Northwestern Minnesota State Park Tour

It’s been awhile since I last posted. Daily life and weekend adventuring have left me exhausted… plus I took a TON of photos for this blog post, and I’m a lazy procrastinator.

ANYHOO.

We managed THE tour of state parks over the July 4th holiday weekend: 14 parks over 5 days and 4 nights. Apparently when I planned this trek, I was extremely ambitious and on a mission. Or maybe crazy. Or maybe a little of all of the above.

Our extended weekend started with Lake Carlos State Park. Lake Carlos is 1,214 acres and offers trails (hiking, horseback riding, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling), historic sites, interpretive programs, camping (drive-in, horse, group, cabins), picnicking, volleyball, boating and paddling, fishing, and swimming.

We found the final stage quickly, but it was unobtainable because of a combination lock — we needed to find clues to open it!

As we started towards the first stage, a doe stood about 50 feet ahead.

01 Lake Carlos

She bolted as we got closer, white tail high in the air. A few seconds later, she appeared again with a fawn. We found the stages quickly after that, got the wildflower card and drove around the park a bit. The campground overlooks the lake, but the sites are crammed in like sardines.

From there, we continued on to the 2,761-acre Glendalough State Park, where a cabin awaited us for the night. Glendalough offers trails (hiking, biking, mountain biking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing), interpretive programs, camping (cart-in, canoe-in, group, cabins, yurts), picnicking, paddling, fishing, swimming, and sledding.

We made a pit stop at Dairy Queen (our tradition) before rolling into the park just before sunset. It was at this time that I realized our cabin was walk-in, not drive-in. Fortunately, we packed most of our backpacking stuff in tupperwares, and carts were available so it was not too bad hauling everything in.

After dropping our stuff off, we walked to Sunset Lake to watch the sunset. We saw another doe and a number of waterfowl. It was very calm and beautiful, and the lake lived up to its name.

After, we built a fire and played a game of cribbage. So many stars twinkling in the sky, and the moon brightly illuminated the campsite (even at half light). Frogs and crickets sang a chorus, accompanied by a gentle breeze through the trees and a light show from TONS of fireflies. Some coyotes yipped in the distance. All the world was fabulous.

I awoke the next morning to my Garmin activity tracker rudely telling me to MOVE. It was 8:00 AM, and time to start the day. Songbirds providing background music while we packed up the cabin, and we drove toward the first stage.

The first stage was on the walk to the lake, where we planned to eat breakfast and consume coffee. This geocache was a puzzle! Where we needed to identify flowers. Crap. My Trax is a WiFi hotspot so we were able to get the answer to the first stage by consulting The Google. The next stages brought us further down the trail, where we had no cell service, but fortunately we had a number of wildflower cards already, so we hauled with us the 3-ring binder that contained my collection. If the cards did not have the answer, we were good at guessing and soon found the final. We searched for and found a second geocache and were on our way.

The next stop of the weekend was Maplewood State Park. Maplewood is 10,279 acres and offers trails (hiking, horseback riding, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling), camping (drive-in, hike-in, horse, group, cabins), interpretive exhibits, picnicking, boating and paddling, fishing, and swimming.

The geocache was a quick find up a steep hill. The hill we climbed used to be a ski area, and we saw one of the old lifts before ascending.

We checked out some more of the park and drove to the campgrounds. This park is huge and we only scratched the surface of exploring it. I hope to return in the future.

The next stop was Buffalo River State Park. Buffalo River is 1,355 acres and offers trails (hiking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing), interpretive programs, camping (drive-in, group), picnicking, swimming, and fishing.

The geocache was a quick find. Alex saw a deer and we both heard it disappear near the river.

Final stop for the day was Red River State Recreation Area (SRA), where a walk-in campsite awaited us. Red River is 104 acres and offers trails (hiking, biking), interpretive programs, camping (drive-in, walk-in, group), picnicking, a playground, boating and paddling, and fishing. The park is within walking distance to downtown Grand Forks, ND, and East Grand Forks, MN, with access to restaurants and other amenities. This park was established after the 1997 flooding of the Red and Red Lake Rivers, which devastated both cities. After the floodplain was redrawn, 500 homes and other buildings on the Minnesota side were bought, and the land was turned into a state recreation area. The campground roads are the same roads of the neighborhood that once stood there.

