Southern Minnesota prairie lands are gorgeous! It’s a different kind of landscape than most Minnesotans are used to. Peal away from the usual thick forests and pine groves for something different.
Distance:3.6 miles Level: Easy Dog Friendly: Yes Time to go: Spring- Autumn is best, open year-round (ungroomed ski) Fees: $7 Entrance Fee or $35 Yearly MN State Park Vehicle Pass (totally worth it, get it here.)
Location: Glacial Lakes is located just 5 miles south of the town of Starbuck, MN. Address: 25022 County Road 41, Starbuck, MN 56381
Trail Head & Parking
Parking is available near the Signalness Lake. The trail head is on the lake side of the parking area, you’ll need to head east (right if you’re facing the lake). This first section of trail leads along the lake to a second parking area that is available for group campers.
Signalness Lake Shore
Hiking along the edge of the lake is beautiful, especially when crossing the bridge over the reeds. Watch for butterflies, frogs, and turtles in this area. Life is abundant!
Passing the Campground
The trail will lead passed a small amphitheater and to the tent camping area. The trail continues south after the campground. It is well marked and very obvious.
Note on Water: This is the last chance for water before heading into the prairie. We filled up our water bottles at the camp area water spigots. Stay hydrated, folks!
It is at this point, beyond the campground, that the trail truly becomes prairie. The tall grasses and wildflowers sway in the wind and welcome bees and butterflies to their nectar. Take your time through this stretch of the trail. We truly enjoyed the long views reaching over the land. The sway of the prairie is tranquil and brings peace to those who take the time to appreciate it.
Entering The Forest
The forest at the edge of the prairie provides much needed shade on a hot July day. Take refuge here before the climb to the highest point in the park. The towering old growth trees are a safe haven from the heat for animals as well. Keep a watchful eye for deer, racoons, and woodpeckers.
The parks highest point overlooks ponds, prairie, and farms. To get there, hikers must overcome the incline that crests at this view. This is the only truly steep portion of the trail, and it’s not too bad. It seemed a bit more difficult as I was carrying my 3 year old on my back. The climb is actually very neat, and well maintained. At the top, a bench waits for hikers to take a rest. It’s the perfect spot to unpack a picnic and rehydrate.
The trail loops back through the forest and out to the prairie. It loops once more, giving the option for a hike to a small lake or to continue back on the original trail. We opted to stay on the original trail. It cut off a third of a mile, it was a very hot day and we had paddle boarding to get to!
Other Park Must-Do’s
There is more to do at this park than hike. We spent the whole day here and had a blast.
Canoe, Kayak, Paddle Board (rentals available or bring you own)
Hurray for cold weather seasons! Instead of sulking indoors waiting for summer, get your snow gear on and see the great outdoors in a new light. Literally, that snow makes it so bright! Kids love snow, it’s the perfect time of year to get them out exploring the world around them.
Winter is beautiful, but does pose a couple of considerations; snow and cold. To ensure your little explorers have a grand experience out on the trail, dress them for the weather with the appropriate gear.
Really, the best thing to do is to dress in layers. I like to have one layer more on my child than I have on myself. This way if I start to get chilled, I know they are close and I can act before they get too cold. There are different levels of layers and every one of them is important. The best part about layers, you can shed them if you’re too warm, and put them back on as you cool off. Bring a backpack to carry unused items.
Tip: Remember that no clothing should be too snug. Restricting blood flow will only cause areas to become colder faster. A main area of concern is the feet. Wearing too many socks or having a boot that is too constricting can be counterproductive in keeping warm.
Long Johns VS Thermals: These are the same thing. There are different styles though. They are snug and hug the body for warmth. I’ve tried the old fashioned waffle fabric style and the thin silky lining style with my kids. So far the favorite is the tighter, thinner style. They fit nicely under other clothes, are usually moisture wicking, and move smoothly with other fabrics.
What we’ve found with the waffle style is that, while they are comfortable on their own, once they are under the second layer they become bunchy, uncomfortable, and don’t move well with other fabrics.
Moisture Wicking is important because moisture freezes in the cold air. While moving around on the hiking or skiing trail, it’s important to stay dry. Once the body becomes damp, the chill sets in, hence the need for a moisture wicking layer.
This layer will be the first layer to trap heat. After staying dry with moisture wicking gear, next we start trapping heat. This layer shouldn’t be too constrictive or too loose, make it just right, like Goldilocks.
The mid-layer is where you can really customize your clothing to fit your cold weather needs. My son stays warmer than my daughter, so their layering is slightly different. Play around with this layer and see what works for your little ones.
Upper: Thin long sleeve t-shirt (this could be that long john style layer) & Sweatshirt Lower: Thick sweat pants or Fleece lined leggings (or both if you have a chilly baby) Hands: Thin, fitted gloves. Feet: Thick wool socks.
Insulation & Shell
This next layer traps warm air which is the key to insulation. Trapping warm air around the body is how the wild critters stay warm. Have you ever watched a mammal or bird in winter? They’re all puffed up, they are using their hair/feathers to trap warm air around their body. We should follow suit if we want to stay warm, too.
The final insulation layer often doubles at the shell, keeping out the elements like snow and wind. Most winter coats in the colder parts of the world are made with puffy, soft insides and a water and wind resistant outer layer.
Upper: Puffy, waterproof jacket (with zipper, not just buttons) Lower: Snow pants (these vary in degree rating and thickness, check labels before purchasing) Hands: Thick waterproof mittens (gloves work too, but hands stay warmer in mittens) Feet: Waterproof winter boots with low temp cold weather rating (should be loose enough to wiggle toes in them, yet snug enough that they don’t fly off)
Tip for Boot Buying: Bring your favorite pair of warm socks along shopping so you’ll know if the boots will fit well with thick socks. Sometimes it’s necessary to purchase a size up to accommodate bulky socks and still be able to wiggle toes.
