2016 Minnesota State Parks: Water and Woods

Friday, November 4, 2016 Saint Paul

The St. Croix River, looking into Wisconsin

The St. Croix River, looking into Wisconsin

This was a three-day, two night swing to cover six state parks. Chris has a goal of seeing almost all 76 state parks in three years. So far, we are sixteen months into the project and have visited 57 of 76 state parks. One state park is only accessible by boat and we do not have a boat. Fall colors are past peak. (For those of you unfamiliar with this, in the fall deciduous trees shed their leaves after the leaves turn red, orange, yellow and shades in between. This is not the scientific explanation, but the simplistic explanation of what we see. The vibrancy of the colors and actual dates of coloration vary from year to year. In general, this fall was spectacular.) For early in November, the weather was perfect. Ten to twenty degrees warmer than usual. Bright blue skies. Plenty of rainfall earlier so rivers are still running strong.

The six parks are no more than 100 miles apart. For this journey, we stayed somewhat in the center of the region at the Grand Casino at Mille Lacs Lake. How could we not? The mid-week, off-season rate was only $40 per night!. The indoor pool was large and the spa could hold 21, if that many actually showed up. We went to the spa and pool both days, at 4-6 PM it was practically empty. At 8-9 PM, there were maybe 20 people, 1/3 kids. Recognize that the casino is run by the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. There is smoking in the casino (although our room was non-smoking.), there is no alcohol (fine by us), and no ADA compliant entrance/egress into the pool or spa. We ate at the buffet both nights and the food was tasty. Good choice for lodging.

Hiking through the woods at Wild River State Park

Hiking through the woods at Wild River State Park

So, on to the parks, the reason for the trip. Tuesday we drove to Wild River State Park, only 60 miles from our house. Wild River is along the St. Croix River, one of the eight rivers originally protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968. About 70% of the land was donated by Northern States Power Company. Pre-state park days, great swaths of northern Minnesota pine trees were the source of lumbering with great fortunes made. The St. Croix was a transportation route for shipping the cut logs downriver to sawmills. At a point in the park, a dam was constructed to control the logs and to help enhance a hydroelectric power plant downstream. NSP ended up owning the land and when the dam here was not needed to control logs or for the hydro plant, they were willing to donate the land to the state. Thus, the park is long and narrow, along the banks of the river.

Inside the park, alternating areas of tallgrass prairie, mixed hardwoods forest (that replaced the cut pines), and oak savannah plains intermingle. We hiked primarily along the river, overtaking and then being overtaken by a group of six people who seem to hike here regularly. We did not see boaters today but the river itself was flowing fast and we could hear it gurgle as it swept into and then around small rock islands. It appears that horse back riding has ended for the season so those trails were quiet and it is too soon for cross-country skiing and snow shoeing. Hikers seemed to have the park to themselves today.

From Wild River we headed west to Mille Lacs Lake. Mille Lacs is shallow, only about 40 foot maximum but it is the second largest lake in Minnesota. It is about 14 miles wide and about 19 miles long. It was formed when the glaciers retreated and at the point where the end moraine of one glacial lobe created a ridge blocking most water from flowing out. The park is named after Father Louis Hennepin, a French Franciscan Recollect priest-explorer. Father Hennepin came to Mille Lacs Lake after Native Americans captured him and two fellow explorers in 1679 hundreds of miles south along the Mississippi River and brought him to Mille Lacs Lake. Eventually he was released and returned to France. Mille Lacs was a gathering, hunting, and fishing location for Native Americans for hundreds of years. It is still home to many Native Americans. The casino here is on reservation land. The State of Minnesota and Indian tribes have a mutual agreement over fishing rights to Mille Lacs under treaties dating back to the 1800s, although Governor Dayton this summer unilaterally broke the mutually agreed upon 2016 limit for walleye which did not endear him to the Indian tribes.

At Father Hennepin State Park, looking at the two islands comprising the national wildlife refuge

At Father Hennepin State Park, looking at the two islands comprising the national wildlife refuge

Father Hennepin Park is small, located on the south shore of Mille Lacs Lake, and is not even where he is thought to have been held but it still represents the early exploration period in Minnesota. On the lake are two small islands which are the smallest national wildlife refuges in the country. The two islands are the nesting and breeding grounds for the common tern. We walked along the shore, out to a headland jutting out into the lake. After Father Hennepin, we drove a short distance to Mille Lacs Kathio State Park, located along the southwest corner of Mille Lacs Lake. Mille Lacs Kathio is much larger, about 10,000 acres. The naming of the park takes after names from the Dakota Indians for the “Sacred Lake”. The Dakota lived here before the Ojibwe replaced them in this area in the 1800s. The word Kathio comes from poor translations by the French of Dakota words.

