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Just a few miles north of Sandstone, surrounding the banks of Kettle River in Minnesota, is Banning State Park. The park protects over 6,000 acres of Mille Lacs Uplands, an area that still bears the scars of the forest fires and growing industry of the 19th century. Even though the land is still recovering, the birch and aspen forests, along with the sounds of songbirds and running water, transformed this place into a true garden of tranquility.
With Kettle River and its rapids as the park’s focal point, some of the favorite activities include kayaking and fishing. Banning State Park campgrounds are lovely and decently equipped, so RV campers often book them in advance, as there's only a limited number of sites. Those camping at Banning State Park love to go hiking or biking down the woodland paths to explore the park and spot some of its denizens, like white-tailed deer, coyotes, foxes, black bears, raccoons, and beavers.
Thrillseeker types are usually the ones who get the most fun out of Banning State Park. The rapids here are so iconic they have their own names — Hell's Gate, Little Banning, Blueberry Slide, Dragon's Tooth, and Mother's Delight. Even guests who aren't kayaking love watching others who do, so one way or another, this is a fun activity here.
Guests who like birdwatching are in for a pleasant surprise, as over 180 bird species can be seen on the park’s grounds. You probably won't have much fun birdwatching here during winter, as the majority of the park's species migrate from this area. Generally speaking, you should have no trouble spotting gray catbird, house sparrow, or Baltimore oriole, whereas Louisiana waterthrush and white-eyed vireo are truly a rare sight to behold.
Kettle River is home to many different species of fish, so avid anglers will have a great time fishing at Banning State Park. The smallmouth bass population is high throughout the entire length of the river. Near Sandstone, there's a small population of lake sturgeon, so if you catch one, you'll have to release it back into the water. Redhorse, northern pike, and rock bass are all pretty common.
Banning State Park RV campgrounds offer over 30 wooded sites, and nearly a dozen of them have electric hookups. Fifty feet is the RV length limit. There are also a few canoe sites located along the coastline of Kettle River, but these operate on a first-come, first-served basis. If you're planning to camp in a motorhome at Banning State Park between April and November, you can reserve your site in advance.
Showers and toilets are near the sites, and you can also purchase firewood about five miles away from the campground. The park also boasts a lovely picnic area overlooking the river, which is also ADA accessible.
Sandstone is most likely the first place you'll visit on your Banning State Park camping adventure, especially if you want to restock on your supplies or refill your tank. Each year, Sandstone hosts a big art festival where you can see crafts and paintings made by local artists. This is organized by Old School Art Center, which also has an amazing gallery and shop where you can purchase a gift for a loved one, or something to add to your own collection back at home.
While you're browsing the area, take some time to visit Sandstone History and Art Center. Learn about the area's railroad history and the Native Americans of the Sandstone area, as well as the pine forest conflagration that happened in 1894, a disaster that scars the area to this day.
If you'd like to know more about what happened during the 1894 tragedy, also known as the Great Hinckley Fire, then you need to go to the town of Hinckley. The flames engulfed over 200,000 acres of land and half a dozen communities. This tragedy took hundreds of lives, and one of the purposes of the Hinckley Fire Museum is to honor their memory and tell the story of that event. You'll learn all about how it happened and about the heroes who helped the fleeing citizens.
If you want to cheer up after the dreadful history lesson, you can stop by a restaurant and enjoy a delightful meal. Hinckley has cozy taverns, pizza places, fast-food joints, and Mexican restaurants where you will definitely find something you like.