We spent the unofficial start to summer visiting 11 parks in north central Minnesota over 3 days and 2 nights. This weekend was part of my mission to complete the Call of the Wildflowers geocache challenge before it ends on October 31, 2017.
The first stop was Iron Range Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) State Recreation Area (SRA). The first thing I noticed was all of the red clay — it was stunning.
I was unsure what to expect. Iron Range OHV boasts 36 miles of off-highway vehicle trails. I’m guessing hiking is also permitted, but I could not find information on the DNR website to confirm this (there was no verbiage saying hiking was not allowed, either).
A previous log on geocaching.com mentioned the active vehicle trails so we wanted to make sure we drove as close as possible to the geocache. We got within 180 feet or so, and it started to get farther away. We parked, and I attempted the find solo so we didn’t have to worry about the dogs getting run over or stressing them out.
There was a steep cliff, and I soon realized my amateur rock climbing skills were needed to find the geocache. Not safe. So I walked back to the vehicle and asked Alex if the road looped around. He consulted the map, and the road did not, but there were other trails I could take. These trails had a very steep incline, and I did not feel comfortable driving up them. As we parked again, a couple Jeep Wranglers drove by, and my top priority became not getting hit. I got out of the car, scaled a hill, and the number of feet away continued to decrease, so that was promising.
And then I saw the view and kicked myself for forgetting my camera in the car. The sun was about 30-40 degrees above the horizon, and I could see for miles. Miles and miles of green, kissed by a setting sun, with the town of (I’m guessing) Gilbert nestled in it. Absolutely stunning.
I found the geocache quickly and had my hands on the wildflower card. On the way back, I realized my Chevrolet Trax probably could have made it up the hill (although doing so may not have been wise due to large boulders scattered about — we’ll never know).
And hiking with vehicles in this SRA? Not as dangerous as I initially feared. They’re generally loud, so you hear them coming. And the vehicles cannot go fast anyway due to large boulders and ruts in the trail.
I returned to the car and we continued to Bear Head Lake State Park, where we camped for the night.
Bear Head Lake offers 5,685 acres with trails (hiking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling), picnicking, fishing, boating and paddling, swimming, camping (drive-in, hike-in, canoe-in, group, cabins), and more. We’ve stayed there before in a hike-in site, and overall, this park is great. It’s about 7 miles away from the nearest major highway, so there is not much traffic noise, and the waters are pristine. The biggest downside: the bugs. Mosquitos and biting flies are HORRIBLE, so it is best to visit in the early spring, late fall or winter.
Alex set the tent up while I made dinner. After we ate, we took a short trail to the lake from our campsite.
SO many songbirds, which turned to frogs as the night progressed, which turned to silence. Other campers were loud, though. Hannah barked at everything, so she was loud, too.
We went to bed fairly early. Mya woke me up at about midnight needing to poop. I walked her and the sky was clear, with millions of stars blinking at us. It was a tranquil night.
We woke for the day just before 7:00 AM. After coffee and breakfast, we loaded everything except the tent and took the Hiking Club trail on our way to the first geocache of the day. Our hike began with a chorus of croaking frogs and singing songbirds.
The day was perfect. Or would have been minus the mosquitos. We found the geocache, the Hiking Club password, and completed our hike.
We returned to the campsite, packed up the tent, and a short drive later parked at our next destination, Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park.
Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine boasts 4,048 acres, 5 miles of shoreline along Lake Vermilion, and Minnesota’s first iron ore mine. There are trails (hiking, snowshoeing, snowmobiling), camping (drive-in, canoe-in), picnicking, boating and paddling, fishing, historic sites, interpretive programs, mine tours, and more.
We found the geocache quickly and continued on the Hiking Club trail. By this time, my head throbbed, likely due to a combination of dehydration and caffeine withdrawal. We found the Hiking Club password, and because of my headache, the trail continued on for what seemed like forever. I tried redirecting my attention to the surrounding forest, making the pain slightly more bearable.
We eventually made it back to the car, loaded up, and drugs (acetaminophen) were consumed.
The next stop was McCarthy Beach State Park. McCarthy Beach has 2,356 acres with trails (hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, snowmobiling), access to the Taconite State Trail, camping (drive-in, walk-in, horse, group), picnicking, a playground, fishing, swimming, boating and paddling, and more.
We searched for the first stage for about 30-45 minutes. My head still throbbed and the park staff were not very helpful when I asked for a hint. I had a diva moment and was ready to quit and move on. Bless Alex’s heart, though, for he persisted and eventually the staff just gave him the coordinates to the second stage. It felt like cheating — all we wanted was a hint for what we were looking for, not the actual coordinates, but due to many factors, we resigned our search for stage 1 and accepted the cheat. After a couple other stages, we soon left with the wildflower card.
