10 Little-known state park gems

Chris Niskanen

Which of Minnesota's state parks still offer surpries and little-know attractions? Here's inside advice from the DNR's park staff.

You've been to the North Shore and ogled Gooseberry Falls. You've tiptoed across the rocks at the headwaters of the Mississippi River at Itasca. You've camped at Jay Cooke and hiked at Afton.

Are there any Minnesota state parks that have surprises left?

I asked the state park staff at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to answer that question. Mostly, I was curious to learn about unusual events and off-the-beaten-trail parks that maybe you've never been to. Maybe you've never heard of them.

Here's a list of state parks and recreation areas that may offer an experience you haven't had, in places you might not think to go this summer.

For parks information, go to www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_ parks/index.html

1. TRAIN RAILS, NATURE TRAILS AT WILLIAM O'BRIEN STATE PARK

This popular St. Croix River park north of Marine on St. Croix has gone high-tech. Visitors can sign out an mp3 player and get a prerecorded natural history tour by park naturalist Diane Hedin. The park has two players and they're not signed out often (probably because few people know about the service.) Also, on July 5 and Sept. 6, visitors can hop aboard the train that runs from Osceola to Marine for an "Antique Train Ride." A naturalist on board will point out cultural features of the St. Croix Valley. You have to hike a mile into the park to get to the train stop, which picks up riders at 10:45 a.m. It returns to the park at 3:30 p.m. Reservations aren't needed, but the costis $15 for adults, $10 for children 16 and younger and free for children younger than 4.

Number of campsites: 124 drive-in; 61 electric; two group camps

Phone: 651-433-0500

2. CAMPING THE NATIVE WAY AT UPPER SIOUX AGENCY STATE PARK

The tipis at Upper Sioux Agency State Park near Granite Falls offer perhaps the most unique camping experience at any Minnesota state park. The tipis are situated in a grassy meadow near the Yellow Medicine River, providing insight into the lifestyle of the Dakota Indians who once camped on the same location. The tipi sites have a picnic table, parking spot and fire ring. (No open flames or smoking are allowed inside the tipi). Reservations are taken up to a year in an advance. The park's interpretive exhibit tells of life at the old village site 8,000 years ago; you can also learn about the more recent history of the Dakota and the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux of 1851 that moved the Indians from Iowa and Minnesota to a reservation along the Minnesota River Valley. The agency was set up to administer terms of the treaty. It was destroyed in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

Number of campsites: 34 drive-in; 14 electric; three walk-in

Phone: 320-564-4777

3. CARNIVOROUS PLANTS, BIG WALLEYES AT BIG BOG STATE RECREATION AREA

For two miles, you can walk across an elevated, metal boardwalk into the largest peat bog in the lower 48 states. I've done it, and you'll be surprised by the solitude and fascinating flora you'll find along the boardwalk at Big Bog State Recreation Area near Waskish. Bring your camera because you'll want to photograph the many species of insect-eating plants along the walkway. Ask park staff about the old steam shovels still left in the bog after the state's unsuccessful attempt to ditch and tame this wilderness wetland. For fishing, nearby Upper Red Lake is nearly unparalleled for catching walleyes; when the wind is gentle and you can access the lake, you're pretty much guaranteed catching fish. The state's biggest northern pike are currently being caught in the Upper Red, another draw for anglers.

Number of campsites: 31 drive-in; 26 electric; two handicapped accessible; five camper cabins

Phone: 218-647-8592

4. OLD ENGINE, FRESH BREAD AT OLD MILL STATE PARK

The centerpiece attraction at Old Mill is the steam-driven grain mill, which will be fired up Aug. 30 for Grinding Days, when staff grind wheat and a local baker serves up fresh bread. The rare 1878 Case No. 349 steam engine has been restored this year for the first time since 1958, giving steam-engine aficionados a close-up of the rebuilt machinery. There will be live music, tours and, of course, that homemade bread from freshly ground grain. If you can't make it for Grinding Days, Oxcart Days on July 5 celebrates the early settlers who used oxcarts to travel the prairie; Orlin Ostby will recall his 2008 journey from Winnipeg to St. Paul using an oxcart.

