Illustration by Amelia LeBarron

Journey's end

This fourth Big List special project of Star Tribune Outdoors is devoted to lists of every sort, from trips to books to favored gear. Our hope is you find the lists useful, enlightening and even good reminders of all the outdoors possibilities in Minnesota.

The Big List:  Camping  |  Summer  |  Hunting  |  Final List

Cross country skiers at Elm Creek Park Reserve.
David Joles, Star Tribune
Cross-country skiing

Skating and sliding options abound

With a variety of terrain and even lessons and rentals, Nordic ski trails offer a workout and wintry views of Minnesota lakes, rivers and rolling landscapes. Most do require daily or seasonal ski passes, which help pay for trail-grooming and maintenance:

Elm Creek Winter Recreation Area, Maple Grove: This sprawling park has an artificial snow machine to keep its almost 12 miles of trails in good condition. The center also has plans Dec. 9 for “Minnesota Nordic Ski Opener” event, featuring free ski rentals, abbreviated lessons, waxing clinics and an assembly of retailers and ski clubs representatives.

Battle Creek Regional Park West, St. Paul: This urban park has loops for everyone from beginner to advanced and 4 kilometers of trails lit until 9 p.m.

Tamarack Nature Center, White Bear Township: This 320-acre preserve rents skis (and snowshoes) for its 8 kilometers of trails. Lessons are available, too.

Theodore Wirth Park, Minneapolis: With views of the skyline, Minneapolis’ largest park offers about 14 miles of groomed trails and is also home to the Loppet Foundation, which offers weekend lessons and rentals from the Par 3 clubhouse. (612-230-6400;

Afton State Park, Hastings: Warm up by a wood stove after skiing the 12 miles of trails and enjoying views of the St. Croix River Valley.

River Bend Nature Center: This park in Fairbault has 5 miles of groomed trails plus ski and snowshoe rentals about an hour south of the Twin Cities.

(This is part of the Big List here)


A pair of fat-tire cyclists rode along E. Minnehaha Pkwy.
Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

Rolling fat, rolling strong

The fatbike scene in Minnesota and beyond seems infinite, and that is keeping Chris Chavie on his toes.

Chavie, who keeps a keen eye on the cycling world in his popular and informative blog, MN Bike Trail Navigator, said there are multiple forces at play. Among them: bikes are becoming more affordable; new races and introductory programs pop up every year; and there are more places to ride.

“Every year it just seems to grow and grow and grow,” said Chavie, who manages social media and works in sales at Penn Cycle. More women and children are rolling, too, he added. “They see how much fun (their friends) are having and want to be a part of it.”

Some other observations from Chavie:

• People are riding more than just groomed single-track. They are riding frozen creeks, lakes and swamps, bushwhacking woods and shoreline, and taking ski lifts to tear downhill.

• Social media is building community. Group rides are booming.

• Increasing number of fatbikers are riding all year, not just on snow.

(This is part of the Big List here)


Made in Minnesota
Provided photos

Made in Minnesota

The outdoor gear space is jam packed these days. While you could walk into any sporting goods outfitter or shopping mall and choose something off the shelf, you could also buy local. In line with Minnesota’s rich outdoor traditions, there are plenty of companies big and small designing and manufacturing some of the best quality gear on the market.

Granite Gear: Granite Gear has been peddling their packs and other adventure gear for over three decades. Their new Minnesota Made Collection includes three backpacks and two duffels perfect for urban hikes and weekend adventures. Best of all, these bags are made and hand-sewn at the company’s Two Harbors headquarters.

Heim-made: The brain child of a Minnesota mother-daughter duo, heim-made makes a variety of outerwear, but its down products are perhaps its signature. Check out the ingenious designs showcased in the LumberJacket with built-in mittens, and the Blankoat, which doubles as a blanket and coat.

Namakan: Namakan was born in the winter of 2014 when St. Paul-based co-founder Maggie Davis discovered that she was far warmer in coats that employed faux fur trim on the hood. The trouble was the hood didn’t transfer to other coats and jackets, so the Namakan faux fur ruff was born. Using a patent-pending design, the ruff attaches to any hood or collar with superstrong magnets. Building off its success, it also offer faux fur puffs for hats and faux fur throw blankets perfect for cozying up by the fire on a cold evening.

Duluth Pack: A tried and true brand, Duluth Pack’s bags are versatile enough to go from a hike in the Northwoods to a coffee date in the city. Their Scout Pack and Roll-Top Scout Pack are favorites among outdoor buffs who love the brand’s classic style.

Frost River: Frost River’s waxed canvas heritage packs, bags, mittens and other gear are as good as it gets when it comes to design and durability. Made in Duluth in the tradition of Northwoods craftsmen, trappers, miners, and makers of decades past, Frost River is a Minnesota brand through and through.

