Seeking fall in Minnesota’s Buffalo River State Park

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(Last Updated On: September 18, 2019)

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.

wooded trail with a couple and dog

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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.

sand and empty lifeguard stands near a woods

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.

still river winding through a woodland in fall

The shady trail offers a variety of river views and plenty of bird calls!

trees with yellow leaves above a river

Signs of fall were more subtle, with hints of yellow still clinging to the trees and on the ground below.

woodland floor with fallen leaves and distant trees and sky

Not surprisingly, while other hardwood trees were dropping their leaves, the oaks were waiting for just a bit colder weather.

oak branches with a mix of yellow and green leaves

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.

prairie grasses, sumac, and trees in fall

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.

It’s designated as an Important Bird Area by Audubon and a state Wildlife Viewing Area.

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).

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.

Aside from a (well-rated) AmericInn in Hawley, you’ll need to go into the Fargo-Moorhead area to find a hotel.

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

people on trail through wood with text "Buffalo River State Park"

 

This post was originally published October 19, 2015. It was thoroughly updated, rewritten, and republished in September 2019.

Exploring Minnesota State Parks

Exploring Fargo-Moorhead 

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