From waterfalls to bison at Minneopa State Park, Minnesota

Last updated on September 4th, 2023

A fun day trip for all ages, Minneopa State Park near Mankato, Minnesota, features its namesake double waterfall, a herd of buffalo (American bison), camping, and more.

two bison grazing in a prairie

Minnesota’s third state park, Minneopa was once just a nicely landscaped little park around a pretty waterfall. Today the waterfall still draws visitors, but the greatly expanded park now offers a few other activities, including the opportunity to drive through a restored prairie that is home to a herd of bison.

Minneopa’s history: From beloved local waterfall to bison range

For more than a century, Minneopa State Park was notable for one thing: Minneopa Falls.

It’s a nice waterfall (one of the highest in southern Minnesota) in a nicely landscaped park. But it’s a little difficult to think of the waterfall alone as worthy of state park status. Even after the park expanded in the 1960s, it didn’t offer much besides that nice picnic area around the waterfall. Sure, a new campground and a few more trails offered more reasons to visit, but Minneopa State Park remained mostly a nice place for a picnic and a short hike.

Until 2015.

That’s when the first bison arrived. Now Minneopa offers an experience that doesn’t exist elsewhere in Minnesota. And that makes it a park well worth a special trip.

But let’s go back in time and see how Minneopa became the park it is today.

A popular civil-war era day trip

The name Minneopa comes from the native people who lived in the area long before white settlers came on the scene. In the Dakota language mni hinhe numpa means “water falling twice.” That’s an apt description of the two-tiered waterfall.

Romanticized painting of a double waterfall with an American Indian

African American landscape painter Robert S. Duncanson created this Romantic view of the waterfall in 1862. The painting is in the Cincinnati Art Museum’s collection. (Photo via Wikimedia)

Show more about Minneopa's History. . .

As white settlers began moving into the area in the 1850s, the scenic waterfall quickly became a favorite place to relax. And, even as Minnesota was becoming a state in 1858, a resort hotel opened near the waterfall.

Called the Minneinneopa Park Hotel, its landscaped grounds included an assortment of footpaths and bridges that provided easy access to the falls and plenty of lawn for picnics, croquet, and baseball.

postcard with a double waterfall and text "Minneinneopa Park Hotel: Singing waters, where the elk play"

1865 card from the collection of the Minnesota Historical Society.

The waterfall and park-like grounds around it were a hit with visitors who arrived by wagon or steam-powered paddle wheel boat. But the site became even more popular in 1860 when the railroad established a station in the nearby town of Minneopa. Now visitors could easily arrive by train from nearby Mankato or more distant cities like Minneapolis.

To bring in even more visitors, both the property owner and the railroad promoted Minneopa Falls. This publicity, combined with easy rail access and amenities like a new stairway into the gorge, helped draw thousands of visitors during the 1860s.

Many of those visitors came in groups organized by a church, school, or business. The largest of these were Christian camp meetings, which brought up to 5000 people at a time for events that continued for several days!

Uncertainty swirls around Minneopa Falls

While Minneopa Falls remained popular with visitors over the following decades, the resort and nearby town of Minneopa didn’t fare as well. The resort closed in 1870. Within a decade, grasshopper plagues put an end to the town of Minneopa as well. But thousands of people still visited the waterfall each year.

The property changed hands several times over the decades as various schemes for a new hotel, housing, and a sawmill fell through. By 1900 the property owner threatened to close the area, cut all the trees, and graze cattle along the falls.

A popular local attraction becomes a state park

Minnesota’s first state park was established in around Lake Itasca in 1891. The second (today’s Interstate State Park) followed in 1895. Then not much happened on the state park front for another decade.

But local boosters around the state saw state parks as a way to provide recreational opportunities for residents, increase their city’s prestige, and reel in visitors and their money. This was the case in Mankato.

Early in the new century, the city’s civic leaders rallied around making Minneopa Falls a state park. Their representative in the state legislature liked the idea too. And, while some lawmakers in Saint Paul complained that Minneopa should be a local park, in 1905 it became Minnesota’s third state park.

Minneopa State Park grows (slowly)

The original park consisted of just 25 acres right around the waterfall. By 1920 it had expanded to 105 acres.

