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Archive for the tag “State Park Travel”

Visiting Three Minnesota State Parks

Three MInnesota State PArks

Visiting Three Minnesota State Parks

H. Bradford

08/12/19


One of my goals is to visit all of the state parks in Minnesota.  There are 67 of them and my New Year’s Resolution was to see three new ones in 2019.  My total since I started this challenge is about 24.  Suffice to stay, with a minimum of three a year, it will take me some time to see all of them.  This goal has helped me to appreciate the diversity of Minnesota’s landscapes, but also how large the state feels once I’ve hit the nearby parks.  This summer, I visited Forestville Mystery Cave State Park, Father Hennepin State Park, and Schoolcraft State Park.  Here is a review of each:


Forestville Mystery Cave State Park:

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I was most excited to see the Forestville Mystery Cave State Park.   The park is located about four hours drive south of Duluth near the Iowa border, so going there is a commitment in itself.  But, the park promised the longest cave in Minnesota, as well as a restored town from the 1800s.   The idea of exploring the longest cave in the state lured me to the driftless area of Minnesota, which is a bluff region which only experienced two of the last four glaciations on the last million years.  I had really built up the cave in my head and this park has spent a long time on my bucket list.  But, as the journey wore on, further and further into sparsely populated and agricultural area…I began to wonder if it was worth the visit (Dan accompanied me and I also worried that he might not have fun).  The cave itself is located a few miles away from the main park office at a separate location.  The cave has its own park office, so visitors can go directly to the cave rather than stopping at the park (as we did).  Once there, visitors can enjoy the artifacts and informational displays at the visitor center and sign up for one of several types of tours offered by the park.  The tours include a basic scenic tour, lantern tour, geology tour, photography tour, and wild caving tour.  I went on the basic scenic tour (and had thought about going on a second tour such as the lantern tour, but never did).

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The basic scenic tour attracted a crowd of several families.  It lasts about an hour and costs $15.  The tour provides a basic overview of the geological formations and history of the cave.  The finale is the Turquoise Lake, which was smaller than I imagined, but still pretty.   Another point of interest in the cave were fossils, one of which was a nautiloid affixed to the ceiling.   Other fossils found in the cave or cave environs include trilobites, tube worms, sponges, bryozoa (a phylum of small filter feeders that I am not really familiar with), snails, etc.  The fossils attest the cave’s early history as a sea bed 450 million years ago.   Ocean debris and mud slowly built up and compressed to form the sandstone and limestone of the cave (which itself was carved/dissolved by water over time).  Another unique feature of the cave are iron oxide cored speleothems (a fancy word for cave formations), which are very rare.  I probably should have taken notes, or perhaps gone on the more in depth geology theme tour.  Instead, I scurried along at the end of the group taking photos.  As a whole, the tour seemed short, and after four hours in a car, my attention was disrupted by road weariness.  I would recommend a more in depth or adventurous tour than the basic scenic tour, which I found a little too easy.  I would also recommend time to unwind if traveling across the state.  I honestly felt a little disappointed by the tour, as in my head I had built the cave up to be something more fantastic.  It was not the most interesting cave I had ever visited, but perhaps an additional tour would have added some more depth to the experience.

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Forestville Mystery Cave State Park also features a recreated 1800s village of Forestville, complete with costumed reenactors.  By the time the cave tour was over, the day was already getting late.   The town was closing for the day by the time we arrived.   The town of Forestville floundered after it was bypassed by railways in 1868.  Today it is restored and operated as a living museum by the Minnesota Historical Society.   After wandering around the buildings and peeking inside a few, the remainder of the evening was spent hiking in the park.  It was June and the gnats were terrible.  I ended up with many welts on my shoulder and neck from gnat bites.  This put a damper on enjoyable hiking, but under better conditions it seems like there is diverse nature to explore as the park is situated between prairie and deciduous biomes.  As for camping, we stayed at the nearby Maple Springs campground.   The campground is conveniently located outside of the park’s main entrance (so even though the state park campground was full, it was a nearby alternative.).  A campsite without water and electricity is $25 per night, so comparable to the state park’s prices.

