Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Explore century-old ghost mining town

Sandstone outcropping on Quarry Loop Trail
in Banning State Park.

Day hike also heads past
rapids, potholes on river

Day hikers can explore the ruins of an old quarry site as walking along a picturesque whitewater river on the Quarry Loop Trail in Minnesota’s Banning State Park.

Located north of Sandstone, the state park boasts 17 miles of hiking trails. The Quarry Loop Trail, at 2.4 miles in length, offers several historical and geological sites to see at the park.

May marks a good time to visit the park. During warm years, blossoming white trout lily as well as Canada, rue and wood anemones spring through the grass as warblers sing during the early part of the month. By late May, trillium, bunchberry, clintonia, and star flower blossom.

To reach the state park, from Interstate 35 take Exit 195 and go east on County Road 23. Turn right/south into the park entrance. Upon passing the information/park office, watch for where the road splits; go left/southeast and park near the picnic area.

The trailhead is in the picnic area southwest of the parking area. Take the trail counterclockwise so that the best sites are on the last half of the hike.

Most of the trail follows an old railroad bed so is fairly flat with a mere 40 feet of elevation change. Interpretive signs can be found along the route. Watch for trail posts as other walking paths do intersect; just remember to always veer right.

Ghost mining town
Along the way, you’ll pass outcroppings of sandstone covered in moss, lichen, fern and liverwort, as water seeping from cracks in the rock encourage their growth. The forest floor also is littered with immense sandstone slabs and tiny rock piles, known as spall.

The loop trail crosses the site of the former mining town of Banning, which centered on a sandstone quarry that opened in 1892 but was abandoned in the 1910s. About halfway through the trail, you’ll come to the quarry.

Steep walls line the quarry of Hinckley Sandstone, whose warm pink color ensured its popularity as a building material many decades ago. The sandstone formed in a shallow sea more than 540 million years ago.

If hiking the trail in May or June, keep an eye out in the quarry for bird’s-eye primrose, a pinkish flower with a yellow center. The flower is found in only one other spot in Minnesota.

Leaving the quarry, you may notice large metal rings pounded into rock on the ground. Known as a deadman, the rings are anchoring points for cables that once supported giant derricks used for hoisting stone blocks onto railroad cars to be shipped south to Minneapolis and St. Paul.

As the trail curves east, it junctions with Hell’s Gate Trail. As inviting and as short as the Hell’s Gate stub looks, don’t take it if you have small children with you, as its narrow passages and steep drops are dangerous.

Classic whitewater river
When the Quarry Loop Trail curls back north, it comes to the Kettle River, a tributary to the St. Croix River. Aspen, pines and birch hug the shoreline, which the trail follows the rest of the way.

The Kettle River formed a mere 10,000 years ago following the last ice age when glacier meltwater found its way along a depression that is an old fault line. The rushing water exposed the sandstone bedrock, which in turn left riffles and rapids. Those features today make the river popular with whitewater canoeists and kayakers and gives it a pleasing, rushing sound.

The Little Banning Rapids is the first of those geological features hikers will come across. Where the river is calm, keep an eye out for holes in the sandstone; these are called kettles or potholes. As the river valley was formed, swirling sand and water from flooding meltwater drilled out these oddities.

After the rapids, the first of the three ruins from the trail’s quarry days – the stone cutting shed – appears. Workers sliced the larger slabs of sandstone there.

Next are the walls for the power house, which supplied the energy needed for jackhammers operated in the neighboring crusher building. Rock deemed not good enough for building construction was brought there to be crushed for use in cement.

The final feature on the trail is the Dragon’s Tooth, a rapids that turns the placid blue Kettle River into roiling white water.

After the rapids, the trail reaches the picnic area near your parking lot.

Read more about day hiking Northeast Minnesota in my Headin’ to the Cabin: Day Hiking Trails of Northeast Minnesota guidebook.