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Cool Caves and More to Explore in Southeast Minnesota’s Driftless Area

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The Turquoise Lake is one of many points of interest in Mystery Cave.

Cool Caves and More to Explore in Southeast Minnesota’s Driftless Area

By Amy Barrett

In-Yan-Teopa, a natural arch high above the Mississippi River at Frontenac State Park, is one of the most iconic examples of Minnesota’s karst landscape, sculpted in limestone by the force of water as the glaciers melted. Water power also created Mystery Cave and Niagara Cave, two of the state’s underground wonders. They are among numerous above- and below-ground sites in southeast Minnesota showcased along a new Driftless Area Karst (DARK) Trail created to pique interest in the International Year of Caves and Karst, originally planned for 2021 but extended through 2022 due to the pandemic.

The product of a multi-state collaboration, the DARK Trail aims to shed light on how the Driftless Area, a landscape unique to the Midwest, came to be. Because glaciers were notably absent from this area during the last ice age, the land didn’t get covered in thick layers of glacial sediment (drift), which made it easier for water, over time, to carve out the karst features characteristic of the area.

The DARK Trail features caves, caverns, sinkholes, springs, scenic overlooks and other designated “discovery areas” as part of a self-guided driving tour. The interactive Flyover Country app, developed by the University of Minnesota, can guide you on your way. Once you download it, click on the pickaxe tool and scroll down to the six Minnesota Discovery Areas, all of which are clustered in the southeast corner of the state.

“The goal of this effort is to educate the public about the sensitive nature of caves and karst areas and promote their protection,” said Dawn Ryan, manager of Mystery Cave at Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park in Preston, who helped plan the trail and contribute information to the app. “Each discovery area offers unique experiences that include self-guided hikes, fee-based tours or a scenic view.”

She adds that many of the Discovery Areas are located along the Historic Bluff Country National Scenic Byway and the Great River Road National Scenic Byway. Some of the sites are only open seasonally, so check before you visit.

Here’s a sampling of what you can see in Discovery Area 1:

Small rapids across a river with a backdrop of limestone and leaves

A trail along the Root River leads to Big Spring at Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park.

  • Begin at Cherry Grove Blind Valley Scientific and Natural Area in Spring Valley. “From the parking lots, follow the mowed path and interpretive signs,” the Flyover Country app instructs you. A short hike will lead you past numerous sinkholes to places where streams suddenly do a disappearing act, right before your very eyes. Where does it go? Consult the app again and it will tell you that “waters from this blind valley flow underground and emerge at Big Spring in Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park,” the next stop on your tour.
  • Upon arriving at the park, purchase a vehicle permit, then proceed to the angler parking lot near the campground. Head south on Big Spring Trail south for two miles to Big Spring, where – voila! – the water that disappeared from Cherry Grove Blind Valley SNA reappears.
  • Having worked up an appetite on that hike, you will probably be ready for lunch, so make your way to the park’s picnic area and enjoy a bite beside the south branch of the Root River before capping off your day with a cave tour.
  • Mystery Cave is about a 10-minute drive from the park office. “Discovered in 1937,” notes the app, “Mystery Cave is the longest cave in Minnesota – spanning over 13 miles underground.” The one-hour Scenic Tour will provide opportunities to see stalactites, stalagmites, a turquoise lake and more. These guided tours, which are both wheelchair accessible and stroller friendly, are offered daily throughout the summer and on weekends in spring and fall. For current prices and to make reservations, visit mndnr.gov/reservations.
Chimney-shaped rock jutting up from a bluff against a blue sky

Chimney Rock is one of the most notable karst features at Whitewater State Park.

If you have more time, continue your driving tour to the rest of the Discovery Areas, where highlights include Niagara Cave (Area 2), the DNR fish hatchery in Lanesboro (Area 3), Big Spring at Beaver Creek Valley State Park (Area 4), the scenic overlook at John A. Latsch State Park (Area 5) and Chimney Rock at Whitewater State Park (Area 6).

There is lots to see and do in the charming small towns along the way, from biking the Root River State Trail to paddling the Root River to checking out the Traveling Karst Exhibit at libraries and state parks in the Driftless Area this spring and summer (including at Lake City Public Library May 2 to 18 and at Whitewater State Park May 20 to 30). For more information on area attractions, visit the Dresbach Welcome Center (Area 5). And before you head back home, you might want to toast your new knowledge of caves and karst with a Big Spring IPA or a Driftless Sunrise blood-orange saison at – where else? – Karst Brewing in Fountain.

Five bottles of Karst beer lined up lightest to darkest

Karst Brewing is conveniently located in Discovery Area 3, near the town’s Big Spring and sinkhole exhibit.