By Jim Umhoefer Trails Reporter
Mille Lacs County. 5 miles northwest of Onamia on County 26.
Highway map index: 1-12.
Mille Lacs Kathio is an ideal state park for doers: challenging trails, water sports and all-season activities in a rugged forested setting. With over 10,000 acres, Minnesota's fourth largest park has plenty of space to play in.
Although within eyesight of giant Mille Lacs Lake, Kathio has no direct access to its waters. The nearest public landing is 4 miles north of the park on Shah-Bush-Kung Bay (off of Highway 169). Cover Bay and many nearby resorts also have boat landings. Father Hennepin State Park, a small park about 15 miles east of Kathio, does have a beach and extensive frontage (with boat launches) on Mille Lacs Lake.
Anglers can choose between a couple of good spots in Mille Lacs Kathio. Some like the action below the dam on Ogechie Lake; others like to try for northern, bass or pan fish on Shakopee Lake. Canoeists also have both lakes to explore as well as the Rum River Canoe & Boating Route. The Rum River begins in the park and connects Ogechie and Shakopee lakes before winding its way south for 146 miles to the Mississippi. Many canoeists start their river trip from the canoe landing between the lakes. The park rents canoes and boats at the landing, next to the primitive canoe campground. The picnic area, interpretive center and a man-made swimming pond (with a sand beach) are located on the southeast end of Ogechie Lake.
Mille Lacs Kathio's 70-site semi-modern campground is spread out in the woods on the east side of Ogechie Lake. Though the campground is full on most summer weekend, you can usually find open sites during the week. The primitive group camp (capacity 50) near the canoe landing can be reserved through the park office.
The interpretive center, next to the picnic grounds, highlights the extensive Indian history of the area. Much of the pottery, arrowheads and tools in the center came from some of the 19 archaeological sites in the park. Researchers have found evidence of civilizations that lived here long before the Dakota and Ojibway Indians.
For more that 4,000 years, people have been attracted by the abundance of this region. The park's rolling, wooded hills supported a rich variety of wildlife, and Ogechie Lake was noted for its lush growths of wild rice. The Dakota chose this area as the capital of their nation. Today, a historical marker stands at the site of the old Dakota village of Izatys, located at the source of the Rum River on Mille Lacs Lake. These people came to be known as the Mdewakanton, or those who live by the Water of the Great Spirit (Mille Lacs Lake).
The Ojibway brought their own rich cultural tradition with them from the east and settled along the shores of Mille Lacs (they still live in the area today). They, like the Dakota, depended on the natural bounty of wild rice, fish and other foods. You can learn more about Ojibway history and culture at the Mille Lacs Indian Museum (administered by the Minnesota Historical Society) north of the park on Highway 169. Because of the interwoven history of Dakota, Ojibway and European people in this area, Mille Lacs Kathio State Park is designated National Historic Landmark.
Mille Lacs Kathio has 40 miles of hiking trails and 30 miles of horseback trails. Some people like to bicycle on the 4.5 miles of park roads. Horseback riders can park their trailers in the Trail Center parking lot. The trails twist and turn throughout the park, but my favorite section is in the undeveloped southwest corner of Kathio. This is a scenic area of hills and meadows where you might come across beaver lodges or spot a deer feeding at dusk. The north-end trails are pretty, too, including two short nature trail loops.
A special experience at Kathio is climbing to the top of the 100-foot-tall observation tower. The undulating carpet of forest sweeps away in three directions from the tower, while Mille Lacs Lake dominates the view in the other direction. On a clear day, you can see the north shore and spot the legions of boats on the lake. But at times fog, like a massive gray wall, blocks the great lake from view. The wind is cool and gusty off the lake, so bring a jacket for your climb.
Cold weather and snow doesn't stop the fun at Mille Lacs Kathio State Park. Snowmobilers can zip along on the 20 miles of park trails that connect to other regional trails. Ice fishing is big news on Shakopee Lake and, of course, on Mille Lacs Lake. You can snowshoe anywhere in the spacious park and have a front-row seat for winter wildlife photography if you wish. Winter camping is becoming more popular, too.
The 18-mile cross-country ski system is considered one of the best in Minnesota and provides a challenge for skiers of all abilities (ski rental is available). The modern Tail Center building is used as a warming house, complete with cut wood and a fireplace. During winter, the park naturalist leads snowshoe hikes and many other nature programs.