Kids who are bundled up properly are going to have a great memorable experience in a winter wonderland. When there is a lack of insulating warmth, the only thing they’ll remember is the cold. It will be hard to get them out again after a solid freeze. I’ve learned from experiencing both with my kids.
Hat: Yes, they need a hat. My daughter insists that her hood is enough, but she’s always the first one to be cold. They need a hat. Thick and warm that covers the ears.
Headbands & Earmuffs: These are cute and work great for warmer winter days and short outings. I wouldn’t recommend them for cold days. A lot of heat is lost through the head. We only use headbands for days we will be aggressively skiing, and even then, we bring a backup hat in our packs just in case.
Neck Gaiter: These are a great accessory that helps to block out the wind. They can be warn in a variety of ways for both cold and warm winter days.
Up over the head and stretched down the neck to the chin, held in place by a warm hat.
Over the face to keep cheeks warm.
Just around the neck to keep the wind out without being too constrictive.
As a sweatband when the temps rise.
Scarf: For a thicker material to keep the wind off of the neck, use a scarf. Rather than wrapping it around the neck and risking strangulation or constrictive feelings, place it behind the neck and cross it over the chest before putting a coat on. Tuck the ends under arms to keep it in place.
Hot Hands: We love brining Hot Hands packs out on the trail with us. These come in single packs and are activated when the package is opened and the pouch is shaken. These come in a variety of sizes. Large to stick on the back, toe sizes to place in boots, and small ones to place inside mittens.
Note: If we are heading out on a windy or cooler day, I’ll open the pack before we even get out of the Pathfinder to get the warmers started. They can take a few minutes to really heat up, but then they are ready when we need them.
Reusable Warming Packs: These are a great way to have warming packs that are less wasteful and save money. The drawbacks are that they can sometimes activate accidentally in a pocket or pack, and that they don’t last as long as the single use ones (15-20 minutes). We use them on shorter hikes.
Electronic Hand Warmer: This is a great alternative to both of the above warming solutions. It’s rechargeable and not too bulky. It is initially more spendy than the other options, but lasts longer. Don’t forget to charge it before you head out, though.
**Warning** These warming devices should not be used for children who put things in their mouths, cannot communicate clearly if something is too hot, or are at risk for breaking a pack open.
SNACKS!! Yes, bring snacks and not just for the kids. The body keeps itself warmer when it has something to digest. Higher carb and protein foods will keep the body warm and fueled for the trail.
Snacks: Taking snack breaks while hiking or skiing is a great way to slow down and enjoy the winter wonderland around you. There are some great snack suggestions on Trail Snacks for Kids & Toddlers.
Hot cocoa: Is there a better treat than hot chocolate on a wintery trail? Pack some homemade chocolate chip cookies for dipping, too! The perfect way to spend a break is to watch the wintery woods with a mug of hot cocoa.
Of the 18 miles of hiking trails in the park, the hiking club trail covers the most interesting and most picturesque views in the park. From river views to pine forests, this hike has all the features.
Distance: 2.2 miles
Time to go: Spring-Autumn
Dog Friendly: Yes, on Leash
Fees: Yearly State Park Pass $35, Daily $7
Parking and Trail Head
Follow the main entrance road all the way to the farthest parking lot. There is a small building available for gatherings and restrooms available.
State Park Pass: Parking passes may be obtained at the park office (if the office is open) upon entering the park or online at the MN DNR website.
The trail begins at the informational stand, there is a map available. The hiking club trail is well marked with small “Hiking Club” signs and there are maps posted throughout the trail.
Two Rivers Meet
Possibly the second most beautiful spot in the park (the first is Chippewa Overlook). See where the two rivers, the Crow Wing and Mississippi, converge. These calm waters come together as one and make their way along the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. Visit in early morning to watch the mist rise off the water. Wait quietly and long enough, you may just see a beaver or muskrat working along the rivers edge.
Old Crow Wing Village
The old town once catered to travelers and fur traders on the river. When the railroad passed through Brainerd, the town fizzled out and was abandoned. A little spooky, but so neat! Check out the old building and boardwalk. It’s a neat splash of history in the forest. There are signs posted in the area describing what kind of building and business stood in different locations in the area.
Ox Cart Trail
The Ox Cart Trail is part of the hiking club trail and travels the path that was used for ox carts, imagine that! The trail leads along the riverbank of the Mississippi and is part of the hiking club trail. You won’t need to watch for ox droppings these days though, but do check out the spot where they crossed the river.
The most beautiful and picturesque location in the park. If you don’t have the the time to hike the entire hiking club trail on your visit, you can access this overlook by parking at the boat ramp access on the Mississippi. It’s so worth the hike though. There is a set of steps leading up to the overlook from the access. If hiking, there is a slight incline giving views of the Mississippi along the way.
Church and Grave Markers
An old, restored church stands in a small clearing in the pine forest. There is a memorial and burial sites. This eerie resting place is actually a quite peaceful place along the hike.
Also Check Out:
Paul Bunyan State Trail: The Paul Bunyan State Trail encompasses 115 miles of paved bike trail. This trail runs from Bemidji State Park to Crow Wing State Park. The trail begins or ends at Crow Wing, depending on which direction one is heading. It’s neat to see a section of this long trail.
Say “Hi” to Paul: Zip across MN-371 after visiting the park to say “Hello” to Paul Bunyan. Paul is waiting outside of the area visitor’s center to greet visitors. A great spot for a photo in Minnesota.