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Overall, I think I built up the park a bit too much in my imagination.  It was certainly interesting and offered a variety of activities (cave tours, historical town, hiking, etc.) but the gnats soured my mood and ability to experience the park.  Later that week, I learned that the gnats were at their worst over that particular weekend, as many had just hatched and there was a larger population this year due to heavier rains (they like moving water).  Thus, the menacing gnat clouds that seemed intent on getting stuck in my hair may have been worse than other times.  The park is definitely worth the visit, but the cave, while unique to Minnesota and full of unique characteristics in its own right, it not the biggest or most interesting that I’ve been to.  So, perhaps with more modest or realistic expectations it would not disappoint.  To be fair, I did not really explore the cave or the park to the fullest.

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Father Hennepin State Park:

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Father Hennepin State Park is a small state park located by Isle, MN on Mille Lacs Lake.  I visited this park on a solo day trip.  Even though I didn’t spend the night, I felt that my day trip was an adequate amount of time to explore the park.   The park entrance was near an osprey nest, which I briefly observed before heading to the main parking lot.  The lot is located near a beach, which was active with families enjoying the summery weather.  My interest was exploring the trails, so I set off exploring.  Unfortunately, the park does not have an extensive trail network.  In all, it has under five miles of trails, which form a loop around the park (with two long ends).  The trails are easy to stroll along and feature a view of Mille Lacs Lake and an observation point for watching Common terns.  Common terns nest on two small islands on Mille Lacs Lake, which are one of only four breeding colonies in Minnesota.  I didn’t see any common terns as the islands were beyond the reach of my binoculars, so bringing a spotting scope would be a good idea for a visitor who has one.  The observation point is only about .5 miles from the parking lot.

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In addition to missing out on the terns, I didn’t see any of the park’s albino deer.   However, I did see a woodchuck climb a tree and saw/heard several species of flycatchers.  There is also a nice collection of interpretive signs along the trails and at the beach.  The park is named after Father Hennepin, who was a French priest and explorer who visited the region in 1680.   At the time, the area was home to Mdewakanton Dakota.  His exploratory accounts are believed to be exaggerated (for instance, one account spoke of being captured by Native Americans and traversing thousands of miles by canoe in just a month) and did not portray Native Americans favorably.   It would be great if the park’s name was changed to something else, perhaps something that recognizes Native American history instead.  I am not aware of any effort to change the park’s name, but did learn that the Ojibwe word for Mille Lacs Lake is Misi-zaaga’igan.  It is a small, but pleasant and pretty park that is easy to explore.  It is only 20 minutes away from Mille Lacs Kathio State Park, which is a much larger park with more trails.  The two could easily be combined if a person wanted to camp by the lake (at Father Hennepin) then spend some more time hiking (at Mille Lacs Kathio).

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Schoolcraft State Park:

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The third park that I visited this summer was Schoolcraft State Park, which is located about two hours west of Duluth near Grand Rapids, MN at the confluence of the Mississippi and Vermilion rivers.  Like Father Hennepin State Park, the visit was a solo day trip rather than an overnight camping excursion.   Of all the state parks that I have visited thus far, this one was the smallest and emptiest!  The park did not have visible staff or a park office.  Instead, there was a self-serve kiosk for purchasing firewood, camping fees, or a park pass.  The park did not even have a large sign, like most parks often have.  On the plus side, I had the park almost entirely to myself.  So, in that sense, it felt pretty remote!  The main objective of the visit was to see a 300 year old white pine and to do some hiking.  The hiking was not an extensive adventure because the park only has two miles of trails!  The park is probably a better destination for people who wish to canoe or fish.  I followed the Hiking Club Trail, which looped around the park.  I even backtracked and detoured a bit to hit various segments of trail that cut across the loop.  I didn’t see many birds, but I did see quite a few butterflies during the hike.  In all, it is very easy to explore the whole park within a few hours.

