Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Afton State Park: River Trail: October 24th, 2015

Hello again! This is Joe- Elly has offered me an exciting opportunity to intern as a staff writer at TotWoN, so I'll be your guide to Afton State Park today.

After wrapping up the Hiking Club at Itasca, we took some time off from hiking to focus more on training for our first 5k (which we successfully completed October 10th- yay!). We were taking my dad to Wisconsin to visit my brother for a week, and figured that would be a good opportunity to get the hiking boots back into action. The day started out cloudy and cold, but by the time we arrived back at the St. Croix in mid afternoon the clouds had disappeared and it was a lovely fall day.

We wound our way down the long, hilly entrance road to the trail center and then faced a rare dilemma- where to hike? Having the Hiking Club as a guide was helpful for me in that we always had something to accomplish... now I felt cast adrift! We thought about hiking up into the prairie restoration area, but in the end decided to head for the South River Trail. The descent was fairly significant (about 200 feet) and part of the Hiking Club trail. Once we reached the river, we had a nice view of some past-peak but still pleasant colors along the St. Croix.

Hello, Wisconsin

The river trail looked awfully level, and I began to wonder if it was perhaps an old rail line. We found an old culvert that looked (and sounded) like it was made out of cast iron, and later found another with old school stone work around it, which confirmed our suspicions. There was an amazing echo in the pipe.

Helloooooo in thereeeee

It turns out this was a line built in the early 1880s from Hastings to Stillwater by the Milwaukee Road, and it was abandoned in 1979. There are plans to incorporate it into a longer bike route along the St. Coix; currently the trail map indicates it dead ends at the north and south boundaries of the park. We're big fans of rail trails so hopefully this comes to fruition. It's always enjoyable to imagine rumbling along through the scenery in an old locomotive as you hike or bike!

Water level route

We intended to hike to the south boundary of the park, but noticed an old set of stairs heading up off the path. We were close to the end of the trail anyway so we figured we might as well explore. Well.

Can you see the trail?

We made it to the top, and there definitely was a trail (including some extremely decrepit stair work at the very top), but we can see why this route was no longer on the trail map. Climbing 200 feet on a narrow footpath through thick piles of wet and slippery leaves is probably something the park wants to avoid for liability reasons if nothing else. We also had the awkward experience of breaking out of the bushes at the back of a very crowded group campsite and having to scuttle along the edges of the gathering back to the road.

Barely visible steps

The rest of the hike back to the trail center was along roads and paved trails (some of them part of the Hiking Club trail), and the late afternoon was nearly perfect for an autumn day.

Dancin' in the dead leaves

We even saw one last reminder of summer - a bright yellow flower - and a very photogenic beetle.

Hello, what's this?

Hello!  I am a Cucumber Beetle - I'm a pest, but a very photogenic pest

Overall, this was a great return visit and with Afton being only 45 minutes from home, I'm sure we'll be back many times in the future.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Itasca State Park: The Headwaters

There's nothing more Minnesotan than walking across the Mighty Mississippi, am I right?;  (except perhaps purifying yourself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka, but that's another thing entirely), so we simply HAD to do it while we were at Itasca.

Joe and I went to the Headwaters around noon on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend.  We should have known that it would be crowded...and it was.

Look at all the people.  Okay, Disneyland it ain't, but it's also not the reflective experience we were hoping for.

Lots of people, lots of shouting and running kids, lots of dogs.  We hung out for a bit and then decided that we would do the unthinkable: wake up before dawn the next day and get there for sunrise.  We were hoping that there wouldn't be anyone else around and that we could get some good pictures in the early morning light.

We took one selfie off the little bridge before leaving.

The next morning - our first wedding anniversary!  We woke up at 6:30 and away we went.  We got to the headwaters and were greeted by a couple and their dogs.  We asked them to take our pictures - they did - and then they headed off.

Happy Headwaters!  We both look a bit sleepy.

