An air of elusiveness swirls around the Cabbage Rocks. The mystery begins with the name itself:
Cabbage Rocks offers just enough description to spark wonder, but not enough to form a vivid mental picture. The few people who have seen them know they resemble not a leafy green but seven giant upside-down pyramids of eroded rock dotting a narrow ridgeline. Despite the size and striking prominence of the formations, they can disappear into the forest from even 50 feet away. The Cabbage Rocks are not easy to find and do not appear to be on state or local maps. Tucked deep inside a remote tract of the Richard J. Dorer Memorial Hardwood State Forest, bereft of trails or signage or documentation, the rocks can seem an illusion, a quiet whisper among locals not to be discovered.
I first heard of the Cabbage Rocks while I was working as a naturalist at Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center near Lanesboro. I was chatting with two fathers who were accompanying their kids as chaperones in my Wilderness Survival class. The men had both grown up exploring southeastern Minnesota's state forest lands, and they were recounting a childhood backcountry adventure that took them down old logging roads, along a small stream, and eventually up a hill to something they called the Cabbage Rocks. Intrigued, I pressed them for more detail about the rocks. They described them as a string of massive formations, out of place on a hilltop like islands in an archipelago.
The oddity of their name, and the challenge of hiking into unknown territory to find something I only half-believed existed, was enough to perk my interest. I asked the men if they had maps or resources I could consult for what I knew would be my next expedition. They shared a glance, smiled wryly, and told me to follow the stream before ascending the hill in the middle of the valley. Their ambiguity served only to pique my curiosity and triggered an obsession with finding these rocks for myself.
Later that night, like a good Millennial, I scoured the internet for meaningful clues to the Cabbage Rocks. No dice. The search gave only three results: an unresolved post on a geology blog asking for more information; a YouTube video showing several members of a local garden club hiking along a flood plain; and an old local newspaper article that offered few details. After I asked around at work for several weeks, a co-worker—an avid fly fisherman who was born and raised nearby—slipped me a Google Earth screenshot with hand-drawn notes on how to get to the Cabbage Rocks. Preferring to hike and fish solo, he would be heading there soon as well. Map in hand, I would set out that weekend.
The drive there took me on sequentially smaller gravel roads, until I turned down a glorified driveway, rutted and narrow, that put my aging CR-V to the test. The parking lot, if you could call it that, was askew and hacked out of a hillside. I parked and set out on foot, following my annotated map. I descended what was a relatively clear and open logging road into the valley, wondering if the ruggedness of this hike had been exaggerated.
On the valley floor, the ruins of an old grist mill poked up out of the ground. A creek, flowing east into the South Fork of the Root River, would be my guide as I followed it upstream. While much of the hike and the Cabbage Rocks themselves sit on state land, in spots I would have to walk in the streambed to stay legal between private property. (If I were an angler with a fishing rod, a license, and a trout stamp, I could keep my feet drier using a streamside easement.) I set out upstream, seeing plenty of evidence of rabbits, coyotes, squirrels, and deer. The spine-tingling call of a pileated woodpecker rang through the forest. Giant cottonwoods stood guard along the banks. Brown trout sprang into life at my approach.
After more than an hour of hiking, I realized I did not know where I was, and I wondered if I had missed the rocks altogether. I knew I was looking for a vantage where the land in front of me would resemble a W, with steep bluffs to my left and right and a center ridge to ascend. If they existed at all, the rocks would be found along the center point of the W, beacons with views to either side. I marched on, and I soon spotted the base of the center ridge. I huffed, puffed, and rose about 200 vertical feet, the forest around me changing from hackberry and silver maple to red oak and ironwood.
I reached the center peak of the W, only to find there were no Cabbage Rocks, no upside-down pyramids, nothing other than a scraggly deer trail. I walked on, my heart rate rising not from the ascent but for fear that I was alone on a wild goose chase, with no end in sight. Fifty feet. One hundred, two hundred feet, and still no rocks. Suddenly, a stone structure emerged as if a cloak had been lifted. I ran to it, and in front of me stood the first Cabbage Rock.
