FRONTENAC STATE PARK, MINN. – Since COVID-19 shrank their worlds, more Twin Cities residents are traveling southeast to Frontenac State Park to admire its panoramic views of Lake Pepin, trudge up its steep bluffside trails and stroll down its undulating prairie paths.
Meanwhile, the locals, preferring wilder terrain, have been exploring 159 adjacent acres that in June quietly became part of the park. Gobsmacked, many describe the land — oak savanna, limestone-sandstone bluffs and restored prairie — as even more striking than the established park.
Bruce Ause of Wacouta, a volunteer interpretive naturalist for the park, is among those who struggled to find words to describe the beauty and significance of the addition, which lies on the park's southwestern border.
"Any part of it lends you a different vista in a transition area between hardwood forest and prairie," he said. "It's really spectacular."
The land in question, which includes a bluffside area traditionally known as Waconia Cliffs, was sold to the council in 2017 by Robert Schroeder and Mary Walters, who spent 10 years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to transform it.
Using the same native prairie seed mix the park employed, they converted its crop land to prairie, did controlled burns and took out about 1,000 invasive cedar trees. They removed seven structures, an old farm house, 36 tons of discarded tires and other junk, and made other improvements that resulted in the stunning piece of property it is today.
In 2008, Schroeder said, the two turned down an offer from an outstate company that wanted to use the land as part of the sand fracking industry. That, he said, was not going to happen.
"In 2017, we were approached by Parks and Trails to purchase the property. It had been our intent from the day we first walked the property and then purchased it, to preserve and someday have it be added to the State Park property," Schroeder said. "It was a very expensive process, but our heart was in it from Day 1. Parks and Trails purchased the property from us for a fraction of the cost of our acquisition and restoration, but in the end, our objective was met."
After Parks & Trails bought the land, Rep. Barb Haley and Sen. Mike Goggin, both R-Red Wing, helped facilitate expansion of the park's legally authorized boundaries to allow it to buy the land. The sale was completed on June 26.
"In 2015, I went up there for the first time with Father Mike [Tegeder, the late Catholic priest who once led the park association], who said right away, 'This absolutely has to be public land,' " said Sonnen, a former St. Paul City Council member with deep ties to the area. "My God, we were looking down at the tops of trees, down at hawks; we were so high up."
It's just a matter of time before more park visitors discover these less traveled paths.
No state park signs mark the property along Goodhue County Road 2 between New and Old Frontenac, accessible only on foot.
Winding mowed trails lead to the bluffs overlooking New Frontenac and its pond and beyond to Lake Pepin, Lake City, even western Wisconsin. Heading back down the bluff, especially at sunset, hikers cross broad meadows where wild turkeys bob and teenage whitetail fawns, resplendent in their reddish summer coats, dart amid the asters, milkweed, bee balm and bluebird houses.
Usually, no one else is there. But soon enough, many will be.
The number of visitors to the park has been steadily increasing, and the expansion will allow for them to spread out. Amenities — trails, possibly picnic areas and campsites — may be added down the line.
Haley, of Wacouta, said she was happy to help with the process of expanding the park.
"I've spent a lot of time there, cross-country skiing, taking my kids to the sledding hill when they were little, hiking the trails," she said.
Haley, Sonnen and Ause all expressed relief that the land will remain wild and public rather than becoming a high-end residential development, accessible to only a few.
"The park is just a jewel, and now it's even better," Sonnen said.
No one is more delighted than the locals.
Jamie Lorentzen of Old Frontenac, who with his wife, Jane, has extensively explored the land, said he loves the "intimate vistas of bluffs, lakes, meadows, prairies and farmlands."
"I am grateful that this spectacular landscape has been protected from development and is available for us all to experience," he said.