Wildlife: Slow down and observe the wildlife in the park. Search for tracks along the riverbank, watch the chipmunks and squirrels, there are a number of animals who call this park home.
In September of 2022, we hit the road on a birthday trip for our kids. We had a goal of hitting at least two National Parks on our road trip to North and South Dakota. It was going to be tight, but Sandy (11), Killian(2), Scott and I were on a mission to get it done.
We chose late September for a few reasons. First, it’s right between our kids’ birthdays, so it’s a dual birthday trip. Second, the summer crowds are winding down, parks are more enjoyable with fewer people. Third, the elk rut would be starting, increasing our chance of elk activity. Finally, the temperatures would be reasonable. I do love all of the summer activities that the Midwest offers, but I am a cold weather person. Camping and travel is most enjoyable without the salty sweat brought on by intense temperatures.
The Pathfinder fully loaded with camping gear, we hit the road from our small Minnesota town on a Thursday morning in late September. We were in Fargo by noon. It’s amazing to see how the landscape changes from central Minnesota to Fargo, North Dakota. The hills flatten, trees become more sparse, and the distance that can be seen grows.
Worlds largest bison
It’s about an eight hour drive from our home to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. A great pitstop along the way is at the “World’s Largest Buffalo Monument” in Jamestown, ND. The perfect place to stretch legs and learn a bit more about bison. This attraction is conveniently located just off of interstate 94. There are several restaurants and gas stations to choose from, refuel the vehicle and the kids.
First Destination: Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Our arrival at Theodore Roosevelt National Park was just before dark. As we entered the park, a lone bison roamed the hillside. It was quite a welcome and great first impression of the park. The Cottonwood Campground was a short drive into the park on the left hand side of the road.
The campground has a simple loop drive and finding our site was a snap. After setting up our tent and making sure our site was set for the evening, we headed back to Medora in search of firewood. We found some at a local gas station/convenience store.
Night one was a s’mores night. Camping isn’t complete without the sweet smell of burning sugar. After a game of cards and a story from Sandy out of her new National Parks book, it was lights out for rest before a busy day.
Be warned; that sunrise will make your heart skip a beat. It’s just stunning the way it sneaks up the ridge and shines down on the valley in which the campground is situated. An amazing start to the day and the perfect setting to get a scrumptious breakfast of hot cocoa and country omelet sausages going.
Morning Wildlife on the Scenic Drive
If you’re goal is to see wildlife at TRNP, morning is your best bet. We witnessed the most activity during the early hours. Wild horses and bison littered the scenic drive. It’s amazing how undisturbed these creature are by the presence of visitor vehicles. The road was under construction while we were visiting, so we weren’t able to see the entire park, but we did see a great deal of it. I guess that means, we get to go back.
Hiking & Overlooks
There are numerous hiking trails, both long and short, that begin at different locations on the scenic drive. We stuck to shorter trails and overlooks. With our little hikers along, it was best to have frequent stops with shorter distance and more free exploring. These Short Hikes and Overlooks in Theodore Roosevelt National Park were the best.
North Unit Exploration
After we cruised the portions of the South Unit scenic drive that we could, we headed to the North Unit. It’s an hour drive along 85. Most visitors to TRNP stick to the South Unit. We wanted to see more than just the South, I would absolutely say that it was worth the drive to the North Unit. There we were able to see a more rugged landscape and more geological features that are missing in the South Unit. One of the kids’ favorite spots in the park was at the North Unit, the Cannonball Concretions. More details on it here.
Dinner & Tenting
After we explored the day away in both the South and North units, we found a great place for dinner. The Little Missouri Saloon and Dining Room has amazing food. We devoured our elk burger and bison steaks with a ravenous appetite. I highly recommend this restaurant for anyone visiting Medora. The ground floor has a saloon/bar and grill feel to it while the dining area on the upper floor hosts a more family friendly atmosphere. For fine weather dining, the balcony is also an option.
On night 2 of our stay in TRNP, the elk graced our ears with their calls. It was so majestic and peaceful. The best part, we were listening to them sound after the kids fell asleep. It was accompanied by an owl’s hoot. One of the best outdoor evening experiences so far. Our experience Tenting in TRNP was one for the books, a great first step into camping at National Parks.
TRNP Visitor’s Center & Teddy’s Cabin
This is a stop that can’t be missed. We started our morning out by eating a quick breakfast, packing up camp and heading to the Visitor’s Center at the Park Entrance. Inside, there is a film that plays with great information on our incredible conservationist president, Theodore Roosevelt (my favorite president). There are a number of Native American artifacts, Teddy relics, and animal remains to learn about in the center. The greatest part of this area is Teddy’s cabin, the Maltese Cross Cabin, which has been relocated to the backyard of the Visitor’s Center.
It was inspiring to stand where he stood, see what he saw and know that this land is what drove him to protect much of America’s wild lands. He will always be my favorite president for the work he did for our natural world.
Medora is a petite town sitting at the entrance to TRNP South Unit with gift shops, steakhouses and cafes. For breakfast, we stopped in at the Cowboy Café. This was not a fancy joint by any means, but a very homey, welcoming homestyle café with classic American style breakfast.
So many little shops sit in Medora, some had closed for the season already. We were prepared for that being that our stay was late in the season. Even so, we had plenty to see and do for a morning. Sandy and Killian were most intrigued by the multiple candy stores, a fun stop! The kids were able to find a couple of souvenirs at the shops. The Visitor’s Center at the NP had a few items, but the Medora shops had a plethora of knickknacks to choose from.