Number of campsites: 26 drive-in sites; 10 electric; one group site that accommodates up to 125 people

Phone: 218-437-8174

5. WOODCARVING, ELK TOURS AT LAKE BRONSON STATE PARK

Lake Bronson State Park in northwest Minnesota has a WPA-era stone water-and-observation tower as its centerpiece and, of course, Lake Bronson. But it's also home to the state's largest jack pine, and a nearby herd of elk, known as the Lancaster-Kittson County herd, can often be seen grazing in fields just five miles north of the park (the park does a special afternoon elk program Aug. 22). The summer highlight is the International Woodcarvers Festival, Aug. 1-2, which will attract the best woodcarvers from the Midwest and Canada. There's a competition for the finest carvings in several categories, and these aren't your chain-saw yard bears, either.

Number of campsites: 157 drive-in sites; 35 electric; three backpack; two canoe sites

Phone: 218-754-2200

6. HERITAGE FISHING AT GLENDALOUGH STATE PARK

Once owned by the former Cowles Media Co. (owners of the Star Tribune newspaper), Glendalough, near Battle Lake, became a state park in 1992, and it offers an unusual array of experiences. Annie Battle Lake is a nonmotorized "heritage" fishery with special regulations that allow sunfish and crappies to grow to trophy sizes. With one of the largest tracts of undeveloped shoreline, the park has canoe and kayak rentals, and a historic lodge. Young eagles that have been fledged at the park's active bald eagle nest have awed visitors this summer. On Saturdays at 10 a.m., visitors meet at the trail center and observe the birds through a spotting scope.

Number of campsites: 22 cart-in sites; three canoe sites; one group camp (up to 40 people); one canoe group camp (20 people)

Phone: 218-864-0587

7. FORE AT FORT RIDGELY STATE PARK

Fort Ridgely played a critical role in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, when Dakota Indians twice attacked the garrison. The state park, near Fairfax is also home to one of two state-park golf courses (the other is at Fort Snelling), and this course was completely renovated from 2006 to 2008. (The state spent $300,000 on archaeological digs to make sure the renovation didn't affect any historic relics.) Park staff says the par-35, nine-hole course is not overwhelming for novices, but can pose a few challenges for experienced players. The No. 5 hole is 556 yards. The tee boxes have interpretive signs written by the regional naturalist and native wildflowers grow in the rough. No reservations are needed or taken. Rates are $9 on weekdays for nine holes and $13 on weekends.

Number of campsites: 39 drive-in sites; 15 electric; 3 walk-in; a horse camp with 25 sites

Phone: 507-426-7840

8. QUIET PRAIRIE RESPITE AT BIG STONE LAKE STATE PARK

Nestled in the prairies along the Minnesota River Valley, Big Stone Lake won't wow you with waterfalls, cliffside vistas or deep cultural history. It is, however, one of the quietest state parks in the system, with a lakeside view of one of the finest western fishing lakes in Minnesota and few mosquitoes in the summer. Staffers tout the hike along a prairie creek; picking raspberries, gooseberries and mulberries; and the bounty of prairie wildflowers you can view. There is also a terrific sandy swimming beach that is a short walk from the main campground.

Number of campsites: 37 drive-in; 10 electric; one group camp (accommodates up to 20 people)

Phone: 320-839-3663

9. GET YOUR CAMPING LEGS AT FORESTVILLE, LAKE MARIA

So you're a novice at camping, eh? In cooperation with REI, Forestville State Park near Preston and Lake Maria near Monticello are holding "I Can Camp" seminars where you can learn about tents, sleeping gear, cooking, campfires and outdoor safety. The Forestville seminars are June 27 and Aug. 9. The Lake Maria events are Aug. 15 and 16. Equipment will be available free of charge (while supplies last), but you'll need a reservation.

Number of campsites: Lake Maria: 17 backpack sites; two group camp sites (with room for up to 50 people). Forestville: 73 drive-in; 23 electric; horse c one group camp (with two sites accommodating up to 50 people).

Phone: Lake Maria: 763-878-2325; Forestville: 507-937-3251

10. VIEW OLD MAN RIVER AT GREAT RIVER BLUFFS STATE PARK

This 3,000-acre park straddling the limestone bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River has a million-dollar view, and it's that view that draws visitors. The new attraction is interpretive panels that have been installed at each of the park's scenic overlooks. Also new: a special telephone number you can call for a prerecorded "cell phone tour" of Mississippi River natural history. The phone number is listed on a sign near the North Overlook Trail. If you're lucky, you'll spot the state-listed endangered Henslow's sparrow, one of the few remaining nesting spots for the bird in Minnesota. Look for nesting peregrine falcons, too.

Number of campsites: 31 drive-in; five bike-in; two group camps (up to 20 people each)

Phone: 507-643-6849

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