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Minnesota's Backyard: Prairie meets woods, birders watch the skies at Kilen Woods State Park

The 18th stop on our tour of 20 Minnesota State Parks is to a place where you can explore the land and the water, but the most intriguing visitors arrive by air. Kilen Woods State Park offers hiking in the woods and the prairie, canoeing and kayaking on the Des Moines River, and some of the best birding in Minnesota.

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A view from the Meadow Trail inside Kilen Woods State Park shows the Des Moines River. (Tim Middagh / The Globe)
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WINDOM, Minn. -- The scientists at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will tell you that the state includes four distinct natural biomes . There are coniferous forests (think: pines) in the northeast, prairie grasslands in the west, and two kinds of deciduous forests (think: trees with leaves) running down a swath in the middle of the state.

Some of the most interesting landscapes in Minnesota occur where examples of two of those biomes meet -- where pine forests meet hardwood forests, or where prairie meets woods. That last example of natural wonders is part of what has been drawing visitors to Kilen Woods State Park since it was first established by the DNR in 1945.

This state park in southwest Minnesota, is our 18th stop on our tour of 20 Minnesota State Parks in our series called Minnesota's Backyard.

“Kilen Woods is pretty much known as a diamond in the rough,” said Jason Honkomp, the park manager who has been there for more than a decade. “We’re stationed out here in the middle of southwest Minnesota and people come out for peace and quiet. It’s a very small park with lower traffic compared to some of the bigger parks, and it would be considered a rustic park within the state park system.”

Situated near the Des Moines River, which flows southeast across all of Iowa and into the Mississippi, eventually, the park includes roughly four miles of hiking trails, split between the woods and the prairie. And this being Minnesota, there are opportunities to get out on the water, with the caveat that in low water years like this one, the river can be treacherous.

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“It’s not a fast-flowing rapids, but in low water it can be an obstacle course with some large rocks within the rapids,” Honkomp said. “During normal flow it’s navigable, but even with the recent rains, the river has a way to come up before it’s navigable with canoes.”

This stretch of the Des Moines River is designated as a state water trail, but the park does not have rental watercraft or any kind of pick-up and drop-off service for those who bring their own canoes and kayaks. Instead, the most-viewed visitors to the park arrive by air.

“We tend to get more bird-watchers than anything,” said Honkomp, who noted that they had record visitorship in 2020 and are on that pace again in 2021. “It’s a migratory bird flyway, and they use the Des Moines River to navigate south, so we see more birders each year.”

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A view of the Des Moines River from Riverside Trail inside Kilen Woods State Park on Aug. 31, 2021. (Tim Middagh / The Globe)

The rustic campground is also a popular place to spend the night, and they encourage reservations in advance if you plan to camp on a weekend. Once settled in, near where the woods meet the prairie, the opportunities are seemingly endless.

“People come here primarily for hiking and camping,” Honkomp said. “Camping is the main attraction and hiking the trails out in the park. Kilen Woods also has a natural tract of prairie hidden inside of it and it has a scientific and natural area inside the park, which is home to a protected plant, the prairie bush clover.”

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The Rock Creek Trail at Kilen Woods State Park is shown from the picnic area on Aug. 31, 2021. (Tim Middagh / The Globe)

Notable nearby

In this part of the state where chasing the elusive prairie rooster draws countless visitors, and their dogs, each fall, many towns can lay claim to the title of pheasant hunting capital of Minnesota. But roughly 20 minutes north of Kilen Woods in Windom sits the Phat Pheasant Pub , one of the rare pheasant hunting-themed bars and eateries in the region. Home to classic small-town burgers and pizzas, as well as a full range of beverages, the Phat Pheasant is a popular and friendly meeting place. Just don’t expect to get a table there on Oct. 9, the night before the Minnesota pheasant opener.

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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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