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Time Passages: State parks special part of Minnesota’s treasure

As hardy Minnesotans, we’ve collectively endured another long winter, which by most accounts was relatively tame this season and certainly far less severe than the previous year.

That’s why I admit it didn’t bother me at all that the East Coast was the epicenter for digging out of several heavy snowstorms in January and February. Something tells me though not to retire my snow shovel yet just in case an April snow event gets some revenge on us.

Now that the hibernation season has ended thoughts of returning to more outdoor activities warms up again and plans are being made as to what everyone wants to do or see this summer.

A visit to Minnesota’s extensive state parks system would be a good place to start. The 67 parks are located at sites all across the state in such a manner that there’s a park within 50 miles of every resident. Minnesota’s state park system is the second oldest in the U.S. after New York. It actually got started as early as 1885 when the legislature authorized the creation of a state park at Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis. But true to form, the legislature didn’t provide adequate financing, and the City of Minneapolis acquired the land and established a local park.

Later, Itasca State Park was established as Minnesota’s first one in 1891, and it’s considered one of the earliest state parks in the nation. But it was no easy designation, passing the Minnesota Legislature by just a single vote in an effort to protect the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi River and adjoining 30,000 acres of old-growth pine forest.

Next, Interstate State Park was built in 1895 followed by two of my favorites with number three Minneopa becoming a park in 1905, and number four Fort Ridgely in 1911.

Alexander Ramsey State Park in Redwood Falls was also established in 1911 but was redesignated and transferred to the city in 1957. The same went for Sleepy Eye State Park which was founded in 1921 but was transferred to the city in 1965. In most cases these transfers were due to the unit being too small for a state park with little chance of expansion.

The year 1937 had the most state parks formally added to the system with 11. However, most of them had been developed as early as 1933 during the Great Depression years with assistance from the federal government work relief agencies of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Works Progress Administration (WPA). In all, 22 state parks in Minnesota have some sort of its infrastructure built by the CCC and WPA job-creation programs.

The 1960s were another big decade for state parks when 20 more were added and other state parks were expanded during that period of time. Also, along with Sleepy Eye, seven other state parks were transferred to cities or counties to be managed as local parks in the 1960s.

All of the state parks are special in the diversity of what they have to offer visitors, with many miles of trails, campsites, picnic areas, fishing and various recreation opportunities, including two with a golf course at Fort Ridgely and Fort Snelling. Historic and educational activities can be enjoyed too as the state parks have 595 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Parks range in size from the relatively isolated 118 acres of Franz Jevne State Park located on the U.S.-Canadian border to St. Croix State Park’s huge size of 34,000 acres. The most recent state park opened was Lake Vermillion in 2010 on the shores of the fifth-largest lake in Minnesota.

I know of several outdoor enthusiasts who’ve made it part of their bucket list mission to visit all of Minnesota’s state parks. I have a long way to go to complete that kind of quest, but it’s probably more doable than seeing all of the great national parks across this country.

If I were to rate my number one state park it would have to be Itasca. There’s something special about hopping across the start of the Mississippi River, rock to rock to rock. The water flows even in winter from a 60-degree spring-fed underground source that heads downstream into the world’s fourth-greatest river system.

Following behind at number would be Split Rock Lighthouse State Park located on the craggy cliffs overlooking Lake Superior. It’s one of the most photographed lighthouses in the U.S. and is a National Historic Landmark.

If you’re into waterfalls then Gooseberry State Park is the place to go as it features five of them while Minneopa showcases the largest double waterfall in southern Minnesota.

Water is a central theme of many Minnesota state parks with Big Stone Lake State Park being the source of the Minnesota River and Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park featuring the state’s longest explored cave that’s well worth taking time to experience. It’s 13 miles long carved into limestone bedrock which was dissolved by moving water.

And then there’s the deep, narrow gorge of Temperance River State Park (so named for its lack of a “bar” at its mouth) in northern Minnesota.

As for the national parks, I believe it’s no contest that the spectacular Grand Canyon in Arizona beats them all followed by Yellowstone and Yosemite. I’d also put Sequoia and Arches in my top five national parks.

But whatever your favorite park may be, make it your mission to get out, go and immerse yourself in the wonders of nature this summer.

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