Adventure Report: La Salle Lake State Rec Area

Sep 3, 2021Adventure Report

The first time I visited Lake La Salle State Rec Area I was a support driver for Bicycling Around Minnesota (BAM).  It was a brief stay, just long enough to visit the rest stop for the tour and get back on the road. All I remember was a beautiful picnic area with gorgeous views of the lake and it’s stayed with me since. Jen and I decided to finally pay this place a visit and found that we’d been waiting too long.

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Lake La Salle State Recreation Area (LSLSRA) is five miles north of Itasca State Park and about twenty miles southwest of Lake Bemidji State Park. Part of the SRA is the Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) by the same name just to the north, which allows you to see the fledgling Mississippi from a scenic overlook.The star of the show is La Salle Lake, which is Minnesota’s deepest in-state body of water at over 200 feet. The 11-mile hiking trail system is a close second. The 39-site campground has full hookups and there’s a shower house with individual shower rooms and a laundry room. If camping isn’t for you, LSLSRA has two well-equipped guesthouses for rent.
We arrived in the evening and had no problem backing the mobile Trails office into one of the spacious sites. Soon, it was dark and that’s when you’d expect to have your camping bonfire. Because of the ongoing drought, fires in Minnesota state parks and rec areas are not allowed right now, but we planned ahead. In true MacGyver fashion we had crafted an ersatz fire from a USB-powered fan, ribbon, craft paper and a bicycle taillight. It wasn’t quite the same as a rippin’ bonfire, but it made us laugh.
We woke up Saturday morning to rain drumming on the roof. Normally, we might have been a little miffed, but in light of the worsening drought we were happy that relief was on the way. Feeling adventurous, we left for the Challenge Trail when the rain let up. According to the DNR literature, this path around boomerang-shaped La Salle Lake promised to be steep, rugged and remote and included two wet, bridge-less water crossings. Challenge Accepted.

We accessed the trail right from the campground bathroom building and began working our way around the lake, but not without using the boot scrubbing station to keep invasive plant seeds in check. The trail was very narrow and intimate and it really did feel off the beaten path. The campground noises soon disappeared and we started getting deeper into the woods. What had been a light sprinkle turned into an actual rain after a while, but we were sheltered from the worst of it by a dense canopy of trees as we walked along a high ridge that allowed only occasional glimpses of the lake.

The DNR website describes the habitat at LSLSRA as having “high and outstanding biodiversity significance”. To us it meant a constantly changing landscape. One minute the trail was lined with maples and other deciduous trees, reminiscent of Maplewood State Park. Then it changed to a nearly impenetrable palisade of young aspen trees, followed by stands of huge pines that looked more like nearby Itasca State Park. Some shady ravines had lush mounds of waist-high ferns, moss-covered rocks and logs full of fungi. In the open areas, the sun had burned vegetation to a crisp. This kaleidoscope of mini-landscapes kept randomly changing throughout our hike.

At about the three-mile mark, we took a spur trail down to the lake. Slippery rocks made the steep descent a challenge and the trail was beginning to live up to its name. Back on top of the ridge, the trail continued through aspen stands, we lost our tree cover and the rain was picking up. As a reward for all of our hard work so far, we had to walk through an area with dense, thigh-high grasses and other plants that were more than happy to dry themselves off on our feet and legs. Now we were getting wet from above and below. This didn’t have an impact on our good mood. We were outside, immersed in nature and getting in a good walk.
At the first water crossing, we came to a swampy area and hopped across a few logs and squishy grass tufts to avoid the mud. Back on dry land, a sign said No Bridge. Sticks leaned up against the sign were left by other hikers to help with crossing La Salle Creek behind it. Jen went in with shoes on because her feet were already soaked. I took my socks and (waterproof) shoes off and carried my stuff across. The water was knee-deep, clear and moving swiftly. On a hot, sunny day this would be an ideal spot to cool off and sit the sand-bottomed creek for a while. During a wet year or after a heavy rain, this water crossing could easily become the most challenging part of the hike.

We continued on as before, sometimes climbing up a trail littered with slick rocks, sometimes squeezing through the woods on a narrow track no wider than a deer trail. Our footsteps thumped on the ground like on a hollow log in some spots and crunched with sticks and acorns in others and there was always the faint sound of wind in the trees and the constant hiss of the rain as it hit the canopy. Like the landscape, the smells varied, too. In the beginning I noticed a sweet odor that was hard to figure out. Then came the tannic musk of decaying oak leaves, the scent of fresh pine and the funk of slimy mushrooms growing in the cracks of rotten logs. The sights, sounds and smells were constantly changing as we made our way around La Salle Lake.

Towards the latter half of the trip the sun came out and we dried out as the temperatures climbed. After the second river crossing, which was only a tiny stream we could easily step across, it was a short, straight up hike. Then, we walked on a wider, grassy trail for a while. Suddenly, we had reached the end of the Challenge Trail. Our Avenza app told us we had hiked about six and a half miles, but there was a little bit left to go to get back to the campground. We popped out of the woods on some mowed-grass prairie trails, just to duck back into a variety of hard and soft woods with some open, grassy areas thrown in. This was the Hunter Waking Trail. Soon we reached the picnic area. We stopped and checked out the nice, big shelter, natural play area and views of the lake. Next was the fishing pier, then the boat landing and a steep hike up past the camper cabins back to the campground.

We came back after about five hours and had hiked a total of 7.9 miles. If you’re into stats, our average speed was 0.42 mph (42 minutes/mile). We noticed that the mileage on the pdf map on our phones didn’t add up right, but the maps posted along the way were correct. Keep in mind that the Challenge Trail itself is six and a half miles long, but to make it a loop around the lake, you need to hike an extra mile and a half or so on other trails. The shower after the hike was absolutely wonderful. You have your own stall with no buttons to press and water that’s actually hot. It was one of my favorite shower experiences in a state facility, ever.
The next day it was time to get the kayaks wet and try some fishing. It was pleasant and sunny as we paddled around the edges of Lake La Salle. A light breeze kept things cool and besides us there were only three other kayaks in the water. The fish were biting, too, and we caught and released some sunfish and a smallmouth bass. When the fish took a break, we just tooled around and enjoyed the uninterrupted, natural lake views. Besides the rental cabins and the fishing pier, there are no other structures on the shores of this lake. After a couple of hours the wind picked up and we were beginning to see whitecaps on the water. That was our cue to head back in and call it a day. Unfortunately, we ran out of time for the hike to the Mississippi River overlook at the adjacent SNA, but this wasn’t our last visit.
If you haven’t been, Lake La Salle State Rec Area is definitely worth exploring.
Warming your feet by the flames is fun. Unfortunately this is an ersatz fire made to resemble a real one.

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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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