I love a challenge, especially one I can brag about on Facebook. My latest boast: visiting all 75 state parks and recreation areas in Minnesota. Yes, I am an official member of the Minnesota State Parks and Trails Passport Club, which is administered by our very own Department of Natural Resources. I first heard about the club while listening to a public radio call-in show. I picked up my passport kit that day. Here is what happens: Every time you visit a state park or recreation area, you get the passport stamped. Complete the passport, and you get a certificate, suitable for framing.
As soon as my husband walked in the door and saw the look on my face and the passport in my hand, he knew what we would be doing for the next three summers.
From the start, we had one rule: Although we did not have to camp at every park, we were required to step out of the car and spend at least half an hour there, usually hiking. No drive-by-and-get-a-stamp allowed. For the most part — except when mosquitoes, heavy rain or those darn Asian lady beetles (they bite!) overwhelmed us — we did just that.
The Passport Club took us to the far corners and borders of this beautiful state — a state brimming with geographically and culturally diverse regions we would never have visited on our own.
People ask, “What park was your favorite?” And honestly, it is so difficult to say, because of the proverbial “favorite child” syndrome. Almost every park had something worth noting, be it spectacular vistas, hiking trails, bike paths, waterfalls, birds, historical sites or campgrounds. In our minds, some are definitely more desirable than others, but you really can’t go wrong, especially if you are just going to spend a day or a night there before pulling up stakes.
In the midst of wildlife and waterways were some unexpected surprises, proving that you can find nearly everything your heart desires at a Minnesota state park.
Here are just a few of the most unusual:
Take your kids to the swimming pool, er, swimming lake: Flandrau State Park (New Ulm) actually has a chlorinated, sand-bottom swimming pond. It is just delightful, for young and old alike.
Walk a very long boardwalk across a very large bog: Big Bog State Recreation Area (Waskish) consists of a 500-square-mile peat bog, the largest in the Lower 48 states. And a milelong boardwalk helps you hike across it without sinking up to your knees.
Have a night on the town: Red River State Recreation Area (East Grand Forks). Want to walk around downtown Grand Forks, shop at Cabela’s, stop for a delightful dinner, take in a movie and then return home to your tent? Try this urban park, which came about as a result of the flood of 1997 that devastated the Red River communities of East Grand Forks and Grand Forks. The Federal Emergency Management Agency turned it into a campground, all within walking distance of dining and shopping.
Visit an underground mine: Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park (Soudan). Travel a half-mile underground for a guided tour of Minnesota’s first iron ore mine.
Tell everyone you have been to Canada: Garden Island State Recreation Area (in Lake of the Woods), although it is quite a hassle. First, drive across the border at the Warroad-Sprague border crossing. Then drive a little ways on in Manitoba, back across the border into Minnesota at the Northwest Angle. Take a boat from the town of Angle Inlet to Flag Island. Then a boat to Garden Island. See what I mean? A lot of work. Instead, take a peek at Canada from Franz Jevne (Birchdale) or Grand Portage. (By the way, Garden Island is an optional state park for the Passport Club.)
So, I am so proud to have completed this journey. It made for lots of good bragging rights. But mostly, I am grateful; grateful for the opportunity to discover why we all love the magnificent state of Minnesota.
Buy the $14.95 Passport Club kit at most state parks, by calling 651-259-5600 or at the DNR License Center, 500 Lafayette Road, St. Paul.
Martha Wegner is a writer in St. Paul.