for kids with all the shade (although, the river can be awfully turbulent – keep a close eye out for those kids near the water). The $5 state park entrance fee and 1/2 mile walk kept it uncrowded (even on this hot as balls 4th of July holiday.

How about you, readers? Ever been to Afton State Park? What did you think?

KP’s First Camping Trip

OK, ready for another riveting weekend adventure update? We took KP on her first camping trip ever. We didn’t really know how well it was going to work out, so we chose some pretty cushy accommodations and set our expectations low. We chose the Cannon River Wilderness Area, part of the Rice County Park System.

Cannon River Wilderness Area

We didn’t get there until about 6:30 PM friday night, and spirits were high.

Happy Happy Joy Joy

The camping sites here are walk-in style, but it’s only about 1/8 mile or so. Mel carried all the gear and KP, and I carried the camera so that I could blog about it later.

KP is a bit of a freeloader.

The Cannon River looked pretty good.

Cannon River.

Cannon River.

Unfortunately for us, the two closest campsites were already taken. These are first-come-first-serve, and we were too late. But we’d come this far, so we weren’t about to quit so easily. I took a few more photos of Mel carrying the gear and KP back to the parking lot area, and we just decided to camp near the pavilion in the grassy park area. This is against the rules, but we’re such risk-taking rebels that we did it anyway, Rice County Park Rules be damned. Also, we didn’t know how sleeping with KP in a tent was going to work out and we were half expecting to give up around Midnight and go home anyway.

Pavilion.

We didn’t set up the tent until right before we were ready to sleep, just in case one of the dastardly Rice County Park Police came to kick the scrubs out of the park.

Playing in grass.

After eating our tin-foil dinner, we decided to go on a night-hike.

Up waaaaay past bedtime, and loving it.

We were a little worried that KP wouldn’t sleep very well in the tent, but she proved us wrong. She curled herself up into a little ball and slept all night.

Experts be damned, KP sleeps how she wants.

Also, KP got totally eaten alive by mosquitos, and now looks like she has small pox or something. The next morning, we awoke sharply at 5:00 AM, and snoozed, for another hour. We packed up and were home by 8:00 AM sharp.

Good Morning!

Even though our camping trip was a maximum of 14 hours, including travel time and sleeping, it was still a great first-time camping experience with KP.

How about you? Ever gone camping with an infant? How did it go? Any tips you’ve learned along the way you’d like to share?

Minnesota River Valley: Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Part II

This past weekend, Mel and I decided to continue our exploration by foot of the Minnesota River Valley. This time, we found a new part of the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge (MVNWR) to stomp through, although, still within the Long Meadow Lake Unit Park (same as last time). This time, we started at the MVNWR headquarters building in Bloomington near the Mall of America, where the Fish & Wildlife service has a pretty substantial building, which includes a neat overlook platform.

Minnesota Valley Wildlife Refuge

Minnesota Valley Wildlife Refuge Visitors Center

Minnesota Valley Wildlife Refuge Overlook Platform

Minnesota Valley Wildlife Refuge Overlook Platform

Here’s a map of our route for the day, a total of just over 4 miles. We had wanted to walk all the way to TH-77 and back, but only made it to the part of the trail we referred to as “the nipple”.


View Larger Map

This trail is pretty cool, and is a nice, easy walk. For the most part, we didn’t see anyone else there the entire time. Most of the people we saw were on Mountain Bikes. Here’s some pics.

Minnesota Valley Wildlife Refuge - cool trail, huh?

Prairie & Bloomington

Weirdos

Our Chief Navigation Officer was easily distracted by string cheese.

That's the Minnesota River in the Background.

Awww...

Ok, that’s it. If it would stop raining this weekend, we’d go walk the rest of the trail. Next time, we’ll start at TH-77 and work our way back to “the nipple”.

Minnesota River Valley: Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Part I

One of the goals my wife and I have set for ourselves is to explore the Minnesota River Valley as it passes through the Metro Area. It’s a pretty large area – the green space surrounding the river is a mile wide in places, and if I include everything between US-169 and the airport, there’s a lot of ground to cover.

I’m pretty familiar with Fort Snelling State Park, but there’s also a couple of National Wildlife Refuges in there, as well as dozens of parks owned by Bloomington and Eden Prairie. Some of the trails meander continuously throughout all of them, though, so it can be tough to know exactly who owns what down there. And that’s just the Hennepin County side of the river. The Dakota County side is equally complex, I’m sure.

Our first exploration started at the Old Cedar Avenue Trailhead. We followed the path northeast for about a mile and a half, past the old gravel pits to the Bloomington Bass Ponds. I’m about 80% sure that our entire trip was contained within the Long Meadow Lake Unit Park, part of the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge.


View Larger Map

Here’s some photos of the afternoon hike:

Before heading out, KP and I made sure to double-check our provisions. I required soda; her, puffy rice snacks.

Vision. Determination.

We were hoping we would be able to go out onto the Old Cedar Avenue bridge. We knew it was “closed”, but closed and “closed” are two different things. There were actually people out on the bridge – you could get around the fences, but it required a little bit more scrambling than I was comfortable with doing with KP strapped to my chest.

Old Cedar Avenue Bridge - Closed.

The trails could accommodate only the toughest of travelers. Benches were scarce, requiring nearly a quarter mile trek between sitting opportunities.

Bench.

KP loves bridges!

Infrastructure! TH-77.

My sturdy travel companion. She is an extraordinarily hardy and capable outdoorsperson, other than the fact that her socks keep falling off.

Travel Companions.

Pretty nice views of Long Meadow Lake.

Long Meadow Lake.

KP, emboldened by her first successful venture into the vast uncharted Minnesota River Valley, tried to ride home without a car seat facing forward. Not so fast, kid.

She's laughing because she's about to pull off one of her socks and stuff it in her mouth. Typical KP.

Ever explored the Minnesota River Valley? What’s your favorite part?

Your North Woods Hiking Guide

Here’s another installment of Your North Woods Hiking Guide, your guide to exploring the MN North Woods on foot.

Up first, the ever-popular Dry Falls, located along the scenic Bass Lake¬†hiking trail. This trail has been featured in Your North Woods Hiking Guide before. Several Times. But it’s always a treat. And I always find excuses to not bring my swim suit. This year, I blamed it on my muffin top. Sigh.

Dry Falls Jumpers

Dry Falls Jumpers

Dry Falls

Dry Falls

The newest entry in Your North Woods Hiking Guide is the Kawishiwi Falls Hiking Trail, which is a gem because the whole thing is only about a half mile long and it’s nearly flat, but the falls are awesome. If you’re looking for an easy hike with a nice view, this is your best bet!

Kawishiwi Falls Hiking Trail

Kawishiwi Falls Hiking Trail

Kawishiwi Falls Jumpers

Kawishiwi Falls Jumpers

Kawishiwi Falls

Kawishiwi Falls