With our Teddy Roosevelt and Medora adventure wrapped up, it was time to hit the road again for our next stop; Rapid City, South Dakota. The four hour drive to Rapid City seemed like a piece of cake after the 9 hours from home to Medora. To pass the time, Killian napped and Sandy wrote a post card to a friend back home.
During our drive, Killian suddenly needed to potty, NOW. We were near a little town and were trying to find a place to have him potty. Ultimately, we pulled over and he peed in the grass by a baseball field. A parent has to do what a parent has to do.
When we finally reached Rapid City, it was time for a refuel. Refueling people that is. We had a restaurant in mind that was due for a revisit, we enjoyed it so much the last time were in Rapid City. Dakota Steakhouse. The bison steak is one of the best steaks that I have had, ever. Even the kids menu items are fantastic. Sandy ordered grilled cheese and it came out looking like a gourmet meal. The Dakota Steakhouse has landed itself a permanent spot on our list places to dine when we’re in the area.
Rapid City Water Park
Of course, a birthday trip for Sandy must include a water feature. She is basically a fish. We had a one night stay at the Watiki Waterpark. The kids had a blast running around this aquatic playground. After hours of soaking fun, we cleaned up and got into jammies. That didn’t mean bedtime just yet. We went to the arcade on the second level overlooking the water park and played games late at night, jammies and all. Killian loved playing the pirate ship game and driving a little car.
After two nights of camping, it was refreshing to be clean and in an actual bed. The kids slept hard after all of their adventures. It was a night of much needed rest. They were going to need it for their next day of exploration.
We packed a lot into our final day in the Dakotas. It was our last push to get as much adventure in as we could!
Early in the morning, we set out to find the Dino Park. It was in an unexpected area and when we arrived the gift shop wasn’t quite open yet. We walked up the steep path and steps to the dinosaurs. Killian had an obsession with the prehistoric beasts at the time and was amazed by their size. He and Sandy crawled around on their tails and feet. They had a great time. The statues are a bit dated and need some love, but this was a fun attraction for the little guy. We headed to the gift shop for some South Dakota souvenirs and Killian rode the miniature ride at the front door. It was still somewhat functional.
Wind Cave National Park
With the Dino Park excursion out of the way, it was time to head south to Wind Cave National Park. Cruising down Hwy 79, we passed exits for Mount Rushmore and Custer. Both amazing stops if you haven’t been. Though Custer is absolutely a must if you haven’t been. Custer is more than just a stop, you’ll need a good chunk of time or a night for camping.
The drive into Wind Cave is so neat. Right off the bat, we drove up to a prairie dog village, they were chatty and entertaining as they scurried about. After taking time to enjoy them, it was off to the visitor’s center. We checked in for our cave tour and still have time to kill, so we went off for a hike on Rankin Ridge. I highly recommend this hike that takes visitors to the highest point in the park. There are numerous other stops along the way.
One cannot visit Wind Cave without a cave tour. We went on the Garden of Eden tour, this was the perfect duration and distance for a 2 and 11 year old. There are stairs, guard rails and lights throughout. Sandy thought this was a pretty neat experience. More on things to do at Wind Cave here.
Backroad Adventure to Nowhere
After our adventure in Wind Cave, the plan was to make our way home with a pitstop at Badlands National Park. It was my turn to drive and I punched in Badlands into the trusty GPS to get me there. DON’T DO THAT! Check your route before you take off. I thought that the GPS was taking me onto the main roads and we’d pull off of Interstate 90 at the main entrance of the park. Nope!
We followed the GPS onto a turn that seemed a bit too early but we were in an unfamiliar area so we went with it. At first I was thinking that maybe it had found a shorter route, no. No, it did not. When the roads turned to gravel is when we knew we should have turned back. It was too late, we had already gone too far. So the dirt road is what we followed. We saw a total of 2 trucks in about 2 hours.
The fuel tank was running low, very low. The concern was starting to run high, and there was no cell service. After a time, about when we were on E, we happened upon a ghost town with a functional fuel pump. It took a few tries to get the card reader to work, we were able to get it to work and added a few gallons. The shack next to the pump was closed. There was a handful of other buildings scattered about, they looked like they were all about 100 years old and on their last legs.
While I was filling the tank we noticed some scurrying nearby. It was cats. There were NO people in sight, just cats. They didn’t come close, but watched us. Scott and Sandy decided to toss some left over chicken strips to them. The cats snatched up the scraps and took off. This was the most bizarre “town” I have ever encountered. An experience for sure.
Oh my goodness. We made it! We ended up at the White River Ranger Station, this is NOT the entrance you want. We had to drive a long way yet before we got to the other side of the park, which was our original goal. And the White River Ranger Station was closed upon our arrival.
If using a GPS, make sure the route goes along the I-90, otherwise you’ll be in for a wild, dirt road ride. We should have entered in the Pinnacles Entrance Station or the Northwest Entrance Station, not the White River Ranger Station.
Killian had fallen asleep, so Sandy and I explored a bit while Scott waited with the napper. After he woke up, we explored all together. We didn’t have much time before dark, but we did have some time to explore some of the park. It was beautiful! The pastel skies and vast landscapes are immaculate! Photos don’t do it justice, it must be seen with your own eyes.
As the sun set and it was time to load up, we said goodbye to the Badlands. On the road once more, we drove until we were tired and found a hotel when we wanted to stop. We call this method “Motel 6ing It.” We don’t usually stay at a Motel 6 but that’s how the original method started.
Every place we visited (except the backroads of South Dakota) is worth another visit. Every place we saw was beautiful and grand. I would do this trip all over again if given the chance. On small change… don’t trust the GPS on South Dakota backroads.