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The main attraction of the park is the 300 year old white pine.  The pine was spared by loggers because it was too crooked.  Thus, it stands along the Mississippi river; its arboreal cohort is long gone.   The tree doesn’t have a sign or, to my knowledge, a name.  But, it is distinctive enough to identify as the old one, since it is large, forked into three, and located right in front of the main parking lot along the river.  I took photos of the tree, then set off walking.   Along the short loop of a trail are some interpretive signs- which in the absence of a larger park or extensive trail network, offer a visitor something to do or find.  The signs discuss the nature and history of the park.  Like Father Hennepin state park, Schoolcraft State Park is named after a white explorer.  In this case, Henry Schoolcraft was part of an 1832 US expedition to the headwaters of the Mississippi River and later became a Superintendent of Indian Affairs (through which he obtained millions of acres of land for the U.S. government through treaties and sought to acculturate Native Americans into a farming).  He married an Ojibwe and Scottish writer named Jane Johnston, who taught him about Ojibwe language and culture.  She is believed to be the first female Native American writer and poet, though I don’t recall information about her on the interpretive signs.  Perhaps the park should be named after her.  After she passed away, Schoolcraft married a pro-slavery writer named Mary Howard.  It would be great to rename this park as well.  PFather Hennepin State Park, Schoolcraft State Park, and especially Sibley State Park (Sibley fought against the Dakota Uprising in 1862, which culminated in the largest mass hanging in US history when 38 Dakota prisoners were executed) could all use a name change.  Changing the name does not undo U.S. history of genocide or even promise better treatment of Native Americans today, but at least it doesn’t celebrate or honor colonization.

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I enjoy visiting state parks and would certainly recommend all three.  Schoolcraft State Park is small enough that I probably wouldn’t suggest spending a long time there (multiple days) or a recommend long distance travel that only entails that park (perhaps it could be visited along with another state park in the area).  Father Hennepin State Park is another small park, but the location is pretty enough that staying longer might be worthwhile for the opportunity to relax and enjoy the lake.  Finally, Forestville Mystery Cave State Park is large enough that it could be visited over multiple days as it has many things to do and see.  It is a bit more remote than the other two, but also much more popular.  In the case of the two smaller parks that I visited, it prompted me to think a bit more about the ways in which state parks commemorate colonial history.  This is a topic that I should spend some time looking into a bit more.  It is great to enjoy fossils and 300 year old trees, but these spaces are largely white and middle class and some of the names signal who belongs and matters and who does not.


			

A Review of Three Minnesota State Parks

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A Review of Three Minnesota State Parks

H. Bradford

7/27/18

This past week I visited three Minnesota State Parks.  My goal is to one day visit all 66 state parks.  Usually, I try to visit a few new ones each year, so it is a long term goal.  The three parks that I visited are each located in central Minnesota and are each within one hour driving distance from St. Cloud.  I chose the parks since I visited my brother this past weekend (who lives in the St. Cloud area) and it was a way to kill two birds with one stone.  Well, really, I don’t want to kill birds at all.  Typically, I prefer to watch them.  Violent idioms aside, here is my review of the three state parks that I visited.


Lake Maria State Park:

Lake Maria State Park is located near Monticello, Minnesota, about three hours south-west of Duluth.  There was some road construction along the way and when I stopped at a gas station about 10 miles away from the park, the staff and a customer had no idea where Lake Maria State Park was.  The customer reckoned that he had heard of it before.  This did not bode well for the state park.  When I arrived not long after the stop, I found that the park office was closed.  It was a Friday, which I assumed might be a busier day of the week for a state park.  With the park office closed, I decided to do some hiking, then check back later (since I like to collect state park patches).   My first hike was to Little Mary Lake.

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(Sorry to disappoint anyone but Lake Maria’s sign is not this sparkly in real life.  I just had a sparkle setting on my camera by accident.)


Almost immediately, I was attacked by deer flies.  I did not think to wear my hat, so during the course of my hike, I picked dead deer flies from my hair in a demoralizing journey to the lake.  Had I counted the number of dead deer flies, I would not be surprised if at least 50 found their death in my hair.  The hike itself was hard to enjoy, as my constant battle with the flies made it impossible to stop for photos or bird watching.  The trail was dotted with many swampy pools, which seemed like the perfect environment for breeding insects.  The forest itself was unique, as it is a remnant of the “Big Woods” that once covered that part of the state.  The surrounding area near the park is either farm fields with corn or big box stores along I-94, so the park is a piece of what once was.   The forest also seemed unique to me because of the large number of basswood trees.  I might have appreciated the park more had my hike not been marked by the incessant attack of deer flies.

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One of Lake Maria’s swampy pools.


