mn state parks: afton and frontenac

mn state parks: afton and frontenac

last friday i took off from st. cloud around 1:30 to head down to la crosse, where liz and i were to run a half marathon relay saturday morning. since i was headed down a pretty great expanse of the state, why not hit up a couple state parks on the way? i always take the river road down to la crosse anyway, so stopping at a couple wouldn’t be that much of a problem.

the first park i stopped at was afton state park, which is east of the cities, north of hastings. i booked it down i-94 through the cities, flying past the line-up of cars headed north to their cabins. the weekend weather promised to be gloriously warm, just what we needed after 7 months (years?) of winter.

i was driving through cottage grove when my eyes were assaulted with a foreign color: green grass. it was unbelievable.

and soon after i entered afton, which is an oak savannah. oak are notoriously late spring bloomers, so the green had not yet extended to the trees of afton, where the st. croix meanders through on its way to meet the mississippi.

it’s still incongruous to have something so elementally earthy, like a state park that works hard to re-introduce grasses and trees native to the area, in the same space as something so foreignly human-made.

as far as afton, it’s not on my list of parks i would necessarily visit again. it seems like it caters to the metro folk, with its paved  paths and updated visitors center. i prefer my parks a little more rustic. i’m a rural gal at heart.

despite the barren oaks, there was some life visible, small buds holding their own against the gale force wind that day.


as i drove south, it got increasingly green. though not full-on spring green (still plenty of hold-outs), it was greener than it was in central mn, and i thought maybe, just maybe, spring would actually show up.

my next stop was frontenac state park, which overlooks lake pepin. what a fantastic park. there is a set of precarious-looking stairs switchbacking down the bluff to a picnic area and beach, with more than one overlook.

and then there is lake pepin itself. it’s technically just part of the mississippi, but when the chippewa river enters the mississippi, the force is so powerful that the delta backs up and creates lake pepin.

i spent too much time at this park*, having a deja vu moment and enjoying the view. i headed out, driving through old frontenac, which is on the national historical registry. i knew i was in for a treat when there was a horse paddock in town (with horses!). the old homes facing the river were charming, built in the mid-1800s. because the train tracks routed around the town early on, it’s been saved from modernization for the most part, but for some reason it’s still alive. maybe it’s because it is so charming looking.

after that, i got going and headed down the river road through lake city, wabasha, winona, to la crosse, getting into town around 7 p.m. not bad for a 6-hour drive.

*i’ve noticed that my initial idea of sparing half an hour for each park visit is NOT reasonable, especially if there’s an interpretive center. i think i’ve spent that amount of time at only one park, and that’s because it was a bust.

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