Dogs love adventures, too! Mammoth Cave National Park is one of the few National Parks that are dog Friendly. Take advantage of this opportunity to adventure with your dogs and visit Mammoth Cave. Know where to go and what you can do at Mammoth Cave with your pup.
**This post does not pertain to service animals.
Being a southern state, Kentucky has some higher temperatures during the summer months. Check the forecast before your excursion to ensure that you are prepared for both yourself and your adventure dog. Even in late September, when temperatures are dropping in my home state of Minnesota, the temperatures in Kentucky were in the upper 70’s and 80’s.
Water: Keep water available for your adventure dog while at camp. Offer it frequently while out hiking to keep that pup hydrated. Be sure that your pup is drinking clean water. Reduce the risk of parasites by keeping your dog from drinking river water.
All of Mammoth Cave’s above ground hiking trails are open to dogs. That’s pretty amazing considering most National Parks do not allow dogs. Keep Mammoth Cave NP dog friendly by following basic Trail Etiquette for Adventure Dogs.
Horse Trails: Mammoth Cave has many trails that are horse friendly. When encountering a horse on trail, step aside and keep you dogs calm as the riders pass.
Bag It: Clean up after your pet immediately and dispose of waste in a trash can asap. There are many throughout the park. Don’t leave the bagged waste on the side of the trail to pick up on your return. The presence of a bagged poo will tamper someone else’s trail experience.
Dogs are not allowed in the cave systems. They may cause damage to the cave and there are areas that dogs simply wouldn’t appreciate in the caves, such as grates, slick areas, and tight dark spaces.
Kentucky has a large number of ticks. It’s a good idea to visit your veterinarian before your excursion to Mammoth Cave to evaluation which tick prevention is right for your dog. See Tips for Ticks: Adventure Dog Safety for more info on tick prevention. Remember to visibly check yourself and you dog frequently during and after a hike in the woods.
Lone Star Tick
American Dog Tick
Black Legged Tick (deer tick)
Wildlife is abundant in Mammoth Cave National Park. A scurrying squirrel or bounding deer is pretty enticing for our canine companions. Keep you pup on leash and do you best to keep them from barking at and disturbing wildlife.
Wildlife in Mammoth Cave:
Frogs & Salamanders
Tip: Keep treats handy in a treat pouch to distract dogs from wildlife. Offering a treat for a successful “Leave It” cue or simply diverting their attention away with a lure is effective in keeping that prey drive in check.
Venomous Snakes: Mammoth Cave is home to the Timber Rattlesnake and the Eastern Copperhead. Keeping dogs on leash will help keep them from stumbling upon or disturbing animals that may cause them harm. Teaching a strong “Leave It” command is important for adventure dogs in any environment.
The snake above is a non-venomous water snake slinking around Sloan’s Pond.
While dogs are allowed on park trails and in campgrounds, dogs are not allowed in any park buildings. The visitor’s center is a really neat spot in the park to visit, but you may have to take turns venturing inside while one person waits outside with the pup. Alternatively, there is short-term boarding available.
Adventure dogs are welcome in all of the campgrounds, backcountry camping, and at the Woodland Cottages. The Woodland Cottages are the only lodging accommodations in the park that allow dogs. They are not allowed in the Sunset Terrace rooms or the Historic Cottages.
The Lodge at Mammoth Cave offers a small boarding kennel for hourly use. The kennel spaces are outdoors with some shade. The fencing is chain link. These kennels are a nice option for those wishing to attend a cave tour, where dogs are not allowed.
Be Aware: This is NOT an overnight boarding area. This is a day use kennel rented by the hour, only during daylight hours.
Rates: $3.50 First hour, +$1 per hour after
What to bring:
Water Dish (spigot nearby)
Lock (limited locks available for rent)
Collar with Tags (Dogs should always have identification on them)
Vaccination Records Required (Rabies, Bordetella, DAP Shots)
Do not leave your dog unattended inside or out at the park. Do not leave dogs in you vehicle.
These short hikes offer great views of Mammoth Cave while catering to the hiker with the shortest legs. Hiking with junior adventurers can be a lot of fun, but the distance can get to them, especially when they’ve been losing sleep and are out of routine. Shorter hikes can help ease the pressure on them and still have a great time in the woods.
We hit Mammoth Cave in late September of 2023, it was still hot! We Minnesota hikers don’t do so well in the heat, our northern blood is too thick for the southern heat. We chose some of the shorter hikes in Mammoth Cave to adventure on. We also had to take into consideration that our son, Killian (3), broke his foot over the summer. It hardly slowed him down! The boot came off the week of our trip, we wanted to be careful not to put too much strain on the recovering foot.
Sand Cave Trail
Distance: .3 miles one way (out and back trail)
Level: Easy, boardwalk
Dog Friendly: Yes, on leash
Fees: No Entrance Fee
This is possibly the shortest trail in the park. It’s all boardwalk and has a unique trail ending. At the end of this mini-hike, there is a cave entrance. This cave entrance has a bit of dark history.
HistoryStory from our Tour Guide: Cave explorer, Floyd Collins, entered this cave and managed to get a distance inside. The area was tight, he accidentally kicked the wrong spot causing a cave in, trapping himself in the cave.
Fortunately, he had a habit of leaving his coat hanging on a tree branch near cave entrances, family knew where to start looking. He was located, still alive, but the extraction process proved quite difficult as rescuers couldn’t risk any further damage to the cave. It might crush Floyd. They were able to talk with him and send down food and water.
