By Jim Umhoefer Trails Reporter
Wright County. About 23 miles south of St. Cloud. From I-94 take the Silver Creek/Hasty (Maple Lake) exit and follow the signs to the park.
Highway map index: H-15.
Part of Lake Maria (pronounced "Mariah") State Park's appeal to some is that it doesn't appeal to everybody. The 1,580-acre park is one of the few state parks where backpacking is the only camping allowed. George H. Crosby-Manitou and Afton state parks are the others.
Lake Maria is on the northern edge of the Big Woods. This region, about 100 miles long from north to south and 40 miles wide at its southern end, was a dense hardwood forest. The trees were so thick in places that sunlight couldn't penetrate to the forest floor. Early French explorers called this forest the "Bois Grand"; settlers anglicized it to Big Woods.
Lake Marie's 15 backpack sites are spread throughout the park, but are primarily clustered near Bjorkland Lake and Putman Lake. Campers can park in the trail center lot and walk 1 or 2 miles to reach the primitive sites. Once you set up your camp, it's easy to plan day hikes in the park. Reservations are recommended for the backpack sites. Groups may make reservations for the primitive group camp in the north end of the park. An equestrian camping area is located near the trail center parking lot.
The picnic area on Maria Lake has facilities for disabled visitors. From the boat access next to the picnic ground, fishermen can get out on the lake to try for northern, walleye, bass or panfish. Bring your canoe and enjoy a lazy day exploring the shoreline or just drifting in the breeze.
Winter is a busy season at Lake Maria State Park, mostly because of the heavy cross-country ski usage. No snowmobiling is allowed. Although spring and fall are the busiest camping seasons here, winter camping has increased over 100 percent in the last few years. Talk with the manager before setting up winter camp; he will show you which site to use.
The 12 miles of cross-country ski trails (including 2 miles of skate-skiing track) are rated easy and more difficult. With the rolling, wooded terrain, the park is a scenic place to ski. The trails are well-marked and each junction has an orientation map. (Dogs are not allowed on cross-country ski trails.) Visitors also can enjoy the park's ice-skating rink and sliding hill. The trail center is open in the winter, kept cozy by a wood-burning stove.