Scenic State Park was the next stop of the day. Scenic has 3,936 acres with trails (hiking, snowshoeing, snowmobiling), camping (drive-in, hike-in, canoe-in, horse, group, cabins), picnicking, fishing, swimming, boating and paddling, historic sites, interpretive programs, and more.
This was a quick find on a short hike. We contemplated hiking to one of the overlooks but decided we wanted to get going, as it was already 5:00 PM and we had one more stop to make before heading to the park we were camping at that night.
Hill Annex Mine State Park was next on the list. Hill Annex Mine is 625 acres and only open during the summer. The park itself is essentially just the mine and tours are available when it’s open. There is a picnic area and playground in the adjacent city park, as well as access to the Mesabi Trail.
The gates to Hill Annex were closed, but the cache was along the Mesabi Trail. I made the quick grab while Alex stayed with the dogs in the parking lot.
We ended the day at Schoolcraft State Park. Schoolcraft is 222 acres and contains trails (hiking, snowshoeing), camping (drive-in, canoe-in, group), picnicking, boating and paddling, an historic site, and access to the Mississippi River. The DNR website also says the park is home to a white pine that is more than 300 years old.
When we were done setting up camp and eating dinner, we took the dogs for a quick walk around the campground. Hannah did her dooty in front of the only other campsite with two barky, reactive dogs. As we were walking away, I told Alex that at least we weren’t the only ones with poorly behaved pooches.
We packed up the next morning and started the search for the geocache. The grass looked a little high and since Alex found the first tick of the season while setting up the tent, we decided I would search for this one on my own. Pants tucked into my socks, and I was on my way. The trail itself was not bad, though.
The stages zigzagged me through a picnic area, and I saw the car on the way to the final. I signed the log, grabbed the card, and we were on our way.
Next up was Savanna Portage State Park. Savanna Portage spans 15,818 acres of rich history. It is provides access to the Savanna Portage Trail, an historic and difficult 6-mile link from the St. Louis River/Lake Superior and the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico. The park also lies over the Continental Divide, where water to the east travels to Lake Superior and water to the west travels to the Mississippi River. The park offers trails (hiking, mountain biking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, fat biking, snowmobiling), camping (drive-in, canoe-in, hike-in, group, cabins), picnicking, a playground, fishing, swimming, boating and paddling, historic sites, interpretive programs, and more.
I really wish we had more time to spend in this park, so we will be back at some point. We got rained on when looking for the geocache and saw evidence of beavers along the way.
The final stage was near a boardwalk through a bog, so we checked this unique ecosystem out.
Next up was Cuyuna Country SRA. Cuyuna Country encompasses 4,626 acres and offers trails (biking, mountain biking, winter fat biking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing), camping (drive-in, walk-in, group), access to the Cuyuna Lakes State Trail, picnicking, historic sites, self-guided mine tours, swimming, boating and paddling, fishing, and more.
The first stage brought us to the park office. We then had to drive about four miles through town to the final, which was a quick grab behind a rock.
Next up was Crow Wing State Park, which contains 3,291 acres and offers trails (hiking, biking, snowshoeing, snowmobiling), camping (drive-in, group, cabins), picnicking, fishing, boating and paddling, access to the Mississippi and Crow Wing Rivers, historic sites, access to the Paul Bunyan State Trail, and more.
This is another park I wished we could have explored more of. We found the geocache quickly while the sky started to clear.
We were supposed to camp here but since we had only one more park to visit, we decided to head home instead. Final stop for this tour was Charles A. Lindbergh State Park, which is 576 acres and the site of the childhood home of the famous pilot, Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr. The park is named after his father, Charles, Sr., and offers trails (hiking, snowshoeing), camping (drive-in, cart-in, group), picnicking, a playground, fishing, boating and paddling, historic sites, and more.
It was raining when we arrived. The park staff was super friendly and super chatty. After a few minutes, Alex and I were on our way. We ended up going down the wrong side of a creek in search of the 3rd stage, but discovered our mistake and backtracked to the correct path. We found the next stage and continued on. It stopped raining and warmed up considerably, so we made a pit stop at the car to drop the rain gear off. We zigzagged through the park again, taking another wrong turn near some sculptures, but soon had our hands on the final stage and the wildflower card.
The dogs were exhausted when we got home, so all missions were accomplished this weekend.
Although we cut our trip short by a night, it was nice having a day to rest before returning to the daily grind of everyday life. We got a taste of the parks in north central Minnesota and drove through a couple state forests, too, and it awoke a hunger to investigate this area further. We hope to go back in the very near future.
Note: Two other great parks to check out in this north central loop: Mille Lacs-Kathio State Park (another park rich with history) and Father Hennepin State Park. We picked up their respective wildflower cards on a visit in 2016.