Minnesota's Backyard: Just east of Fargo-Moorhead, visitors to Buffalo River State Park find heritage, critical habitat
Just a short drive east of one of western Minnesota's regional centers, visitors will find stop No. 9 on our 20-site tour of Minnesota's state parks. The shallow, rocky and scenic Buffalo River winds through the state park that bears its name, and features some native prairie grass so vital to the plants and animals of the Red River Valley.
GLYNDON, Minn. -- We will get the bad news out of the way right at the start: the swimming pond is closed for a third consecutive summer due to the pandemic and the challenge of hiring enough lifeguards to keep it safe.
The folks at Buffalo River State Park are hopeful to have the popular destination to beat the summer heat, just a few minutes east of the Fargo-Moorhead metro area, up and running again in the summer of 2022.
Now the good news: the shallow, rocky, sandy Buffalo River itself, for centuries, has been a place that people and animals come to cool off when the western Minnesota sun is at its most relentless, and it’s open.
“She’s a good river for wading and walking in and fishing in, but not something that tubing or kayaking is going to lend itself to,” said Paula Comeau, a naturalist who is part of the park staff. “We have a few really nice sandbar areas not far from our campground. We get a lot of activity for people coming and using the river for water recreation.”
The park is the ninth state park so far featured in our 20-location Minnesota's Backyard series.
The Buffalo River is a winding tributary that flows into the Red River of the North just outside Georgetown, Minn., but before that, it flows through this stretch of state park that is named for water, but known as much for the rolling tallgrass prairie that defines so much of this region.
“The Buffalo River connects up to one of the largest remnants of native prairie, Bluestem Prairie Scientific and Natural Area ,” Comeau said. “A lot of people come here because we are clean, we are quiet and we have great hiking trails. That’s kind of our claim to fame.”
On a quiet weekday morning, with dark storm clouds rolling in from the north, hiking the Wide Sky Trail, visitors are struck by the silence. A big group of 50-something women out for their own morning hike, and the chirps of myriad birds, were about the only sounds on the moved trails that give one a taste of that vast prairie. In winter, those trails -- while not groomed -- are used by many cross country skiers who visit for the same solitude.
Like seemingly all state parks, which have proven to be wildly popular destinations during -- and as we emerge from -- the pandemic, the visitor numbers have been “insane” according to Comeau. And the temporary closure of the swimming pond has served to spread out the visitors. Where the bulk of families used to come between June and August to swim, now the number of cars in the parking lots is spread out throughout the year. But if you are of a certain age and grew up within about 50 miles of the park, you may have been there already, most likely via school bus.
The park’s trails are interconnected with those of the neighboring Minnesota State University Moorhead Regional Science Center , and both are very popular field trip destinations for school groups from the region.
After a morning hike, with lots of calories burned, you are permitted to treat yourself to something sweet as a reward for your hard work. Just 20 miles west of the park, in the refurbished restaurant district of downtown Fargo, in the shadow of the iconic Fargo Theater marquee, you will find Sandy’s Donuts , which has been serving up great coffee and all varieties of sugary goodness, with or without a hole in them, since 1983.
This was a popular spot to picnic and cool off for a long time prior to 1937, when more than 4,600 acres around the Buffalo River were established as a Minnesota state park. Visitors can still see park buildings that were constructed way back then by the Works Progress Administration . Preserving the tallgrass prairie is a three-way-joint joint venture between the Minnesota DNR, MSUM and the nature conservancy, which cooperatively manage the spot.