Rising above the treetops at Sibley State Park is an icon of Kandiyohi County –Mt. Tom and its viewing shelter. The shelter, constructed in 1938, became a destination for people who visited one of Minnesota’s best-known state parks.
The shelter and the rest of Sibley State Park will be on full display as one of the highlights for guests during the 71st Annual Minnesota Governor’s Fishing Opener taking place in the Willmar lakes area.
Designated as a state park in 1919, the park is named for Minnesota’s first governor, Henry Hastings Sibley. The 3,400-acre park hosts nearly 40,000 overnight visitors and more than 300,000 visitors annually.
The original viewing shelter was designed by National Park Service architect Edward Barber, and built by the Veterans Conservation Corps. The vista over the surrounding woods and grasslands captivated visitors.
“The landscape doesn’t look how it did when I was a boy,” said Sibley State Park manager Jack Nelson. “Trees have replaced the grasslands on much of the park, which has significantly changed the view from the Mt. Tom shelter.”
The altered viewshed is a result of past land management principles, which dictated the planting of trees and allowing nature to take its course without human interference. However, research has since determined that fire and bison grazing had significant impacts on the area’s grasslands – meaning forested areas in that region largely didn’t exist before European settlement. Fire suppression and the disappearance of wild bison in the state meant trees were allowed to grow largely unchecked, eventually populating much of Sibley State Park.
In fact, by the early 1990s, the trees overtook Mt. Tom and obstructed the view from the shelter. That prompted local community groups, volunteers, and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to raise money for a second level to the viewing shelter, bringing visitors once again above the treetops.
Additional work to stabilize the staircase took place in 2016 after a routine inspection found a critical safety issue. With the repairs complete, the viewing shelter resumed its place as a West Central Minnesota sightseeing destination, remaining one of the most popular attractions in one of Minnesota’s most visited parks.
“It’s certainly a jewel,” said Nelson. “I have fond memories as a child when my family visited the park, and it continues to create memories for new generations of visitors. It’s still a breathtaking view.”
In the last decade, work to restore at least part of that view has gotten underway with the removal of trees from Mt. Tom’s higher elevations. Native grasses and flowers are planted in their place, with grassland restoration work to continue for many years into the future. New land management practices will keep woody vegetation at bay, assuring a view from the top of Kandiyohi County for generations to come.