At Upper Sioux Agency State Park, woodland trails, the Minnesota River and a small circle of night sky above our heads.
Lying on our backs, tucked into sleeping bags on a wooden platform, we stared in fascination at the light show through the hole in the top of our tepee.
Flash, flicker, flash-flash.
Last summer’s sizzling July heat finally tempered as storms brewed and grumbled across the Upper Minnesota River Valley. I grudgingly stirred for a walk across prairie to the restrooms at 1 a.m., unaware of the full spectacle waiting outside. While the sky looked pretty through the tepee, in the wide open prairie, the darkness yawned so deep and sharp, it was like viewing the stars through 3-D glasses. Their infinite layers wove through smudges of the Milky Way while rosy lightning on the horizon flashed like Morse Code.
On a Thursday night, the Upper Sioux Agency State Park stood nearly empty. Two other campers slept in a decoratively painted tepee across the campground, slightly tucked into the woods. Colorful ribbons tied onto the rustic pine poles of the park’s third tepee, next to ours, fluttered in the breeze. As a popular weekend destination, it awaited guests the next day. Purple and gold wildflowers dotted the surrounding prairie.
Rich with history
The park near Granite Falls, Minn., felt almost like ours alone, and we spent the afternoon hiking to a sweeping overlook of the Minnesota River Valley, checking out shady riverside sites in a second campground, and reading about the historic Upper Sioux (or Yellow Medicine) Agency, which was set up after the 1851 Traverse Des Sioux Treaty to provide funds and supplies for tribes in exchange for land.
Many of the area’s Dakota tribes befriended settlers and rallied for peace during the 1862 U.S.-Dakota uprising. They continue their deep roots here, and we passed tidy neighborhoods on the Upper Sioux reservation on our way to the park.
My cousin Michelle, a social studies teacher, soaked up the history as my 8-year-old daughters donned the themed attire packed for our getaway. Katie did her version of powwow steps to make the fringes on a leather shirt made by her uncle dance up and down. She couldn’t wait to wear a prairie dress her aunt made for the Laura Ingalls Wilder pageant the next night.
We have dubbed this history-rich getaway our real American Girls field trip.
More tepees added
The park added two canvas tepees to its Yellow Medicine Campground in 1998, offering an alternative way to camp and giving a nod to the area’s heritage. Archaeologists found evidence of people camping along the river for at least 8,000 years — something timeless and comforting to ponder on a warm summer’s night.
When the tepees proved popular — even midweek from May through October — a third was added three years ago. This year, a new tepee also sprouted up at Blue Mounds State Park, in Luverne, Minn., where you can still see bison roam the prairie along quartzite cliffs.
A word of warning: Tepees don’t have screens or the ventilation of a modern tent. Fortunately, bugs weren’t a big deal after twilight, and rain just skirted us. (There is an inner liner for staying dry, but we didn’t know where to find the instructions.)
During my middle-of-the-night walk, I stopped and gawked at the sky so many times that my cousin started to worry and clicked on our light. It illuminated the tepee like a giant triangular lantern, welcoming and beckoning on a rumbling, restless night.
Lisa Meyers McClintick of St. Cloud wrote the guidebook “Day Trips From the Twin Cities.” She can be reached at www.LisaMcClintick.com.