It’s one of the most scenic and popular state parks in all of Minnesota.
Each year, it draws more than 1 million visitors to hike, bike or peek at a few birds.
But this spring, the gates are closed at Fort Snelling State Park, forcing the hikers, bikers and birders to wait a bit longer to enjoy its surroundings.
Park officials announced Thursday that the park, closed since mid-March, will remain closed until July due to extensive flood damage stemming from winter’s heavy snowpack and the seemingly relentless spring rains.
“We know how eager folks are to get out and enjoy nature now that spring has finally arrived, but making sure the park is safe for staff and park visitors is critical before opening,” said Kelli Bruns, the park manager.
This spring’s closing marks the longest stretch of time the park has been closed due to flood damage since 2014, when it took about a month to clean up and restore the park, making it safe for visitors.
Several major roads at the park, at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers, are impassable due to high water or because floodwaters lifted up large chunks of asphalt and swept them away, said Nick Bartels, the park’s assistant manager.
Repairing the road along Snelling Lake is expected to cost $100,000. There could be additional expenses once the water recedes on several roads and staffers have a chance to assess damage on Picnic Island and at other park facilities.
The flooding also damaged trees, trails and a water main leading to the park office. In addition, floodwaters moved a fishing pier on Snelling Lake more than 50 feet off its anchor posts. The pier landed in trees about 8 feet off the ground, Bartels said.
While flooding was widespread across Minnesota this spring, no state park or recreation area was as heavily damaged as Fort Snelling or has been closed to the public, said Rachel Hopper, visitor services manager for the state Department of Natural Resources.
However, there are some partial closures of trails and campgrounds at Minnesota Valley State Recreation Area in Jordan and Lac qui Parle State Park in western Minnesota.
Much work ahead
The prospect of more rain over the next month will only add to the high water at Fort Snelling State Park, said Caleb Grunzke, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Chanhassen.
The Minnesota River reached its ninth-highest crest of all time this spring, and at one point, Fort Snelling park staffers feared the park office would be damaged by up to 2 feet of floodwater, said Bartels. A slow, gradual snowmelt, however, saved the day, he said.
As of Thursday, remnants of sandbags remained around the office at the park’s entrance.
Gravel temporarily covered huge holes exposed on the roads after chunks of asphalt were washed away by the hip-deep floodwaters.
Water covering the road to Picnic Island appeared deep enough to navigate by boat, but Bartels said the river currents are still too strong and the water filled with too much debris to try crossing.
While the fishing pier on Snelling Lake was pushed onto the nearby shore, the structure wasn’t damaged. However, heavy equipment will be needed to lift it back into the water and return it to its original location.
In the meantime, Bruns asked that the public stay away from the park to allow workers time to complete repairs and cleanup. She said if someone inside the park needed help while it was closed, emergency responders would have a difficult time locating them.
The park’s main entrances are blocked by gates, but people could find other ways to get in, Hopper said. It only took a short time Thursday morning for staffers to spot three bikers on the road near Snelling Lake. They were asked to turn around and leave.
“We frequently have some flooding in the park each year, but nothing like this year,” Bartels said as he looked around and assessed the damage. “We have a lot of work left to do.”