Little Mary Lake features a wildlife lookout, wherein visitors can take a moment to enjoy the swans and other waterfowl on the lake.   Further ahead, there is a boat landing and interpretive trail.  I enjoy interpretive trails, though the Zumbrunnen Interpretive Trail was overgrown with sedges and other vegetation.   Upon finishing this trail, I headed back to my car to eat a snack, put on a hat (to guard against flies), and wait for the visitor center to open.

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The wildlife lookout area


My second hike of the day was to Lake Maria.  I took a meandering path instead of a direct route, which took me to a bluebird restoration area, then back to the lake.  The lake itself was actually much smaller than Little Lake Mary, despite the fact the larger lake is called “Little.”  Once again, I was pestered by flies. Despite wearing hat (which I retrieved after the first hike), they flew at my face and under the brim.  This made for an exhausting day, as my hike seemed like an endless battle with flies.   However, I think that the park would be more enjoyable in the autumn or spring when the flies are not as thick.  Since the park is almost entirely forests and lakes, I am sure that it would be particularly nice in the fall.

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Pros:

The park was almost entirely empty.  I hiked from 11:30 am to about 3:30 pm and only encountered one other hiker.  There were several other people in the park, but I can count on one hand the number that I saw at various points during the day.  The park also features backpacking campsites.  It seems that it is a great park to visit if someone wants solitude.  I assumed that since the park is only 22 miles from St. Cloud and 45 miles from Minneapolis that it would be much busier.  This was not the case at all.  Lake Maria features lakes, forests, and plenty of birds.


Cons:

The flies were insufferable.  The natural ponds and lakes and surrounding farmland seem to be the ingredients for a lot of flies.  I would definitely have arrived more prepared for flies had I been thinking about it.  They bite any exposed skin, making taking photos difficult as they would land on my hands.   Another con was that the park office did not open until 2pm.  I wanted to purchase a year long park sticker and an embroidered patch, but had to wait until the park office opened.  Stickers can be ordered online, but I wanted the sticker right away as I had planned on visiting two other state parks that weekend.


Charles Lindbergh State Park:

Do you like aviation history and relentless swarms of mosquitoes?  I sure don’t.  This made Charles Lindbergh State Park a bit of a disappointment for me (heavy emphasis on the mosquito swarms).   Charles Lindbergh State Park is located about an hour north west of Lake Maria State Park, or about 30 minutes south of St. Cloud Minnesota.  The park was established with donated land from Charles Lindbergh Sr., the father of the famous aviator and a state congressperson.  Upon arriving at the park at about 9am on Monday, I found that the office was closed.  Bugs and closed park offices were a theme over the weekend.  I had intended to camp there, so I dropped off some money for firewood and set off to explore some of the historic buildings around the park.

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Because the park was created through a land donation of Charles Lindbergh Sr., visitors can walk around the family farm house.  The farm house was not open during my visit, but the grounds were open.  Visitors can also view a dilapidated house which was used by tenant farmers on the Lindbergh property.  There are some signs which tell the story of the farm, which seems oddly situated in a wooded strip of land between the Mississippi River and Pike Creek.  Near the farm, there is a museum dedicated to Charles Lindbergh Jr., the famous aviator.  The museum, like the farm house, was not open.  In the opposite direction, there is Weyerhauser Museum, but once again, this museum was not open.   Although the museums were closed, there are a few interpretive signs and a pleasant trail along the Mississippi River, which connects these sites.

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Tenant farmer house

 


After viewing these historical sites, I decided to do some hiking within the woods.  This was where I was bombarded by mosquitoes.  It is little wonder, since the trail followed Pine Creek, a wonderful breeding place for the blood thirsty plague.  I sprayed myself with DEET, but this would not defeat the relentless mosquitoes, which prodded my skin and clothes for any DEET free areas.  On the bright side, it caused me to hike very quickly as the mosquitoes pushed me forward.  I hiked a 1.5 mile loop which took me through the forest, along the creek, and to the landing site of Lindbergh’s “Jenny” airplane.  I am not really interested in aviation history, but the clearing was the only mosquito free area of the hike.

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I would have hiked longer, but the mosquitoes were making me miserable.  Instead, I headed to the park office, which was again closed.  I decided that I would leave the park, head to Little Falls, find some lunch, then go hiking elsewhere (at Crane Meadows National Wildlife Reserve).  This 3.5 mile hike proved to be bug free and greatly improved my bug bitten morale.