After checking in at the park office, I met another geocaching couple, who went by Posen and Savanna, also on a mission to find wildflower cards this weekend. We were continuing on a similar path (although they’d end up being a day ahead of us).

Alex and I found the geocache quickly after setting up our campsite. We made our way to a second geocache, which ended up being my 300th geocache find.

Our campsite was right on the river. It was peaceful, with the exception of trains nearby. There is another park on the North Dakota side, so we saw other people across the river, but other than that, it was a pretty private location.

Being here made me nostalgic — I went to college at the University of North Dakota and have fond memories of visiting businesses within walking distance of where we were. In addition, I’m super observant and never even knew this SRA existed during my college days (in my defense, it was newer at the time).

We hit the road fairly quickly the next morning. The first stop was Old Mill State Park. Old Mill is 408 acres and offers trails (hiking, snowshoeing, snowmobiling), picnicking, camping (drive-in, group), volleyball and horseshoes, an historic site, sledding, and swimming.

We quickly found the geocache and then continued on the Hiking Club trail. There was an inland swimming pool. Further on, we saw a raptor soaring overhead and the first lady slippers of the weekend (I couldn’t get a decent photo, though).

Next stop was Lake Bronson State Park. Lake Bronson is 4,375 acres and offers trails (hiking, biking, mountain biking, horseback riding, snowshoeing, snowmobiling), interpretive exhibits, camping (drive-in, hike-in, canoe-in, group), historic sites, picnicking, a playground, volleyball and horseshoes, fishing and swimming. This park is home to the largest observation tower in the Minnesota state park system. Lake Bronson was created by a dam that backed up South Branch Two River.

The geocache was a quick find, and there was a note on the log from Posen and Savanna: “Hi Spiffy :)” (I sign the logs as Spiffy, a shortened version of SpiFfyoGeez, my geocaching.com username)

We continued on the 3.4-mile Hiking Club trail. We saw a lot of wildlife, including songbirds, pollinators, a woodpecker that tried to attack us (not really, but maybe), a raptor, lady slippers, and signs of beavers. We were both pretty exhausted and slightly dehydrated when we got back to the car.

Next up was Hayes Lake State Park, where we had a cabin reserved. Hayes Lake is 2,966 acres and offers trails (hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, snowshoeing, snowmobiling), camping (drive-in, hike-in, group, cabins), interpretive programs, an historic site, picnicking, horseshoes, boating and paddling, fishing, and swimming. Hayes Lake was created by a dam that backed up the North Fork Roseau River.

The geocache was a quick find, and then we made our way to the cabin. It was a simple, rustic cabin with a view of the lake.

After unpacking, we continued to the Hiking Club trail. We saw more wildlife and the dam that created the lake from the Rosseau River. We almost got attacked by a grouse on the way back to the cabin.

We had a number of visitors at the cabin that night. A tiny squirrel was oh, so hopeful we would feed it (it found a corncob in the fire ring from the previous cabin inhabitants). A chipmunk also tried to get in on the food. A rabbit hopped up while I was journaling, and we had a staring contest. A Canadian goose called out in the distance, and a mallard duck startled me when it flew out of the trees while I read at dusk.

We wanted to leave at 6:30 the next morning, but both of us ignored my alarm and we hit the road by about 8:30. Better late than never?

First stop was Zippel Bay State Park. Zippel Bay is 3,054 acres and offers trails (hiking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling), interpretive exhibits, camping (drive-in, group), an historic site, picnicking, volleyball, fishing and swimming. The park sits on the white-sand beaches and southern shore of Lake of the Woods.

This was the furthest north either of us had ever been. There were two wildflower geocaches (Garden Island State Recreation Area is on an island 20-some miles away, and the DNR was kind enough to offer an alternative geocache for those who do not have access to a boat).

The first geocache was a quick find, although some turkey vultures and a raven startled us (and us them). On to the next cache and the Hiking Club trail. We parked at the carry-in boat launch and hiked along the beach of Lake of the Woods.

We continued along a trail further inland and were swarmed by dragonflies (or damselflies? we’ll never know for sure now). SWARMED — we bolted back to the beach and found ourselves no longer being attacked but instead covered with about a dozen hitchhikers each.

