A sure-fire way to see Bison in Minnesota is visiting Minneopa State Park near Mankato, Minnesota. With a bison herd, waterfalls, hiking trails and overlooks, this park is a gem in the southern part of Minnesota. This small park is the 3rd oldest state park in Minnesota.
Quick Review: 8/10 While lacking miles for hiking this park makes up for it with it’s amazing bison herd and double waterfall with a quiet river to explore.
Side Note: The bathrooms were really nice, so nice that I took a picture of one.
Minneopa is located just west of Mankato off Hwy 169. The unique thing about this parks location is that it’s split in two. A smaller section consists of the visitors center, picnic area and waterfall trail. The larger section, just a short drive away, contains the bison drive, hiking trail surrounding the bison range, historic windmill, and the campground.
Getting from one park to the other: After a quick stop to the visitor’s center, exit the park and go right. It’ll be the first left hand turn onto 547th Street, then another left onto MN-68. The bison filled side of the park will be on the right. It’s a short 1 mile drive with signs to follow.
Our first stop at this park (after the visitors center to purchase firewood) was the water falls. The trail begins right at the parking area with a concrete sidewalk and bridge going over the first falls. There is a great area just up the river to play in the water and hunt for crayfish. The kids did not catch any, but they sure had fun finding them. Xena loved dipping her paws in as it was quite warm on our visit.
After splashing around in the water we continued out hike to the lower falls. The lower falls is visible from the concrete path that leads around to the other side. To access the lower area, follow the stairs and cross a bridge at the bottom. The path becomes dirt at the bottom of the stairs. The trail leads along the side of the river, but of course, my kids can’t take the trail like normal kids. They ditched the shoes and walk in the river instead. It was a great little “hike”, with a beautiful reward at the end.
Tip: Wear a swim suit under your clothes. At the end of this short hike, if the water levels are right, you may get a chance to swim in the waterfall!
This park only has 4.5 miles of hiking trails. That’s significantly less than other parks in the state. But really, with all of the things to see, an abundance of milage isn’t necessary. You’ll end up spending more time observing the area rather than hiking anyhow.
The water falls trail is less than a quarter mile long one way but that trail took us the most time to traverse. When water is involved, my kids can spend all day playing in it.
The bison loop that leads around the bison encloser is about 4 miles in length. Along this trail you’ll encounter the Seppmann Mill site and an overlook of the bison area. There is also a parking area near the overlook and mill if you’re not up for the full hike. We were running low on daylight and took advantage of this feature. The parking area is on the other end of the bison drive, a convenient place to view the bison after the drive.
Tip: Bringing a pair of binoculars is helpful in seeing the herd from above. And watch for poop on the drive. There is so much poop! Of course the two-year-old was excited about it.
With a sufficiently high fence and cattle grates at the entrance, the bison are contained to a 331 acre enclosure. They may be contained but they should still be considered a large and dangerous animal. Stay in your vehicle at all times. We did see someone exit their vehicle to get a better photograph with a tripod while the bison were at a greater distance. Don’t do that.
Bison Drive Hours: The drive is open from Thursday-Tuesday 9am to 7pm, closed Wednesdays for maintenance. Be watchful of time changes with the season changes.
Best Viewing Times: In the evening the bison were farther away from the road. We could see them from a distance enjoying the fading sunlight. The range is large and the bison are not always easy to spot. In the morning as soon as the Bison Drive opened up they were right at the gate and road. We got a very up close look at the herd, the calves were adorable! Be courteous of the bison and other drivers. We had someone get frustrated with us stopped on the road, they darted around us almost hitting the calf we were stopped for. Be patient, the bison cross the road at their own pace.
Not all of our State Park trips are camping trips. We took advantage of a rare slow Monday and Tuesday to camp at Minneopa. We chose a campsite close to the restrooms due to potty training but found that it was still a quiet spot. The site are relatively close together but the spaces at the far end of the loop offer more privacy. Watch for spiders, we were surprised by a big one in the morning.
Firewood is available at the visitors center and this wood burns well. We’ve had some difficult to start logs in the past, so this was a wonderful. Perfect for hot dogs and s’mores with the kids.
- Hiking (4.5 miles)
- Birding (many songbird species in the park)
- Wildlife observation
- Waterfall viewing
- Snowshoe (rentals available at visitors center)
- Candlelit Hike/snowshoe (watch the events calendar)
Winter in Minneopa is a sight to see. We were fortunate enough to join in on a candlelit snowshoe event. The path was illuminated by candles on a clear starry night. At the end of the hike, participants can warm up by the roaring fire. We brought hot chocolate and listened the the Park Rangers tell stories about the park and learned more about the bison herd. If your are interested in winter hikes, read more here.