WHAT IS IT? Active quarry where unique soft red stone is mined. The pipestone quarry is sacred Native American ground and the stone it produces can only be used to make pipes.
BEAUTY (6/10) Pipestone NM looks nothing like it did when the first white man arrived to the quarry in 1836. Trees now engulf the red rock cliffs. The Winnewissa Falls are not as high as they once were; farmers dynamited its former ridge to create more farmland. Buffalo no longer roam the prairie and freshly painted barn-like souvenir shops loom in the background of the Three Maiden boulders.
While historically different, there is much beauty in the striking red cliffs, the roaring waterfall and the serene prairie. Through controlled fires, the National Park Service is making efforts to return as much of the park’s 282 acres to its tallgrass prairie roots. The amount of birds in the park attests to their good job.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (7/10) Pipes carved from this unique stone were and are used as ceremonial instruments and objects of trade. Some specimens of stone pipes date back over 2000 years and have been found across the United States. The quarry, the sole source for the soft yet durable stone, has been controlled by the Dakota Sioux since at least 1700. An 1858 treaty gave the Yankton Sioux free and unrestricted access to the site. They sold the rights to the area to the federal government in 1928 to protect it from exploitation and development.
Even though the federal government owns the land, Pipestone National Monument is still considered sacred ground. Only individuals of Indian ancestry can quarry for stone.
CROWDS (7/10) Pipestone NM was more crowded than we expected. The site opens at 8:00 a.m. When we arrived at 8:30, at least 20 people were already there. A steady stream of people toured the site during our stay.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (4/5) The town of Pipestone is not very big. If you find your way there, which is easy enough by following routes 75, 23 or 30 through the Southwest part of Minnesota, you will not miss the Monument. The detour off Interstate 90 is about 50 miles, the same distance off I-90 it takes to see Devils Tower NM in Wyoming.
There is a large parking lot and a single story Visitor Center which is accessible to all individuals. Most of the Circle Trail to the Quarry and waterfall is paved. During our visit, the Northern section of the Trail was closed due to heavy rain. Sadly, we only saw a small corner of the Falls.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (5/5) The Pipestone NM bookstore is a living museum where native artisans cut, mold and file the delicate red stone into intricate pipes. The subtle, complicated pipe-making skill has been passed down through the generations. We talked to a fifth-generation carver whose work we could buy just a few feet away.
Nearly 100 handcrafted pipes hung on the walls for sale and can be purchased online here. There was a larger selection and better prices in the bookstore as compared to online. The bookstore shopping was intimate. Each pipe was marked with the name of the artisan. Careful inspection of the pipes revealed a distinctive style for each artist.
The bookstore also includes a terrific selection of Plains Indian related literature and other pipestone products such as earrings, necklaces and other small jewelry. Be careful, the stone is very fragile and will break if dropped. Ask Gab. And yes, it is OK to use the pipestone to make small jewelry. We asked. When the pipe pattern is carved from the rectangular stone piece, there is excess rock. No stone can go to waste, so jewelry is fine.
COSTS (3/5) $3 per person, $5 per family. Free with the National Parks Pass.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (4/5) We saw at least two Rangers each time we visited Pipestone NM – we arrived late in the afternoon and decided to return the next morning to give ourselves more time to explore.
TOURS/CLASSES (8/10) Both Rangers recommended that we begin our visit with the slide show... so we did. Although the projection area could have been better, the content was clear: we were on sacred ground. This stone and the pipes that are carved from it retains a valued place in Plains Indian culture.
Exhibits frame the movie room. Although small, they are easy to understand and follow. More exhibits, including a "Touch Me” table and pictographs are in the larger back room of the Visitor Center. Ornate pipes were on display both in a museum-like room and in cases at the Gift Store.
Not only can you watch a fifth-generation carver create pipes from the red stone in front of your eyes, but you can actually pick up a piece of the clay-like rock and try your hand at the art. There are small pieces of pipestone, a file a small saw and an invitation for visitors to test the texture of this special substance.
A nature loop trail takes you through the tallgrass prairie to the quarries and a waterfall. You can purchase a booklet guiding you through the trail at the front desk for fifty cents, or you can just borrow one if you promise to bring it back. Unfortunately, the northern half of the loop was closed due to heavy rains and flooding. We could hear the waterfall, but couldn’t see the cascade.
FUN (7/10) This score may have been higher if we could have finished the loop trail and seen the waterfall. So close, but so far away! As at Knife River Indian Villages NHS, everything about this day was new and different for us – the tallgrass prairie, the cliffs of red stone and the cultures which hold the pipes in such high esteem. How nice to be reminded that learning can be fun.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (8/10) We enjoyed our visit to Pipestone – both to the Monument and the town.
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