Fall Camping at Lake Carlos State Park

Nov 8, 2021Adventure Report, Hiking, State Parks

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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
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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.

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