In my opinion, Minnesota’s state park system is second to none; in fact, it’s the second oldest in the country. Beginning in 1891 with Itasca State Park, a state law was adopted to “maintain intact, forever, a limited quantity of the domain of this commonwealth…in a state of nature.” This law included making sure that there was a state park within 50 miles of every population center. With 67 beautiful parks across the state, there’s a lot of competition to make the list of most popular.
But, popularity is sometimes overrated, especially if—like me—you like your experience to be a little more remote, a little more rustic and a little less social. This is why I’ve come to love Carley State Park, located 15 miles northeast of Rochester. Just minutes from the extremely popular Whitewater State Park, Carley is a mere 200 acres, rated one of the least-visited parks in Minnesota, and so quiet that if I’m not actually the only person there, I feel like I am.
It’s a spectacularly beautiful place because it sits right on the edge of the rolling bluffs and hills of the Driftless Region, which begins as you head toward the lower Mississippi valley. The trails go up and down through the hills, and the steep ascents into the Whitewater River gorge provide plenty of challenging hiking. As you may know, trout fishing is one of my favorite hobbies, and I have had spectacular luck year round in the stretch of the river that runs through Carley.
But, if fishing isn’t your thing, the surrounding prairie and forest cover provide great habitat, and I’ve seen a large variety of animals and birds out there. In some ways, because the park sees so many fewer noisy humans than others, you’re more likely to see grazing fawns or owls patrolling the open areas. The park is also famous for its spring bluebell festival—I’ve never seen an area so large completely covered with beautiful little blue flowers before. There’s also a great picnic and play area, if you want to come for the day with kids.
Another benefit is the camping. As I mentioned, when I want to get away, I want to truly get away. I want to hear the crackle of a campfire and the hooting of owls, not the generators of RVs. Because Carley limits the size of campers to 30 feet and doesn’t provide electric campsites, this isn’t an issue. The beautifully designed sites are set back from the road and provide plenty of space between sites for privacy. If you like the quiet of walk-in campsites at other parks, you can get that without the extra hassle at Carley.
As I said, I have visited the park year round, and that’s no easy feat because they don’t maintain its roads in the winter. So, to get to my favorite trout pools or enjoy the trails, it requires a bit more effort. I usually park in the designated area outside the park entrance and snowshoe in, myself. But, there are many cross-country skiers who also enjoy the park in the winter. I love that there are often days where my footprints are the only ones I see in the snow.
Many people love to camp and enjoy the state parks, but prefer somewhere with a shower, a beach, running water or a place to recharge their phones. If these are essentials for you, Carley is not your park. If you’re like me and the goal is to get away from noise, take your bath in a stream and recharge yourself, I can’t recommend Carley enough. It’s truly a hidden gem in the Minnesota State Park system and one of my favorite places.