The first time I visited Glendalough State Park was by happenstance — I came across the park entrance on a leisurely drive one winter’s morning in the late-1990s while staying at my sister’s nearby house in west-central Minnesota next to Fergus Falls.

The night before, roughly three inches of heavy, wet snow fell, blanketing the park and the surrounding region in monochromatic splendor. Curious, and with my young black Lab riding shotgun, I made a hard-left into the park and found it momentarily uninhabited — we were completely alone, in a wild place whose existence I had just discovered only seconds before. It was the happiest of accidents.

I remember that morning well for two other reasons: The snow clung to Glendalough’s naked hardwoods and each had the look of skeleton hands. It was an eerie yet intoxicatingly beautiful sight — a mental photograph long ago archived and impossible to forget. And the white-tailed deer were everywhere, dozens of them lollygagging about or bedded near the edge of a stand of native prairie. They were completely unfazed by our presence and seemingly tamed by the fresh snow.

Over the years, I have visited the 2,761-acre park countless times, enjoying (and learning about) nearly every square inch of its woods, waters, wetlands and uplands. In fact, while I have visited numerous state parks across Minnesota, Glendalough (named after an Irish monastery) is the only one I’ve explored in every season.

“For each season, Glendalough has its own unique beauty,” said my sister Tatum Johnson, who hikes and kayaks there regularly. “It’s really an unknown gem, tucked away in the transition zone of the prairie and hardwood forest. The lakes at the park are pristine, some of them have great sandy beaches and the fishing is good. I feel very lucky to live so close to a state park that even hard-core park-goers don’t know exists.”

Glendalough State Park is in Otter Tail County, roughly 3 miles northeast of Battle Lake, a sleepy little town that turns kinetic with vacationers in late spring and throughout the summer.

The park has an unusual history. It was first acquired in 1903 as a summer retreat, then was sold in 1928 to F.E. Murphy, owner of the Minneapolis Tribune Co., who expanded the property and started a private game farm on the grounds. The largely untrammeled property was sold in 1941 to Cowles Media Co. (including the newspaper, which is now the Star Tribune). The Cowles family, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, used the property as a private and corporate retreat, entertaining presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon and other VIPs.

In 1990, the property was donated to the Nature Conservancy. Two years later, the deed was transferred to the Minnesota DNR and the property was turned into a state park.

Pristine lakes

When you enter the park, it feels like civilization stops and a new (completely natural) dimension begins. The park, it should be noted, has 9.2 miles of undeveloped lakeshore, one of the last large tracts remaining in western Minnesota. Several hiking trails, including two interpretive paths, rise and fall along five lakes — Molly Stark, Annie Battle, Sunset, Blanche and Emma — and through the park’s thick woods and managed prairie. An array of wildlife can be spied throughout the year — from deer to turkeys to loons, among numerous other bird species and assorted small mammals.

“I love the prairie sections probably the most, especially when the wildflowers are in bloom,” said my sister, who inherited our family’s affinity for grasslands. “It’s truly something special to see.”

Over the years, I’ve fished but one of Glendalough’s five lakes: the pristine and gin-clear Annie Battle. Annie Battle is a “heritage” fishery, a designation that comes with strict rules. Motors are banned. All fishing electronics are forbidden. And anglers must follow a set of special rules: Only five sunfish and five crappies can be taken daily.

One morning a few years ago, I watched two fly anglers cast yellow “bass poppers” to an emergent weed bed. Every cast, or seemingly so, coaxed an aggressive, even vicious strike. Then hoots and hollers from the euphoric fishermen, which instantly coaxed something out of me: jealousy. Curious again, and anticipating they were catching largemouth bass, I looked through my binoculars and couldn’t believe what I saw: sunfish — very large sunfish — that resembled Frisbees with lips. Thanks to the special regulations and light fishing pressure, Annie Battle is renowned for these über-large sunfish, a rarity in Minnesota waters nowadays.

Unfortunately, I haven’t had similar luck when fishing Annie Battle. Not even close. Jealousy intact, I’m hoping that changes in early September when I return to Glendalough for a few days of fishing. I plan to camp at one of the park’s 22 “primitive” cart-in campsites (the park also has three canoe-in sites, as well as four camper cabins) and exorcise a few sunfish demons.

If that doesn’t work, there’s always winter. And the deer.

Tori J. McCormick is a freelance outdoors writer living in Prior Lake. Reach him at torimccormick33@gmail.com.