Blue Mounds offers new opportunities
LUVERNE -- A songbird with distinctive black, white and red coloring lands on the feeder strategically placed outside the window of Rick White's office and begins to eagerly fill its belly.
"It's a rose-breasted grosbeak, an older male," noted White, manager of Blue Mounds State Park. "It's the first time I've seen him this year, but I can tell you where he'll nest: Either the plum thicket right over here or more likely the plum thicket on the other side of the dam."
As spring progresses, Blue Mounds welcomes more such birds and other forms of wildlife, and White and his staff prepare for a steadier stream of human visitors, too. There have been some changes to the state's recreation management system-- the division of parks and division of trails and waterways have been combined -- creating new recreational opportunities and programs at the park.
"A lot of things are changing, and I think they're changing for the better," said White.
Through the availability of Heritage Funds, the Blue Mounds Visitors Center -- located in the former home of author Frederick Manfred -- will be open this year from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Sunday from Memorial Day through Labor Day and perhaps even some additional hours. Visitors who stop either at the center or the park office will receive information on exploring the park's Sioux quartzite rock formations via 17 miles of trails or taking advantage of recreational activities such as camping, fishing, rock climbing and kayaking.
Boulders and bison
The two features for which Blue Mounds is most well known are unique quartzite rock formations and its herd of bison -- and both attract a fair share of visitors each year..
The rocks gave the park its name, but also provide a challenging setting for both hiking and rock climbing.
"We have over a 2¼-mile cliff line," said White. "Blue Mounds is well known in climbing circles. We get people from Colorado who come here to climb for a different experience, as well as people from all the surrounding states. We give out approximately 1,000 to 1,400 rock climbing licenses each year, at no charge. We just keep tabs on how many we get on an annual basis."
The bison herd is expanding on a daily basis with about a dozen babies already and more expected.
"May is the 'Month of the Red Calves,' in another language," noted White. "We should get about 20, give or take two or three. We don't give pregnancy tests, so we don't know exactly how many to expect."
Blue Mounds offers people a chance to see "a wild herd in a domestic setting," and there are usually between 85 and 111 bison in the park.
"It's difficult today of being assured of getting close to the bison," said White, because the animals have free range on 533 acres "but if you want to see a wild herd of buffalo with the same age and sex range that there would have been in a natural herd, bring your binoculars and plan to spend a little time. We try to look and see where they are every day, so we can advise people where the best place is to see them."
Some new programs will enhance recreational opportunities that have long existed at Blue Mounds, according to White. A fishing tackle loaner program is being offered in selected state parks, including Blue Mounds, where anglers can hope to catch their share of catfish and bass. At Split Rock Creek State Park, about 25 miles northwest in Ihlen, which White also manages, the perch are biting.
"A Minnesota resident, fishing in a Minnesota state park, doesn't need a fishing license," White explained. "So there's no excuse for someone who hasn't fished for a while or wants to learn to not give it a try."
Poles and tackle boxes can be signed out at the park office. Canoe and kayak rentals are available.
Minnesota State Parks and Trails also wants to encourage people to give camping a try and has developed a new "I Can Camp" program to teach the basics.
"It's one of the best programs we could have started," enthused White. "There is a fee involved, and they have to get reservations for one of the programs. Here at Blue Mounds, it will be on July 31, and Split Rock will be on July 10."
The camping tutorial will be conducted at the group camp site by representatives of the Civilian Conservation Corps of Minnesota, who will set up the camp and teach basic outdoor living skills.
"People can check it out on the website, mnstateparks.info," White said. "There will be a shopping list to get food and info on what to bring. I don't have it finalized yet, but we're hoping to get a climbing instructor out here to do some basic training on that date, too."
Blue Mounds State Park has 72 sites available in the main campground, 14 in the walk-in campground and a large group camp available, but reservations are recommended; phone 1-866-857-2757 or (507) 283-1307.
Take a hike
White stresses that Blue Mounds is "really a hiker's park."
"Hiking the mounds is a sure bet," he said. "The trails are well-maintained, and we have three miles of paved bicycle trail in the park that connects with three miles of trail going into Luverne. Eventually, it's going to connect to the Casey Jones State Trail."
White often walks the trails himself and has a favorite path through the park.
"The Bur Oak Trail, in my opinion, is the prettiest trail," he said. "You're in the deep oak woods, through the quarry, back to the bike trail and past the best climbing area in the park. We're in the process of putting up brand new 'You Are Here' signs throughout the park, so by Memorial Day, you shouldn't get lost anymore."
The phenomenon of geocaching has enhanced the hiking experience at Blue Mounds. Geocaching is a treasure hunting game in which participants use a global positioning system unit to hide and seek containers. At Blue Mounds, participants hunt for the "Critter Cache," which, of course, features a bison.
"Families can go and do this at every state park," White said. "They find the cache, put something in and take something out. I haven't looked at our cache for a while, but last time I looked it had a dollar bill, a Hot Wheels car, a chunk of deer antler and a bunch of other stuff. It's a treasure hunt for them, and kids love it."
Blue Mounds also has a Hiking Club, and Minnesota State Parks and Trails offers a passport people can get stamped at each park they visit.
"They can collect prizes, there are patches involved, and you can get free nights of camping," White said. "If you hit all 72 parks, you get a plaque."
For more information on Minnesota State Parks and Trails, go to http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/index.html.