Thursday, June 27, 2013

Fort Snelling State Park: Pike Island (Blog Hike #384)

Trail: Pike Island Trail
Hike Location: Fort Snelling State Park
Geographic Location: south side of MinneapolisMN (44.89327, -93.18697)
Length: 3.4 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: July 2012
Overview: A lollipop loop featuring an historic fort and two rivers.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: The Visitor Center for historic Fort Snelling is located southeast of downtown Minneapolis at the intersection of SR 55 and SR 5.  From SR 55 northbound or SR 5, there is an exit directly to the Visitor Center parking lot.  From SR 55 southbound, take the Wold-Chamberlin International Airport exit, then take left turns at the first two opportunities to arrive at the Visitor Center parking lot.

The hike: If you think of wars involving the United States during the early 1860’s, probably the first one to come to mind is the Civil War.  Yet in 1862 the United States fought another war on its northwestern frontier in Minnesota: the Dakota War.  For better or worse, the short-lived war was a resounding defeat for the Dakota.  Much new territory was opened up for American settlement, and over 1600 Dakota people were taken prisoner here at Fort Snelling.
            The original Fort Snelling was built in the 1820’s atop a high bluff overlooking the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers.  The area was first scouted by Zebulon Pike (of Pike’s Peak fame) in 1805, and the island featured on this hike bears his name.  The fort’s strategic location allowed its occupants to control commerce on both rivers and therefore throughout much of Minnesota.
            Although Fort Snelling is still operated as a military installation today, in 1961 the historic fort and 3711 surrounding acres were converted to a state park.  A new Visitor Center was built in 1997.  During my visit on a late weekday afternoon, the Visitor Center had closed for the day, but I have read that it contains some nice historical exhibits.
            The best hiking in the park can be found on Pike Island where three nested loop trails depart from a common access point and offer hikes of 1, 2, and 3 miles respectively.  The trails explore the river lowlands with lots of standing water and therefore lots of mosquitoes.  Be sure to wear long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and insect repellent on this hike.  Because I had to squeeze in this hike just before sundown, I could hike no more than the intermediate 2 mile loop described here.  If you have more time than I did, then by all means you should hike the full 3 mile loop to the confluence of the two rivers.
Minneapolis skyline, as seen from Fort Snelling overlook
            Before starting the hike, walk to the signed Mississippi River overlook at the north side of the parking lot.  This overlook gives a nice view of the river and the Minneapolis skyline just 5 miles to the northwest.  Next, walk through or around the Visitor Center, then continue walking east past the historic dormitories and fort.  At the fort entrance, angle right to descend some concrete steps and reach a bike path, where you should turn left to descend steeply to reach river level.
Entrance to Historic Fort Snelling
            Upon reaching the river flood plain, you arrive at a major trail intersection.  The paved bike trail heading left leads to Minnehaha Park, a worthy destination described elsewhere in this blog, and the paved trail heading sharply right leads to Snelling Lake.  To reach Pike Island, take the wide gravel trail heading right at a soft angle.  Some interpretive signs here tell of the flora and fauna that live in the park.
            At 0.6 miles, turn left to reach Pike Island by crossing a concrete bridge over a slow-moving side channel of the rivers.  On the other side of the bridge, you reach the main access point for the island’s trails, where the wide dirt trail encircling the island goes left and right.  To reach the Mississippi River first, this description will turn left here and use the right trail as the return route.           
Pike Island Trail
            The almost completely flat island floods regularly, as evidenced by the sandy trail underfoot.  The floodplain forest features some large cottonwood, silver maple, ash, and willow trees, and the wet environment supports a dense, green understory.  1 mile into the hike, the shortest 1-mile loop exits right to head for the south side of the island.
            At 1.2 miles, you reach a bench with a nice view of the Mississippi River on the left.  Most of the riverfront in the Twin Cities has some degree of development, but only a few signs of the modern world can be seen from this point.  Unfortunately, the nearby airport and freeways ensure that the sounds of the modern world encroach more than the sights.
Mississippi River
            The trail continues east along the north shore of the island with the Mississippi River through the trees on the left.  At 1.5 miles, the 2-mile intermediate loop exits to the right.  As I mentioned earlier, because I was racing the sun, I had to turn right here and cut across the middle of the island.  Continuing straight would lead to the eastern tip of Pike Island and the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers.
            The cut-off trail heads south through the heart of the island and under some powerlines.  You will need to step around some wet spots, remnants of river flooding from earlier in the spring.  Upon reaching the south side of the island, turn right to begin the journey back to the trailhead.
Minnesota River, looking upstream
            The river on this side of the island is the Minnesota River, and some openings in the trees allow for nice views of the river.  Aquatic birds and other wildlife use this island as a sanctuary from the surrounding urban area.  On my hike, I passed a blue heron searching for food in the shallow river waters and several deer foraging on the abundant greenery in the understory.
            The trail eventually begins curving to the right as it passes back under the powerline.  At 2.7 miles, the concrete island access bridge comes into view as you close the loop.  Turning left to cross the bridge, then right to reach the bike trail, then left to climb the hill to the fort will lead you back to the trailhead to complete the hike.
Approaching the bridge to Pike Island

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