After we collected ourselves from our near death-by-dragonfly experience, we found the second geocache near the inlet of Zippel Bay. On the trail back, we saw another doe and fawn. We drove down the campground roads and decided we’d like to come back at some point.

Next stop was Franz Jevne State Park. At 88 acres, Franz Jevne is the smallest park in the Minnesota state park system. It is nestled along the Rainy River on the Canadian border and offers trails (hiking, snowshoeing), picnicking, camping (drive-in, walk-in), and fishing.

The trail provided views of the Rainy River (which did not live up to its name), an old international border marker and signs of beavers. We also saw Montreal birch and a 2.5-billion-year-old rock.

Next up was Big Bog State Recreation Area. Big Bog is 9,121 acres, is split into two units about 9 miles apart, and offers trails (hiking, snowshoeing, snowmobiling), interpretive exhibits, camping (drive-in, cabins),  picnicking, a playground, horseshoes, boating and paddling, fishing, and swimming. The park boasts the longest boardwalk in America and the largest peat bog in the lower 48 states. Aside from (foiled) attempts to drain it in the early 1900s, the bog is untouched and looks same as it has for thousands of years.

The Hiking Club trail was in the northern portion through the bog and we decided to tackle that first. We heard songbirds and saw a number of flowers (including bug eating plants).

Heading back to the car, we saw a number of lady slippers, butterflies and some fish.

The geocache was a quick find in the southern portion, which had a nice beach area.

We saw a bear cross the road on the way to our next stop, Lake Bemidji State Park. Lake Bemidji is 1,728 acres and offers trails (hiking, biking, mountain biking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling), interpretive programs, camping (drive-in, group, cabins), picnicking, a playground, volleyball, boating and paddling, a marina, fishing, and swimming. A boardwalk provides access to a tamarack bog.

We rolled into Lake Bemidji and I quickly spotted the final — except it was another puzzle! Fortunately, we were able to walk the same route as the Hiking Club trail (two birds, one stone). The trail meandered along the bog boardwalk, which had interpretive identification signs along the way. We were rewarded for our efforts with a loon sighting on the bog lake.

Next stop was La Salle Lake State Recreation Area (SRA). La Salle Lake is the newest SRA in the state park system. The park is 986 acres and offers trails (hiking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling), camping (drive-in, cabins), boating and paddling, fishing, and swimming.

The geocache was a very quick find. We continued to the Hiking Club trail which led to a scenic overlook of where the infant Mississippi River met the La Salle Creek.

We ate dinner near where we parked. La Salle Lake was so calm, you could see the sunlight off the trees in the reflection on the water.

Our picnic table overlooked a playground with a child-sized tunnel. One of us got the brilliant idea to see if we could fit through. We could. But not very easily. Lots of laughter ensued afterward.

After dinner and playtime, we moved on to the final destination of the weekend. We rolled into Itasca State Park at about 9:30 PM, where we had a cart-in site reserved. Established in 1891, Itasca is the oldest park in the Minnesota state park system. It is 33,235 acres and offers trails (hiking, biking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling), interpretive programs, camping (drive-in, hike-in, cart-in, group) and lodging (guest house, lodge), historic sites, record pines, picnicking, a playground, volleyball, boating and paddling, fishing, and swimming. The park is also home to the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi River.

The park office was closed, so we went straight to the campground. All of the parking spaces were full by the cart-in sites, and after touring the campground once, we took our chances and made our own parking spot next to the designated parking area. We set up camp, cleaned up a bit, and then lay down for sleep.

Alex woke me up the next morning by saying, “It’s clouded over and looks like it’s going to rain.” It was 6:45 AM. After a few moments of laying there and hoping he’d go away, we decided to pack up. When he opened the rainfly, there was not a cloud in the sky. Funny guy (not).

We passed a biker on the way to the geocache, and he was LOVING life, with a huge grin plastered across his face.

Two birds with one stone again with this one. We heard a loon when getting ready to hit the trail. The geocache was a quick find. The 3.5-mile Hiking Club trail brought us past the hike-in campsite we stayed at on our first camping trip together, and the trail was as hilly as we remembered. The bugs were pretty horrible, too.

We did some sightseeing and went to the Mississippi headwaters. We took off our hiking shoes and waded in. The water was cool at first, alarming and shocking. But so refreshing, and it felt amazing on our beaten-up soles.

13 Itasca5

The perfect end to a perfect weekend.