Although small in size, the park continued to attract visitors. Most came from Mankato and the surrounding area, but people also traveled from other parts of Minnesota and even from other states. However, with thousands of visitors descending on the park each summer, its small size and lack of parking, camping, and other visitor facilities presented significant problems.

Despite those visitor needs, the first order of business was stabilizing the falls itself. As waterfalls do, Minneopa Falls was eating away at the soft sandstone below the surface. The falls had moved over the course of thousands of years and was continuing to do so. To ensure it continued to look much the same for generations to come, it needed to be stabilized. That work was funded in 1928 (the upper falls) and 1935 (lower falls).

The remains of the historic 1864 Seppmann Mill (more information below) and a small bit of land around it were added to the park early in the 1930s. This “extension” of the park was actually about a mile from the rest of the park. It didn’t really fit into the park at the time, but it offered the opportunity to restore the unusual wind-powered mill as a historical attraction.

Major improvements to visitor facilities came later in the 1930s when WPA (Works Progress Administration) crews reconstructed the stairs to the lower glen, created new picnic and parking areas, and built a picnic shelter, restrooms, and other buildings. (Today seven of the park’s rustic WPA structures are on the National Register of Historic Places.) They also rebuilt the stairs down to the lower glen. What didn’t get built? The long-needed campground and the swimming area local residents always wanted.

However, even with the WPA’s improvements, Minneopa State Park was largely run by and for local residents.

Get big or go local

Minneopa’s status as a small state park serving a largely local clientele was not unusual for Minnesota’s earliest state parks. However, by the 1960s, the state was turning these small parks over to cities and counties as local parks. To remain a state park, a park needed to have at least 500 acres and serve a statewide audience. Given its small size and primarily local draw, Minneopa didn’t belong in the state park system.

Local residents disagreed.

They not only disagreed; they took action. Through a broad community effort that reached as far as Washington, DC, 800 acres were added to the park. Most of this land was purchased from the Seppmann family and it connected the historic mill to the rest of the park. But the purchase also added a large area along the Minnesota River that allowed for the creation of a formal campground and new trails.

Minneopa State Park continues to grow. Today it includes about 2,200 acres. In addition, about another 1000 acres of private property still exist within the park’s legal boundary. At least some of that land will likely become part of the park some day. That’s a pretty big park.

But to me, the buffalo are what make Minneopa state park worth the trip.

In 2015 a small herd of American plains bison and a bison viewing route were established on over 300 acres of park property. (More on the bison below.) There are a lot of nice waterfalls in Minnesota. What makes Minneopa special is the opportunity to get a close-up look at bison while driving through their native habitat. That simply isn’t possible anywhere else in the Minnesota state park system.

Show Less

A virtual tour of Minneopa State Park

Minneopa State Park still feels like at least two separate parks, with the waterfall area connected to the historic mill, bison, and campground by roads that run past private property.

This tour begins with the waterfall at the historic heart of the park, and then follows the park’s expansion with a peek at the historic mill and a visit to the bison herd.

Minneopa Falls: The water still falls twice

Minneopa Falls still includes the two waterfalls that gave it its name.

Likewise, the surrounding area also retains a landscaped feel that would be familiar to visitors from the 1850s, with lawns, paths, bridges, and stairs that make the area more accessible and park-like. These features make visiting Minneopa Falls more like visiting a public garden (or Minnehaha Falls) than the sort of more natural areas often associated with Minnesota’s state parks.

1915 postcard with bridge and people standing looking at a waterfall

A postcard from 1915 shows visitors enjoying Minneopa Falls. (Minnesota Historical Society)

The best views of the waterfall are from the walkway along the top of the gorge or along the creek below.

double waterfall with a pedestrian bridge

The lower falls drops 40 feet. That’s almost, but not quite, enough to claim the title of highest waterfall in southern Minnesota. (Literally across the Minnesota River from Minneopa State Park, Minnemishinona Falls drops 42 feet. It’s taller, but not as pretty.)

