I don’t think I have gone a year of my life without visiting at least one state park in Minnesota.
This thought came to my mind when I read a news release on the 125th birthday of Minnesota State Parks and Trails the other day.
When I was young, my family would often load up the station wagon and take a day trip or weekend camping trip to one of the state parks in Minnesota. My parents loved the outdoors and did their best to share that love with me and my two brothers. It didn’t hurt that visiting a park or camping was cheap entertainment, and we didn’t have much of an entertainment budget in those days.
We had our favorite nearby parks for camping and visiting — Sibley State Park near New London, and Flandreau State Park in New Ulm. Both were about an hour from home so they were also very convenient.
At Sibley, we would climb up to the top of Mount Tom and sometimes my dad would meet us at the top with our bikes in the back of the station wagon. We would bike down to the bottom of Mount Tom at high speeds (and no helmets). It was a blast. I don’t know how fast we were going, but it sure felt like we were close to breaking the speed of sound.
We always brought large black inner tubes when we went to Flandreau State Park. The park sits along the shores of the Cottonwood River. We would roll our inner tubes down the trails at Flandreau until we got a good mile or so up the river. Then we would throw our tubes in the river, jump on the tubes and float back down the river all the way back to the start of the trails. Sometimes the river was slow, and sometimes it was wild with decent rapids along the way. When I got a little older, Flandreau opened a unique, chlorinated, sandy-bottom outdoor swimming pool near the river. That quickly became a favorite as well.
Other favorites included Minneopa State Park near Mankato (awesome waterfall), Jay Cooke State Park near Duluth (cool suspension bridge), Gooseberry Falls State Park near Two Harbors, St. Croix State Park near Hinckley (grandpa took us fishing there often) and of course, Itasca State Park near Park Rapids (the crown jewel of state parks). Walking across the rocks at the start of the Mississippi River at Itasca is almost a rite of passage to be a true Minnesotan.
If you haven’t camped in a long time, you will notice some subtle changes at Minnesota State Parks and a few bigger ones. My favorite changes have been the addition of camper cabins, followed closely by the expansion of their rental program. Many parks now offer rentals on fishing equipment, paddleboards, paddleboats, kayaks, snowshoes, cross country skiis, canoes, geocaching and more. Both of these changes enhancing the camping experience.
Recently, the parks introduced the “I Can” program, which is now starting to expand. Under the program, people can get basic instructions on how to camp, rock climb, paddle, ride a mountain bike, fish and shoot bow and arrow. The courses are free or have a small charge, and all take place in either a state park or state recreational area. It seems like the perfect program for families who didn’t grow up camping, or a great program for grandparents who want to try something new with their grandchildren.
One other new thing offered is a great web page which has really been improved over the last few years. My favorite feature of the site is the “Park Finder” option, which helps you find the perfect park. If you want a park with a boat rental, rustic campsites, just plug it in and it lists all those parks. Want paved bike trails? It can find that, too.
Many years ago, our family started the tradition of all camping together over Memorial Day weekend. My mom and dad always make it, along with my brothers and their families. We do not know the exact year this tradition started, but our best guess is around 15-18 years ago.
Each year, we pick a state park to camp for the weekend. We have gone to a different park just about every year. There are a few repeats, but most are new each year.
Each year seems to have its own adventures and memories. Some years, the memories involve bad weather or a minor injuries (I had to get a tetanus shot after one camping weekend 4-5 years back after my leg said hello to a rusty barbed wire fence), but most of the memories are good ones. And some are great ones.
Last year, we camped at Glendalough State Park near Battle Lake. My best memory was stumbling across a nesting loon while kayaking with one of my boys and my sister-in-law. It was really cool. A couple of years ago we canoed together down the St. Croix River and later watched a busy beaver family in action at William O’ Brien State Park. What will this year bring? We will find out as we make some memories at Lake Mille Lacs Kathio State Park near Onamia. Should be a fun weekend. Next year… Lake Carlos State Park near Alexandria.
Celebrating 125 years
Minnesota State Parks and Trails 125th anniversary is based on the birthday of Minnesota’s oldest state park. Itasca State Park was established on April 20, 1891 to preserve the old growth pine trees that were in danger of being logged. Today, more than half a million people visit Itasca State Park every year.