Adventure Report: Lake Shetek State Park

Jan 21, 2021Adventure Report, State Parks

It was a spontaneous decision: Let’s get away next weekend and rent a camper cabin. Roll the dice and see where we end up. Honestly, I didn’t have high hopes for this plan actually working. We were only a week out and with Martin Luther King Day in there, it seemed unlikely at best to find an open camper cabin, but Jen and I decided to give it a go. Normally, you can make camper cabin reservations online, but because of the complications with COVID and the need to schedule more time between guests for through cleaning and disinfecting, you currently have to call the DNR Reservations Hotline and speak to a live person.

It took a while for me and the friendly lady on the other side to go down the list of parks with me asking and her telling me the bad news, but I finally said “What about Lake Shetek?” The friendly voice on the other end fell silent. I heard the clicking of keys in the background. “Well”, she said after a pause and more clicking, “Looks like you got the last cabin in the whole state parks system.” Jen, who had been listening over speakerphone from the couch across the room did a fist pump and immediately whipped out her laptop to plot a route. Our lack of planning had been rewarded once again.

A small cabin in the snow

When the big day came, we crammed our things into the car, hung the fatbikes on the back and took off to southwestern Minnesota, where the grain elevators are large and the views are unimpeded. With just over 1,100 acres Lake Shetek State Park is a smaller park in Minnesota’s system, tucked into a corner of the state, some 40 miles from South Dakota and 20 miles from Iowa just outside of Currie in Murray County. In fact, the lake it’s named after is three times bigger. More about the park. The area had just been blasted by a blizzard the day before we arrived and the snow drifts grew higher and higher the closer we came.

We arrived in time to watch the park staff dig our cabin out from under eight or so inches of snow. When they were done, we wasted no time, moved in, strapped on the snowshoes and went for a hike. Lucky for us, Picnic Trail passed right by our cabin and went north past the beach and the boat landing to the Loon Island Causeway. It was about 20 degrees and there was still a stiff breeze in the air, which we could really feel coming off the frozen lake. The trail was mostly covered in snow, but the 40 and 50 miles per hour wind gusts of the last 24 hours had deposited huge drifts that snaked like white fingers across the trail, some several feet thick. That’s what snowshoes are for and we got a kick out of hustling up the drifts one side and yelling “Wheeee!” on the other side, like we were descending a mountain on skis. Cheap thrills.

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The Loon Island Causeway is a narrow land bridge that connects the state park to Loon Island with its roughly 1,000-foot span. Here, the ice cold winds were howling across the skinny trail and made our eyes water. Snowshoes were useless on this stretch, because there was not a flake of snow here, so we took them off and hurried across the bay. Just before we reached the island, however, it was like someone had turned off the wind tunnel machine. One minute we were leaning into the arctic blast, the next minute the wind had stopped completely as if on command. Not even the grasses next to us moved. I took a few steps back and there was the wind again, in full force. I remarked on this with a well thought out “Huh” and kept going.

Loon Island isn’t huge and the hiking trail that circles it is less than a mile long, but it’s definitely worth it. You’ll learn about the area’s natural history and what makes Loon Island so special by reading the interpretive signs along the way. The first thing they’ll tell you is that Loon Island is actually a misnomer. People mistook the cormorants that used to nest here for loons. You’d in turn expect this to be a haven for cormorants, but the colony was wiped out by a special hunt, staged by area residents in the early 1900s, who felt the birds were eating too much fish from the lake. It’s a great argument for outdoor education and preservation, but then again, humans built the causeway we walked across to get to the island to read the signs that told us how humans interfered in Nature.
The walk around the island was invigorating. We had first tracks through some thick drifts and trees and bushes were coated with puffy snow on the side that had faced the blizzard. It looked like fake spray snow, the kind you’d find in department store displays. It was a great snowshoe hike through basswood and hackberry forest that blocked the wind and allowed us to marvel at a beautiful winter landscape.
Back at the cabin, Jen checked her Avenza tracker. We had managed to get in three miles, which was not bad for an afternoon. It was time to retire to a crackin’ hot bonfire for the evening and roast some wieners for dinner.
Roasting wieners over a bonfire

The next day we got going a little earlier, planned for a longer trek on snowshoes and were looking forward to a high temperature of around 30 degrees. Leaving from our cabin again, we headed east this time, on Monument Trail. Snowmobiles had flattened out most of the drifts, so the going was a little easier this time around. The Lake Shetek Monument the trail is named after, marks the graves of 15 settlers who were killed by Dakota warriors in 1862. More about the US-Dakota war.

Here, we turned east to round the northern edge of Smith Lake, then north after getting on the Bluebird Trail. We fully expected to get a full blast of cold air on the Bluebird Trail since goes north through wide-open prairie and it was a windy day. As soon as we stepped on the trail, however, the sun broke out from behind grey clouds and the wind-still strong-turned out not to be a big deal as we soaked up the rays.

We stopped briefly to take in the views of Eastlick Marsh from a raised platform and headed back into the woods to take a break at the group camp area. My favorite part of winter trail breaks is the little stove I made from two beer cans with Youtube instructions. The whole kit, fuel, coffee, filter, stand and a windscreen packs into a little pot and within 10 minutes we had a pint of steaming, hot coffee. Paired with a granola bar and some beef jerky, it just doesn’t get any better.

We continued on the Park Lake Trail where we passed by the former site of a settler’s cabin, now just a depression in the frozen ground, and flushed out a herd of deer which scattered across Park Lake, some two dozen strong.

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After making the connection to Lake Side Trail on the other side of Park Lake, we shoed through a winter wonderland with deep snows, followed by another half mile of huge drifts and some of the biggest cottonwood trees we’ve ever seen. We turned back south on Fish Pond Trail (they raise Northerns here in two ponds) and from there bushwhacked our way past the Koch pioneer cabin back to our cabin. An hour later we had a fire going and enjoyed the last bit of daylight and mild temps. We watched the sun go down over Lake Shetek while the flames danced in the fire pit. As dusk came, the lights in the houses across the lake blinked on one by one while we enjoyed another quiet night in our own palace for rent.

We had big plans for Sunday. It was supposed to be a ride on the Casey Jones State Trail, which makes a six-mile loop from the park office through the nearby town of Currie. It turned out that the snowdrifts on parts of the trail were just too deep to make any kind of progress, so we decided to take a day off from exploring. We had been on most of the trails in the park, it was colder and windier and there was the matter of a three-hour drive home. After a hearty breakfast, we slowly packed up and said goodbye to Lake Shetek State Park. Next time we visit it’ll be in the summer and we’ll bring the road bikes, swim trunks and fishing poles.

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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.

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