Hiking Whitewater State Park in Southern MN’s Bluff Country
Minnesota has some amazing State Park. All of them are great and are fun to hike, but they’re always a few that stand out amongst the hiking community as fan favorites.
They are things like Tettegouche and its famed swinging bridge, Banning with its amazing shorelines and mill routines, and Whitewater State Park and its unforgettable overlooks.
Hiking at Whitewater State Park will have you feeling like you are on top of the world.
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Whitewater State Park
The Dakota named the river Whitewater because it turned milky white in the spring when the highwater eroded clay deposits along its bank. When parts of southern Minnesota were opened up for sale in a land treaty, the whole area was purchased by farmers.
The changes farmers made to the land in the area, caused flooding for more of the first half of the twentieth century.
By the early 1940s, state and federal conservation officials worked with the landowners to change the landscape. Together they reintroduced grass, shrubs, and trees along the slopes. Dikes were built to create ponds.
Whitewater State Park has large limestone bluffs creating dramatic overviews. The most popular stops are Inspiration Point with its 270-degree views and Chimney Rock.
A stunning rock formation high on top of the bluffs. The bluff valley has maple and basswood, and southern oak trees. The south-facing hillside is covered in prairies.
The area is also home to over 50 different types of mammals and over 250 kinds of birds that migrate through or call Whitewater State Park home. Wild Turkey have commonly seen sand bald eagles live at the park year-round
Hiking Whitewater State Park
Whitewater State Park is rumored to not have any mosquitos. This seemed too crazy to believe so I brought my can of bug spray anyway. They were right on. Not pesky buggers to find. Throughout the park there is a constant breeze, making the 80-degree hiking weather bearable.
Unlike most state parks, I decided to leave the hiking club trail for last. That’s because, after a brief poll from Facebook, of all the favorite trails, the Hiking Club Trail was the lowest on everyone’s list. It’s hard to believe.
Instead of doing specific trails, we hopped on and off trails to get ensured we hit up the best overlooks in the park. I also opted to take my mom and sister, on this adventure to not toucher the kids on a 4.5-mile hill-filled hike.
Most state parks have overlooks marked on the trail. I’d say 90% of those overlooks are underwhelming. A little valley filled with trees. A bunch of forest or stream views. At Whitewater State Park, they are the exception.
Each overlook takes your breath away, and not because of how far you’ve climbed to see it. Nothing compares to being there in person.
Make sure to download a free Whitewater State Parks Map from Avenza. They have GeoPDF that will track your exact location as you hike, all without needing an internet connection. Internet connection is sketchy in the area.
Chimney Rock is the most recognizable feature at Whitewater State Park. It sticks up out of the cliffside and comes out of nowhere. Maybe because you first have to climb straight up and are too concerned about proper foot placement and not what’s right in front of you.
Parking at the North Picnic area and heading over the bridge, we first ran into a father and son enjoying some early morning fishing. Then onto the chimney rock loop trail.
Our excitement took over and started the wrong way around the loop straight up a stone path. No biggie. The first set of stairs seems manageable until you get to what you thought was the top and realize they never seemed to end. Even mentally prepared for what was coming, it was still a little taxing.
Then a quick left and onto Chimney Rock. The hiking trail is well-traveled all near the rock formation, making the once rugged rocks now smooth. I’d recommend having trekking poles and going on a dry day.
Don’t have a pair of Hiking Poles yet? Check out The Best Budget Trekking Poles for Hiking
Just past chimney rock is the overlook. It is stunning. Do not skip this even though it means a little more uphill. It’s worth every step.
Instead of wrapping up the loop around Chimney Rock, we decided to stay on top of the ridge and make our way to Inspiration Point. It required a little backtracking but no biggy.
The trail was wooded, with dirt paths and lush forests. I couldn’t ask for anything more. Along the way, we ran into a couple of people with unleashed dogs. It seemed to be popular early in the morning. Thankfully by noon, every dog was leashed.
We also found many unmarked overlooks all over the cliffs.
Once you get to Inspiration point, you’ll see exactly why they call it that. The rocky ledge shoots out from the cliffside. Getting to it involved walking over deep crevasses and narrow footpaths.
At this point, I was glad I didn’t bring the kids on this adventure. And bonus, there was even cellphone coverage!
Getting down from Inspiration point was a little more treacherous. There was an endless narrow staircase. Each step was so narrow, you had to step on it sideways to feel completely secure.
On the plus side, it would have been a lot more taxing to go up. I think it was a more gradual ascent going up at the North Picnic Lot.
Once we were at the bottom, it was a nice easy walk by a stream and over a floating bridge. This was also when the rest of the park was waking up. The South Picnic lot was filling up and people were starting to explore the park more. Most looked like they were on a leisurely hike. I really hope they knew what they were getting themselves into.
See Related: Hiking the Legendary John A Latsch State Park
Next on the list was Eagle Point on the Dakota Trail. The Dakota Trail is a massive loop taking hikers around most of the park. It’s 6.7k, labeled as Difficult and they estimate it takes people 3.5 hrs to complete. It connected to 2 of the 3 overlooks we were planning on doing.
Picking up the trail from the South Picnic lot, it did what most of Whitewater State Park hiking trails do, it went straight up the hillside.
This section was a dirt trail, filled with tree roots and some other obstacles. Nothing too troublesome but watch your step as I caught a few.
Once you cross the highway, this becomes a little more challenging. Back up the hillside and if it recently rained, it gets muddy.
Normally that’s not a big deal, but on a steep cliffside, with a really narrow trail, one slip up and you could tumble down. At least that’s what it felt like when I lost my footing for one second.
Thankfully there was a tree right next to me that I grabbed onto and recovered. For this reason alone, I’d never do this in winter.