Twenty feet in height, the size of a pickup truck at its base and a garage at its top, it had a blocky appearance, as if put together by giant sedimentary Legos. I continued along the ridgeline, awestruck that the rock had not yet toppled out of sheer top-heaviness. Another one, even more distinct in form, followed. One after another, each unique but alike in general character, shape, and style, the remaining rocks unfurled along the skinny ridge. The fifth rock offered a natural staircase to climb, and a well-placed eastern red cedar branch, sturdy and extended like a pull-up bar, helped me hoist myself up. Smooth from years of use, it was the first sign on my hike that suggested frequent human visitation. A small plateau, dotted with smaller cedars and prickly ash, offered a magnificent overlook of the valley and surrounding countryside, laid bare without foliage. Looking left and right revealed the tops of the rest of the rocks, perfectly level and orderly. Twin farm silos, visible to the south, belied the remoteness I felt. I had found the Cabbage Rocks.
In the years since that first journey I have returned to the Cabbage Rocks many times, usually between October and April. (In summer dense plant cover, including nettles, makes travel an unpleasant affair.) It has become a rite of passage for friends and co-workers to venture to find the rocks, a local secret I delight in showing off. I take great joy in their wonder upon seeing the rocks for the first time, and their shared disbelief that a natural feature so striking could leave no paper trail behind it. I would be lying if I said I harbored no trepidation that revealing its story could increase its profile.
Seeking geological context for the rocks, I found my way to Anthony Runkel, chief geologist of the Minnesota Geological Survey. The Cabbage Rocks, he told me, are an outcrop of the Prairie du Chien Group, an expansive rock formation that is about 480 million years old. The rock group itself is fairly common, but so far no one has identified any specific pattern of erosion like this one.
It is mostly carbonate rock, Runkel told me, specifically dolostone, a type of rock similar to limestone.
Most of the Prairie du Chien was probably deposited as calcium carbonate mud that was commonly bound together with microbial mats. Once part of the ocean floor when this part of Minnesota was a shallow, tropical sea, these carbonate mats were preserved as one of many layers of rock now beneath our feet.
Over thousands of years, continuous flooding and flowing water has excavated the twin valleys that run alongside the Cabbage Rocks, eroding rock and stripping sediment on both sides of the center ridge to form the W that we see today. Wind, water, and time have stripped the dolostone clean, leaving behind a relic almost half a billion years old. Layers in the rock are visible, markers of growth, the passage of time manifested in both creation and destruction. If you squint hard enough, the blocky and cracked appearance of the eroded rocks, when viewed from a distance, almost look like the midribs and veins of a head of cabbage.
Still, I don't know who named the Cabbage Rocks, or why. As far as I can tell, no one knows anymore. I hope it stays that way. There is something about mystery, the unknown, that intrigues us when dealing with nature. And yet the other side of that coin is the thrill of discovery, of ripping off the cloak and seeing for ourselves. Like the rocks themselves, that happens in layers. First comes learning of a place, then finding it, next gaining even more knowledge about it, and eventually building a lasting relationship with what was once unknown. Secrecy is at the heart of what makes the Cabbage Rocks special, and the slow pace at which one peels back those layers is a necessary element of their character. The invasion of maps, signs, trails, and increased traffic would change that character, in both physical and spiritual ways. The inability to Google search hundreds of images of the place is essential to its allure.
Today, when I venture to see the rocks, I don't go to search in the same way that I once did. I know where they are; I have experimented with other entrances and paths in, and now in a land with few trails I don't get lost. The essence of a visit to the Cabbage Rocks is in curiosity, and the novelties I find along my walks there keep me going back. Recently, a family of beavers has taken up residence in the creek, clear-cutting huge sections of forest and building a remarkable dam.
Lately I've heard more whispers from locals, this time about an alleged natural amphitheater that exists somewhere west of the rocks. I have searched twice, following a loose and fleeting description I heard last summer, to no luck, and I'm OK with that. I'd rather mystery never leave the Cabbage Rocks.