National Park Getaway: Pipestone National Monument

By Natalie Barber, Park Ranger, Pipestone National Monument

“When you pray with this pipe, you pray for and with everything.”Black Elk

Black and white historic photo of several people quarrying rock Black and white historic photo of several people quarrying rock

Left image
Quarriers holding stone and a pipe in a quarry pit that was later turned into an exhibit quarry for visitors to walk into.

Right image
Quarrier and pipe carver Francis Eastman teaching the next generation.
Credit: NPS / N. Barber

Located in southwest Minnesota, Pipestone National Monument protects both a resource and the rights of American Indians to extract that same resource. For 3,000 years, Indigenous people from across the continent have travelled here to quarry a soft, red stone (pipestone) to carve into pipes used in prayer and ceremonies. Pipes from this site have been traded for centuries from New York to Montana and Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Popularly referred to as a “peace pipe,” visitors quickly learn that it is about much more than that. 

Today, anyone enrolled in a federally recognized tribe may obtain a free permit to quarry pipestone. Formed more than 1.6 billion years ago, this stone (about as hard as your fingernail) is sandwiched between thick layers of Sioux Quartzite, which is harder than steel. Although the tools have changed over time, the labor involved in quarrying the pipestone has not. All work must be done by hand without the aid of power tools. With a quartzite wall at least 6 feet high in some areas, it can take weeks or even years to finally reach the pipestone layer.  

Biologist showing a visitor a plant in a grass field
Biologist Seth Hendriks helps a volunteer during seed collection on National Public Lands Day. The tallgrass prairie at the monument is home to over 300 different native plants.

NPS / N. Barber

From April through October, cultural demonstrators work on site carving pipestone and talking with visitors about the meaning and process behind these traditions. Visitors also have the opportunity during the busy season to join a variety of free outdoor programs such as guided tours, night sky viewings, day camps for Junior Rangers, a Christmas Bird Count, and an annual luminaria event on Indigenous Peoples’ Day featuring American Indian musicians and storytellers.

For those who like to explore on their own, the site is self-guided year-round. Visitors can walk the paved three-quarters-mile Circle Trail that meanders past a wide array of natural, historical, and cultural features such as historic quarry pits, tallgrass prairie, beautiful quartzite outcroppings, and even a waterfall. The one-quarter-mile South Quarry Trail takes visitors to the Three Maidens, a culturally significant site that adjoins a picnic area. Hardy visitors who aren’t afraid of Minnesota winters or just want to see a frozen waterfall can take advantage of the site’s free snowshoe checkout after January 1 each year.

Frozen waterfall
Winnewissa Falls during winter, a favorite spot for many visitors all year long.

NPS / N. Barber

The Visitor Center boasts new cultural exhibits that were developed with the input of 23 affiliated Tribal Nations, petroglyphs, a 22-minute award-winning film, and a store that supports both the park and the development of American Indian artists. Kids can get their Junior Ranger book at the front desk to learn a little more about the park and try to earn a badge while they’re here.

The Monument is approximately an hour from Sioux Falls, South Dakota and is easily reached from I-90 or I-29 (follow signs from US 75, MN 23, or MN 30). Admission is free and the Visitor Center is open daily year-round, except for Thanksgiving Day, Christmas day, and New Year’s Day (the grounds do not close).

Pipestone National Monument

Last updated: November 2, 2020