Mystery Cave State Park
You can do more in one afternoon at this diverse park (507/352-5111) than most vacationers do all weekend. You can explore Minnesota’s longest cave, step back to the 19th century in the village of Forestville, hike the wooded hills and valleys, dip a line in three of Minnesota’s best trout streams, and much more.
Founded in 1853, Forestville, like many other fledgling communities in the south of the state, became a rural trade center for area farmers. One hundred and ten people lived here at its peak, but when the newly formed Southern Minnesota Railroad bypassed it in 1868 it faltered, and by 1890 Thomas Meighen had acquired the entire town and much of the surrounding land.
Each of the fifty remaining residents worked for Meighen on his farm, in his general store, or at his saw and feed mills. Today part of the village is brought to life, as it would have been in the summer of 1899, by costumed interpreters portraying actual town residents.
During the hour-long living-history tours (21899 County Rd. 118, 507/765-2785, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Tues.–Fri., 11 a.m.–6 p.m. Sat., noon–5 p.m. Sun. summer, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Sat., noon–5 p.m. Sun. Sept.–Oct., $6 adults), you’ll get to compare prices in the General Store (much of the original stock was left on the shelves when it closed in 1910), sample something fresh from the oven in the Meighen’s kitchen, and help the farm laborers in the garden.
The entrance to Minnesota’s longest-known cavern is five miles west of the main park. Thirteen miles of winding passage were carved into the limestone bedrock over many thousands of years, and the South Branch Root River still feeds this living cave before flowing through the park proper.
The standard one-hour tour (507/937-3251, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. daily summer, 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Sat.–Sun. Apr.–May and Sept.–Oct., $10 adults) follows a lighted wheelchair-accessible concrete path past the stalactites, stalagmites, and underground pools.
At least twice a day during summer weekends a two-hour tour using handheld lanterns leads along a gravel path through a different level of the cave. There are fewer formations along the way, but you will see larger passages. Bring something warm to wear since the cave remains a constant 48 degrees.
Most of the 17 or so miles of trail in the 3,296-acre park have some climbs, though they are generally very scenic, so your effort is rewarded. One of the more popular routes is the mile-long climb up the Sandbank Trail to the overlook. Follow the Ravine and Maple Ridge trails to enjoy the profusion of spring wildflowers.
The only level hike is the Big Spring Trail, though it can be very wet, and there is no bridge over Canfield Creek near the end. If you hike the whole two miles to the Big Spring at the head of the valley, you’ll experience a microclimate 10 degrees cooler than the rest of the park.
Look carefully in the winter and spring when there is no vegetation in the way, and you’ll find hidden caves and springs near many of the trails. Most of the trails are open to and popular with horseback riders, and over half are groomed for cross-country skiing in the winter.
The quiet campground has 73 sites in three loops. Those in Loop A are the best, all shaded and widely spaced, while B and C are mostly shady. All 23 electric sites are in Loop C. Horse riders have a 60-unit (23 electric) camp of their own.
© Tim Bewer from Moon Minnesota, 3rd Edition