Camping on the Zumbro River an outstanding backyard adventure
Places like Canyon Lands and Arches national park are beautiful places to explore, but often times you don’t have to go very far to have a great adventure.
There are more than half a dozen state parks and forests right in my backyard.
These places are often filled with hidden treasures, beautiful vistas and quiet camping spots.
Because of their proximity, I like to call these weekend excursions “backyard adventures.”
A few weeks back, we decided to go on our first backyard adventure of the season and explore the Zumbro Bottoms State Forest.
The forest, located just outside Wabasha, Minnesota, is filled with hiking, four-wheeler and horse trails that climb up and down the bluffs surrounding the quiet Zumbro River.
All packed up
From Winona, the Zumbro forest takes less than an hour to get to. Nestled in South-Eastern Minnesota’s beautiful bluff-country it’s a hidden gem.
We made our way up Hwy. 61 to Wabasha, where we joined Minnesota 60, which snakes its way along the bluff side to just past Dumfries. About a half mile past Dumfries, we turned left on to County Road 86, forking left to join the forest road.
In the spring and fall, this minimum maintenance road can be quite the challenge to get through. Snow melt from the bluff sides often washes out the dirt road leaving deep ruts.
Today, the road looked recently manicured and it was easy going. A few recently downed trees made for a tight squeeze or two, but we made it through without incident only to be blocked in by a locked gate.
This is the problem with visiting Zumbro, you never know when the DNR is going to close off the road for maintenance.
Whatever the reason, it was time for a detour.
After about half an hour of rough guesses and some prayers, we found our way in. I learned a valuable lesson on this part of the trip: get a better map.
Setting up camp
At about ten-to-six we arrived at the equestrian campground at the Central Assembly Area of the forest. The camp site was spacious, clean and practically empty.
A few locals on four-wheelers chatted near the entrance, and an RV and horse trailer sat at the far side of the camp.
We picked a spot close to the tree line offering a little shade from the evening sun. The temperature hovered at a almost pleasant 78 degrees, but the humidity weighed heavy on us. It could have been worse. We’d had a rash of 90 degree days which would have made things truly insufferable.
We were surrounded on all sides by bluffs, some rising more than 500 feet above us. The trees had ground thick with leaves since our last visit to the forest in mid-March.
While my girlfriend Niecie set to work unpacking, I started setting up our tent.
I’ve written about this tent before. This hexagonal dome tent has served us well, but it’s far from my favorite. I find it too tall and difficult to erect by ones self.
Despite its shortcomings, the tent was growing on me.
This time it didn’t take me long to get the tent up and by the time I finished, I could hear the sizzling of a steak in the pan.
My girlfriend may not love camping and hiking as much as I do but she is one hell of a camp cook. She can take just about anything and turn it into something delicious.
Tonight we were having a New York Strip Steak with sautéed mushrooms, caramelized onions with a side of diced potatoes and squash.
I don’t know how she managed to cook all of that in less than half an hour on a single butane burner, but she did.
As we cleaned up after dinner, we discovered we’d forgotten a few essentials. Paper towels was one of them. They are great for cleaning up and can be burned in the fire when you’re done.
We did have clean wash rags to clean up, but that was just another thing to forget to repack for the next trip.
As the sun set lower on the horizon, the muggy weather grew buggy.
Freshly sprayed down with bug spray, we set off to see what the Zumbro Bottoms had to offer before the sun dropped too far below the horizon. We didn’t want to be walking back in the dark.
We decided on a trail not far from the campsite. Patty’s trail climbs the bluff side to an overlook where we could join another trail and make our way back to the campsite.
On the map, it looked like a short hike that should take no more than an hour. It turned out to be a much longer, more difficult hike than we’d asked for.
The path to the overlook involved a grueling climb up a steep rocky path. It seemed to go on forever.
Just as we were running out of steam and thinking about turning back, the path leveled off. We’d reached the top of the bluff. From here, the trail snaked along the ridge to the overlook.
We were still a long way from the overlook, but at least we were done climbing. It was all down hill from here, literally.
The trail took us up and down a few dips and rises as we continued on. A few times the trail dumped us out into a farm field and left us wondering if we’d gotten lost, only to find the trail again a few paces ahead.
When we rounded the corner and caught sight of the overlook, we completely forgot about how much we’d struggled to get to this point. It was beautiful.
Back to camp
In my opinion, the way down the bluff was far more beautiful than the way up.
From the overlook we followed a wash down the bluff side. It was slow going down the steep and rocky terrain. At times I worried I might trip and go tumbling off into a ravine.
I can’t say for sure, but if I had to guess, Ant Hill Trail was named for the steep rocky terrain only an ant would be at home climbing.
The sun was only about half an hour from dipping below the horizon when we rejoined Patty’s Trail and descended the rest of the way back to camp.
It hadn’t been easy, but it was a hike we wouldn’t soon forget. Now it was time for a much deserved nap.
Dawn in Zumbro
It was about 5 a.m. when I dragged myself out of my sticky sleeping bag.
I hadn’t slept well. It had only gotten muggier and I’d been hot all night.
Sometime around 2 a.m. things started to cool off and I’d managed to catch a few hours sleep, but I’d been restless.
I woke in time to catch the sunrise, but a thin layer of clouds making their way overhead managed to mask the sun’s rays until they were well overhead.
I took the opportunity to make a cup of coffee. I boiled a small cup of water and filled the AeroPress with fresh grounds. After about five minutes, I had a piping hot cup of coffee. I hadn’t packed sugar, but it didn’t matter.
For the first backyard adventure, we hadn’t done half bad. What’s great about these little camping trips is there’s no expectations. If you do everything you want that’s great, but if you don’t, there’s always next weekend to look forward to.
When was your last backyard adventure? Do you have a favorite place close by to go camping? Had a recent adventure? I’d love to hear about it in the comments section below.