Today a big clunky bridge spans Minneopa Creek between the upper and lower falls. While I find it exceedingly intrusive, it does provide lots of space to get a good look at the upper falls.

a pretty waterfall that looks bigger than it is

While it looks bigger, the upper falls only drops about 7 feet. But there’s a lot of beauty and drama per foot!

The bridge also provides a view of the gorge beyond the lower falls.

looking down at the top of a waterfall in a gorge

But you can’t quite see down to the bottom of the waterfall!

Seppmann mill

On the bluff overlooking the buffalo enclosure, a tall stone tower and warehouse are all that remain of an old grist mill.

stone tower with a rounded top in fall

The mill, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was constructed by Louis Seppmann (Seppman). A stonemason by trade, he decided early in the 1860s to build a wind-powered grist mill like those he had seen growing up in Germany.

Show more about the Seppmann Mill. . .

The project got underway in 1862.

With the help of other masons, Seppmann completed the first ten feet of what would become a 32-foot tower before the US-Dakota War put construction on hold for the rest of the year. With the help of a neighbor, he finished the structure two years later. A true do-it-yourselfer, he then carved most of the machinery needed to operate the mill himself. About the only thing he couldn’t make were the metal cog wheels and millstones!

The mill is 32 feet high. It has a conical wood roof set on a track so it could rotate to better catch the wind in the mill’s large sails. Those sails were held aloft by four 35-foot wooden arms. It must have been quite a sight on a windy day.

On a good day, Seppmann’s mill transformed 150 bushels of wheat into flour. However, it took a bit of experimenting – and a near-disaster – before he got there.

According to Wikipedia, Seppmann was neither farmer nor miller and didn’t really know how to run a mill. Apparently aware of this potential gap in his knowledge, he hired an expert to get the mill running the first time. Unfortunately, after weeks with no wind, the expert left. And that left Seppmann and his neighbor (and business partner) to start it themselves. As novices, they nearly set the mill on fire as the full sails caused the equipment to race against clogged millstones. Fortunately, they were able to take down some sail and stop the mill before disaster struck.

After determining what went wrong, they improved both their technique and the mill’s equipment. Seppmann’s mill was up and running. Mostly.

In 1873 lightning destroyed two of the arms. Seppmann replaced them, only to have a tornado take two off again in 1880. This time he didn’t replace them. Instead he switched to grinding animal feed using the power provided by the remaining arms. That ended a decade later in another storm.

historic photo of a ruined windmill and other buildings with people

By 1890 the Seppmann Mill had lost all four arms and shut down for good.  (Minnesota State Historical Society)

No longer of use, the mill was left to deteriorate until the 1930s when the family donated to the country historical society. In turn, the historical society donated it to the state.

The state repaired much of the mill, both inside and out, in the 1960s. But it wasn’t fully restored. The missing arms were not replaced and most of the mill’s equipment was moved elsewhere for future restoration. On the other hand, a long-gone stone warehouse was reconstructed. These projects returned the site more-or-less to its 19th century appearance.

Plans seem to still call for a complete restoration of the mill, including equipment and sails, but that seems unlikely. Seppmann was a stonemason, not an engineer. And, while his ingenious interpretation of a German windmill worked well enough for his purposes, it’s probably not structurally sound enough for a fully restoration without being entirely rebuilt.

While the mill is not open to visitors today, its location on a bluff provides nice views over the prairie and woodlands below.

prairie landscape looking from a bluff

It’s also a good spot to look for Minneopa’s bison.

distant view of bison on a brown meadow from above

Show Less

Where the buffalo roam

Minneopa is one of two Minnesota state parks where buffalo (American plains bison) roam. (The other herd is farther west, at Blue Mounds State Park.) And it’s the only place in Minnesota where visitors can drive through the bison enclosure looking for wildlife.

bison grazing in tall grass

Bringing bison back to Minneopa

Once upon a time bison roamed the prairies and oak savanna of this part of Minnesota. (Bison once lived in all of Minnesota, except the northeast.) They returned to this area in 2015 when about a dozen animals were moved to Minneopa from Blue Mounds State Park.

Show more about bison at Minneopa. . .

The state’s herd at Blue Mounds is one of the most genetically pure in the nation. That’s a big deal, as buffalo were hunted to the point where only about a hundred animals remained in the 1800s. And those were generally saved by ranchers who bred them with their cattle. That means most buffalo alive today are a bison/beef cattle mix, making the animals at Blue Mounds quite rare.

