By Jim Umhoefer
Aitkin County. 17 miles northeast of McGregor. Take Highway 65 north of McGregor to County 14 and 36; then follow this road for 10 miles to the park entrance. Highway map index: J-10.
Savanna Portage State Park (Minnesota's third largest) is named for a centuries-old footpath used by Dakota and Ojibway Indians, and later by explorers, missionaries and voyageurs. This trail is a 6 mile-long portage between the East Savanna and the West Savanna River. The Savanna Portage was a vital link between the St. Louis River watershed and that of the Mississippi River on the canoe/fur trade route from Lake Superior to the Upper Mississippi. "Savanna" (open grassland) refers to the marsh grass on the eastern segments of the trail.
Modern voyageurs can still follow this route. The eastern end of the 6-mile trail is best hiked during fall and winter. You can canoe from the West Savanna River (below Little Savanna Lake) to Big Sandy Lake and the expanses of the upper Mississippi River. Ask the manager about the water level on the West Savanna River before attempting this trip.
Canoeing is popular on Loon Lake and Lake Shumway, both of which have drive-in boat landings. You can rent boats or canoes at Loon, Shumway or Savanna lakes. Fishing on the lakes is mostly for northern, bass and pan fish (especially crappies). Loon Lake is a stocked trout lake, which requires a trout stamp (available locally). Only electric motors are allowed on the park lakes, and speeds are limited to 10 mph. Water-skiers will have to drive to Big Sandy Lake (boat landing is 5 miles from the park.
Loon Lake has an enticing picnic and beach area set among the pine trees that surround the shoreline. Children like to linger on the play equipment on the shady grounds. The changing rooms are located in a beautiful half-timbered building that resembles the other European-style structures in the park.
The 60-site semi-modern campground (16 electric sites) is located on Lake Shumway. The campground can fill quickly on weekends, so plan to arrive early or call ahead for a reservation. Many campers enjoy fishing from the pier near the campground loops. Some people bring their bikes to Savanna Portage to pedal through the campground and on the park roads. You can also mountain bike on 10 miles of park trails. The primitive group camp is on Savanna Lake.
Backpackers can hike to six primitive campsites within the 15,818-acre park (register at the park office). Some prefer to pack into these sites during autumn, when the hardwoods change color among the conifers.
The Remote Lake Solitude Area of the Savanna State Forest adjoins the park to the west. Interested visitors will find a network of backcountry trails with six shelters spaced along the loops. The trailhead parking lot for the Solitude Area is on the state park entrance road. The Savanna State Forest, which almost surrounds the park, also contains the Floodwood Game Refuge (on the park's northern boundary). As you drive toward the park entrance on County 14-36, you'll pass the state forest Ranger Station and a lookout tower near Big Sandy Lake.
Chances of spotting wildlife are good on the park's 22 miles of trails. Savanna Portage is a combination of rolling hills, lakes and bogs that support a rich variety of animals and birds. Bear, moose, deer and timber wolves are the largest forest residents in the park, but deer are most commonly sighted. Otter, muskrat and beaver live in the wetlands of the park.
Most of the park's trails weave through the hilly country between Loon Lake and Lake Shumway. The Continental Divide Trail starts at Lake Shumway, following the divide up to the park road between Savanna and wolf lakes. Water to the east of this divide flows into Lake Superior and the Atlantic Ocean. Water on the west side flows into the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.
Experienced winter campers can ski-pack into the primitive camping areas. Whether camping or not, you can keep warm by hiking, snowshoeing, or cross-country skiing. Savanna Portage State Park grooms 16 miles of trails for beginner and intermediate skiers. The Remote Lake Solitude Area also has intermediate ski-touring trails loops.
Snowmobiles have the run of over 60 miles of groomed trails in the park. These paths tie in with Grant-in-Air trails in Carlton and Aitkin counties. The neighboring Savanna state Forest has about 33 miles of groomed snowmobile trails that link with those in the state park.