My family of 3 (husband, 4 year old, myself, and our dog) stayed here Saturday July 5th - Monday July 7th 2014. The weather was mostly cloudy, high humidity, upper 70's/low 80's.
We arrived on Saturday around 5:15pm. The driveway to get into the park is pretty long and flanked on both sides by prairie. We were hoping to see several different species of birds, although the only ones we saw were Red-winged Blackbirds...maybe we just didn't know the right spots to look in. There is a very pretty view of the Mississippi as you drive into the park - worth a stop to get out of the car and look. There was a welcome station where you can self check-in and purchase firewood. We were a little disappointed that the campground appeared to be the only place to purchase the approved firewood. The bundles were $6.00 each and we used an entire bundle anytime we wanted to cook a meal. The pieces of wood were mostly 1 to 2 inches thick so they burned really quickly. The only bigger pieces were just flat boards - not exactly ideal for a campfire. I wished we were given something that resembled logs instead of lumber.
Upon pulling into our campsite (number 11) we noticed that the site across from us (number 12) was blocked off by sheriffs crime scene tape. We didn't really think too much about it...after all, what kind of crime happens at a state park? If anything we were just kind of annoyed that we couldn't cut through that site to get to the bathroom/showers.
Site number 11 was just ok. We had someone camped next to us in number 9, but they were a quiet couple so it wasn't an issue. A larger group probably would have been more audible. I was glad we weren't camping with our older 2 children as the campsite didn't seem large enough to fit their tent. My husband and I have a large 2 room tent and that was about all that the site had room for. The site was surrounded by trees, open woods to the back, campsites on either side, and the campground road in the front. I would have liked for the sites to be set back more from the road.
The campground has two port-a-potty type latrines but also a nice restroom/shower. The women's bathroom had 2 stalls, 2 sinks, outlets, 2 showers, and a hot water spout (to bring hot water back to your site). I didn't use the shower while we were there so I can't comment on how effective they were. This restroom building is the only building within the campground.
Shortly before it got dark on the first night we saw the park ranger for the first time. I thought he was driving by to check in on us, since we arrived after the office was closed. But instead he went over to campsite 12 to remove the crime scene tape. My husband went over and made a joke about whether he was going to remove the chalk outline as well. Turns out the joke was in bad taste - the ranger told my husband that someone had died there the day before. We stopped by the neighbors campsite on our walk with our dog to see if they knew anything about what the ranger had said. They told us that someone had been found inside a car, dead. There wasn't a tent or anything that suggested they had been camping there. Weird, right? At this point I was kind of freaked out...did someone murder the woman? Was she found inside the trunk? Was it an accidental death? I was very shocked that the park staff didn't bother to notify us that there was a crime located right next to the site where we were set to camp with our young daughter. We decided to stay for our reservation since we already had all of our gear set up.
We enjoyed the fireflies that came out at dark. Watching them through the tent helped my daughter to fall asleep. I was up pretty late - every sound had me on high alert. I should also mention that both nights that we stayed here that the wind kicked up significantly. It sounded like a bad storm was approaching us, but after it didn't rain, and after it happened again the 2nd night, I think this is just a normal occurrence. Nonetheless, the wind was really scary with it being so gusty. People walking to and from their campsites also cast a lot of light into our tent at night, it almost appeared like headlights from a car driving by. This could have been avoided if the sites had been set back further from the road. The next morning my husband told me that when he went out walking the dog around midnight that there was a car parked in the crime scene site. I'm not sure why there were people parked in that spot - he said he couldn't tell who/how many people were in the car, but that someone was in there because at one point they turned on the headlights. I was quite disappointed with the park staff. You don't need to drive by the park office in order to get into the park, and no one really drove around checking up on who was in the campground. There shouldn't be random cars parked in campsites, especially not in the middle of the night.
The next day we stopped by park office to talk to the ranger about the parked car the night before but the office was closed (approx 10 am). We took a drive into town to grab coffee, thinking that maybe the ranger would be back when we returned. He wasn't. We decided we would try out some of the trails. I suggest driving to the start of the kings trail, as it is quite a walk from the campground. King's trail is a fairly easy walk along a mostly flat dirt trodden path. This is a one way trail that ends at an opening on the bluff with a really pretty view. Facing one way you see the beautiful prairie and flowers, the other way is a view of the river and bluffs. This was the redeeming feature of this hike, otherwise it just felt like walk in the woods. It would have been nice if there were more signs that told you what kind of flowers we were looking at. On the way back along the Kings trail, we turned off to walk the Queen's trail. This trail was mostly overgrown grass and clover. It was very poorly groomed and at one point we had to climb over a fallen tree. I should mention that the gnats at certain parts of both trails, but especially the Queen's trail, were horrid. We would have turned around and skipped the trail if we didn't have bandana's and a mosquito net hat to protect our faces. It literally felt like raindrops were hitting my bare arms - that's how thick the gnats were. It was nasty!! We never did come across a scenic overlook on the queen's bluff, the trail just came to a loop where we were circled back to the path we came in on. There was another trail closer to the campground that we didn't have time to hike.
Kings Bluff hike: 5.5/10
- Nice, easy hike
- Enjoyed the variety of trees
- Awesome view at the end
* Mostly flat hike through the woods
* Some signs, but not overly educational
* No WOW moments (try a hike at Interstate Park)
Queens Bluff hike: 1.5/10
- Saw a doe
* BAD gnats
* Overgrown path - seriously needed to be cut down!
* No vistas
* No educational signs at all
What else is there to be said... It was just an average campground with little to redeem it except for the view atop of King's Bluff. There was no game/rec room which we would have liked to use to play games once it got dark. Disappointed with the staff and lack of communication - would have liked to know about the crime that took place next to our site! While we were packing up on Monday morning a park ranger stopped at our campsite to put up the reservation slip for the next people camping. She was refreshingly friendly...too bad she wasn't on duty during our stay. She was so nice to chat with that we forgot to ask her for more information about the crime and why we weren't told about it.
This campground might be nicer to visit in the spring - perhaps more of the wildflowers would have been in bloom. An autumn visit would also probably be rewarding with the fall colors. Midsummer is was just hot, humid, and full of gnats. That being said, the mosquitoes were not bad. ;)
Here is the most up to date article about the body that was found at the campground:
"There was little new information Monday concerning the woman found dead at a campsite Friday at Great River Bluffs State Park.
Winona County Sheriff's Department Chief Deputy Ron Ganrude declined to release the name of the 57-year-old Rochester, Minn., woman Monday, saying that authorities had been unable to contact relatives.
The woman's body was found in the driver's seat of her car by deputies called to investigate after she failed to check out of her campsite by the 4 p.m. checkout time. The woman had used the park's self-registration system to check into the campground and appeared to be alone, Ganrude said.
There was no sign of foul play, obvious injury or trauma, Ganrude said.
"The cause of death was not obvious," he said.
The body has been taken to Rochester for autopsy."
*FYI very poor 3G internet at the park - we have Sprint cell phones.
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