MINNEAPOLIS—Single file, our group of seven rode on horseback along the valley floor through a tunnel of greenery. Oak, basswood and ash trees spread their branches overhead. For a summer day in June, it was cool; we all had resorted to jackets.
The valley stream roared over boulders and in places lapped over its banks. Snakelike, it wound through the trees, and we had to ford it again and again. From their place in the stirrups, my boot heels broke the water’s surface a couple of times.
It had been a wet spring, and tall grass tickled the horse’s bellies. Wild phlox bloomed profusely in the clearings. Our guide, Dawn Gaukler, called the purple flowers “sweet rocket.” It did look a little like a fireball bursting at the tip of a spume of green.
We followed the trail into a narrow coulee cut into the flank of a massive hill. The trail turned onto a steep ridge. The horses labored upward, ribs heaving. Finally, we emerged from the forest and onto a rolling plain of grass. Abruptly, our line of sight extended to the rim of the horizon. On top of a hill, on top of a horse, a thousand feet above the valley, I felt adrift in the sky.
We had just ridden to the top of the High Coteau of the Great Plains, which isn’t quite a mountain range, but is mightily impressive nonetheless.
The Coteau is an elevated range of hills, 40 miles wide, 150 miles long, that rises over the billiard-table flat plains that surround it. Joseph Nicollet, the French explorer who made the first large-scale map of Minnesota and the eastern Dakotas, thought it was one of the most beautiful places in the world—and he’d seen a lot of the world. His thoughts on the view we now enjoyed? “I pity the man whose soul could remain unmoved under such a scene of excitement.”
The Coteau is one of my favorite places in the Upper Midwest, partly because despite its majestic profile and jaw-dropping vistas, very few people know what or where it is.
My wife and I and two other couples had a long weekend and an RV at our disposal. High gas prices and a lack of time had us looking for adventure and novelty close to home. I suggested we start on the High Coteau, just over the Minnesota border in South Dakota, and together we picked a second prairie place where none of us had been—the Leaf Hills near Starbuck, Minn. In these places, we hoped to find what Nicollet called the “magical influence of the prairies.”
When Nicollet set out on his journey, western Minnesota was an ocean of grass. Like the savannas of Africa, it was an amazingly abundant place. Here, herds of thousands of bison and elk roamed fenceless range, stalked by packs of wolves and wandering grizzly bears. Wildfires kept the land free of trees. Settlement changed all that. Less than 1 percent of Minnesota’s tallgrass prairies remains. Only one feature of the plains is as omnipresent and ferocious as ever: the weather.
We left on a Thursday afternoon, and ran smack into a fast-moving line of storms. Crawling along Interstate Hwy. 94, we stared at sky-scraping cumulus clouds with bottoms as black as anvils. Thunderbolts pounded the earth. The wind battered the RV as if it were a small boat on big water. That added unappreciated drama and a good deal of time to the journey. We didn’t get to our campground at Roy Lake State Park until after midnight.
Dawn broke clear and calm, and we assessed our spot on the wooded banks of Roy Lake. The lake sits atop the Coteau, one of dozens of “prairie pothole” lakes on the range. The Coteau and its mirror-like lakes are residue of the last ice age, which began more than 25,000 years ago. As the massive lobes of ice pushed across Minnesota and the Dakotas like God’s bulldozers, they brought with them untold tons of earth, gravel and rock. The hills of the High Coteau (and Leaf Hills in Minnesota) were shaped by those glaciers. The depressions that became lakes were created by massive blocks of melting ice.
After breakfast we pulled up stakes (unplugged a cord, actually) and rolled to Canyon Ranch for our half-day horse ride, which served as a perfect introduction to the area. The early French explorers dubbed the hills the “Coteau des Prairies.” Coteau means hillsides in French, and prairie means meadow; they didn’t have a word to express the magnitude of the grasslands of the American West. We all agreed that those three hours in the saddle, culminating in that panorama of the Red and Minnesota River Valleys, were the highlight of the trip. We thanked Gaukler and Canyon Ranch owner Karen Borgen profusely, and we were all stunned when they produced the humble bill: 21 bucks a head.