Unfortunately, after 14 days, Floyd succumbed to the elements and passed away in the cave. They recovered his body shortly after. The rescue mission gained much media attention, paving the way for Mammoth Cave to finally be declared a National Park.
Sloan’s Crossing Pond
Distance: .4 mile loop
Level: Easy, boardwalk
Dog Friendly: Yes, on leash
Fees: No Entrance Fee
Sloan’s Crossing Pond is the perfect trail for hikers who love amphibians and reptiles. The snapping turtles and snakes were very entertaining here and abundant. We spent a decent amount of time observing the wildlife here with the kids. It’s pretty obvious the visitors have fed the turtles, please don’t, it’s not good for them. We also heard a lot of frogs singing and birds chirping. Such a neat place for the kids to explore.
Doyel Valley Overlook
Distance: 0 miles
Dog Friendly: Yes, on leash
Fees: No Entrance Fee
This overlook is about 2 miles south of the visitor’s center on Mammoth Cave Parkway. The overlook is right at the parking area, no hiking necessary. This site has two informational signs, a rock wall and wooden fence, trash/recycling bins, and a picnic table. We found it to be the perfect location to whip up some BLTs and have a picnic lunch with a view.
Turnhole Bend Nature Trail
Distance: .5 miles, Loop
Dog Friendly: Yes, on leash
Fees: No Entrance Fee
This peaceful stroll through the woods leads to an amazing overlook over the Green River. There is a small viewing area on the way to the overlook, this area overlooks a sink hole and the cliffs surrounding it. This loop views a few different sink holes, it’s a really neat area and a great prelude for the Cedar Sink Trail.
We hit one snag on this trail with an easy fix, a downed tree lay over a small portion of the trail. It made for a fun experience to maneuver under it with the kids.
Cedar Sink Trail
Distance: 1.5 miles, Needle out & back
Level: Moderate, steps
Dog Friendly: Yes, on leash
Fees: No Entrance Fee
This needle loop is such a unique hike in Mammoth Cave NP. The stroll to the sink hole is a pleasant walk in the woods with wildflowers and ferns. Some passing streams, too, depending on the time of year. The drastic landscape change near the sink hole is neat! The path leads around the sink hole with an option to venture down into the sink. Of course, we ventured into the sink hole!
Bonus Restaurant! After a hot day of hiking, we hit up the local ice cream shop. This is a great little treat after a day at Mammoth Cave. Double bonus; they have an assortment of caffeinated beverages.
This short trail through Mammoth Cave’s forest features one of the parks most intriguing features (aside from the caves), the sink holes! There are sink holes throughout the park, but this short trail places hikers up close to the action.
Distance: 1.5 miles
Level: Moderate, steps
Dog Friendly: Yes
Fees: No Entrance Fees at Mammoth Cave NP
Location & Parking
From the Visitor’s Center, head south on Mammoth Cave Parkway. Take a right on Brownsville Road and watch for signs for Cedar Sink Road. Take a left onto Cedar Sink Road. The parking area will be on the left, hard to miss. At the parking area, there is an informational sign about the area. The parking area isn’t large, but we didn’t have any issues finding a parking space.
A needle trail starts with a trail that leads out on a single path then splits into a loop. The loop leads back to the original path to be followed back to the beginning to complete the hike. Simple enough.
Terrain: The trail is well maintained and the path is smooth. The gravel and packed dirt path is pretty easy. The reason for the moderate rating is due to the steps involved around the sink hole. There is a great deal of steps both descending and ascending 150 feet one way in and out of the sink hole.
Straight: The straight portion of this trail is very pleasant with a mild incline. Check out the streams flowing under the trail during times of higher water.
Loop: The loop is where things get interesting. We went to the left, per our 3 year old’s request, and were met with a steep incline. The loop goes around the sink hole and meets back at the main trail for the return hike.
Cedar Sink Trail is one of the best places in Mammoth Cave NP to view wildflowers. Take time to admire the wildflowers in the area along the trail. My little photographer made many stops to snap photos of the flora along the way. This trail truly did have the most wildflowers that we saw in the park.
Above the Sink Hole
The ridge above the sink hole offers views of the Cedar Sink hole from above, revealing it’s vast size. There is a look out area on the south side of the sink hole. It’s a small deck leaning over a small section. Hikers can make a loop around the hole and venture inside.
Inside the Sink Hole
On both the south side and north side of the sink hole, there are steps giving access to the lower sections of this massive sink hole. What’s wild is that there are overlooks inside of the sink hole, it’s that deep.
Shelf: Upon descending the steps on the south side of the loop, hikers are brought to an overlook trail along a rocky cliff. At the end of this cliff overlook, hikers can see across the sink hole to the other side and have a view of the slop below while standing below the shelf.
Sink hole Bottom: After viewing the shelf, the trail leads further into the sink hole. It’s very cool how much life is inside the sink hole. Trees are growing, critters are roaming. Its a whole ecosystem. There is an informational sign explaining about Cedar Sink Hole and Cedar Creek at the bottom, just before ascending the steps on the other side.
Dogs on Trail
Bringing dogs on our adventures makes the experience that much more memorable! There are a few things to be aware of at Mammoth Cave National Park when traveling with your dog.
Leash: Dogs must be on leash
Ticks: Be aware, ticks are abundant in Mammoth Cave NP.
Heat: The temperatures can be brutal much of the year in Kentucky. Brutal from a Northerner standpoint. Be sure to bring water along for your canine hiking partner.
Follow Trail Etiquette: Follow trail etiquette with your adventure dog to keep everyone having a great time. For more on trail etiquette see Trail Etiquette for Adventure Dogs.
St. Croix State Parks holds miles and miles of adventure on the trail, on the water, and even in the air. Get you hiking shoes on, your paddles ready, and be prepared for an amazing state park experience at St. Croix.
The Fire Tower climb is a must! If it’s open that is, Minnesota fire/observation towers are usually open from April to October depending on the park. Taking in the park from above is breathtaking. Not to mention making multiple visits in different seasons to observe the change over the landscape. Our first visit was in summer, the next was autumn. Beautiful change in scenery.
St. Croix has a whopping 127 miles of hiking trails. That’s a lot of trails to choose from. Some of these trails are horse friendly, all are dog friendly and many have river front views. There are a few trails that I highly recommend for river views. Check out 5 Hikes at St. Croix State Park.
Canoe St. Croix
Paddle down the St. Croix National Wild and Scenic River. Canoe is one of my all time favorite ways to explore the outdoors. There are so many things to be discovered along the calm banks of a river. In our case, it was otter and beaver sign. A cluster of shells left from a meal and tracks in the mud.
St. Croix State Park offers rentals of both canoe and kayaks seasonally. As a bonus, a shuttle service is also provided. If you bring your own canoe, there are 5 locations to launch a canoe on the St. Croix and one on the Kettle River.
Little Yellow Banks: We chose the Little Yellow Banks, the northern most canoe launch, as our entry. This was mostly due to the lack on crowds in the northern part of the park. Here we were the only explorers. It’s a near perfect launch for a canoe. Paddlers can drive the canoe right down to the waters edge to load gear and park a short distance away near the vault toilet (bonus).
Kettle River High Banks
This is one of the most beautiful and picturesque locations in the park. The Kettle River offers views of the gentle rapids coursing along a swift current. The pines shrouding the rivers banks are gorgeous accents to the high cliffs. Bring your camera and hold onto your kids.
There is a picnic table at this overlook, a perfect spot in the park for a picnic. Bring along a cooler or classic picnic basket for a lunch at the most beautiful spot in the park.
Cabins, guesthouses, RV campgrounds, backpack sites, canoe sites, group camps, equestrian camps… No matter how you camp, this park can accomidate it. Tent it is the summer, come back to a cabin for the winter. This park is so diverse to experience. We happened upon a river front cabin while canoeing, it looked so cozy!
This is the park to be in if you’re wanting to catch a glimpse of wildlife. This park is home to so many critters, from black bears and wolves to muskrats and beavers. Remember to follow the leave no trace policy and keep your distance from these animals. This is their home, we are just visiting. Keep your eyes peeled for:
Eagle, Osprey, other birds
It’s unlikely that you’ll encounter a wolf, they are quite stealthy and avoid people. Bears on the other hand… They do meander about the park. This is the first state park that I encountered a bear. No worries, only excitement. We watched her mosey on about her day, crossing the road that goes to the observation tower.
With 127 miles of hiking trails, where does a hiker even start?! St. Croix State Park offers a variety of different landscapes to view on it’s numerous hiking trails. Hikers have waterfront river views, burned regrowth, thick pine forest to roam, and deciduous trees galore for autumn color viewing.
Fees: All trails at this park are included in the state park entrance fee of $7 or the yearly state park pass of $35 per vehicle. The vehicle pass is totally worth the investment and can be purchased on the MN DNR website.
1. Two Rivers Loop
Distance: 5 Miles
Time to go: Spring to Autumn
Dog Friendly: Yes
To gain views from both the Kettle River and the larger St. Croix River, take this 5 mile loop and see where the two mighty forces converge. This loop is relatively easy along well maintained trails. The trails along the river are scenic especially in autumn, the only downfall to this trail is that the last 3/4 mile of the loop follows a dirt road. Worth it for the views of the two rivers meeting.
2. Kettle River High Banks
Distance: 3 miles one way, out and back (6 total)
Time to go: Spring to Autumn
Dog Friendly: Yes
Personal opinion: the BEST views on all of the park trails are on this trail. It also has a potent pine scent lingering in the air in the thicker pine forested areas. The Kettle River Overlook is the first impression upon approaching the river. A breathtaking view and a perfect location for a picnic either on the way out or back. The trail is well maintained and meets up with the Matthew Lourey State Trail that cuts through the park. This is the turn around point.
3. Rivers Edge Trail to River Bluffs Trail Loop
Distance: 1 mile loop, but can be made longer.
Time to go: Year round, becomes a ski trail in the winter (require state ski pass for 16+ if skiing in winter).
Dog Friendly: Yes, during the snowless months.
The Rivers Edge Trail runs along the St. Croix and loops back using the River Bluffs Trail near the campground. Due to it’s close proximity to the campground, there is more traffic on these trails. The views are still beautiful even if it’s less secluded. We found sign of otters along the river banks, very cool.
4. Sundance Self Guided Trail
Distance: 1.5 miles
Time to go: Year round, becomes a ski trail in the winter (require state ski pass for 16+ if skiing in winter).
Dog Friendly: Yes
The Sundance Self Guided Trail is the parks interpretive trail. These are great for kids. My little guy loves checking out the signs at state park interpretive trails and reading about the habitat that we’re hiking. The trail begins at the Interpretive Center where visitors can grab a brochure on park info.
5. Matthew Lourey State Trail
The Matthew Lourey State Trail is a trail that stretches 80 miles from the Chengwatana State Forest and ends in the Nemadji State Forest. The trail runs along the outskirts of St. Croix State Park. There are spurs that lead to the more scenic areas of the park for thru-hikers to take in the view.