After the couple and their dogs left, we had the headwaters to ourselves for about an hour.  Joe took lots of pictures, I waded around in the river, we joked around and had a fine time.  I know it's not for everyone, but in order to find solitude at this park on Labor Day weekend, we had to get up early.  It was great.


The first rapids on the Mississippi

Joe is pretty sure on his feet...
...and Michele is not.  Lots of arm-waving but at least there was no Split Rock-type experience.

All weekend long we had a running joke about "surely THIS is the source of the Mississippi", whenever we came across a tiny streamlet, rainwater puddle draining into a larger puddle, even when I was taking a shower.  Who knows if this rock bridge truly is the source of the Mighty Mississippi?  Well, if it is, we've walked across it and completed our very Minnesotan Quest.

Happy anniversary to us! 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

All Good Things...Itasca State Park: September 6th, 2015

We end at the beginning.

Itasca State Park was Minnesota's first State Park - and only the second one in the United States (Niagara Falls State Park came first).  It was created in 1891 to preserve and commemorate the headwaters of the Mighty Mississippi.  Our friend Schoolcraft, that whimsical namer of places, determined that Lake Itasca was the true Headwaters in 1832.  There's been plenty of controversy about that (there are small streams in the watershed that drain INTO Itasca) but it'll probably always be Lake Itasca that people flock to in order to dip their feet into the beginning of the greatest river in the USA.

Itasca is worthy of several blog posts, especially since we spent several days there.  For this post we'll focus just on the Hiking Club Trail.

One more time!

The Hiking Club Trail in Itasca doesn't hit any of the Big Deal Sites in the park.  It follows a few woodsy trails just south of the tip of the East Arm of the lake: the Ozawindib Trail and the Deer Park Trail.  The trailhead was actually right next to the Douglas Lodge - which is where we stayed!  More about that in another post, too.

Dodging puddles

We were there for three nights, and I think it rained every single one of them.  At least the rain didn't start until the evenings...but it made for muddy trails.   That's alright, we're used to them by now.  It was fairly hilly but we're still in pretty good shape what with the 5k training.  Our glutes and quads were up for it.

Lovely Myrtle Lake

The trail passes by many smaller lakes of the park:  Myrtle Lake, Mary Lake, Allen Lake, Deer Park Lake.  It felt more deciduous-y than northwoods-y, and we didn't see that many animals.  Certainly none larger than a squirrel.  I suppose that's what happens when you have over 500,000 visitors a year trampling through the park.

Blue sky, sky tinted water.

To be honest, the Hiking Club trail was not the highlight of the trip.  It was kind of boring compared to the rest of the park.  But it was the last one!  Our Hiking Club Trail Quest had come to an end!


Upon completion of the trail, we hotfooted it on over to the Ranger Station to claim our prize.  We were done!  We didn't expect a ticker-tape parade or anything, but we kind of expected the Ranger to know what the Hiking Club was!  He didn't know much about it and told us that we would have to go the DNR Headquarters in St. Paul in order to get our final patches.


Luckily we live in the Cities, so on September 8th we took the light rail on over to the DNR HQ and took one last hike for the Hiking Club.  They were much more helpful there, and we emerged victorious.

We are the champions!

Total miles hiked at the park: 3.5 miles
Total miles hiked to the DNR Headquarters: 2
Total miles hiked in 2015: 45.7
Total ticks today: Joe - 0; Elly - 0; Thunderdog - 0
Total ticks in 2015: 9

Countdown to All Miles: 0 to go

BUT WAIT...there's more!
Stay tuned for:

- More Itasca posts: yes, we went to the Headwaters.
- Hiking Club post-mortems: best of, worst of, top fives in every category you can imagine, plus Miss Congeniality.  Will there be a baton twirler?  You will have to tune in to see!
- the Future of the Blog.  We're not going to stop here.  There's so much more to see and to do in our wonderful home state of Minnesota.  Thanks for traveling with us this far!