Location: Sandstone, MN (right off I-35)
Management: Minnesota State Parks and Trails
Trail: Skunk Cabbage Trail
Duration: 1.5 hours
Trail Surface: Natural Surface - Dirt Trails
Environment: Birch forest, Kettle River, rapids
Degree of Difficulty: Moderate
Cell Phone Reception: Good
Parking: Plentiful, no charge. Winter parking at Picnic Area.
Dog Rules: Dogs on Leash, 6 foot maximum
Recommended Gear: Waterproof boots when hiking in early winter and early spring. Mud and potential flooding during those times of year. Otherwise, any shoe is fine.
I came across Banning State Park on a day trip to Duluth in February, and I could not have been more pleased. It was exactly what I was looking for! I took a beautiful trail through the woods that ended at the awesome Kettle River rapids. Definitely worth the hour or so drive from the Twin Cities to visit this small Minnesota State Park. It's right off of I-35 (I mean like a minute!) and incredibly easy to get to.
I hiked a winter trail; it’s always a good idea to reference the correct map for the current season to make sure you know where you're going. Trails often shift in the winter months, and this specific trail may not be available to hikers in the summer. Check here. For winter parking, travel past the Visitor Center (unless you need to pick up an annual or day pass), take a right, and follow the signs to the Picnic Area. There is plenty of parking, picnic tables, and even a vault toilet. During the summer, there is water available and this looked like an awesome place to spend a picnic lunch near the rapids. If you don’t know what to look for, you’d never know that there was a river or rapids nearby. I’ll give you the inside scoop, though.
From the parking lot, head back to the road you drove in on. There is a trailhead on the other side of the road. You want, wait for it, the Skunk Cabbage Trail. Oh yeah. What made me decide on this trail (other than the name, which I couldn’t resist)? It was a nice loop away from the main part of the park and it bordered the river. I knew I’d get varied terrain, great views, and different landscapes. It did not disappoint!
Since we were in a dry time of winter, I wasn’t worried about encountering cross-country skiers, although this trail is a shared use trial for hikers and skiers. Since we had no snow on the ground, it was perfect for hiking. The trail itself was dirt, rocks, and roots. You’ll want good hiking boots and to watch your step so you don’t turn an ankle.
We encountered zero people despite it being a Saturday afternoon with 30 degree weather. Again, perfect! The forest is truly beautiful and very peaceful. There were some fun natural obstacles like downed trees on the trail that my dogs loved vaulting over. Mostly level, there is a point where the trail takes a steep descent. It’s marked in the winter for skiers to be aware, and if it’s at all icy like our hike, you’ll want to be cautious and take your time going down the hill.
Once at the bottom, the trial will go around a bend and meet up with a tributary of the Kettle River and, finally, the Kettle River itself. There had clearly been some flooding, and a portion of the trail was covered in ice. Be very cautious in the springtime, as I’m certain there will be mud at a minimum and water to wade through at the worst. Check with the park office in the spring to see if this particularly trail is closed due to flooding. We had no trouble with the ice crossing, although it was soft and my dogs were uncomfortable with the creaking and popping sounds. We broke through many times, and I made sure to check their feet afterwards for cuts from ice shards. Luckily, we all made it through with no incident.
Now, when I say we broke through, remember that we were on the trail and not on the river. When we broke through the ice, it was to dirt beneath our feet, not water. DO NOT attempt to go out onto the ice of the Kettle River in any weather. Because there is a current, you can never know how stable it is, and the risk is significant. Just stay safe and stay on the trail. From what we saw, the current was swift, and I would not advise letting your dogs swim in it during the summer. Especially with rapids waiting downstream. Again, stay on the trail, keep your dogs on leash, and stay safe.
The Kettle River was a wonderful change of scenery on this hike, especially once we reached the end of the trail and the rapids. There is a small off-shooting trail that borders the river and leads you to amazing views of the rapids. Check it out! You’ll have to navigate around and between some boulders, and be sure to snap some pictures of the sandstone formations up the bank. This would be an excellent place for a picnic as there are many nice, flat rocks to rest on. The rapids were incredible, particularly with the recent snowmelt, and tons of water rushed over the rocks below us.
Once you’ve enjoyed your fill of the views, backtrack until you see stone stairs going up to the road. You can either follow the road back to the picnic area parking lot or take the straight line trail to the left that cuts through the trees to the same destination.
All in all, this was about an hour and a half to two hour long hike and I would classify it as moderate. Perfect for an afternoon romp to get away from it all, and even better if you bring a snack or a book.
I’d like to come back this summer and camp here and explore more trails. I think there are decent elevation changes in the center of the park for hikers to get their fill. I don’t think it’s too busy, either, which is odd considering it is right off of highway I-35.
Pictures From the Trail