Fort Snelling State Park:
Between Historical Heritage and Contact with Nature
Fort Snelling State Park is one of 75 state parks in the state of Minnesota and is the closest state park to the Twin Cities. Therefore, it is one of the state parks with the greatest urban influence, with an average of more than 400,000 annual visitors.
The park is located in an area of great historical importance and retains a special natural charm. On the one hand, we can connect with the Historic Fort Snelling managed by the Minnesota Historical Society and on the other, with Fort Snelling State Park and its recreation spaces, operated by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
I visited the Historic Fort in 2018 during a field trip for my English class at the International Institute of Minnesota. I think it’s a great piece of architecture and Minnesota history that we all should know about. I have visited the park on many occasions and in the different seasons of the year. Also, it was the first State Park I visited as part of the MN Hiking Club and Passport Club challenge. This place is one of my favorite destinations within the twin cities where I can deeply connect with nature and its secrets.
About the park
The park is located at the confluence of the two largest rivers in Minnesota: the Minnesota River and the Mississippi River, where Pike Island forms. The Dakotas gave it the name of Ha-Ha Mdo-Te, which translates as “union of two rivers”, considered by them to be the “center of the world”.
Designated a State Park in 1961, the park is named after Historic Fort Snelling, which dates back to 1820. Due to its strategic location, this park is a fundamental piece for the conservation of open spaces and wildlife in the metropolitan area, as well as for the protection of the historical significance of this place. In addition, it is among the top tourist attractions in Minnesota.
Most of the park is in the floodplain of the Minnesota River adjacent to the MN Valley National Wildlife Refuge. The riverside setting is home to large cottonwoods, silver maple, ash, and willow trees along the braided channels of the Minnesota River.
The forest bottoms and marshes are home to an abundance of wildlife consisting of white-tailed deer, foxes, woodchucks, turkeys, and coyotes. Visitors may also encounter a fox snake which is almost identical in appearance to a rattlesnake, but is not venomous. napping, soft-shelled and painted turtles can be seen.
This charming place offers the public various recreation spaces during all seasons of the year. Its visitors can enjoy trails for Hiking, snowshoeing, Cross Country skiing and Cycling. It also has lakes, beaches and rivers where we can do different water activities. In addition, it has facilities for picnics, playground and volleyball.
Address: 101 Snelling Lake Road St. Paul, MN 55111
Hours and Dates: daily from 8:00a.m. until 10:00 p.m.
Parking: Parking permit required: $35 a year, $26 for a second vehicle, $12 handicapped, and $7 for a day.
Activities: Picnics, Hiking, Boating, Fishing, Biking, Snowshoeing, Cross Country Skiing, Birding (Check List) and others. Camping is not allowed.
Maps: Summer Map, Winter Map, Winter Cycling Map.
A look to the past
History has always seemed very interesting to me, as it helps us to better understand and connect with places, people and things. In addition, it helps us create a sense of belonging. However, an even more important feature is sharing the story with others, with that we help to create collective memory in society. I think that for those who have grown up in Minnesota or for those of us who have arrived here, knowing the history around “Snelling” should be a task to accomplish. Here I share what I have learned so far.
For hundreds of years, before Europeans arrived, generations of Dakota lived in different villages along the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. The population of “Mystic Lake” believed that the confluence of the rivers was “the place of origin and the center of the earth”.
In the late 1600s, settlers began to visit the area, using the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers to control exploration, trade, and settlement. In 1805 Lieutenant Zebulon Pike met Mdewakanton on the island between the two rivers; known today as Pike Island, and negotiated the purchase of the land. The limestone buildings of the historic Fort Snelling complex were built between 1819 – 1825 and became one of a series of forts built west of Lake Michigan after the War of 1812.
The fort was built to protect the area against possible British or Canadian raids. Similarly, with the purpose of controlling the exploration, trade, settlements in the waterways, as well as the development of this important region. It is named after Colonel Josiah Snelling, who was the officer in charge of its construction and its first commander.
During the Civil War, the fort served an important role in the training of volunteers who wanted to join the Union Army. It was also used as a supply base for the Dakota Territory and as a training center for soldiers assigned to the Indian Campaigns, the Spanish-American War, and World Wars I and II. In the latter, functioning as a language school that fulfilled the role of Military Intelligence during the War.
However, we cannot ignore the fact that after the American–Dakota War of 1862, more than 1,600 Dakota men, women, and children were forcibly confined to a camp in this area during the winter of 1862–1863, before being removed to Nebraska. During the winter, approximately 300 died due to malnutrition, disease, and exposure to low temperatures.
In 1960 Fort Snelling became a National Historic Landmark. It was named a National Historic Landmark as it contains some of the oldest buildings in Minnesota, and in 1961, it became a state park.
The Historic Fort functions as a museum depicting 10,000 years of history detailing the memories of native peoples, trade, soldiers and veterans, slaves, immigrants, and the changing landscape. It showcases 19th-century life and is home to a number of tanks and other vehicles, as well as firearms that have played a role in the country’s fight for freedom. For its part, the State Park has great spaces for a wide variety of outdoor activities throughout the year, including: hiking, biking, fishing, canoeing, picnicking and much more.
More than a Historic Fortress
Fort Snelling State Park is more than just a historic fortress. The park offers the opportunity to do a lot of outdoor activities.
In summer, the park has 18 miles of easy and moderate intensity hiking trails. 5 miles of paved bike trails which connect to 51 miles of trails along the Grand Rounds Scenic Byway and Big Rivers Regional Trail, plus 10 miles of mountain bike trails that are located along the river to the side from Dakota County. However, other users choose to visit it for birding or Geocaching.
