Minnesota's Backyard: Hiking, horses and history at Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park
Our summer tour of Minnesota's public spaces continues in a southeastern Minnesota oasis that can take visitors up onto the bluffs, into the trout streams deep underneath the ground and back in time, as Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park offers a little bit of something to appeal to a wide range of interests.
PRESTON, Minn. — If the 1850s frontier village of Forestville, on the north bank of the Root River, could be considered a true “ghost town,” then it’s clear that Minnesota has some of the best-dressed spirits and phantoms anywhere.
The restored riverside settlement — which was founded by Europeans exploring the Minnesota Territory in 1851 and was all but abandoned by 1910, when it was bypassed by the region’s expanding railroad network — is perhaps the above ground centerpiece of Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park . But for those who want to stay seriously out of the sun, there’s a whole other subterranean world to be explored in the bluff country of southeastern Minnesota.
Between May and October, the Minnesota Historical Society maintains the preserved buildings of Forestville, which includes such period utilities as a sawmill and a grist mill. During those same months, Mystery Cave is open for guided tours that range from 60 minutes to six hours in the 13 miles of underground passages that were first discovered in the 1930s.
Among the state’s network of state parks, some are known for fishing and hiking, some are known for history and horseback riding, and some are known for canoeing and fly fishing. At Forestville/Mystery Cave, visitors find the best of all of those worlds.
Jon Holger, one of the park supervisors, took a recent visitor for a ride in his state-issued pickup to show the campground specifically designed to accommodate horses and their riders, which makes this the state’s most popular state park for equine enthusiasts. A strenuous two-mile hike up and down the Overlook Trail to a stunning vista of the surrounding bluffs included hoof prints on the packed rock and gravel, and plenty of (ahem) natural fertilizer left behind by recent four-legged visitors.
Down the hill at river level, a few fly fishing enthusiasts were knee-deep in the water trying to lure trout into their baskets. While nearby Whitewater State Park is generally considered fly fishing nirvana, Holger expressed some hometown bias when talking about landing freshwater treats.
“What I think is the best trout fishing in the state is right here,” he said. “We have three trout streams — Forestville Creek, Canfield Creek and the south branch of the Root River, which is in Trout Unlimited’s top 100 streams in America. From the trout opener on we’re going full tilt.”
Even on a midweek afternoon in the late spring, there were dozens of folks camping, with and without horses. Like all state parks since the pandemic forced more people outdoors, they are busy all the time, and Holger noted especially so in the spring when the weather is warmer sooner than at parks in the northern part of the state.
Rivers and streams are constantly finding new routes, meaning that maps periodically have to be redrawn to be accurate. On the south branch of the Root River, the map for Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park had to be redrawn not too long ago as well. The acquisition of a piece of formerly private land gave the park a new one-mile loop trail along the sheer limestone cliffs on the far bank of the river, which make for a stunning hiking backdrop at any time of the year. In the southwest corner of the park, the Palisade Trail has its own parking area and is a relatively new and popular area to explore.
This article is part of the " Minnesota's Backyard " series which returns for the summer of 2022.