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A mosquito breeding area


When I returned to the park in the early evening, the park office was still closed.  I set up my tent at the campsite, took a short jaunt into the mosquito infested woods, then settled down at my campsite with a fire and some reading.  A wasp flew into my tent and I could not find it.  This caused me some concern.  Another source of concern was the nearby campers, who seemed to be very rowdy and loud.  Because of the loud neighbor campers and the mysterious disappearance of the wasp in my tent, I decided to sleep in my car.


Sometime after midnight, a police officer woke me up.  He questioned me about the behaviors of the nearby campers and if I had witnessed anything unusual or anyone in distress.  There were several squad cars parked near my campsite.  I only said that they had been loud earlier, but I didn’t hear any fighting or anything more concerning than the ruckus of loud conversation.  The officer left, but sometime later I was roused again, this time by a sergeant who wanted me to make an official witness statement.  I really hadn’t been paying attention to the other campers, their conversations, or what they were up to.  I have no idea what sort of crime happened on the other campsite.  I never heard anyone in need of help or anything that sounded like an argument or fight.  So…I don’t know.  But, it made me feel uneasy for the rest of the night.  The officers also seemed surprised that I was camping alone and in my car, rather than my tent.  I explained that a wasp had entered my tent and I could not locate it.   The rest of the night was a fitful sleep of wondering if someone had been hurt or if I failed to help someone.  I had a dream that a woman came knocking on my car door asking for help.  In the morning, the park office was still closed as I left…

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My shirt says…camping is in-tents.   Owing to a wayward wasp and concerning crime, it was a little too intense, even if it was not in-tent.


Pros:

Charles Lindbergh State Park features museums and historical buildings, melding history and nature into a unique state park.  The park is located along the Mississippi River, so it is also a good place to visit if a person wants to take in a section of the second longest U.S. river.   However, most of the trails are not along the Mississippi.   The park is conveniently located near Little Falls, MN which has a historic downtown and several local attractions, including the Minnesota Fishing Museum (inconveniently closed on Mondays as well).  The town has a variety of restaurants and stores, making it easy to restock or recharge while camping.  The park is also less than 10 miles from Crane Meadows National Wildlife Preserve.  Location and history seem to be the best features of the park.  Like Lake Maria, the park was fairly empty.  While the campground was active, I didn’t see any other hikers on the trails.


Cons:

The park was not staffed between 9 am Monday and 9am Tuesday when I left.  I checked the office numerous times, but I saw no one there.  This meant that I could not collect an embroidered patch from the park.  It also meant that no one was around to attend to the campground, which in the case of my stay, was the site of some kind of crime.  Obviously, visiting the park on a Monday was not a perfect idea, since the museums were closed.  There were also a lot of hungry mosquitoes.

Crow Wing State Park:


The final park that I visited was Crow Wing State Park, which is less than 30 minutes north of Little Falls near Brainerd, Minnesota.   Of the three, I spent the least amount of time here, since I was simply stopping by on my way home.   Crow Wing State Park is the park that I would most likely revisit and was my favorite of the three.   I spent under three hours at the park, hiking around on Tuesday morning after leaving Lindbergh State Park.  Once again, the park office was closed.  It was closed throughout my visit (though I saw staff poking around the park- just not attending to the office).  Thus, I was unable to obtain a collectable embroidered patch once again…since….once again, the park office was closed.

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Much like Charles Lindbergh State Park, Crow Wing State Park was a breeding ground for aggressive swarms of mosquitoes.  The mosquitoes were actually far worse in some areas of this park.  Once again, DEET didn’t do much to deter the menacing cloud that followed me around the park.  My 100% DEET spray, which is potent enough to remove my nail polish and destroyed the fabric of my leggings, didn’t bother them that much.  The mosquitoes mostly bounced off my skin, looking for a clear spot to feast.  I can only be thankful that the mosquitoes here do not carry tropical diseases as we would all be doomed.  At some points, I actually jogged down the trail, hoping to out run them.  I didn’t.  There were just too many.   Oh well.

