Discovering Renville County's wild side

A series of woodland parks along the Minnesota River in Renville County offer opportunities for hiking, horseback riding, fishing, camping and enjoying nature and the river valley scenery. An ongoing enhancement program is improving the park experience for many, and word is getting out about all they have to offer.

The quiet beauty of the Minnesota River Valley and opportunities for fishing, camping, birding, viewing nature and hiking and horseback riding attract visitors to the Renville County parks. Courtesy photo of Stefanie Ryan

Larry Gunderson knows the perspective that comes with seeing the world from the saddle of a horse.

He has taken his horses everywhere from the mountain trails of Montana and Wyoming to the Zumbro Bottoms Trail of southeastern Minnesota, the latter recently picked by the viewers of WCCO TV as the state’s best horse trail.

Yet when all is said and done, Gunderson said his favorite trails are found much closer to his home near Danube. He said the trails found in two Renville County parks, Beaver Falls and Skalbekken, certainly deserve to be mentioned along with trails far more famous.

“As far as good riding,” said Gunderson, they offer everything he enjoys: These are trails that offer a challenge, a sense of getting away, and opportunities to view wildlife and enjoy the scenery and vistas of the Minnesota River Valley.

It’s not just horseback riders who are discovering what the parks of Renville County have to offer. When Jesse Diehn, parks manager, emailed surveys to campers in the parks last year, he learned that the visitors found the view from the ground every bit as appealing as that from the saddle of a horse. They ranked walking and hiking the trails of the county’s parks as their top reason for coming. They ranked camping next in line, followed by nature and bird watching, horseback riding and fishing.


It’s the scenery and quiet that attracts Calvin Aarons to the parks. He is a member of the county’s park and trails committee. “It’s kind of like its own little world,” said Aarons of the parks. “(You) get away. No traffic, no traffic noise, just peaceful.”

Diehn often runs into park visitors who are there for all of it, from fishing and camping to hiking. He recently chatted with a group of friends from Minnesota and Iowa. They camped at Vicksburg Park and fished for six straight days.

Renville County operates seven parks, with six of them taking advantage of the Minnesota River Valley blufflands and terrain. Lake Allie is located along the water body of the same name on the county’s east side. Skalbekken, Vicksburg, Beaver Falls, Anderson Lake and Mack Lake are located along the Minnesota River, while Birch Coulee is located upstream on Birch Coulee Creek and adjacent to the 1862 battle site.

The parks have been seeing an increase in usage in recent years, said Aarons. He and others said efforts began by the county roughly 15 years ago to improve the parks are making a difference. While the parks remain rustic, projects to improve the restrooms, construct shelters, and install wells with hand pumps for drinking water have all helped attract visitors and campers.

The Minnesota Conservation Corps played a big role in helping make improvements at Beaver Falls and Skalbekken Parks, said Diehn.

The two parks are also the most popular, according to the survey of campers last year.

There are 64 camping sites dispersed among the parks. There are electric sites in the Lake Allie and Birch Coulee parks.

The county now has an online reservation system for the parks, and that is helping bring more campers to the parks, said Diehn.


The reservation system is just one facet of the ongoing enhancement project. The goal this year is to develop signage and maps to make it easier for people to explore the parks and the 1,300 acres of woodlands and prairie they hold. The signage and map project is complete in Beaver Falls Park, which offers nine miles of trails. The focus now is on doing the same for Vicksburg, Birch Coulee, Skalbekken and Mack Lake, in that order.

Most of the campers who responded to the email survey last year said they learned about the parks through word of mouth. That seems to fit with what Diehn learns when he visits with park users.

This last week, he ran into a group of men and children who were fishing. One of the men told him they had “stumbled” on to the park last Saturday and enjoyed good fishing. It was so good, they decided to take time off work to return and fish on Monday. ‘“I grew up 20 minutes away and I had no idea this park was even here,’” Diehn said the man told him.

That's not really a surprise: Parks and trails committee members feel that many county residents are not fully aware of what their parks offer. “Seems like if it’s in your own backyard you can’t see it,” said Aarons.

In response, the county has launched an effort to acquaint more county residents with the parks through social media. Stefanie Ryan, who handles communications for the county, is posting photos on the park’s Facebook page and promoting the parks.

She’s more than qualified for this role. She and her family have long appreciated the parks. Last weekend, she led her young sons to Beaver Falls, where they escaped the summer heat by running into the clear-flowing waters of the creek.

She said they enjoy hiking the trails and fishing as well. “They absolutely love it,” she said of their visits to the parks.

People are also discovering new ways to love these parks. In recent years, the parks have been offering an archery hunt, according to parks and trails committee member Dave Fischer. The archery hunt has given many a stealth-like view of the park and its wildlife from tree stands. A lottery is used to open the parks to 34 bow hunters starting in November.


Fischer has long enjoyed the parks as a horse rider. He pointed out that riders in local saddle clubs have been volunteering to maintain and develop trails in these parks since sometime in the 1950s. He said the horse clubs remain as committed as ever to these parks.

Diehn is optimistic that the parks will see growing usage as more people discover them for all the different opportunities they offer. “Before I worked here, I was no different than a lot of people. I knew the two county parks that were closest to me, Mack and Anderson. That’s all I really knew,” he said.

Now, he’s learned just how much more there is, and said he enjoys the opportunity to discover more. “I couldn’t ask for a much better job,” he said.

Information on the parks and their locations are available on the Renville County website under “parks” and on the Renville County Parks Facebook page.

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