For many years, the wild west brushed against the cosmopolitan east in parts of Minnesota. That spirit is alive and well at Upper Sioux Agency State Park. There are not too many other places in the world where you can spend one night in a tipi and one night in a modern RV park.
In 2012, the state almost entirely rebuilt this park, to mark the 150th anniversary of the Dakota War. There is more here than history. The glacier-formed landscape at Upper Sioux Agency State Park is incredibly diverse. Inside its 1,300 acres, visitors find grasslands, rivers, open prairie knolls, wetlands, woods, fields, and meadows. Look for centuries-old oak trees scattered throughout the area. So, RVers enjoy a diverse array of outdoor activities as well.
Motorhome owners can choose between a rustic RV campsite that’s near the park entrance, or a modern campsite on the banks of the Minnesota River. Whichever parking spot you choose, your stay at Upper Sioux Agency State Park will be a memorable one.
Upper Sioux Agency State Park is a straight shot west of Minneapolis not far from the South Dakota border. It’s close to the intersection of several east-west and north-south regional highways, like U.S. Highway 212, State Highway 23, and State Highway 67. Most of these secondary roads are two-lane, undivided highways with good visibility. They’re mostly well-maintained, even in winter. But watch out for spring flooding, usually due to heavy snow melt.
Granite Falls is the closest town. This tiny community is quite picturesque. Two nice bridges span the Minnesota River. The town is small, but it’s big enough to have gas, groceries, and some basic camping supplies. There’s also a pretty nice golf course southeast of town.
Inside Upper Sioux Agency State Park, visitors can find limited large vehicle parking near the campgrounds and the boat launch. But for the most park, since the Indians who lived here so long ago walked pretty much everywhere, so do modern RV campers.
This recently-updated RV campground has 34 back-in sites on a large, bisected loop. About two dozen of these RV parking spots have 30amp electricity hookups; two sites have 50amp hookups. Some sites are heavily shaded, but most are in an open meadow that offers very nice scenic views of the surroundings. Campground amenities include four parking areas, a restroom/shower area, vault toilets, and drinking water.
This rustic “campground” on the bank of the Minnesota River is actually a large open parking area. There are seven picnic table/fire ring areas. Back in next to one, and voila, an instant RV parking spot. The grass is closely cropped and the sites are level. The main boat launch is in the middle of this campground. Riverside amenities include several drinking water spigots and vault toilets.
The Minnesota River is one of the most diverse and under-utilized fishing areas in Minnesota. Over 60 fish species live in these waters, and most of them are quite large. In 1994, an angler near Hutchinson reeled in a 50-pound catfish. Similar sized smallmouth bass, sauger, and northern pike lurk just below the surface as well. The part of the Minnesota River near Upper Sioux Agency State Park is particularly well-known for walleye. They are both plentiful and sizable near the confluence of the Minnesota and Yellow Medicine. Some other good spots are around as well. Fishing equipment loaners are available at the visitors’ center.
One of the best Plains Indians village replicas is at Upper Sioux Agency State Park. Tour highlights include a reproduced Annuity Center. This building once housed goods that were sold or distributed for free to area villages. The original one was destroyed during the aforementioned Dakota War. There are also some tipis in the Yellow Medicine River Campground. Even if you don’t spend the night in one, which you could, it’s cool to poke your head inside and understand how these people lived out here in the middle of nowhere so long ago.
The park’s boat launch can easily handle canoes, kayaks, and other non-powered craft. Floating down the winding Minnesota River is a very popular activity on a lazy summer afternoon. Many people paddle up to an island located not far up the river and then float back down. That island is fairly heavily wooded, so watch out for driftwood.
Because of the diverse landscape in this area, hiking is always a fun activity, whether you lace up your hiking boots or strap on your snowshoes. Equestrian trails are available as well, mostly in the undeveloped western area of the park. As for non-equestrian trails, we recommend the 4.3-mile Hiking Club Loop Trail. The trail is a bit hilly, but not at all steep or rocky. It goes though some of those famous Great Plains grasslands as well as some thickly wooded areas. Then, it ends at the sheltered picnic area. The 1.8-mile Minnesota River Trail is a very close second. As you trek from the Riverside Campground to the open picnic area, the Minnesota River is on your left and a vast wetlands area is on your right. This trail is especially nice in June and July when the wildflowers are in bloom. Winter activities include not only snowshoeing but also a regionally-famous sledding hill near the picnic shelter. Be advised that this cliff-like slope is definitely not a bunny hill.
The picnic shelter’s 14 tables can easily accommodate about 100 people. Additionally, the shelter is electrified and surrounded by fire rings. Especially since this area offers very nice views of the park and river, the picnic shelter is a great place for your next large get-together. Other picnic facilities and amenities include a huge barbecue grill, vault toilets, and a drinking water spigot. Other park favorites, such as a children’s play area and athletic field, are just a few steps away. There’s also an open picnic area closer to the river. It’s not quite as big or as nice, but it is next to a parking area.
There are not a whole lot of land animals left in this area. But the skies are filled with birds, mostly because of the heavily-wooded hillsides in this area. Near the mud flats on the riverbank, look for sandpipers and other shore birds as they forage for insects. Larger birds, including hawks and some huge pelicans, often ride the air currents high above the river. Also, during the migratory season, look for lots of warblers, sparrows, and flycatchers. Eagles often winter in the Minnesota River Valley as well.