Because the state’s herd has such a pure bloodline, the Department of Natural Resources is now managing them as a conservation herd that can be used to improve other herds. But, to do that, they needed more bison and more space for those additional bison to roam.

Minneopa, with a large, partially restored prairie that could be fenced relatively easily, seemed like a good place to start a second herd. That a road already ran through the are where the herd would roam and the likelihood of drawing lots of visitors added to the park’s appeal. The buffalo will also improve their prairie habitat, making it more suitable for other, sometimes very rare, prairie birds and animals.

Show Less

The herd settles in

As of summer 2020, there are more than 40 bison in the herd at Minneopa. This includes about a dozen new calves.

close-up of a bison calf nursing

That’s probably about the most you’ll ever find here. The ultimate size of the herd depends on the amount of food available, but 40-50 is probably the limit for this area.

That’s a smaller herd than the one at Blue Mounds. However, at Blue Mounds, bison can only be viewed from outside the fence or on a park tour. At Minneopa visitors can watch the buffalo from the comfort of their own car for as long as they want!

Viewing Minneopa’s bison

Bison Drive Road runs through the bison enclosure. Cattle guards keep the bison inside the enclosure and signs direct human visitors to stay inside their vehicle.

But bison are big, fast, and potentially dangerous animals, so you really don’t want to get out of your car to see them anyway. And you don’t have to. While the bison are sometimes well-hidden by brush, they are also often clearly visible right along the road.

close-up of the head of a grazing bison

The key to seeing bison is to drive very slowly and look for movement in all directions. The brush has gotten a lot taller and thicker since I first visited in 2016, so it is harder to see anything that isn’t near the road. But even with more brush, the odds of seeing a few buffalo seem reasonably good.

This spring we saw a few bison leave the herd and head toward a waterhole down the road. Guessing the whole herd might follow, we drove to the watering hole and waited. While the rest of the herd grazed almost out of sight in the tall grass and shrubs behind the waterhole, a half-dozen calves came and played in the water before vanishing into the grass with the rest of the herd.

bison calves in water

Plan your trip to Minneopa State Park

With the addition of the bison in 2015, Minneopa became a true destination-worthy state park.

But that doesn’t mean most visitors need to spend a lot of time here. Everyone should take a look at the waterfall and drive through the buffalo enclosure. Depending on your interest in waterfalls and buffalo, expect to spend anywhere from two hours to a half-day on those activities. Stay for a picnic and hike all the trails to make it a full day. Birdwatchers and serious photographers should plan an overnight visit to take advantage of evening and early morning activity and light.

Minneopa is a wonderful place for a romantic picnic. It’s also perfect for families with small children or elderly relatives. And, as in the park’s early days, it’s still ideal for group gatherings – although probably not a 5,000-person retreat like those in the 19th century!

On the other hand, visitors seeking a wilderness experience should be aware that little is truly natural here. The stabilized falls is surrounded by a manicured park. Even the bison graze on a lot of former farmland where fencing is usually visible in the distance.

When to visit

Minneopa warrants a visit in any season. Both the waterfall and the buffalo offer a difference experience depending on when you visit.

However, visitors interested in seeing Minneopa’s bison need to avoid late winter and Wednesdays.

Show when to visit Minneopa State Park. . .

Spring

Spring melt can turn Minneopa Falls into a dramatic, raging torrent. It can also flood portions of the park. Don’t expect to go down into the gorge when water levels are high.

While all that water can be thrilling, I think the most exciting thing spring brings are new-born bison calves. The tiny, pale-colored calves can hobble along with the herd within hours of being born and are irresistibly cute. On the other hand, their parents look pretty scruffy in spring as they shed their heavy winter coats. Focus your camera on the calves and give the adults a few months to get back to looking their best!

Summer

Summer is usually very busy as day trippers and Mankato residents alike walk, bike, and picnic near the waterfall. The flow of water in the falls itself will vary depending on recent rainfall, but this is a waterfall that usually has a reasonable flow, so it almost always looks good. Because the area around the waterfall is so well shaded, this is also a great spot to just relax and escape the summer heat.

