Carley State Park is a small and lightly-used state park in southeastern Minnesota - it might just be the perfect, quiet escape you’ve been looking for! While away your time in your cozy, tree-covered camp spot with a good book and a fire, or go get your blood pumping with adventure in the woods.
With 20 rustic campsites (big enough for a tent or a small RV), group camping facilities, several miles of trails, and natural beauty to spare, you’ll be able to enjoy the lovely woods, rivers, and meadows at a slow, peaceful pace with no distractions from the outside world. However, if contemplative relaxation is not your game, the park offers a bit of adrenaline-spiked aventure as well due to the multiple stream crossings required to complete some of the hikes. Flowers and berries all summer, beautiful birds, and impressive trees add to the allure of these trails.
Whether you’re looking for tranquil relaxation, ambitious flora and fauna exploration, or a fun and challenging hike, Carley State Park has a little something for everyone.
Carley State Park is in southeastern Minnesota, between Rochester and Winona, and about 35-40 minutes from each. The park is only open to rigs 30 feet or less to accommodate the smaller spaces and narrow roads. However, the park mainly contains one, main straight road from the park entrance to the large campground loop, so there aren’t many twists or turns.
The spots are fairly small, however, if you are confident in your maneuvering abilities and if you follow the length guidelines, you shouldn’t have any trouble navigating the area.
Amid an oak forest with huge old-growth white pine, Carley State Park offers 20 primitive sites and two groups sites for RVs 30 feet in length or less for visitors looking for special camping memories. The spots are not large (in fact, you may find that the group sites won’t comfortably sleep as many people as the website advertises they will), but most are level, private, peaceful, and surprisingly mosquito-free.
The campground closes seasonally and opens on Memorial Day through mid-October. After they lock the gate during this period, the running water to the whole park is also turned off. However, you may still visit the park by walking in, and there are vault toilets available year-round.
Reservations can be made up to a year in advance and include a fee for making them online or by phone, and are free if made the day-of.
As with all Minnesota state parks, only approved firewood may be burned in order to avoid spreading harmful insects and fungus found to travel in certain wood scraps.
In spring, Carley State Park cannot be beat for stunning natural beauty when the wildflowers bloom. Walking on easy trails through the forest, you will see a profusion of bluebells (Mertensia virginica) carpeting the ground in addition to a variety of other flower species. It is a breathtaking sight. In fall, the trees are in the spotlight as the dense forest turns on a spectacular display of reds, oranges, and yellows.
Minnesota state parks make it a cinch to enjoy the wildlife abundant in the trees and skies while camping. On the Department of Natural Resources page, you can find and download or print a handy list specific to each park of the birds you might see there. It includes information about how likely it is to spot each species by season, so if you have your heart set on seeing a fiery orange Baltimore Oriole or a leggy Spotted Sandpiper, you can plan your trip according to their seasons. Bring some binoculars, a guidebook or app, and a pen to mark off all the amazing birds you’ll see from your list.
Bring a tube or a canoe to explore the park via the Whitewater River. Depending on the season, the water flows high enough to let you float or paddle along with ease. You can float the horseshoe-shaped bit of the river which follows the trail and then hike back up and do it again. If you’re tempted to get super coordinated with a second vehicle and arrange a shuttle so you can float further down, be sure to call Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources first - they will be able to tell you if the route you’re considering is known to be a good one.
Within this sylvan paradise of a park, there are five miles of hiking trails. Paths wind through yellow waist-high prairie grasses, dense green woods, and back and forth across rivers and streams. These trails might not be as well-maintained as those at other parks, so a sense of adventure is a requisite if you want to complete each one to its end. Bridges aren’t always available where you would expect them to be, so it’s advisable to be prepared for a bit of exciting river forging - perfect for a hot summer day. In the winter, the water levels go down enough that you shouldn’t have to worry about getting immersed.
The enjoyable trails that make hiking in warm weather so pleasant also serve as exciting snowy corridors. Don’t miss visiting the park after a heavy snowfall - trails are still easy to follow, and unlike many parks where the trails are groomed for cross-country skiing and snowshoers are discouraged, you’ll have this whole park to yourself - well, to yourself and the deer.
The river flowing through the campground is home to many clever and tasty brown trout. Get your licenses and gear in order (this park does not loan out rods), and head to the water to see if you can outsmart the trout to cook over your campfire for the night. In the cooler months, the trout will be biting most around dusk, so be sure to be back from your hike by then!