Minnesota's Backyard: Just an easy hike from the heart of New Ulm, an oasis of wilderness at Flandrau State Park
You drive through neighborhoods in one of southern Minnesota's regional centers to reach the 11th stop on our 20-site tour of Minnesota's state parks, then you turn a corner, go down a hill and find yourself in a wonderland of woods and prairie at Flandrau State Park, which is a perfect home base for hiking and heritage festivals.
NEW ULM, Minn. -- If you are pulling a camper and looking for Flandrau State Park , and you get confused on the way, you aren’t alone. The route to this scenic valley where the Cottonwood River meanders on its way to the Minnesota River takes you right through neighborhoods in New Ulm, a community of better than 13,000.
“We get people calling us saying they’re not in the right place because they’re in the middle of town,” said Gary Teipel, the state park manager. “We say, ‘no, you are, just go another block and take a right and come down the hill.’ You get down there and it’s like you’re in a different world. It’s pretty neat.”
Originally the site of numerous Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps projects during the Great Depression, Flandrau was established as a state park in 1937. Less than a decade later, many of the visitors did not come to this scenic river valley of their own accord.
“Our group center was a WPA work camp and during World War II was a German prisoner of war camp. We now rent that out as our group center,” Teipel said. “There are eight bunkhouse buildings with 105 beds, there are two shower buildings and then there’s a dining hall. You get a nice isolated area that’s pretty neat with real steep hillsides and very scenic, but also very private.”
This location is our 11th stop in our Minnesota's Backyard series, a 20-site tour of Minnesota's state parks this summer.
Flandrau offers three campgrounds (modern, semi-modern and rustic and a mix of privacy among the wilderness, with area attractions like New Ulm’s restaurants, shopping and special events just a nominal hike away.
“That’s one of the real attractions for people coming to Flandrau is you can walk to town from the park, and New Ulm is known for its festivals ,” Teipel said. “It’s nice for people who want to go shopping in town while others want to play golf or sit by the fire and go on hikes. There’s a lot of activity in the general area to partake in if you choose. But you do get the feeling of being way out in the woods when you’re in the park.”
On a two-mile hike in the park’s north end, one passes through towering hardwoods, marshy prairie, and a wooded floodplain where deer can be seen among an oxbow lake where the Cottonwood River once flowed. Come winter, those trails are mostly sheltered from the wind and groomed for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing (the park rents the necessary equipment) making Flandrau a popular destination year-round.
Perhaps the only bad news is the park’s popular sand-bottom swimming pool is closed in 2021, as a combination of the pandemic, a lack of lifeguards for hire and the need to repair and renovate it meant no swimming this summer. Teipel said they aim to have the recreation area back open and fully staffed in the summer of 2022.
Prior to Prohibition, seemingly every small town in America had its own brewery or two. With alcohol banned in the United States for more than a decade, thousands of small breweries were lost forever, but New Ulm was home to one of the few that survived.
Schell’s Brewery is just a short drive from the park, and can also be reached via a hiking trail. The destination features a stunning beer garden with live peacocks strolling the grounds in the summer. After a long day of hiking, it is the perfect place to take a tour of the brewery, which opened in 1860, then grab a refreshing pint and relax in a beautiful setting.
Best place to spend the night
As opposed to the wood camper cabins, which are a treat in their own right, the park’s CCC Cabin is a Depression-era stone building that accommodates two adults (with a trundle bed for a child available). It has a screened-in porch and a massive stone fireplace for a unique overnight experience in the park.