IN SOUTHEAST MINNESOTA – Home to steep bluffs and pastoral valleys, this picturesque region of the state often takes second billing to the lakes and piney woods of “Up North’’ Minnesota. But the southeast is no less beautiful or enchanting. Its oaks and aspens, basswoods, maples and elms are as inspiring as any northern coniferous forest. Plus — and it’s a big plus — the southeast is a geologic spectacle that boasts a latticework of cold-water rivers, streams and creeks that bend beautifully through welcoming state parks. Last week, at times dodging summer thunderstorms, I revisited three of these parks, fly rod in hand: Forestville/Mystery Cave, Beaver Creek Valley and Whitewater. Here’s a guide to each, whether you drive southeast to fish, camp, wildlife watch or simply tour a part of the state that will draw you back again and again.
Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park
Nearest city: Preston
Contact: Main park: 507-352-5111. Mystery Cave: 507-937-3251.
Camping: 73 sites, 23 with electric hookup. RV length limit: 50 feet. Shower and flush bathrooms on site. Park also has a horse camp with 55 sites, 23 electric. Two group campsites also are available.
Camper cabins: Five, each with heat and electricity and available year-round by reservation. No pets. The cabins are a great option for people short on camping gear, or who prefer not to “rough it’’ too much.
Activities: Hiking. Horseback trails. Cave tours (reservations: 866-857-2757), as well as tours through historic Forestville.
Wildlife: 175 bird species have been identified, including scarlet tanagers and redstarts. Also: deer, mink, beaver, raccoon, opossum, woodchucks, coyotes and squirrels. The park — like much of the southeast — is home to a few rattlesnakes.
Fishing: Forestville Creek, South Branch of the Root River and Canfield Creek join in the park to become the South Branch of the Root. Though high and off-color last week, the rivers were fishable (for current southeast stream conditions go online to tinyurl.com/y4eujq84). Throughout the southeast, trout angling regulations can vary, stream to stream. Some streams, such as Canfield (a favorite of mine) can be fished with flies or artificial lures only. Bait is OK on others (DNR trout fishing guides are available at the park office). Fly anglers, meanwhile, can find a hatch guide for the southeast at tinyurl.com/yytlrezr. Now in early June, look for brown drakes, light Hendrickson’s, blue-winged olives and various caddis.
Valley State Park
Nearest city: Caledonia
Camping: Forty-two sites, 16 with electricity. RV length limit: 55 feet. Walk-in sites available. Park also has a group camp with parking for up to 10 vehicles. Showers available seasonally, as is an RV dump station.
Camper cabins: One, with electricity, available by reservation April through October. No pets.
Activities: A hike to the “Big Spring’’ in the park is a must. The park is also a popular destination for birders. The Acadian flycatcher, Cerulean warbler and Louisiana waterthrush — each rare — nest here.
Wildlife: I saw eight whitetails last week within an eighth of a mile of the park entrance. Red and gray foxes, minks, badgers, muskrats and, of course, wild turkeys also thrive.
Fishing: Southeast Minnesota in aggregate is home to more than 700 miles of designated trout streams. Few of those miles can challenge the angler as much as East Beaver Creek (managed as a wild trout fishery), West Beaver Creek (ditto) and Beaver Creek (the DNR stocks some browns and rainbows here). Unlike some southeast streams that are wide enough for anglers to put some distance to a cast, these waterways are in many places narrow and overhung with vegetative canopy cover. Oftentimes also these streams are gin clear, and their trout can spook easily, spoiling an angler’s approach. Still, West Beaver and East Beaver are home to prized native brook trout and also in some places, the DNR says, to more than 150 brown trout per mile longer than 12 inches.
Nearest city: Altura
Camping: 148 drive-in sites; 16 pull-throughs. Eighty-seven have electricity. RV limit: 50 feet.
Camper cabins: Five. Two sleep five, with electricity, and are available year-round. Two sleep six and are similarly rigged and available. One sleeps five but is available only April through November.
Activities: Whitewater State Park is 100 years old this year. For events planned in June to celebrate the anniversary, go online at tinyurl.com/yyle4o9x. All manner of hiking trails, easy to climb-a-bluff challenging, are available.
Wildlife: Bald eagles and turkeys are highlights among the park’s 50 different mammals and more than 250 kinds of birds. You might hear a ruffed grouse drum while you fish or hike, and in spring if you’re lucky you’ll spot a Louisiana waterthrush.
Fishing: Whitewater is a Minnesota State Park system gem. Yet last week its rivers were supremely muddy, thanks to downpours this spring and early summer. Fish can be caught in these conditions (which were improving Friday), sometimes big ones (though apparently not by me). That said, as Whitewater’s riverways clear, mornings and evenings will be best, given, especially on weekends, that the park often fills up, or nearly so. Park newcomers seeking trout often concentrate upstream of Trout Run Creek’s confluence with the Middle Branch of the Whitewater River. But the entire park fishery is accessible, a joy to wade and relatively easy to fish.