We passed the rest of the day at our campsite on the east side of Roy Lake. Some napped, some read, some Hula-Hooped. We all enjoyed the spectacle of pelicans soaring on updrafts high in the blue sky, and later, the kaleidoscopic show of sunset over the lake. On Saturday, we headed back east, to Glacial Lakes State Park.
The park preserves a region known as the Leaf Hills, although that’s a designation you’re most likely to hear from geographers and experts on glaciation. Still, the extent of the range is easy to see if you examine a Minnesota map and look at the freckling of lakes that extends from Starbuck northwest to Detroit Lakes. There was a huge amount of ice parked atop this land thousands of years ago. It moved in currents and cross channels and left behind the story of its passing in every hill and lake.
As we drove toward the park, the land shifted from seamless and flat to high relief, like a carpet shaken and dropped down with its rolls and ripples intact. Fringes of forest grew along the bases of the hills and up the coulees, but the tops were round and smooth as bald heads.
We set up our RV in a spot on the edge of the park campground, with a view of Mountain Lake. In the course of the day, summer had asserted itself, and the sun was warm on our backs as we set off to explore the park’s hiking trails, mowed into the thick, green carpet of native grasses and plants.
The tumult of the terrain probably would have remained a mystery but for the helpful signs along the trail. What were we seeing? We were seeing the many shapes of glacial drift—drift being anything (rocks, gravel and earth) deposited by the rivers of ice.
The big conical hills that we climbed were called kames—neatly composed of material deposited by melting glaciers. Eskers—sinuous ridges—are made up of debris deposited along glacial melt streams. Kettles? The basins left by big blocks of ice. Some of them were empty bowls of grass that we traversed on foot, while others were ponds that we skirted.
The prairie, a smooth green from a distance, was a miracle of color and form up close. Prairie roses bloomed in shades from white-pink to deep red. Wild yarrow added sprinkles of white. One of my sharp-eyed friends spotted a patch of yellow lady’s slippers, one of Minnesota’s wild orchid species. On higher ground, Indian grass shimmied, making the breeze visible.
My mind drifted back to Nicollet, who saw this land with the fresh eyes of an outsider. For me, rediscovering these places confirmed his awestruck reverie on “the magical influence of the prairies.” As he put it, “Their sight never wearies.”
The High Coteau is a ridge of hills 1,000 feet high just over the South Dakota border. The coulees and canyons on the east facing slopes are heavily wooded and riven with streams. (Chris Welsch/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT)
IF YOU GO:
What you need to know if you want to go to the High Coteau and Leaf Hills.
The Coteau is most dramatic at its northern extreme; there, the drop from the hilltops to the Minnesota River Valley is about 1,000 feet. Sisseton, S.D., the biggest town in the area, is home to the Nicollet Tower and Visitor Center (on Hwy. 28 just west of town). The tower offers a great view of the Coteau and valley and volunteers share the story of Nicollet’s journey and the history of the area. Much of the High Coteau is within the boundaries of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, or community, comprising two bands of the Dakota tribe. The annual wacipi, or powwow, is the first week of July.
Three state parks merit visits: Sica (pronounced See-chee) Hollow offers hiking and riding trails through the hardwood forest of a deep valley, sacred to the Dakota. Roy Lake State Park has campsites, a small lodge and a beautiful glacial lake. Fort Sisseton State Park is one of the best-preserved military forts from the late 1800s. If the historic reenactors aren’t enough, try out a rental tepee or military-style tent for the night. South Dakota State Parks: www.sdgfp.info/Parks.
Canyon Ranch: Contact Karen Borgen at 1-605-738-2480 for more information and reservations.
GLACIAL LAKES STATE PARK
Rolling hills, deep bowl-like depressions and curving ridges enliven the landscape of this 2,423-acre park in west-central Minnesota near the town of Starbuck. The entire watershed of Mountain Lake is inside the park; it has a particularly nice swimming area.
In addition to drive-in sites, the park has four backpack sites near smaller ponds and a five-site horse camp. www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks.