On a sizzling July weekday, the Waite Park parking lot for Quarry Park and Nature Preserve overflows with a parade of visitors. They head into the 684-acre woods on the western edge of St. Cloud with towels draped around sticky necks, awkwardly clutched floats bobbing above heads, and the rhythmic grind of flip-flops across the graveled trail.
They pass a restored 80-foot-tall derrick, industrial remnants, and blocks of rock striated from excavations before the route forks to the two most popular destinations: Quarry 2, a 116-foot-deep swim quarry since the park opened in 1998, and Quarry 11, a more family-friendly option that opened last summer.
The booms of dynamite which once helped harvest red granite for St. Paul’s Landmark Center and James J. Hill House, have given way to whoops and splashes as thrill-seekers jump from the 20-foot cliffs of Quarry 2 or the 8-foot cliffs of Quarry 11.
“I like the jumping. It’s breathtaking,” said Gretta Johnson, an 11-year-old from Sartell, Minn., who’s usually there at least once a week.
Traditional inland lakes tend to attract the most summertime love in Minnesota with more than 11,000 from which to choose. But there are fun alternatives with a variety of nontraditional swimming holes throughout the state. Here is a look at the best of them, ranging from water-filled quarries and reclaimed open-pit mines to man-made sand-bottom ponds and spots along rivers. (Interactive map is here.)
QUARRIES, MINES and PITS
These excavated areas that fill with spring water are best for good swimmers due to their depths and lack of lifeguards. A bonus: They usually lack the weeds, mucky bottoms and critters found in natural lakes.
Quarry Park and Nature Preserve
Unlike the big-sky expanse of a Minnesota lake, the walls of quarries offer pretty reflecting pools on quiet cool days and glittering deep-green playgrounds on the hot ones when flotillas of inflatables look like neon Cheerios in a giant rock bowl. It’s a half-mile hike to Quarry 2 or a one-third mile hike to Quarry 11, with occasionally cool breezes wafting from the giant piles of discarded rock. The chance of the 280-spot parking lot filling up has increased with the park featured on Travel Channel’s “best swimming holes in the country” this summer, so visitors may be asked to return later in the day. Before 11 a.m. or after 6 p.m. tends to be less busy, said Peter Theismann, Stearns County park director. ($5/day; $20 season pass; 1-320-255-6172; co.stearns.mn.us)
Portsmouth Campground, Ironton
The beach isn’t huge at Portsmouth Mine Pit in Cuyuna Lakes State Recreation Area, but the clarity here and at other nearby mine lakes makes them enticing — especially with sweaty, gritty mountain bikers braced for super-chilled water. The mine-turned-lake also gets bragging rights as Minnesota’s deepest inland body of water, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. It’s an estimated 450 feet deep, compared to 240-feet deep for Lake Saganaga, the state’s deepest natural lake. (1-218-546-5926; dnr.state.mn.us)
Stubler Beach, Buhl
This small mine lake on the Iron Range sits across from a rustic municipal campground and near the Mesabi Trail (1-218-258-3226; irontrail.org)
Hiniker Pond, Mankato
Natural springs filled in this 28-acre former sand-and-gravel pit and made it a popular gathering spot, especially with a sandy beach, fishing pier, trails and restrooms. No lifeguards are on duty. (1-507-387-8600; mankatomn.gov)
Foster Arend Park, Rochester
Open through Labor Day, this former gravel-pit-turned-lake reaches a depth of 42 feet. With a play area and accessible fishing pier, it is a popular place to cool off. (1-507-328-2525; rochestermn.gov)
Warmer than most lakes, often with lifeguards on the perimeter, and with little to no current, these often man-made ponds can be ideal for younger children who love sand between their toes. Many spots are handicapped accessible. Be sure to verify seasonal hours and fees. State parks charge $5 per day per vehicle, and their ponds close for the season after Aug. 21.
Flandrau State Park swimming pond, New Ulm
This town along the Minnesota River west of Mankato may be best known for its German celebrations and having one of the oldest family-run craft breweries in the nation. But it’s also a relaxing getaway for young families, especially those who enjoy camping at state parks, dipping into the sand-bottom man-made pond, and being able to bike into town for brats and a cold beer — or root beer. (1-507-233-9800; dnr.state.mn.us)
Buffalo River State Park, Glynden
Fourteen miles east of Fargo-Moorhead, this sandy-bottom, man-made pond fills with filtered water from the Buffalo River to keep campers and visitors cooled off during summer’s peak months. Cottonwoods keep the river area and hiking trail nicely shaded, but the park’s best known as one of the state’s largest remnant prairies with colorful wildflowers. (1-218-498-2124; dnr.state.mn.us)
Camden State Park, Lynd
Where the Redwood River carves into the prairie of southwestern Minnesota, you’ll find an intimate spring-fed pond southwest of Marshall. The park includes 80 campsites and the Dakota Valley Trail through prairie and savannah (1-507-865-4530; dnr.state.mn.us).
Minnesota’s equally impressive lineup of rivers and streams can get overlooked. But the DNR has cataloged 6,500 of them that together wind and stretch 69,200 miles.
These waterways may offer the bonus of spring-fed clarity, scenic bluffs, and great wildlife viewing, especially for birders. Word of caution: Water flows can change quickly after heavy rainfalls. The St. Croix in particular has been high in recent weeks. Always check current conditions to be sure it’s safe to swim and that beaches aren’t under water before heading out.
Afton State Park, Afton
Visitors can hike more than 20 miles along bluffs overlooking the St. Croix River before a sweet swim at this beach southeast of St. Paul. (651-436-5391; www.dnr.state.mn.us).
Point Douglas Park, Hastings
This pretty beach parallels the Highway 10 bridge from Minnesota to Wisconsin, facing the St. Croix River as it curves to meet the Mississippi. Lifeguards patrol but only on weekends in August. Parking is free, but there is no overflow parking when the lot fills. (651-430-8240; co.washington.mn.us)
St. Croix Beach, Lakeland
With a big sandy beach that hugs the the river at Riverfront Park, this can be a popular destination on the outer edge of the metro. Go early to get a parking spot in the lot along Ramada Avenue and 20th Street South, which you can follow to the river. The city charges $5 for weekday parking, $6 for weekends and $7 for holidays (651-436-7031; lscb.govoffice.com)
Lester River, Duluth
Swimming isn’t a promoted or official activity for Lester Park, which is known for playgrounds, hiking and more, but locals seek a number of pools to cool off. The river winds through the eastern edge of the city down terraces, over small waterfalls and into Lake Superior. Parking can be found at Lester Park off Superior Street. (1-218-730-4320)
Latsch Island Beach, Winona
While it’s accessible by car, this beach is on the main channel of the Mississippi River between Minnesota and Wisconsin. A bonus: Paddling to the north channel or following an old wagon bridge to Aghaming Park and Preserve, a strip of bottomland across from Latsch Island to glimpse local wildlife. (1-507-457-8258; visitwinona.com)
Oxbow Beach, Altura
A bend in this spring-fed river provides the cooling effect at Whitewater State Park, which has long been known for its scarcer-than-average mosquito population and trout fishing. Campers can choose from 110 sites in two campgrounds tucked into the wooded terrain carved with bluffs and ravines 25 miles east of Rochester. (1-507-932-3007; dnr.state.mn.us).
Lisa Meyers McClintick is St. Cloud-based writer and photographer.