Fall Camping at Lake Carlos State Park

Nov 8, 2021Adventure Report, Hiking, State Parks

Visit our trail-friendly sponsor!
If you are 16 or older, you must have a Great Minnesota Ski Pass to ski on groomed trails in Minnesota state parks or state forests, or on state or grant-in-aid trails

As the weather cools down and the leaves turn colors it’s time to finally face the truth and winterize the travel trailer. Some campers go straight to putting their rolling homes into storage, but not us. Even without running water, we keep fall camping season going until the snow gets too deep or the nights too cold.
Jen and I didn’t have to worry about that on our most recent trip to Lake Carlos State Park, because the weather was just about perfect: Temperatures in the 30s overnight and in the 50s during the day, with plenty of sunshine meant crisp, foggy mornings and balmy, bug-free afternoons.

1,200-acre Lake Carlos State Park is in our back yard, only an hour’s drive away, and we’ve visited it during different seasons a few times over the years. It’s a popular park just ten miles north of Alexandria on the Glacial Ridge Trail Scenic Byway. With more than 14 miles of hiking trails, you can explore stands of hardwood trees one minute, then cross a grassy meadow to a woodland pond or marsh the next. This combination of grassland, wetland, and wooded ridge makes the park a treat for hikers.

Friday night allowed just enough time for a bonfire and experimental pizza pockets made in our cast iron sandwich cookers. Both were wonderful, but the second frost of the season was in the air and we retired early.

Saturday morning started out foggy and frosty as expected, but we left our cocoon and hit the trails with gusto. For all the times we’d been to Lake Carlos State Park, we never made it to the very southeastern tip of the park, where the Long Prairie River State Water Trail exits Lake Carlos.
We started out on the Prairie Restoration Trail near the park entrance and ten minutes into our walk we were at our first stop, the scenic overlook and observation platform at Schumacher’s Slough. Normally it’s a hot spot for bird watching, but not that morning. It was a quiet day on the trail for both animals and people and we were happy to just walk in the sun. When we started, the frost was beginning to melt off the leaves and grasses exposed to the sun. Shaded areas were still solidly crusted with tiny spikes of ice, but as we continued on, things began to dry out and warm up.

The Prairie Restoration, Wetland Overlook and Large Tooth Aspen Trails form a series of interconnected loops along the northeastern edge of the park that run into the Long Prairie River Trail. We decided to walk the outside edges of the loops on the way down and the insides on the return trip. When the Large Tooth Aspen Trail merged with the Long Prairies River Trail, we stepped out of the woods briefly and walked through an open section with grassy hills. The grass was brown and waiting to wake back up in the spring, but it made for a beautiful color combination with the yellow leaves of the aspen trees. And, yes, compared to the regular aspen, the leaves of the Large Tooth Aspen have rather large teeth along their edges. They were on full display, raining from the rustling branches and littering the path ahead with golden highlights.
There was a slight change of scenery on the Long Prairie River Trail. The trees disappeared and the path ahead wound across more grassy knolls. Here, we could see houses poking their roofs over the tree line, another reminder that if it wasn’t for parks preserving land for us all to enjoy, only a few would have access to beautiful places.

The trail ended abruptly at a road but because of Jen’s superior navigation skills and the Avenza map of the park, we found we had to walk a few hundred yards down the street to get to the headwaters of the Long Prairie River. The river exits Lake Carlos, flows east and then north and flows into the Crow River in Motley, 95 miles later. The headwaters picnic area had just been refurbished with a new parking lot and new signs, and a new canoe launch had been added just a few weeks ago. We sat and watched the water spill over the natural rock dam and had a snack. It was a little chilly in the shade and if it had been a little warmer, we could have had a take-your-shoes-off-and-walk-across-the-river experience similar to Itasca State Park.

Back at camp, the plan was to eat lunch and hike some more, but the weather was too lovely to not at least try to catch some fish. We bundled up and assumed position on one of the fishing docks near the campground. Nothing happened for a while and instead of our bobbers, we watched a group of coots diving and coming up with wiggling minnows in their beaks. The wind died down, the afternoon sun was strong and my eyelids got heavier with every splash of the waves on the beach. I had just nodded off when Jen elbowed me. “Your bobber is going down!” It was a large sunfish and from then on, the fishing was good and there was no need for sleep. We reeled in bass and perch, but stopped a walleye and northern short of the Lake Carlos variety pack.
A bonfire topped off this grand day, and we stared into the flames until our eyelids were too heavy once again.

Sunday’s weather wasn’t quite as nice. It was overcast, breezy and a bit chillier. Getting out for a hike took some willpower, but we always get motivated by thinking about how balmy it is compared to some of the winter walks we’ve done. The western portion of the park was more familiar territory. The Maple Basswood, Red Oak, Prairie Pothole and Forestry Trails loop through this area and give you a variety of experiences with dense woods, rolling hills, open prairie, bogs and tiny ponds with the occasional boulder sprinkled in.
When we returned, a lot of campers had left and we began our departure procedure, too. We’re already making plans for next summer and exploring the Long Prairie River.

A restored canned ham camping trailer at a campsite in the fall
Visit our trail-friendly sponsor!
Minnesota's Paul Bunyan Trail is one of the state's best bike rides
Minnesota's Tour de Save is an annual bike ride fundraiser for suicide prevention
For amazing views of winter on the prairie visit Luverne, Minnesota.
The Mesabi Trail connects Minnesota's Iron Range with the Boundary Waters
Parks and Trails Council of Minnesota

Keep up with the latest MN Trails news and events in our newsletter

About me

I’m Jan, the publisher of Minnesota Trails Magazine. I’m looking for that one trail, the next ride, a new discovery and other reasons never to sit still in Minnesota.


More stories:

Save the Date for These 2023 Bike Rides

Road, trail, gravel, you name it. Take a look at our list of 2023 bike rides and mark your calendars!

October Fun Walk with the NSTT

Join the North Star Trail Travelers on a fun walk at Afton State Park this October.

Snowshoe Event at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park

Join the NorthStar Trail Travelers on their first outing of the new year.

Bluenose Gopher 50 Gravel Race

We talked to the organizers if the inaugural Bluenose Gopher 50 Gravel Race to hear how it went.

No Campfire? No Problem!

Enjoy a campfire-like experience in five easy steps!

Trail Pairings: A Visit to Brainerd

Brainerd has been the launching point of some great day trips over the years, but this time we decided to stay the whole weekend and take a closer look.

Guest Blog: When Hope Becomes the Plan

Guest blogger Josh Rizzo’s story of eight friends, four days of bike packing and zero reservations.

Adventure Report: Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park

A Valentine’s Day getaway has us exploring the trails at this popular southern Minnesota state park.

Quiet Time at Tettegouche

This iconic state park is a year-round destination on Minnesota’s North Shore.

Made in Minnesota: Black Ship Cycles

Black Ship Cycles, a one person shop, makes custom cycles in Minneapolis, MN.

Visit our trail-friendly sponsor!
Miles of winter smiles wait for you in Park Rapids, MN, the source of the Mississippi.

Please join our newsletter mailing list!

It’s your source for sneak previews of the next print issue, new trails to explore, upcoming events and the latest blog posts. We promise to keep it brief, entertaining and relevant and you can unsubscribe anytime. We will not share your info with anyone.

* indicates required