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More mosquitoes…

 


Insects aside, there was a lot to like about the park.  For one, the trails were accessible and could easily be visited by families.  The trail that I visited passed through the remnants of the former town of Crow Wing, which was established at the confluence of the Mississippi and Crow Wing rivers.  There is nothing left of the town but sign posts where businesses and town amenities once stood.  However, this was interesting and there were a few interpretive signs which told the story of the long lost 1800s trading town.  Another bonus of this area was that it was situated in a sunny clearing that was devoid of mosquitoes.  Because of this, I took my time, taking in the signs and the history.  Highlights of the remnants of Crow Wing include a reconstructed wooden boardwalk and the restored home of Clement Beaulieu the head of the American Fur Company trading post in Crow Wing.  It is one of the oldest wooden houses in Minnesota.  The town of Crow Wing had a population of 600 people at its peak, most of whom were of Native American descent.  The interpretive signs did not mention (at least the ones that I read) that the town collapsed because of the relocation of local Native Americans to White Earth Reservation in 1868 and the subsequent railroad construction in Brainerd.

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Aside from the town of Crow Wing, visitors can hike along the Red River Oxcart Trail to where oxcarts forded across the Mississippi River.   The Red River Trail was established as a trade route to Winnipeg, Manitoba.  The section near Crow Wing was constructed through Ojibwe territory, as it was viewed safer at the time than passing through Dakota territory.   In addition to this trail (which was very buggy) visitors can also view a battle site where Ojibwe and Dakota people fought in 1768.  There is also a reconstructed chapel of Father Pierz, who built a mission near Crow Wing and promoted white settlement and the acculturation of Native Americans (through conversion to Catholicism and adopting European farming practices).  I did not visit the chapel as I was not as interested in Catholic history and the mosquitoes were too intense.

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Pros:

This state park was my favorite of the three.  There is a lot to like!  Native American history, a ghost town, ox cart trail, and battle site (though there was not a lot of information about the 1768 battle).   It also seemed to be the most accessible of the three parks, as the trails were flatter and the distance to the ghost town was not far.  With that said, those with walkers or wheelchairs would still find it difficult to navigate.  However, families or those with less restrictive mobility issues might be able to enjoy the ghost town.  The reconstructed boardwalk is rustic looking, but this also makes it uneven.  That could be a challenge.  As a whole, state park hiking trails do not seem that accessible, but this one might be slightly less daunting.  The history is the main attraction of this park.  The nature is also nice as well.  Although it is only 30 minutes north of Little Falls, the landscape features conifers, wetlands, and wet prairie.  It is also a location to enjoy the Mississippi River (as it meets the Crow Wing river).


Cons:

There really weren’t any cons to this park, other than the mosquitoes.  I suppose that a con could be that the ghost town of Crow Wing seems to be excellent habitat for snakes- as I saw at least three by the boardwalk.  I am not bothered by snakes, but this might frighten some people.  Interestingly, I also saw a small lizard.  There are only three lizards that are found in Minnesota.  I have never seen one.  I believe that the one that I saw was a prairie skink, as that is the most common and is found in that part of the state.  Again, this should go in the pros, as who isn’t pro skink?  So scratch that, there is nothing wrong with this park except for the millions of mosquitoes and fact that the office was closed AGAIN!  I missed out on another collectable patch.


Conclusion:

If there are two lessons to draw from these state park visits it is 1.) be prepared for bugs.  2.) state parks need more funding and staffing.  To address the first issue, yes, I have complained a LOT about insects.  I could certainly dress differently or prepare myself in other ways for the massive amount of insects.  Another idea is to visit these parks in times of the year where the insects are less active.  Daily weather variations can also make a difference.  Had there been heavy wind or rain, the insects would not have been as active.  I think that next year, if I visit any state parks in the month of July I will choose places that are not as wet, as each of these parks is either located on rivers or lakes.  Southern or Western Minnesota might be better options for July.  To address the staffing issue, I was shocked that the parks seemed like ghost towns…(aside from the actual ghost town of Crow Wing).  The parks seemed very understaffed.  What has happened?  We really need to do more to staff the parks!  Of course, there were few visitors at the parks as well.  These parks may not be as well-visited as other parks in Minnesota.  Nevertheless, it is summer, so I expect that there would be SOME tourism to these parks.  I guess we really need to promote state park visits and funding for staff.   Otherwise, hopefully this inspires someone to visit a state park this summer and now you know what to expect!

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