Camping in Myre-Big Island and Geocaching in Southeastern Minnesota State Parks

The weekend before the 4th of July we stayed a night at Myre-Big Island State Park.

Myre-Big Island is just off Interstate 35, nestled in Albert Lea north of the Minnesota-Iowa border. The park encompasses over 1,700 acres and offers trails (hike, bike, mountain bike, cross-country ski, snowshoe, snowmobile), camping and lodging (drive-in, hike-in, group, cabins), interpretive programs, picnicking, boating and paddling, fishing, swimming, birding opportunities, and provides access to the Blazing Star State Trail.

I’d made a brief visit here about a year and a half ago to find the previous Minnesota State Parks geocaching challenge, Call of the Wildflowers. That day, I was racing the sunset, so this time around, I was excited to have more time to explore the park.

However, with temperatures in the high 90s to low 100s, central/southern Minnesota under an excessive heat warning until 10:00 PM on our arrival date, and storms forecasted the next afternoon and evening, we decided before leaving home that we would only stay one night and race the storms the next day by stopping at as many parks as we could on the way home.

We arrived at about 6:30 PM, checked in, and made our way to find the Aquatic Quest geocache for the Blazing Star State Trail. We found the second stage, and I made the short trek through the prairie’s tallgrass to get the coordinates for the final. We saw a deer on the way and lots of songbirds and butterflies. I found the final, and as I went to grab it, a garter snake slithered away from where the cache was, making me scream, jump back and freak out, all to Alex’s amusement. I signed the log, grabbed the quest card and we returned to the car. It was about a 1.2-mile trek round-trip.

We parked in the campground where backpackers are supposed to park, loaded up and started the 1-mile hike to our site. There was so much ENERGY in the air. It was difficult for me to stay focused on the task at hand (walking to the site) since I was enthralled by the dancing tallgrass, fluttering wildlife, sunset-kissed landscape, and plentiful deer population. We saw deer, bunnies, and more deer.

We also found stage 2 for the Myre-Big Island State Park Aquatic Quest geocache and decided to search for it the next morning. Our site was right on the lake — and we had pelican neighbors!

We set up camp and Alex made dinner (freeze-dried chicken and mashed potatoes) while I set up the tent and the fireflies welcomed us. Once the sun set, there were SO many of them.

Alex trekked down to the lake to refill our water, but the lake looked a little sketchy; since we were so close to the campground and drinkable water, we decided to hold off on filtering.

It was windy out, but it did not deter the local mosquito population, so we called it a day shortly after it got dark. On my return from the loo, I rounded the bend to where our tent was and was greeted by a stunning red moon rising over the lake.

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It was hot and humid, the mosquitoes and fireflies were pretty persistent, yet I was content as could be.

With that said, the night was miserable. It was windy, bright from the moon light, and the air was heavy — it was a fairly restless sleep. But I woke feeling energized and ready to tackle the plan for the day.

We were up and packed by about 8:00 AM. Before leaving, we were treated to a squadron of pelicans touring the lake.

The first goal was to find the Myre-Big Island Aquatic Quest geocache. So, we walked 0.3 miles away from the car to the third stage… which had coordinates that led 0.6 miles right back to near our campsite. About halfway back was a trail intersection with a picnic table. Since we thought there was one more stage, Alex waited there with our packs while I went to find the next coordinates. After a short search, I noticed that something did not look quite right on one of the signs, and voila! The final geocache was found, and we were on our way.

We made a quick pit stop at a Caribou Coffee in Albert Lea for coffee and breakfast and then headed to our next destination.

Lake Louise State Park is the southernmost state park in Minnesota. At 1,168 acres, this park offers trails (hike, bike, horse, cross-country ski, snowshoe, snowmobile), camping (drive-in, horse, group), interpretive programs, an historic site, picnicking, fishing, swimming, and provides access to the Shooting Star State Trail.

We found the first stage of the Lake Louise geocache pretty quickly, parked the car and started walking down the trail.

We found the second stage, started towards the third stage, turned the bend… and there was a KITTEN, excited to see us.

