Next the Circle trail climbs a stairway to the top of the rock wall, and from there you will get a view of another example of Nature's sculpture. This stone face is called "The Oracle." The old tribal Shamans (Medicine Men) believed that it could talk and voices were said to issue from it's cold stone lips. All was silent when we were there. Perhaps our ears were not spiritually attuned to hear what the voices may have been saying.
Just before the Circle Trail returns to the Visitors Center, you will pass a series of acvive quarry pits where American Indians have quarried pipestone in years past, and continue to do so today. Nearly all the tribes that could obtain the stone used it for calumets or ceremonial pipes, the best known of which is the peace pipe. Other uses of the stone included personal ornaments, ceremonial tablets, and ordinary smoking pipes.
All tribes hold the pipestone in considerable reverence and many legends concern its mythical origin. A widespread belief among the Indians is that pipestone was formed from the flesh and blood of their ancestors.
As you leave the Pipestone National Monument you will see six huge boulders on the right side of the road. These boulders are of granite, which is wholly different from any of the other rock found in this vicinity.
Scientists believe these were probably carried as one huge boulder by one of the glaciers that passed through this area many thousands of years ago, and were later split by frost action. If so, this is the largest known glacial boulder in Minnesota.
Different Indian legends surround the boulders. One says that three maidens sought refuge under these rocks and disappeared beneath them. Their spirits remain here to guard the quarries. Indian braves left (and some still leave) offerings of tobacco and food to insure good quarrying.
The Circle Trail, which begins and ends at the Visitor Center, leads to the principal points of interest in the monument. Although an intermittent light rain was falling as we walked the one mile trail, it was still a delightful experience.
In this picture the trail leads through a small portion of the tallgrass prairie, which once extended for many miles in all directions. Since 1971 the National Park Service has used a prescribed fire program to restore the prairie to its native plant composition and appearance, and to maintain it. Here it is pictured in early spring. The colors and texture of the prairie will change every month, sometimes every week, as different plant species go through the cycles of bloom, growth, and dormancy.
The earliest explorers such as Catlin and Nicollet had their curiosity aroused when they saw arrows stuck in the crack atop Leaping Rock. They learned from American Indians that traditionally a young warrior, to prove his valor, leaped this chasm and placed an arrow in the crack. In fact, it was related that on occasion a virtuous Indian maiden would not accept the attentions of an ardent young warrior until he had demonstrated his bravery by making the leap. My testosterone levels would have to be as high as they were when I was 20 for me to try it.
On the ledge near the top of Old Stone Face you will find Inscription Rock, which bears the names of several early Minnesota pioneers. Some of the initials upon this rock, and other nearby rocks, were laboriously chisled by members of the Nicollet Expedition of 1838, the first United States government exploration party to visit the pipestone quarries. Led by Joseph N. Nicollet, a gifted mathematician and scientist, this expedition produced the first accurate map of the Upper Mississippi country, including present day Minnesota.
Click on this picture to enlarge it and you will be able to read some of the inscriptions.
This unusual Sioux Quartzite formation, known as "Old Stone Face," has been created entirely through the forces of erosion. On the Circle Trail a natural stairway leads upward around to the left of this formation. Some of the steps have a rippled surface which are believed by geologists to be the result of wave action when the stone was sand upon an ancient beach.
Approximately 300 different species of grasses and flowering plants grow within the boundaries of the monument. About 70 of these, including the beautiful blooming Tartarian Honeysuckle (pictured), have migrated to this area with the coming of the European settlers. Alien species are not altogether bad. Some, such as this Honeysuckle, offer not only beauty, but also food and shelter for wildlife.
George Catlin, a noted painter and student of American Indian customs who visited the quarries in 1836, stated that the area was "divested of everything that grows, save the grass and animals that walk upon it."
These authentic peace pipes are only one of many exhibits you will find at the Visitor's Center. In the same building a Cultural Resource Center helps to explain the art of pipemaking and Native American work with pipestone. American Indian craftspersons can be observed making pipes daily, Memorial Day through Labor Day. An Indian man and woman were making pipes on the Saturday we were there in mid-May. Films, interpretative displays, and other information is also available, as well as a gift shop. Handmade peace pipes are among the items for sale.
Beyond Winnewissa Falls you will come to a rock wall of Sioux Quartzite. This is the stone that overlies the pipestone. Since the pipestone layer slopes underground in this direction from the quarry pits, it would be more than 100 feet below the surface at this point.
Geologists tell us that this region was once a seashore. The pipestone was a deposit of muddy clay which was later covered deeply with sand. Pressure, heat, and chemical action slowly turned the sand into quartzie, and the clay into pipestone. The quartzite has a rough granular composition. Pipestone feels relatively smooth and slick.
Just beyond the Leaping Rock, the Circle Trail turns left and crosses Pipestone Creek below Winnewissa Falls. Winnewissa means "Jealous Maiden" in the Dakota language. According to one American Indian legend, the Great Spirit called the warring nations together in the valley of the pipestone. There he admonished them to lay down their arms and live like brothers. While he was speaking, water poured from the rocks nearby forming these beautiful falls.