Once you get to the top, it’s smooth sailing to Eagle Point overlook. The overlooks consist of two rock formations. Don’t skip them! They are along a narrow rocky trail.
Up there when the wind blows, you’ll feel like you could fly, with nothing but open tree cover below you.
Shotcut Through Meadow Trail
From here you can continue on the Dakota Trail, or take the shortcut to Coyote Point. Already taxed we were looking for the easiest way to the Hiking Club trail by cutting through Meadow Trail.
There are two sets of stairs that merge getting down from Eagle Point. One just before the Eagle Point overlook and those that took the overlook.
We used this shortcut to jump over to the Meadow Trail and the end of the Dakota Trail. The Dakota Trail is a second of the Hiking Club Trail. The meadow trails are a mix of meadow and forest but utterly flat. It was a good break for what was ahead.
Coyote Point & Hiking Club Trail
Miles: 2.2 miles
Total Miles Hiked: 83.6 miles
At this point, it was just past 11 am and the entire park was buzzing. We stopped at the camp gift shop to see if we could refill our water but the machine was empty. The store was open but there was a line and it didn’t sell any water.
What looked like a water spigot out front didn’t have a handle, I’m assuming for COVID. I defiantly should have brought an extra Nalgene with me but was hesitant because of the weight.
We decided to go onto the last part to get the Hiking Club Password before heading out. Onto another set of endless stairs.
Have you joined the MN State Parks Hiking Club yet? It’s a great way to earn patches and free nights of camping. Plus it gives you an excuse to see a few more parks! 75 reasons to join the MN State Parks Passport and MN Hiking Club
Thankfully at the base of Coyote Point, there was a nice spot to sit, recoup, and get an energy bar before continuing. Underneath we were looking at what lay ahead with hesitation. We even heard others above us howling like coyotes in their excitement.
On our way to the top! After our short break, there was just a short section of stairs, and what was labeled as a ladder. It was actually a reprieve from more steps.
The top of Coyote Point was filled with people. Another reason I love hiking early, is solitude. We were able to take it in for a minute or two and then asked others if they’d seen the password on the trail. They all looked at us in bewilderment. Ok, we’ll have to find it the old fashion way.
We got some more details about trail conditions and were off. From Coyote Point to the rest of the trail, it’s a narrow cliffside. Still very manageable. Walking to Inspiration Point or Eagle point seemed more dangerous.
The Hiking Club Password
The trail weaved on top of the bluff, through some new mud and other overlooks. We were all spent just hoping to see the password. I started to gaze at every sign up ahead and start to peer around it only to be disappointed.
You can usually tell from the back of the sign based on the shape of the sign if it’s it or not. We were just about to cross a narrow section with people on it when I looked up and glanced at its familiar color with a yellow bubble underneath.
I’d found it. I got a burst of energy and ran to it in excitement. Yep, I know… I’m 36 years old and hugging a sign. I’m sure everyone thought it was crazy. After 4+ miles of endless stairs, I earned it.
Other things to do at Whitewater State Park
Camping at Whitewater State Park
Aside from hiking one of the most popular activities is camping. They have a mix of wooded sites and open sites. With a total of 148 drive-in sites, 16 drive-through sites, and 87 RV sites, they can accommodate a ton of people. That said, the park is so popular often the RV park just outside of Whitewater State Park is filled too!
Elba Fire Tower
The Elba Fire Tower is a historic climb. The fire tower is managed by Whitewater State Park but it’s not listed on the State Parks official maps. That’s because it’s just outside the boundary of the park off county road 39.
The fire tower was built in 1936 by the Civilian Conservation Corps and stands 110 feet high. Getting to the base of the tower is a hike up 500 uneven steps before you even reach the tower.
Cool off at the sandy beach. Whitewater State Park has a big beach with a lifeguard for hot summer days. Its cold water comes from a nearby spring.
Anglers love Whitewater State Park for their brown, brook, and rainbow trout in the spring-fed Whitewater River and Trout Run creeks. There is ample opportunity to find your secluded part of the river.
Caves & Ice Cave
There are 9 different caves spread out over the entire park. The caves sit high up on the limestone layer of the cliffs. There are two you can get to, the one at Chimney Rock and on the Trail up to Coyote Point.
During winter one turns into an ice cave. It is only visible during April and early May. You can see it off the Dakota Trail, just before it the trail splits. Due to its location on a cliff visitors do not have access to it. The ice cave is not marked on any trail maps.
Questions about Whitewater State Park
How much does it cost to get into Whitewater State Park?
All Minnesota State Parks are free with an annual permit. You can buy them in person or online for $35. If you are planning to visit for the day, expect to pay around $7. Throughout the year, there are a few free days and other discounts you can check out too.
Camping costs anywhere from $25-35 a night.
Pro Tip: Visit any State Park during one of their free days. Check out Minnesota State Park Pass Hacks, Tips, and Free Days to find all the days
Are there rattlesnakes in Whitewater State Park
Yes, there are Timber Rattlesnakes that live in Whitewater State Park. A couple are spotted by visitors each year. They are most seen in late summer. if you do spot one, report it to the park office as they are threatened species.
How many steps does Whitewater State park have?
The park has upwards of 500 steps spread out over three primary trails. Chimney Rock Trail has over 100 steps, Dakota trail has 200+ Steps and there are another 100 steps on Inspiration Point Trail.
Would I Go Hiking at Whitewater State Park Again?
Yes. I’d love to make the entire Dakota Trail loop. I’d also love to take the kids hiking Whitewater State Park trails to see some of these epic overlooks. They were like nothing I’d seen before. Knowing I’ve already pushed the kids a lot this summer, I thought I’d give them a break for my ambitious plan at Whitewater State Park. I think they could do it.