A Note on Wildlife
While hiking in St. Croix State Park, hikers are entering the home of the animals that live there. Remember that we are just guests visiting, try not to disturb them in their habitat. Follow leave no trace principles and keep your distance. St. Croix is home to an abundance of wildlife including:
White Tail Deer
A great number of birds (owls, osprey, eagles, etc…)
We encountered a bear crossing the road on the scenic drive. We slowed to quietly observe her and watched her mosey on about her day.
Bear Spray: If you are nervous about bears in the park, carry a canister of bear spray. We’ve carried bear spray in some areas of northern Minnesota and have yet to need it.
Bonus Restaurant: Tobies! When in Hinkley one cannot miss a stop at Tobies for one of their melt in your mouth caramel rolls. Yum!
One cannot visit Mammoth Cave National Park without visiting a cave in Mammoth Cave National Park. If you can only tour one cave on your visit, this is the one to tour.
The Historic Tour was my favorite tour that we took in Mammoth Cave National Park. It covered so much of the history of the park, the different formations, and covered 2 miles underground.
Distance: 2 miles
Duration: 2 hours
Level: Moderate, 540 steps total, tight squeezes, and areas to duck down
Dog Friendly: No, there is limited boarding available (see below).
Fees: $20 Adults, $15 Youth (6-12), Children 5 and under free
Need to Know
Book Ahead– I strongly recommend booking ahead of time on the recreation.gov website, especially if visiting over a weekend. We didn’t book ahead until the day we took the tour and were almost unable to take the tour. We had booked a shorter tour, the Wandering Woods Tour, beforehand and didn’t realize that we’d be up for another one. We were visiting on a Friday, all tours were booked solid for Saturday and Sunday.
Pickup Tickets: Tickets purchased ahead of time or at the visitors center must be picked up 30 minutes prior to the tour.
What to Bring– Not much. There are a few things allowed and recommended, there are more things restricted.
Camera-no flash or tripod
Front baby carriers
Canes permitted if required for stability
Sweatshirt or light jacket (cave is 54 degrees year-round)
What NOT to Bring– There are more restricted items than there are permitted items. Here are some things to leave behind.
Anything other than water.
Food (If you have dietary complications and require food before two hours passes, see your tour guide.)
Child Backpack Carriers, kids will likely hit their head.
Backpacks with metal frames, are higher than shoulders or lower than waist level.
Walking stick/trekking pole
Firearms, knives, weapons of any kind
Don’t Touch! This was something that the Park Rangers really stressed before and during tours. The oils from our hand have damaging effects on the cave walls and structured within the cave. It is quite obvious to see this damage in some sections of cave where visitors have touched. Do your best to avoid making contact with the cave walls and surfaces.
Watch Your Step– Something our guide said at the very beginning was, “If it looks wet, it probably is.” There are some spots in this cave that are wet and slippery, wear shoes with solid grip and no exposed toes. Leave your crocs at home.
After meeting at the shelter and hearing the guide rattle off the rules and regulations about the tour, you’ll head down to the cave entrance. Yes, down. The cave entrance is at the base of a downhill path, then it descends a flight of steps to the entrance of Mammoth Cave. When water levels are higher in the park there is a trickle of a waterfall flowing, we saw just a few drops.
Upon entering the cave, it’s not tight or cramped. It’s actually quite spacious, and then it really opens up. Mammoth Dome is 57 stories high. That’s insane. The reason they call it “Mammoth Cave” is actually because of it’s size, not because of mammoths. That was a question Sandy had been wondering, we were happy our guide was able to answer.
For hundreds of years before Mammoth Cave’s rediscovery, Native Americans harvested minerals from this cave. It is unknown what they used the minerals for, but it sure is fascinating.
It was also used for harvesting gunpowder during the revolutionary war. Obviously, Great Britain wasn’t going to continue supplying the rebels with gun powder, so they had to find another source. Thankfully, Mammoth Cave had the resources they needed.
We meandered briefly into the Gothic Avenue tunnel, there were a couple of spots with writing on the wall. Some historic, some idiotic. We noticed a lot of Peters, interesting. Some this this writing was so neat with dates going back a couple hundred years. New graffiti is gross, old graffiti is fascinating. Bizzare.
Don’t look down. Just kidding, totally look down. The depth of the this hole is mesmerizing and amazingly, it’s even farther down than it looks. While walking across on the bridge, look between the slats for a knee weakening experience.
Fat Mans Misery
There is a very tight squeeze for a portion of the tour, we needed to turn sideways and duck at the same time. It was fun to not just walk through a hole in the ground but to really experience maneuvering about the cave. Sandy showed off her petiteness and simply walked along. At the end of this narrow hall is a the Great Relief Hall, makes sense after the tight squeeze. It’s 280 feet below the surface. Here the tour guide spoke about sink holes and sea level while the group rested on benches, a good opportunity for a selfie.
The tower of stairs brings guests back up on the way back to the cave entrance level and offers a view of an unground flow of water. This was such a neat thing to see, it distracts one from the their burning thighs. The majority of the 540 steps in this tour are right here in the tower. Be prepared to huff and puff like the big bad wolf after this thigh master.
Warning: Surfaces may be slippery.
The Lodge at Mammoth Cave offers day us kennels for park visitors. There is limited space and is on a first come, first served basis. We did not make use of these kennels, our adventure dog was too old to make this journey comfortably so she stayed home. For more info on the day use kennels, see The Lodge at Mammoth Cave.
Rates: $3.50+ $1 per hour after first hour
Locks available for rent.
Day hours only, self service.
Bring water dish, spigot available.
Vaccination records required: Rabies, DHLP, Bordetella, Parvo
Do not leave pets in the car while attending a cave tour, Kentucky is hot!