Spring calves grow quickly and become adventurous as summer rolls around. But they are still really cute.

Fall

The gorge around the waterfall is at its most picturesque when fall leaves brighten the scene. With most bugs gone, fall is also an excellent time to hike the trails around the bison enclosure. Inside the enclosure prairie grasses and sumac turn rich shades of gold and red. And the buffalo should be looking very handsome as their winter coats fill in.

But be aware that fall colors don’t last very long. Nor does the color all peak at the same time. The prairie will turn before the wooded areas around the waterfall, so time your visit carefully. Keep an eye on the state park Fall Color Finder and check the park’s website if you want to hit peak color.

Winter

Minneopa Falls looks like it would be both lovely and easy to view (at least from above) in winter.

Bison Drive is also open most of the winter. (It closes during the spring thaw, usually in late winter.) With no leaves to obstruct your view, this should be one of the easiest times to view the buffalo, which really stand out against the snow. But be warned that dark buffalo in white snow can be very hard to photograph well!

There aren’t any groomed ski trails in the park, but cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are allowed.

Show Less

Getting to Minneopa State Park

Minneopa State Park is located just outside the city of Mankato in south-central Minnesota.

map of southeastern Minnesota

Show more about getting to Minneopa State Park

The park is about 1½ hours southeast of the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metro area. US highway 169 is a fast, almost direct four-lane route much of the way. However, it has a lot of truck traffic.

  • There is a nice rest area just north of Le Sueur, about an hour south the Twin Cities. It’s behind the Cambria plant, so watch for signs in order to find it.
  • Saint Peter makes a nice stop along the way. Its well-preserved downtown is lined with historic buildings housing coffee shops, cafes, and stores. Gustavus Adolphus College, located on a hill above town, has a pleasant arboretum that is open to the public.
  • If you don’t get enough hiking in Minneopa, stop and explore the vast trail network in the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge and State Recreation Area. Segments run from Richfield down to Belle Plaine.
  • The self-proclaimed Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store is also located near Belle Plaine. It’s locally owned and appears to have everything, including home-made treats.

Minneopa is also about 1½ hours west of Rochester, Minnesota, off US highway 14. You’ll pass through both Owatonna and Waseca on this route.

From Mankato, the Minneopa State Park is easily reached via the 2.7-mile Minneopa Trail. It’s one of several state bicycle trails that converge in or near Mankato.

Show Less

In the park

Minneopa State park is bisected by two state highways, an active railroad track, and private property. This creates two distinct areas, both of which require a vehicle pass to enter and park. Bicycle and foot traffic can enter for free, but are prohibited on Bison Drive.

Unlike the rest of the park, Bison Drive is not open every day. It also has shorter hours.

Show more about visiting Minneopa State Park. . .

Getting around

Once in the park, you’ll probably want to drive between sites. While Minneopa Falls is, technically, connected to the rest of the park, this still feels like at least two separate parks.

Well-marked roads through a rural residential area link the waterfall to the buffalo viewing/campground area and Seppman’s mill, both of which are accessed via state highway 68. It’s easy enough to figure out, but can be confusing when you first arrive.

There’s a reasonably large parking area near the waterfall, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find it full on a busy summer day.

A park map (PDF) is available on the park’s website. Check before you go to more easily navigate the park’s rather odd configuration.

Hours

Minneopa State Park is open daily, from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m.

Bison Drive, the road through the buffalo enclosure, is usually open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Visitors must be off the road no later than 7 p.m.

  • The road is closed on Wednesdays throughout the year.
  • It’s also closed during late winter/spring thaw. (Exact dates vary.)
  • Check the website to be sure the road is open before leaving home.

Fees

All motor vehicles, including motorcycles, must display a current Minnesota State Park permit while in the park.

Both daily and annual permits are available online or at kiosks in the main parking areas. Fees begin at $7 for a day pass and go up to $35 for an annual pass. Check the DNR state park website for detailed information.

Show Less

Hiking trails

For a park of its size, Minneopa has very few trails.