He followed us all the way to the final. The rescuer in me could not leave this little guy out there (he clearly was not feral, otherwise he would have bolted in the opposite direction). I wanted to keep him and bring him on hiking adventures with us, Alex did not, and we settled on seeing what the park staff would recommend. Our new friend continued to follow us on our return to the parking lot (although, a little less enthusiastically than when we were heading in the other direction), so I picked him up and carried him to the car.

At the park entrance, the staff person said she had seen him by the dam and thought he might belong to one of the houses next to the park over there. So, we dropped him off in that area and hoped for the best. He snuggled with me the whole 5-minute car ride, and it broke my heart leaving him (Update: I contacted the Friends of Lake Louise State Park Facebook page when we got home, and they posted his photo and gave me and update that one of the park neighbors was feeding him that evening, so fingers crossed he finds his way home!)

After the cat fiasco, we searched for the Shooting Star State Trail geocache. The first stage was a quick find, and then we walked to the second stage.

The final was about 0.4 miles away. We consulted the map and decided to drive most of the way (we were in a race against impending storms after all) and parked in a dead end close to where we dropped the kitten off (we didn’t see him again).

Since we weren’t completely sure that we were allowed to park there, Alex stayed in the car while I made the 0.2-mile walk to the final. I found it and on to the next park!

The next park is one that is still on my Minnesota State Parks bucket list to explore more of, but it would have to wait for another day. Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park provides trails (hike, bike, horse, cross-country ski, snowshoe, snowmobile), camping and lodging (drive-in, group, horse, cabins), picnicking, trout fishing, interpretive exhibits and programs, and more. The park is most known for two features: Historic Forestville and Mystery Cave. Historic Forestville is run by the Minnesota Historical Society (additional fees apply) and immerses visitors in 1899 town life with costumed interpreters. Mystery Cave is the longest known cave in Minnesota with a network of underground passages that span over 13 miles; various tours are available for an additional fee.

The last time I was here, it was dark, so it was nice to be able to see it by daylight. The stages for this geocache were pretty easy, but UFF DA. They led us down into a creek bed, which was quite the hilly hike back out.

Next up was Beaver Creek Valley State Park, where I thought we were staying earlier in the week (fortunately, Alex confirmed with me well in advance so we figured it out before arriving at the wrong park!). Beaver Creek Valley offers trails (hike, cross-country ski, snowshoe), camping and lodging (drive-in, walk-in, group, cabins), picnicking, playground, trout fishing, swimming, and interpretive exhibits. Unique wildlife: Although rare, rattlesnakes can be found in the park.

The stages for this geocache were pretty easy to find again, and it brought us over a swinging bridge with a sign stating only one person at a time was allowed on the bridge. From there, it was another steep hike. The final brought us up the Switchback Trail, which was only 1 mile but a steep climb up the side of a cliff — it was literally a trail of switchbacks.


We were rewarded with a nice view, though.

On the way back to the car, we were swimming in sweat and the air was heavy with humidity. We decided this was the last stop for the day and started to head home. As we got about 10-15 minutes into the drive, the radio was interrupted by a severe thunderstorm warning notification for the area near LaCrosse, WI. The conversation went something like, “Oh, we’re not near LaCrosse, we should be fine.” And then Alex checked the navigation map and realized we were hopping on Interstate 90 just west of LaCrosse, at about the same time that the storm was supposed to hit.

So, of course, we ended up driving right into it.

It was mostly pouring rain, heavy winds and some pretty crazy lightning bolts. We hydroplaned a couple times and passed a number of cars stopped under overpasses. It was crazy to drive through but we made it!

Southern Minnesota has some pretty spectacular parks (including Carley and Whitewater State Parks, which I wrote about in this blog post). We still have more to explore and find Aquatic Quest geocaches in, including Great River Bluffs State Park (with views of the Mississippi River valley) and John A. Latsch State Park (which has more views of the Mississippi River valley after a strenuous ½ mile hike to the top of Mount Charity), but those will have to wait for another day.