Pipestone National Monument Circle Trail

Find Camping, Hiking and Native American Heritage in Southwest Minnesota

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Pipestone National Monument Circle Trail / National Park Service

Find Camping, Hiking and Native American Heritage in Southwest Minnesota

By Sheila Regan

At the Southwest corner of Minnesota, amidst a sea of tallgrass prairie and wind farms that line the Buffalo Ridge plateau, is the city of Pipestone. It’s named for the pipestone deposits that have been quarried for hundreds of years by Native American tribes, who use the clay red rock for making ceremonial pipes.

For a recent trip, I headed to Pipestone for a hiking and camping mini-vacation. I’m not much of a camper, so I brought a friend along who had a tent and skills around the campfire, and an interest in the beauty of southwestern Minnesota, where prairie bumps against rocky cliffs.

Pipestone has long been a place of tension between the tribes and non-Natives. Tribal members still quarry at the Pipestone National Monument, a sacred site and gorgeous park run by the National Park Service, but quarrying pipestone is illegal for non-Native people, and the gift shop that once sold pipes has moved from public property. Visiting this sacred place is similar going to the Jeffers Petroglyphs, Bdote, or other lands important to Native American heritage and culture. For non-Native people, you must be particularly attentive to showing respect and recognizing that you are a visitor.

Winniwissa Falls at Pipestone National Monument

The soft, red rock at Pipestone National Monument has been sacred to Native Americans for centuries / Myra Smisek

Hiking, Waterfalls & Native American History at Pipestone National Monument

The Pipestone National Monument site has two hiking options, and we were able to do both hikes in one afternoon. The South Quarry Trail leads through the working part of the quarry, used by tribal members. The quarrying sites had prayer flags marking them, hung from the trees that lined the path.

While we didn’t see anyone quarrying on our visit, we could see remnants from recently quarrying activity, like shovels and buckets used for digging. The paved trail provided a bit of shade as we wandered past the sites. Enchanting yellow flowers reached up over the grass along the trail.

The trail has a winding, Tolkienesque feel, particularly on the circuitous path around Winnewissa Falls

Walking along the trail, I bent down to touch the pipestone rock as the late afternoon sun beat down. The rock, also called Catlinite, after George Catlin, a white 19th century painter known for his Native American portraits, has a waxy feel to it. It’s supple, which makes sense, as it is the medium used by Native tribes for centuries to sculpt ceremonial pipes.

The other hiking option at the national monument is the magnificent Circle Trail. We started this hike off with a jaunt through restored tallgrass prairie, and then on to the quartzite cliffs. The trail has a winding, Tolkienesque feel, particularly on the circuitous path around Winnewissa Falls. The rock formations look like human faces, and it feels rather magical to travel in and out of these giant formations. Throughout the trail, signs offered poetic commentary, with text like, “Glacial Ripples,” “Leaping Rock,” and “Natures Forces,” describing a tree growing out of the rock.

The castle like Calumet Inn Hotel in Pipestone

The castle-like Calumet Inn Hotel anchors historic downtown Pipestone

Exploring the City of Pipestone

The adjacent city of Pipestone offers its own treasures. The Calumet Inn, for instance, is an impressive castle-looking building with pink stones and dark brown trim. Across the street, gargoyles decorate a late 19th century building, next to an opera house turned Mason hall.

We also visited “Three Maidens”: three enormous boulders that were once surrounded by 79 petroglyphs. Some of the petroglyphs are on view at the visitor center, but even without the petroglyphs surrounding them, the granite structures, brought to their current spot via glaciers millions of years ago, have a mysterious beauty.

The maidens are located next to a municipal park called Hiawatha Pageant Park. It has a little pond that sits at the base of red cliffs and the water glimmered in the afternoon sun. While I sat and enjoyed the pond, I saw not only a family of five small turtles, but caught a glimpse of an enormous snapping turtle as well.

Night sky and campfire at Split Rock Creek State Park

Take in the stellar night sky views while camping at Split Rock Creek State Park in southwestern Minnesota / Dave Bellis

Camping at Split Rock Creek State Park

Just 20 minutes from Pipestone, Split Rock Creek State Park is a gem of a campsite, with a view of the lake, lovely trees and soft grass.

After setting up tent, we took a hike around the grounds. My friend took in a deep breath and looked at me perplexedly. “Do you smell that? I’ve never smelled anything like it.” I took in a whiff, breathing in the melancholy of the prairie steeped in the intense smell of goldenrod. As we walked, we heard the sound of cows mooing at twilight, the pond water still as glass beneath the crescent moon. 

In the morning, another exploration of Split Rock Creek had us happen upon an impressive-looking dam built by the WPA. I chatted with an older gentleman from town, who shared with me that the dam broke loose in the 1990s, though to hear him tell how it made the national news, it may well have been yesterday.

Bison herd at Blue Mounds State Park

See roaming bison herds at Blue Mounds and Minneopa State Parks in southern Minnesota / Jessica Brouillette

Hiking & Bison Viewing at Blue Mounds State Park

Most of the second day was reserved for exploring Blue Mounds State Park, about a half hour drive away from Split Rock Creek.

The hiking trails at Blue Mounds are much more substantial than at Pipestone or Split Rock Creek. If you go, don’t forget to bring water, as the trails through the prairie provide little shade. It’s beautiful country though. The prairie has its own austere beauty, with its complex ecosystem of plants and flowers. As crickets sang their song, I found the trail very peaceful— the muted colors were dappled with the pastel accents of flowers.

The cliffs are quite impressive as well in that park, and, if you are lucky, you might catch sight of some bison. We saw just a glimpse of the majestic creatures in the distance. These creatures take your breath away.

For this Minneapolis girl, whose idea of visiting the outdoors generally means staying at a resort with 21st century amenities, my camping trip was a robust success. I found the experience of taking in the vast elevated landscape and humming prairie country to offer a sweet solace. Visiting the Pipestone National Monument was a special experience, and one that I’ll take with me back to the buzz of city life.

Man and dog at Superior Hiking Trail overlook

Sunset on the Superior Hiking Trail / Alyssa Hei

Know Before You Go

  • A vehicle permit is required to enter Minnesota state parks. Save time by ordering one online before you arrive at the park.
  • For comfort and safety on the trail, be sure everyone has appropriate footwear (tennis shoes, not flip-flops).
  • Bring a water bottle for each hiker as well as plenty of sunscreen, bug spray and snacks.
  • Pick up a paper map at the park office or load a GeoPDF map before you leave (don’t rely on your phone to navigate because cell and Internet service may not be available in the woods).
  • The accessible trails at Minnesota state parks are stroller friendly as well as wheelchair friendly.
  • Some Minnesota state parks have all-terrain electric wheelchairs for use on unpaved trails.
  • If your dog will be hiking with you, keep it on a leash and clean up after it.
  • Don't pick wildflowers or otherwise disturb the landscape. "Take only photos, leave only footprints."
Sheila Regan

Sheila Regan is a freelance writer, journalist and arts critic based in Minneapolis. She has covered dance, theater and the arts, in addition to news writing and feature reporting for local publications as well as national outlets, including Hyperallergic, the Washington Post, The Art Newspaper, ArtForum and Bomb.