Dads don’t dig stopping for directions, which might explain why I had so much fun geocaching with my wife Beth and our daughters Eleanor (11) and Abigail (9). With directions contained in the handheld GPS unit that Whitewater State Park loaned us, we were set for a trek exploring some of the park’s 28,000 acres of sandstone bluffs, wooded valleys, and streams.
Since the park is turning 100 years old, it’s the perfect time to check it out. Whitewater is located about 30 minutes east of Rochester near Elba, and hosts an array of activities (Crafts! Archery! Fishing! Canoeing!) every summer. Check the DNR website for events each week.
My family and I had never been geocaching before, so we weren’t quite sure what to expect. But the simple directions the visitor center provided when we borrowed the GPS unit made it easy. The free unit featured a digital compass-like screen that points the way to the next clue and tells you how many miles or feet away it is. The clues that lead you to the final cache are hidden on man-made structures like buildings, signs, or benches. The clues are scrambled nature-related words. Once you find one and unscramble it, you can enter the word in the GPS unit and unlock the next coordinate.
Currently, the Minnesota state park system is hosting what they call the Aquatic Quest. It includes 82 geocaches spread out across the state’s many parks, and each cache includes a collectible aquatic card with information about the species it pictures. Adventurers are encouraged to collect them all and post their picture on a finishers page.
We each took a turn holding the GPS unit as we crossed bridges and flowered meadows to locate the next clue. They weren’t always easy to find, but during the adventure, we discovered the park’s swimming beach, gift shop, and hiking paths. We saw wild columbine, rock formations, and rapids. We even managed to come upon a stone campers’ shelter just as a sudden, though thankfully brief, downpour ensued.
Once my daughter Eleanor found the cache, an old metal ammunition canister, we signed the log book, grabbed the aquatic card, and admired the items others had left in the cache, like a silver owl pendant and a Buzz Lightyear eraser. We left behind a few Sievers mementos, including a miniature fractal painting and a Trombot sticker. It was interesting to flip through the log book and find other visitors had braved the January cold to find the cache or had traveled from some other part of the state like Duluth.
Our geocaching adventure was the perfect way to connect. It brought us together as a family as we solved puzzles and worked towards a goal, but it also let us enjoy the beauty of nature.
While we were geocaching, we found a clue hidden on the sign for Chimney Rock Trail, so we decided to check it out. Halfway up the hike, there’s a large rock with an opening on the other side where you can stick your head through the bluff and look out over the valley.
If you kept hiking, there was an overhang where you could look out and see the people in the rock, which is so cool. You could also see the white water far below. There was also an amazing rock with thousands of names carved into it. Our geocaching experience was amazing, and I hope you can go too.
I would absolutely recommend geocaching to all ages. I had a lot of fun doing it with my family, but would totally do it again with friends. It got every member of my busy family together on an adventure, and managed to persuade my little sister to go camping.
The directions were easy to follow, and me and my sister were both able to use the device that told us where to find clues. Much to my delight, I found the geocaching box and got the pleasure of looking through the various items that people had left behind. I was very tempted to take the buy 9 get the 10th free ice cream coupon, but settled instead for the aquatic quest card we received for finding the cache. On the card we found the American Brook Lamprey. The card told us all about its habitat, food, and most importantly, who eats it.
When it comes to wildlife, Whitewater did not disappoint, and geocaching was a fun way to see some critters. According to the DNR, 43 percent of Minnesota’s rare animals and plants live in the Blufflands. While we didn’t spot any rare animals, we were happy with the ones we did see.
We saw a deer as well as several birds, including a rose-breasted grosbeak. Two toads hopped in our path and the girls had fun catching them. The entire edge of the beach area was black with thousands of tadpoles that the girls were able to scoop up with leaves. They also captured some big, wooly caterpillars. The bugs were pretty aggressive, and I was glad we remembered the bug spray.