PLAINVIEW, Minn. — Southeastern Minnesota is a place of geographic deception.
The rolling farmland that covers much of the state’s “toe” seems to stretch on forever. But then a leisurely drive past silos and farmhouses and miles upon miles of corn stalks is broken in dramatic fashion. In a place like Welch or Lake Zumbro, one drops suddenly into a green river valley where towering big woods seemingly transport visitors to another place entirely.
One gets the same feeling on a visit to Carley State Park, which is often described as a “secret” place to visit, removed from other uber-popular parks in the region like Whitewater and Nerstrand Big Woods.
“Carley is a little bit quieter,” said Melissa Quinn, a state park manager. Carley is actually a satellite park, managed out of Whitewater, which is one of the more popular parks in the region.
“The big main draw of Carley State Park are the bluebells in May. That’s a big thing. Other popular things are hiking, camping and trout fishing,” Quinn said. “We get quite a few people calling Carley the hidden gem of our area.”
The entrance to the park off a little-used farm road. When we visited on a weekday in early May, there was no attendant at the kiosk where visitors pay the $7 daily entry fee, and few cars in the parking lot.
What the park did have, in stunning abundance, was wildflowers. The aforementioned Virginia bluebells were seemingly everywhere, carpeting the big bend of the Whitewater River’s north branch, which provides the primary attraction of the park. You park in a picnic area surrounded by water on three sides, which has a playground and several peaceful spots to relax. The park’s six miles of hiking trails are packed dirt (wear good shoes) and go from the floor of the river valley to high rock ridges with outstanding views of the river. There are some steep spots with switchbacks and stairs, and concrete stepping stones to cross the river, which can be a challenge during high water times in the spring, or after heavy rains.
Carley has a quiet campground with 20 sites, all of them non-electric. The campground, while popular on weekends, is only open between Memorial Day and Labor day. September through late May, it is a day use park only.
But, even in this quiet spot, the day use has been rocketing up as folks seek to get outside, but during the pandemic and on the other side of it. In 2019, Carley saw around 40,000 visitors. In 2020 that number more than doubled to 88,000, and it has been a popular site again in 2021.
Second-best thing to do
The Whitewater River is a designated trout stream, and has been a popular place for fly anglers for many years due to its preferred habitat for both brown and rainbow trout. Anglers must have a fishing license and trout stamp, along with their own gear, to chase our aquatic friends.
Anytime one can make a trip to Rochester for non-medical reasons, it’s a good day. The famous hometown of the Mayo Clinic (about a 20-minute drive west of Carley State Park) is a sneaky-great restaurant town, with a huge variety of cuisines offered. Our favorites include the burgers at Newt’s in downtown Rochester, and some of Minnesota’s best smoky, tender barbecue at John Hardy’s, with two locations in town.