Changing Seasons at Glacial Lakes State Park
Glacial Lakes State Park near rural Starbuck, MN was established in 1963 to preserve the unique landscape formed by glaciers within its 2,400-acre boundary. Several spring-fed lakes surrounded by rare, virgin prairie and oak forest reward visitors with a glimpse of what this part of Minnesota looked like before settlement. Signalness Lake, also called Mountain Lake, at 56 acres the park’s largest, is tucked in a rectangular valley rimmed by high hills.
About 50,000 people visit the park each year to paddle, ride the paved bike trail into nearby Starbuck and hike the 16-mile trail system through green prairie hills. When the colors fade and the temperatures drop, things become quiet and the landscape takes on a totally different look.
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On a balmy Saturday morning in late November Jen and I started walking the Hiking Club Trail at Glacial Lakes State Park. It was one of those warm late fall days that feels like Mother Nature is trying to make up for dumping a foot of snow on you earlier in the month. There was a light breeze, but the sun was out and things were looking great for a hike to the scenic overlook at the highest elevation in the park. To get there, we first walked on a partially wooded interpretive trail around the south and east edges of Mountain Lake, which was just beginning to skim over with ice.
Although the oaks were almost completely bare, the sun had not penetrated down to the ground and we shuffled through a couple of inches of soft snow. From the signs along the way we learned that the hills, valleys and lakes in the park were the work of glaciers. In an area that was once at the perimeter of a mile-high ice sheet, like Glacial Lakes State Park, the results are more pronounced. The hills we walked on were deposits of debris left behind by glaciers more than 10,000 years ago.
Once we reached the Oak Ridge Campground, we exited the woods and turned on the High Ridge Trail to have a good look at how the glaciers molded the landscape. Without tree cover it was easy to see just how wavy the topography was. The green, grassy knolls of summer had turned a yellow brown and out in the open fields the snow was gone. Our path disappeared into the distance between the mounds that looked like they were covered in deer fur.
Closer to the scenic overlook, the trees returned and the climbing began. It was a steep but short jaunt and we plopped down on the bench at the overlook, some 1,352 feet above sea level. It’s not the highest elevation in the state, nor Pope County, but it’s something to talk about when you get back home. The view was unimpeded and surprisingly unspoiled. Fawn-colored hills swept left to right, interrupted only by pockets of nude oak trunks and brush. Directly in front of us were Kettle and Baby Lake.
This made for the perfect break spot and we ate our lunch while we listened to the breeze rustle the dry grasses and what leaves were left on the oaks surrounding the clearing. Soup makes a great meal any day, but piping hot soup carried in a backpack to a scenic location and eaten out of a thermos that has a built-in spoon in the lid, is a culinary experience.
The High Ridge Trail makes an irregular figure eight, so we didn’t have to go back the same way. We walked park roads from the campground back to the car and took in one more scenic overlook near the contact station. The view from that hill was a good summary panorama of what Glacial Lakes State Park is all about: Rolling, grassy mounds, patches of oak forest and pockets of water, in the transition zone between the western hardwood forests and the eastern prairies.
We had hiked just over four miles, the sun was beginning to move lower on the horizon, the breeze was getting chillier and it was time to go home. Glacial Lakes State Park is an exciting place to visit when bees buzz through the green hills that are brimming with wildflowers. It’s also a place to witness the transition to another season, one of many thousands to happen since its hills were formed.