The park also has two picnic areas located on the beach and on Picnic Island. Both are suitable for meetings and events, since they have picnic tables, grills and playground areas. The beach also has bathrooms, showers, changing rooms, and an area for volleyball. Two Picnic Shelters are located on Picnic Island, one open and one closed. Both accessible, with fire pit, grill and electricity, and require reservation.
When winter arrives, the park offers 12 miles of groomed trails for Cross Country Skiing (Minnesota Ski Pass required) and 6 miles of multi-use trails: hiking and snowshoeing. For its part, the Visitor Center becomes a warming house during the winter. It has a fireplace and public restrooms.
In Fort Snelling State Park we can find important water resources such as the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers, and lakes. River fishing or pier fishing is available on the north shore of Snelling Lake. We can also swim at the beach; added to the park in 1970 and located on the eastern shore of Snelling Lake. We can also go boating on the lake and the Minnesota River (Snelling Lake only allows electric motors), and do other water sports such as canoeing or kayaking.
At the park office we can rent canoes, kayaks and snowshoes. GPS equipment and kits for birding or fishing are available to borrow at no cost. In conjunction, the park offers Naturalist Programs throughout the year. It is also important to note that this is a day use only park as there are no camping areas available.
Don’t miss out on this!
The Park Office is located at the entrance to it. There you can rent equipment and get any information you need.
The Thomas C. Savage Visitor Center is located two miles from the park entrance, atop a small grassy rise and surrounded by forest. It opened to the public in 1997 and is named after the man who helped establish, develop, and protect the park’s historic and natural resources. Includes interpretive exhibits about the area’s history and resources, meeting rooms, restrooms, and a gift shop. Outside, there is a sheltered area with picnic tables at one end and an amphitheater at the other end of the building.
Historic Park Overlook is located along Sibley Memorial Highway and from this point you can get a breathtaking view of Gun Club Lake, Quarry Island and the Minnesota River Valley, a landscape formed 10,000 years ago.
The Fort Snelling Memorial Chapel is owned by the State of Minnesota and managed by the park. The chapel is available for weddings and funerals, and reservations are required.
Mendota Bridge is a piece of infrastructure and development. Walking the trails in the park you can see the Fort Snelling-Mendota Bridge. In 1926 this was the longest continuous concrete arch bridge in the world.
The Dakota Memorial is a monument honoring the sixteen hundred Dakota people, many of them women and children, who were imprisoned at Fort Snelling after the 1862 conflict between the United States and the Dakotas. Many of them died during the cold winter months during captivity. The cornerstone in the center of the monument was placed there by Amos Owen of the Prairie Island Indian Community during a ceremony in 1987. Be respectful of this sacred place.
Coldwater Spring, for hundreds of years the Dakotas have considered it a sacred place and of spiritual importance. It was also the site of US Army Camp Coldwater for the troops who built Fort Snelling. The spring supplied the fort with water, first through water wagons and later through a stone water tower and underground pipes. The Coldwater area once housed blacksmith shops, establishments, trading posts, a hotel, and a steamboat wharf, but nearly all of those buildings were gone by the time of the American Civil War. Coldwater Spring is located on the west bluffs of the Mississippi River. The natural spring waters flow continuously throughout the year and will remain unfrozen in the winter months. The spring is a protected historical site.
1. Come prepared Arrive prepared and with time flexibility.
2. Buy your vehicle permit before you go.
3. Check visitor alerts on the park page.
4. Download park maps before your visit.
5. If you go with dogs, please do not let them free. They must remain on the leash.
6. Watch out for bikers or skiers. We can all live together in the park.
7. Some trails are paved, wheelchairs or strollers could be used.
8. Leave no trace, please take your rubbish with you until you find a suitable place to deposit it.
9. Recreate responsibly. Help preserve these special places for the future by staying on the trails and leaving no trace.
10. Be sure to try the MN Hiking Club and Passport Club
Let me know if you know this park and what your experience has been there.
Join the adventure!
- Fort Snelling State Park – Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. (2021). Retrieved from National Park Service: https://www.nps.gov/places/fort-snelling-state-park.htm
- Fort Snelling State Park in Minnesota. (2022). Retrieved from Minnesota State Parks: https://stateparks.com/fort_snelling_state_park_in_minnesota.html
- Friends of Fort Snelling. (2021). Retrieved from Fort Snelling : https://www.fortsnelling.org/
- Historic Fort Snelling. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.mnhs.org/fortsnelling
- Historic Fort Snelling – Places to Go. (2021). Retrieved from National Park Service: https://www.nps.gov/miss/planyourvisit/histfort.htm
- Meyer, R. W. (1991). Everyone´s County Estate: A History of Minnesota’s State Parks. Minnesota Historical Society Press: Saint Paul.
- Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. (2022). Retrieved from Fort Snelling State Park: https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/park.html?id=spk00154#homepage
- Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge – Places to Go. (2020). Retrieved from National Park Service: https://www.nps.gov/miss/planyourvisit/minnvall.htm
- Morgan, S. H. (1993). Birth, Death, and Reincarnation: The Story of Fort Snelling and Its State Park. In Ramsey County History, Vol. 28, No. 2 (pp. 4-12, 27).The US-Dakota War of 1862. (n.d.). Retrieved from Historic Fort Snelling: https://www.mnhs.org/fortsnelling/learn/us-dakota-war