Buffalo River State Park offers hiking trails through native prairie and a hardwood forest along the Buffalo River, camping, and a man-made swimming hole. The park is located just east of Moorhead at the western edge of Minnesota.
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Looking for fall along the Buffalo River
Fall took its time arriving in 2015, teasing me with the promise of brilliant color while remaining green for an exceptionally long time. This was true of Buffalo River State Park (located near Moorhead in northwestern Minnesota) when I visited in early October.
Fall at the swimming hole
It may not look much like fall yet. However, it clearly wasn’t summer anymore, as the man-made swimming hole had been drained for the season.
The swimming hole is a man-made pool with soft, clean sand and filtered river water. It looks like a fun place for families on a hot summer day, but in 2019 the pool was closed because the park couldn’t find lifeguards.
Fall along the River View Trail
As the name implies, the River View Trail follows the bank above the Buffalo River.
The shady trail offers a variety of river views and plenty of bird calls!
Signs of fall were more subtle, with hints of yellow still clinging to the trees and on the ground below.
Not surprisingly, while other hardwood trees were dropping their leaves, the oaks were waiting for just a bit colder weather.
Fall at the prairie’s edge
Buffalo River State Park has two trails that take visitors through the prairie within the park and connect to prairie segments owned by the Nature Conservancy and Moorhead State University. That provides a good opportunity to see what a native prairie is like.
There didn’t seem to be an oak savanna here, and the transition from mixed woodland to prairie was abrupt.
I was just wandering the park with a friend on my 2015 visit, am not exactly sure which trail we were on. But we were searching for signs of fall, and found plenty in the golden glow of the dried grasses and the fiery red of the sumac along the prairie’s edge.
They are not-so-subtle hints that winter is approaching.
Plan your visit to Buffalo River State Park
Buffalo River State Park is located about 15 miles east of Moorhead, Minnesota. It’s about a 4-hour drive northwest of the Minneapolis-Saint Paul area,
While few people would likely travel from outside the area for the park’s woodland trails or pool, it’s worth the trip if you are a bird watcher or fan of America’s native prairies. Between them, the state park and adjoining protected properties include some of the finest prairie remnants left in the United States. Much of area was never farmed, making it an exceptionally rich landscape. It is home to a variety of interesting plants and increasingly rare birds. And, because it is so close to the Fargo-Moorhead area, there is plenty of art, culture and great food available a short drive from the park!
See my travel guide for exploring the Fargo-Moorhead area for more information on transportation options, activities and entertainment, dining, and lodging.
In the park
The park operates in combination with the state’s Bluestem Prairie Scientific and Natural Area, the Nature Conservancy’s Bluestem Preserve, and Minnesota State University Moorhead’s Regional Science Center. Together, these offer one of best opportunities anywhere to experience the plants, animals, and birds of the American prairie.
Facilities and amenities
Buffalo River has a parking area, picnic area, picnic shelter, and restrooms. There is also a swimming pond (open only when a lifeguard is on duty) and nature center (also open only on a limited basis). The park office (open seasonally) has a gift shop and sells ice and firewood. However, there is no place to buy food in the park itself.
The park has four mostly-flat mowed-grass trails. (Hiking here is very easy.) You can download a trail map online (PDF).
In winter the park is open for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, but there are no groomed trails.
There are generally no services available in the park from mid-September through May.
Vault toilets are available year-round, but flush toilets are not available during winter (after mid-September). Nor is there any potable water in the park during the winter. Winter visitors should bring drinking water with them.
A warming house is open during candlelight events.
Rules and fees
The park is open for throughout the year, but services (including water) are only available spring through fall.
- Dogs must be on a leash no longer than 6-feet. They must be with you at all times and are not allowed in buildings or on the beach.
- There are no bike trails in the park.
- Do not bring firewood into the park.
Like most Minnesota state parks, a daily or annual permit is required to bring a motor vehicle into the park. You can find information on purchasing a park permit on the DNR website.
Camping and lodging
Buffalo River State Park has wood campgrounds near the picnic area and swimming hole.
The park campground has 44 drive-in sites, most of which have electricity available. However, none are pull-through sites and RVs cannot be longer than 60 feet. During the summer, the campground has showers and flush toilets.
One group camp site can accommodate up to 50 people using tents and/or pop-up campers. The site has water and vault toilets.
It’s unclear whether winter camping is allowed. However, all campsites must be reserved in advance. through the state’s camping and lodging reservation system. It should be clear when you make a reservation whether or not the campground is open.
This park does not have camper cabins.
Eating and drinking
Campers and picnickers should come prepared with everything they need as the camp store does not sell groceries. The nearest groceries and dining is in Hawley, but head into Moorhead or Fargo for a variety of really great dining options.
Other things to do in the area
Only 15 minutes away, the Fargo-Moorhead offers visitors a lot of things to do. My favorites include the excellent Hjemkomst Center (home of the replica Hopperstad stave church and the Hjemkomst Viking-style ship) and Plains Art Museum.
Drive just a bit farther the other direction (east, rather than west) and you’ll arrive in the Detroit Lakes area. This is a popular summer vacation spot with lots of resorts, restaurants, and shops.
For more information and inspiration
Department of Natural Resources Minnesota Fall Color Finder
Explore Minnesota has a Chase the Colors newsletter with fall color updates. Subscribe at ExploreMinnesota.com
This post was originally published October 19, 2015. It was thoroughly updated, rewritten, and republished in September 2019.