  • A short paved trail runs along the top of the gorge above the waterfall. From there, steps lead down to the creek below. There doesn’t seem to be an actual trail below the falls, just some spots for viewing the falls if the water isn’t too high.
  • The Hiking Club Trail runs about 1½ miles on the river bluff along the bison enclosure and up to Seppmann’s Mill. From there, another trail follows along the rest of the bison enclosure for a little over a mile back to the campground and parking area.
  • A short wetland loop trail and a rather rugged little trail to Minneopa Creek’s confluence with the Minnesota River also begin near the parking area outside the bison enclosure.

Spring and summer hikers will want an insect repellent that is effective for ticks, as well as mosquitoes and biting flies. This area of the state also seems to get a lot of rain, so be prepared for mud throughout the spring and summer.

Bison Drive

Most of the year, visitors can take Bison Drive road to see the buffalo herd up close. This well-maintained gravel road allows drivers to pull-over to watch bison, other animals, and birds. Two-way traffic is allowed, so you can drive it in either or both directions. Just watch for on-coming vehicles while gawking at buffalo and don’t block the road.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that you’ll see bison, as they have 330 acres to roam and these huge animals can be surprisingly elusive. On the other hand, sometimes they are impossible to miss.

Bison standing by a car drinking from a puddle in a road

Show more about bison viewing

It pays to be patient when looking for bison. On our first drive this year, we saw some great birds, but no bison. Not even off in the distance. It wasn’t until we drove through a second time that a few dozen bison, including at least a half-dozen calves, came out of the brush to graze along the road (and drink from puddles) before moving back into the brush and trees.

American plains bison can weigh up to 2,000 pounds and move surprisingly fast – they can turn quickly and run at up to 35 miles per hour. Give them plenty of room and do NOT get out of your vehicle while on Bison Drive. Don’t let your dog out either.

Other tips for bison viewing:

  • Bison can be surprisingly hard to spot. Take your time and look for movement in the brush.
  • When you do spot bison, keep quiet and limit movement. Lots of noise and activity, including barking dogs, can scare them.
  • Give bison plenty of space if they are along or crossing the road. The park’s bison viewing tips advise giving them at least 75 feet of clearance, but I’m not exactly sure how you do that. If there’s no one stopped behind or in front of you, slowly pull forward or back away from approaching bison. But they have no fear of vehicles, so if you can’t move, they may come very, very close to your car. Stay quiet and do NOT ever try to reach out to touch one. (Yes, I saw someone try to do that.) As long as they don’t feel threatened or startled, they’ll just move by. Most of the time they won’t even look up.
  • Take your time. Stop the car and do some bird watching while you look for bison.
  • Don’t give up if you don’t see bison on your first drive through. Remember, you can spend as long as you want on Bison Drive and drive it as many times as you want. It’s worth making a couple of loops through because you never know where the bison will be or when they will start moving.

Bison Drive is open between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. It’s closed every Wednesday for maintenance.

It also closes for a period each winter (usually late winter) to protect it from excessive damage during freeze/thaw cycles. Always check the park website before you go to make sure the road is open.

Show Less

Spend the night

While it’s easy to visit both Minneopa falls and the bison in one day, bird watchers and photographers should spend a night in or near the park.

Show camping and lodging options. . .

Camping

The campground at Minneopa State Park is located in a mostly wooded area just outside the end of the buffalo enclosure nearest the waterfall. However, no trails actually connect this area to the waterfall. It’s not a very long walk between the two, but it is along public roads and over a railroad track.

All 61 drive-in campsites have fire rings and picnic tables. Almost all sites seem to be open to RVs of up to 60 feet in length, but some sites seem pretty small.

  • Six sites have electricity.
  • The campground has wheelchair accessible showers and flush toilets.
  • Because the campground is on the bluff, a few sites in loop A have views of the Minnesota River. However, they also have an active railroad track right below them. You’ll have to decide if the view is worth the nighttime train traffic.

One basic camper cabin is available in the campground year-round. It has electricity, is wheelchair accessible, and sleeps five.

Four walk-in group camp sites are also available. Each accommodates 15 people and has picnic tables, fire rings, water, and vault toilets.

