State Secrets

When thinking of something secret, words like hidden and mysterious come to mind. But within one mile of I-35 in Sandstone, Minn., Banning State Park is far from hidden. And because it spans 6,237 acres of land directly adjacent to the Kettle Riv...


When thinking of something secret, words like hidden and mysterious come to mind. But within one mile of I-35 in Sandstone, Minn., Banning State Park is far from hidden. And because it spans 6,237 acres of land directly adjacent to the Kettle River, mystery is a word best used elsewhere.

Walking along the trails within the park, however, will leave adventurers scratching their heads in sheer bewilderment. Some trails are lined with hordes of square-cut sandstone blocks, clearly left for decades in abandonment. Other trails edge the Kettle River where deep circular potholes embedded in the sandstone look like something out of a science fiction movie.

But the biggest mystery of all is in the stone buildings deep within the park. Rising majestically from their earthen foundations, the crumbling sandstone structures are being overtaken by trees, foliage and underbrush, returning the man-made edifices slowly back to the Earth from which they

were made.

Luckily for the avid explorer, the park has self-guided tours that clearly explain all of these phenomena. Delving into the secrets of Banning State Park is a journey of history and an exploration of nature's many mysteries.


The Kettle River

Designated the first wild scenic river in the state of Minnesota, the Kettle River flows through the entire acreage of Banning. Sandstone cliffs up to fifty feet high protrude from the edge of the river.

Named because of the abundance of "kettles" - or potholes - below the surface of the river, Kettle River plays host to a variety of outdoor activities, including kayaking, canoeing and fishing.

Randy Gordon, park manager, has watched the river's evolution for the 34 years he's served in the park and he explains the kettles. "The kettles themselves have a different type of hydraulic effect that rolls you around, kind of like a washing machine. You roll right into the kettle, around, and then back out."

There are five main areas of rapids within the river's bounds: Blueberry Slide, Mother's Delight, Dragon's Tooth, Little Banning and Hell's Gate. The most dangerous of these areas is Dragon's Tooth. In this area, a large kettle resides below the surface of the river and creates a huge vortex.

During the spring months, the water can rise quite dramatically, creating a dangerous ride for beginning kayakers. "If you get a nice thunderstorm, it's not uncommon that, within 24 to 48 hours, this river can rise three feet plus." remarks Gordon. That means kayakers and canoeists need to be extra cautious during these months. The huge whirlpool created by Dragon's Tooth has caused at least two deaths during Gordon's time with the park.

Though the river can be surly during the spring, the waters in the summer and fall months can be quite calm, creating perfect conditions for beginners. Coupled with the beautiful fall colors coating the surface of the sandstone cliffs, it's no wonder the river was designated as the state's first wild scenic river.

In 1995, the park removed a dam that created electricity in order to take the Kettle River back to its original, unadulterated state. In doing so, it exposed the Big Spring Falls area; an area which hadn't been exposed in more than ninety years. This area, known to locals as Blueberry Island, is a culmination of all of the things that make the river beautiful - craggy


sandstone cliffs, natural flora and rugged rapids. Though it's a quarter-mile hike to reach this area, it's certainly well worth

the trek.

The Quarry

During the late 19th century, a quarry was developed within the bounds of what is now Banning State Park. The quarry was very successful due to the rare pink color of the sandstone located in that area. In those days, the mining operation supported more than 500 stonecutters and their families.

In 1894, the great Hinckley fire swept across the lands of the park, destroying the landscape of the town of Sandstone and inflicting heavy financial losses on the railroad company the stonecutters used to

transport their enormous rocks.

Though the operation was back on track a year after the fire, structural steel became much easier to produce than labor-intensive sandstone blocks. All operations of the quarry ceased by 1905 and the population in the area decreased until all that was left was a ghost town.

Today, the remains of the old quarry are still within the park and hikers can easily meander Quarry Loop Trail and imagine a once booming mining operation. Huge piles of square-cut, sandstone blocks jut from the edge of the trail, making for a scenic walk. There are seventeen points of interest along the 3-mile trail, but the most majestic and awe-inspiring points are the remains of the quarry buildings.


Only the foundations remain of the cutting house. To an uninformed viewer, the long stone formations might look like an alien signal. In actuality, this location would have been full of cutting instruments to chop the sandstone into manageable blocks. Outside the cutting house an eyebolt is still embedded into a section of sandstone. This eyebolt would have been used to anchor giant derricks used to move rocks to different locations throughout the quarry.

The next building along the trail is the powerhouse. This huge stone structure encompassed three stories and provided all the electricity the

mining operation needed. Currently, the beauty of the stark sandstone walls contrast sharply with the natural plants overtaking it. The evidence of just how aged this structure is can be measured by the statuesque trees growing within the now-roofless building.

Gordon says his favorite building along the trail is the powerhouse. "Just to think of it having two huge boilers and a shaft drive that powered a big

flywheel - it's amazing." The powerhouse not only stored coal and

provided electricity, it also housed an artesian well where water was bottled for consumption. The water from this well was particularly desired for its crispness and natural taste.

Just like any product, stone also creates by-product. To deal with the

leftover stone, the crusher was built. All that remains of this building are two facing stone walls, but it once housed workers who crushed unqualified sandstone pieces into ballast used for road construction and railroads.


Other Activities

Banning State Park truly offers something for everyone. Camping, hiking,

skiing, kayaking, canoeing and snowmobiling are just some of the

adventures found within the confines of the park.

In addition, there are numerous interpretive programs happening throughout the year. In August, an event known as Song Path will occur. This event features the wild beauty and natural grit of the park, enhanced by local musicians. Specific areas along Quarry Loop Trail will have artists who

take natural sounds found in the park and bring them out using musical

instruments or song.

To learn more about this program, or to find more information on the park, contact the park office directly at (320) 245-2668 or visit them


online at

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