We have been to Mille Lacs Kathio before, both to cross-country ski and to geo-cache and to hike with Bernie and Tony. Our stay here was brief, daylight was drawing to a close. Grand Casino Mille Lacs is just a few miles away so we checked in and enjoyed the spa and buffet.

Looking down on Cuyuna Country Recreation Area from one overlook

Looking down on Cuyuna Country Recreation Area from one overlook

Thursday morning we drove an hour to visit a new type of state park. Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area is new, technically becoming a park in 1993. However, it took almost twenty years before it became a major recreational site. The 5,000+ acres were home to open-pit iron ore mining. The area was abandoned by mining companies over thirty years ago and the park specializes in mountain biking. Over 25 miles of trails will challenge the mountain bike rider with a new trail center to allow for competitions to be held here.

Cuyuna Country with mining waste hill to right

Cuyuna Country with mining waste hill to right

Cuyuna has 21 lakes, 15 of which are former iron ore mines. The water is clear now and scuba diving has found a home here along with fishing. Vegetation is now prevalent on the abandoned hills of mining waste; although the red rock roads and hills are stark reminders of the iron ore geology. Hiking is not a major focus here although one state trail goes through the park. After mistaking exploring back roads of private property next to the park, we viewed the park from the water level and then again from the top of two overlooks. There were just a few mountain bikers out; I guess most were in school. The trails certainly seemed challenging enough. They did not tempt us to try to rent a mountain bike, we will leave that for the more agile and adventurous.

"Main Street" of Old Crow Wing with Mississippi River just to the left

“Main Street” of Old Crow Wing with Mississippi River just to the left

Crow Wing State Park is thirty miles from Cuyuna and is much more your typical state park. Crow Wing was a gathering place at the confluence of the Crow Wing and Mississippi Rivers. The Dakota and Ojibwe gathered here in settlements. The Red River Oxcart Trail had one branch traveling through this area. This trail was the major trading route between St. Paul and Winnipeg. Fur traders and missionaries began a settlement here and the logging industry in Minnesota kept the town prosperous until the railroads laid their tracks through the neighboring community of Brainerd and Crow Wing as a town dried up.

Hiking along the old Red River Oxcart Trail

Hiking along the old Red River Oxcart Trail

At Crow Wing we were able to view the old town site, lined along the banks where the two rivers meet. A recreated boardwalk and building foundations give one a sense of life here 160 or so years ago. Canoeists on the river replaced the thousands of pine logs that would have floated down the river to sawmills downstream. A hike through the woods demonstrated the sandy soil of much of the area which keeps the trails dry. The hike presented a peaceful way to end the outdoor part of the day. The spa and buffet took care of the indoor portion.

Friday we headed east for 70 miles, back to the St. Croix River which forms much of the Minnesota-Wisconsin northern border. St. Croix State Park at 33,000 acres is our largest park. The St. Croix is joined here by the Kettle River, both active rivers duirng the lumbering period of the late 1800s. Most of the land was purchased when homesteaders tried, and failed, to make a living farming on the cut-over logging land. The Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration constructed many of the park facilities still in use.

Hiking along the Kettle River at St. Croix State Park

Hiking along the Kettle River at St. Croix State Park

It took us 30 minutes of driving inside the park to reach our first destination; an overlook touting the “Head of the Rapids”. For once, it was more hype than reality. We retraced our steps partially and went for a nice hike along the Kettle River, spotting our second bald eagle of this trip. We checked out the camper cabins but they appeared to be less modern than my taste prefers. We also wasted time trying to get Chris’ State Park Passport book stamped. Normally there is a ranger at the main office or visitor center; when there is none, some form of outside stand will hold the stamps along with self registration and entrance fee paperwork. Neither option presented itself to us, despite returning to the office several times, stopping a carpenter who was working on a building, and driving through the staff only area in search of a ranger. We finally left and just wrote in the book: We Were Here-Really.

St. Croix is only 90 minutes from home so it was an easy drive back. Interstate 35 northbound was busy; Saturday was the first day of deer hunting season and the boys and their toys were gunning up the highway to be in place before the season started 30 minutes before dawn.

Ed and Chris

Categories: road trip, travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “2016 Minnesota State Parks: Water and Woods

  1. Wonderful post!

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