What on Earth is Pipestone National Monument? Unless you’re a Minnesota/South Dakota native or an avid National Park enthusiast, chances are you’ve never heard of this hidden gem. We had no idea what we were getting into, but in light of trying to hit as many states as possible on our road trip, we put it on our destination list.
About the park
Pipestone National Monument is tucked away in Pipestone County in Southwest Minnesota. The drive up from Sioux Falls, SD is not particularly exciting so we were weary when we arrived that we had wasted our time traveling out there. The entrance was a bit hidden for us because GPS didn’t take us directly to the welcome center. You may have to drive around some non-paved roads, but don’t give up hope! This park is worth the extra effort to find.
(The bottom, red layer is pipestone)
After you find the welcome center and check in, you can either take some time to check out the museum displays of park history or take to the trail. We chose the latter and made our first stop the sample rock quarry. This quarry allows you to see just how far down the pipestone layer sits and the effort it takes to extract it out.
About Pipestone (the actual stone)
What is pipestone, you might be asking at this point. Basically when layers of minerals were settling down billions of years ago, a deposit of mud got stuck between neighboring quartzite (aka a really, really hard rock). Since the environment and pressure was so different than that on the surface, the mud layer transformed into new minerals which eventually turned into a soft and pliable red stone. American Indian tribes harvest this easy to carve stone and use it to create pipes used in spiritual ceremonies. (Get it? Pipes…made out of stone…pipestone).
The Beginning of Circle Trail
After the quarry, we hopped on the ¾ mile Circle Trail to check out the rest of the park. The first thing you see on this trail are wide open prairies and a variety of (to be honest) not that exciting plant species. By this point we’re still thinking okay, maybe this was a mistake. I don’t know about you, but tall grass and tiny flowers aren’t exactly a wow-factor for me.
The short walk through prairie town slowly started to turn into a more lush and wooded area outlined by walls of quartzite. In a matter of moments, you go from flat, unexciting terrain to these beautiful rock faces that extend well above your head. The further along the trail you get, the higher and more beautiful these walls become. We took a short set of stone stairs up the quartzite wall and started to hear water. This is where I started to get excited because I am a sucker for waterfalls.
We rounded the corner and came face to face with the beautiful Winnewissa Falls. This 20-foot waterfall easily lands itself at the top of list of attractions at this park. Every waterfall is beautiful, but this one is special because you get to stand on a small bridge and watch the water flow under your feet which was really fun for the kids.
After the obligatory photo ops, we continued on with a little more pep in our step. The waterfall alone changed my whole opinion of the park, but then we quickly found ourselves at the foot of the second most beautiful attraction. There is no official name for these stone stairs, but it is quite literally a stairway to a mini slice of heaven. At the top, you get an aerial view of the falls and the rest of the park. I would highly recommend taking a moment here to breathe in all of the beauty this park has to offer.
Once our moment of appreciation had passed, we continued down Circle Trail to the base of Leaping Rock. This is a large pillar of stone that American Indian teens used to prove their bravery by leaping onto it from the nearby quartzite wall. Neither my husband nor I was willing to test out our jumping skills so we continued on, stopping at various points along the river to admire the landscape of Pipestone National Monument.
(This spot had a great view of Winnewissa Falls)
The Final Attraction
Toward the end of the trail awaits the final attraction, Lake Hiawatha. Although it is surrounded by prairie grass, there is a totally different feel here than the beginning of the trail. The area is much more lush and full of life. There are bouts of wild sunflowers and in the distance you can see trees the local Indians use to tie prayer cloths to.
We were fortunate enough to see said locals out there working so I may be biased as to why this particular section of the park is awesome. Growing up on the east coast doesn’t yield many opportunities to run into an Indian tribe.
Things To Do After Circle Trail
The trail comes to a close back at the welcome center. Here you can take some time to walk through the museum and teach your littles more about the history and culture of the park. There is also a tiny gift shop tucked in the back where you can purchase pieces of pipestone and other local handmade items.
If you ever find yourself in or around southwest Minnesota, I would highly recommend taking the time out of your day to visit Pipestone National Monument. It’s short and sweet, but packs a heavy punch on beautiful and unique attractions. This park is an excellent destination to consider if you have young travelers with you because they stand to learn a great deal about both history and nature.
Please comment below if you have ever visited Pipestone National Monument or plan on going in the future. I would love to hear your experiences and share stories. Don’t forget to subscribe and follow me on social media if you would like to stay up to date on our traveling adventures out in Our Happy Place 🙂