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Minnesota's Backyard: Hiking, horses and history at Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park

Our summer tour of Minnesota's public spaces continues in a southeastern Minnesota oasis that can take visitors up onto the bluffs, into the trout streams deep underneath the ground and back in time, as Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park offers a little bit of something to appeal to a wide range of interests.

Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park
A century-old bridge over the Root River takes visitors to Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park back in time more than 150 years to the preserved site that once was the frontier town of Forestville.
Contributed / Deborah Rose / Minnesota DNR
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PRESTON, Minn. — If the 1850s frontier village of Forestville, on the north bank of the Root River, could be considered a true “ghost town,” then it’s clear that Minnesota has some of the best-dressed spirits and phantoms anywhere.

Minnesota's backyard logo

The restored riverside settlement — which was founded by Europeans exploring the Minnesota Territory in 1851 and was all but abandoned by 1910, when it was bypassed by the region’s expanding railroad network — is perhaps the above ground centerpiece of Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park . But for those who want to stay seriously out of the sun, there’s a whole other subterranean world to be explored in the bluff country of southeastern Minnesota.

Between May and October, the Minnesota Historical Society maintains the preserved buildings of Forestville, which includes such period utilities as a sawmill and a grist mill. During those same months, Mystery Cave is open for guided tours that range from 60 minutes to six hours in the 13 miles of underground passages that were first discovered in the 1930s.

Diorama diversity

Among the state’s network of state parks, some are known for fishing and hiking, some are known for history and horseback riding, and some are known for canoeing and fly fishing. At Forestville/Mystery Cave, visitors find the best of all of those worlds.

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Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park
Many of the buildings of Historic Forestville are maintained and staffed by the Minnesota Historical Society inside Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park.
Contributed / Deborah Rose / Minnesota DNR
Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park
Accessibility efforts have made parts of the cave tour available to all inside Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park.
Deborah Rose / Minnesota DNR

Jon Holger, one of the park supervisors, took a recent visitor for a ride in his state-issued pickup to show the campground specifically designed to accommodate horses and their riders, which makes this the state’s most popular state park for equine enthusiasts. A strenuous two-mile hike up and down the Overlook Trail to a stunning vista of the surrounding bluffs included hoof prints on the packed rock and gravel, and plenty of (ahem) natural fertilizer left behind by recent four-legged visitors.

Down the hill at river level, a few fly fishing enthusiasts were knee-deep in the water trying to lure trout into their baskets. While nearby Whitewater State Park is generally considered fly fishing nirvana, Holger expressed some hometown bias when talking about landing freshwater treats.

“What I think is the best trout fishing in the state is right here,” he said. “We have three trout streams — Forestville Creek, Canfield Creek and the south branch of the Root River, which is in Trout Unlimited’s top 100 streams in America. From the trout opener on we’re going full tilt.”

Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park
When the water is flowing, trout anglers in the South Branch of the Root River are a common sight at Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park.
Contributed / Deborah Rose / Minnesota DNR

Even on a midweek afternoon in the late spring, there were dozens of folks camping, with and without horses. Like all state parks since the pandemic forced more people outdoors, they are busy all the time, and Holger noted especially so in the spring when the weather is warmer sooner than at parks in the northern part of the state.

Notable nearby

Rivers and streams are constantly finding new routes, meaning that maps periodically have to be redrawn to be accurate. On the south branch of the Root River, the map for Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park had to be redrawn not too long ago as well. The acquisition of a piece of formerly private land gave the park a new one-mile loop trail along the sheer limestone cliffs on the far bank of the river, which make for a stunning hiking backdrop at any time of the year. In the southwest corner of the park, the Palisade Trail has its own parking area and is a relatively new and popular area to explore.

Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park
Naturalist Natalie Johnson led a recent underground tour at Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park. The park offers a variety of cave tours that range from one to six hours.
Deborah Rose / Minnesota DNR
MORE OF MINNESOTA'S BACKYARD SERIES
Located not far from the more popular parks along Lake Superior, George H. Crosby Manitou State Park is home to wilderness, challenging terrain and real solitude on the wooded trails that reach cascades and waterfalls along the Manitou River.
At 500 square miles, Minnesota is home to the largest peat bog in the lower 48 states, and a mile-long boardwalk at Big Bog State Recreation Area allows visitors to explore this unique and vital ecosystem.
It's a far cry and a long plane ride from California, but at Tettegouche State Park, visitors to the North Shore can find both the water and as close as we get to the mountains in Minnesota.
New in 2022, campers have another option on the North Shore with the opening of Shipwreck Creek Campground inside Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. The new facility had been discussed since 1980, but finally opened this year and is all but fully booked for the entire summer.
This region of Minnesota that has been home to people since 400 B.C. did not officially become a state park until 1957, but today there are 2,600 acres of Mississippi River bluff land preserved, featuring one of the most stunning picnic table views found anywhere.
Long before there were lumber camps in Minnesota's north woods, lumberjacks were downing what was thought to be a limitless supply of white pine along the St. Croix River. At William O'Brien State Park, visitors can hike, bike and paddle in the place where the industry began, nearly 200 years ago.
The border between Minnesota and Wisconsin here was formed by a combination of molten lava and melting glaciers over the past billion years. The St. Croix River Valley's hugely popular public access site features hikes along the bluffs and down to the river, and ways to see these stunning rock cliffs from water level.
Founded more than a century ago and expended during the Great Depression, this gem in western Minnesota features hiking, biking, boating, beaching and abundant wildlife, along with a quartet of camping options.
The first indication that you have left Iowa and entered the Land of 10,000 Lakes is a "Welcome to Minnesota" sign on I-35. The second, unmistakable indication is crossing Albert Lea lake, which is the centerpiece of our first Minnesota's Backyard destination of 2022.
The 20th destination on our 20-site tour of Minnesota's state parks brings us to the heart of the Twin Cities, where you will find an oasis of wilderness in the urban heart of the state. Fort Snelling State Park is neither as quiet or secluded as other parks in Minnesota, but for Twin Citians it offers history and hiking where the state's major rivers meet.

This article is part of the " Minnesota's Backyard " series which returns for the summer of 2022.

Jess Myers covers college hockey, as well as outdoors, general sports and travel, for The Rink Live and the Forum Communications family of publications. He came to FCC in 2018 after three decades of covering sports as a freelancer for a variety of publications, while working full time in politics and media relations. A native of Warroad, Minn. (the real Hockeytown USA), Myers has a degree in journalism/communications from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He lives in the Twin Cities. Contact Jess via email at jrmyers@forumcomm.com, or find him on Twitter via @JessRMyers. English speaker.
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