All campsites, including the camper cabin and group sites, must be reserved online. Reservations are available 120 days in advance. (This is a recent change, it used to be a year in advance.)

There don’t seem to be a lot of other campgrounds right in this area. The only other options nearby seem to be at Land of Memories Park in Mankato and the Sawmill Campground in North Mankato.

Other lodging options

There are, of course, lots of hotel and motel lodging options in Mankato. They run from ridiculously expensive to almost frighteningly cheap. (As I write this, in summer 2020, that range is from $250 to less than $40!)

  • Check hotel options in Mankato, read reviews, compare prices, and book on TripAdvisor. Or check what’s available on Expedia or Hotels.com. (Affiliate links)

Airbnb also has a variety of options in Mankato, although none are very near the park.

Show Less

Links and resources

While Minneopa State Park itself has a rich history, the period of its founding and events near the park add layers of complexity to the park’s story. The following include some sources I used that offer a more in-depth look at the park and its history.

Show links and resources. . .

General information on Minneopa and its history

  • The park website provides a very brief history of the park’s human and geological past.
  • The Minnesota Historical Society has a page on Minneopa State Park on its MNOPEDIA website.
  • Everyone’s Country Estate: A History of Minnesota’s State Parks (1991) by Roy Meyer, is an opinionated, but well researched, history of the Minnesota State Park system through 1990. It was published by the Minnesota Historical Society. It’s available through . (Affiliate link)

Seppmann Mill

Minneopa bison

More than a century passed between the time Minneopa State Park was created and the decision to bring a herd of bison to the park.

The Dakota War

The region around Minneopa includes many important sites related to the US-Dakota War of 1862. Although brief in duration, this episode in Minnesota history had long-lasting implications for both the Dakota people and the state as a whole.

Robert S. Duncanson

I was fascinated to discover that an exceptionally well-regarded African American landscape painter from Cincinnati traveled through Minnesota painting Minneopa Falls (and other sites) on his way to Canada and a European exhibition of his work in 1862. If you’re also intrigued by this bit of history, the following provide information on his life and work.

Show Less

Other places to see bison “in the wild”

Yellowstone may be famous for unending “buffalo jams,” as drivers stop to gawk at buffalo along the road. But you don’t have to drive all the way to Wyoming (or sit in huge traffic jams) to see bison in relatively natural landscapes.

Viewing bison in Minnesota

Blue Mounds State Park, which has the state’s largest herd at about 80 adults plus calves, began tours in its bison enclosure last year.

A herd of 35 bison raised by a commercial meat producer spends summers grazing the Belwin Conservancy prairie in Afton. A viewing platform is open from dawn until dusk from late May through early October. Most years they also have a Bison Buggy tour available for members.

While there isn’t anything very “wild” about it, there are also bison at the Minnesota Zoological Gardens in Apple Valley. These are actually part of the Minneopa and Blue Mounds herd. (Individual animals are sometimes moved between locations to maintain a healthy genetic base in the overall herd.) It just isn’t a very natural setting.

Viewing bison in the Dakotas

Both the North and South units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota have substantial herds of buffalo. Although numbers vary by year, the North Unit has 100-300 animals, with slightly higher numbers in the South Unit. Like Yellowstone, these buffalo roam throughout the park and are often visible from (or even on) park roads.

herd of bison in the North Dakota badlands

Personally, I think this is the best place in the country to view both buffalo and wild horses. Great scenery, lots of wildlife, and relatively few other visitors make for spectacular wildlife watching.

However, to see really massive herds of bison, head to South Dakota. Near the Black Hills, Custer State Park boasts a herd of nearly 1500 animals. Next door, Wind Cave National Park has another 300-400 free-roaming bison.

See my fine art photography from Minnesota State Parks

close-up of a bison in grass with text "Minnesota's Minneopa State Park"

island in a lake with text "Exploring Minnesota"

small boats on a lake shore with text "Minnesota State Parks"

2 thoughts on “From waterfalls to bison at Minneopa State Park, Minnesota”

  1. I was born and raised in Mankato MN…Enjoyed my childhood and schools..But I’m happy where I am now…away from the winters and the allergies..I don’t have many close relatives there anymore..All my siblings are gone from there

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.