(This is part of the Big List here)


Photo by Dennis Anderson

Three trips to take again

Trips, author John Steinbeck noted, can continue “long after movement in time and space have ceased.’’ So it is that we yearn to relive the best of our travels. Not only in our imaginations. But on the same highways and byways. Or, as below, on the same waters. Three trips to take again:

Poohbah Lake, Quetico Provincial Park

This giant lake is hard to get to and a heartbreaker to leave. Walleyes patrol its shallower areas, while lake trout are plentiful in the deeper water. Island camp sites feature statuesque red and white pines, perfect for a lone tent, or two or three. The challenge is reaching this gem through Poohbah Creek or, alternatively, over long portages from other directions.

International Falls to Crane Lake via boat

A leisurely five-day motorboat journey here, with walleyes — and northern pike and smallmouth bass — at nearly every stop. Bring a tent or check in to a different resort every night. Begin in Rainy Lake, jigging a leech or other bait atop reefs and along drop-offs. Angle though Brule Narrows to the Kettle Falls hotel at the juncture of Rainy and Namakan lakes. From there, point your bow eastward, then south through Sand Point lake to Crane Lake.

BWCA winter fishing by dog sled

Make this a day outing or an overnight or multi-night adventure. Outfitting is available out of Ely or along the Gunflint Trail. Lake trout fished deep are the primary quarry, though quests for giant northern pike also are available. Anglers can take charge of their own canine teams or bump along on snowy trails as passengers. Either way, upon reaching the desired frozen lake, a shoreline campfire is made and the wait begins for tip-up flags to “tip up,” signaling fish on.

(This is part of the Big List here)


A pair of bright red male pine grosbeaks are seen at a bird feeding station in Sax-Zim Bog.
Joles, David, Star Tribune

Set a nature goal for 2018

You don’t have to go back to school for biology to better understand the wonders underfoot and overhead while you’re enjoying the great outdoors. Instead, set a goal to study a new aspect of nature each year. Start with a narrow goal, so it doesn’t seem overwhelming.

• Study animal and bird tracks in the sand or snow.

• Get a guidebook for identifying favorite trees through skeletal winter silhouettes, the shape of spring leaves or summer seeds and cones.

• Learn the names for backyard butterflies and moths, spiders and insects.

• Study funky shapes and colors of lichen or the micro-details of moss while bouldering or rock-climbing.

• Take a foraging class.

• Leverage your smartphone, too. Record a bird song or take a photo for identifying a mysterious berry later. Check app stores for programs such as iBird Pro. Most popular field guides have digital versions expanded with the full power of apps, which can include bird calls and ways to track nature sightings and submit images that can help with citizen-science research projects.

Most libraries and bookstores offer extensive natural history sections. Nature centers and state parks offer ranger talks, guidebooks for sale and even field kits that can be borrowed. Seek out guidebooks from the National Audubon Society, Peterson, Sibley, Smithsonian, and Minnesota-based Kollath + Stensaas’s North Woods Naturalist Series. Once you’re hooked and hungry for more, the bookshelf fills quickly. Ongoing research does occasionally trigger name changes and new discoveries, but most field guides last a lifetime.


Hormel Nature Center.
Lisa Meyers McClintick

Great centers of nature

The clouds and rain may come, but there’s always something to learn and explore through the state’s many interactive nature centers. Here are some of the standouts:

Lowry Nature Center at Carver Park, Victoria: The first public nature center in the Twin Cities includes cellphone audio stops for learning about its tamarack bogs and hardwoods, a seasonal nature-themed playground with giant flowers and a beaver lodge, and a nearby sledding hill and pond. The center rents sleds, kick sleds, all-terrain wheelchairs, walking poles, snowshoes and explorer skis.

Richardson Nature Center, Bloomington: With lively, detail-rich murals and hands-on activities for children, this center sits within Hyland Park. There are trails through prairie, along lakes and among its wooded hills that make the center popular for winter skiers, snowboarders and disc golfers.

Great River Road Visitor Center, Prescott, Wis.: Just across the Mississippi from Hastings, this free destination offers a great overview of the Great River.

Jay C. Hormel Nature Center, Austin: This southern Minnesota visitor center opened this year with resident raptors, a dark area for learning about nocturnal critters and sounds, and a prairie display with pop-up observation bubbles for children.

(This is part of the Big List here)


At the Eastman Nature Center at Elm Creek Park Preserve, kids learned how to tap a maple tree to make syrup.
Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

Ways to be kid-friendly

If you feel a kinship with nature, you want your children to learn to love the outdoors, too. Stack the deck in your favor by following these three cardinal rules the next time you head out to do some exploring with the offspring in tow.

Always have snacks: There’s nothing worse than getting stuck a couple miles from the car with hungry children and no sustenance. Keep them fueled so they can contribute to the overall experience.

Dress kids in layers: It’s hard to know how warm or cold children will be once they get moving. Cover all your bases and include several layers that you can mix and match on the go.

Never rush: Allowing kids the chance to explore is key to family outdoor adventures. Make sure to leave enough time to let your little ones stop and relish the experience

(This is part of the Big List here).



Camping 101: Pick the right site

When making a reservation to camp in Minnesota state parks, you can pick a specific site. But if you’ve never been to a particular park, it can be tough to figure out what your best choice might be. Start by finding your park, open up the link to the campground map, and then consider:

1. If you’re tent camping, there’s no sense in paying the extra fee for a site that has electricity, a convenience provided for motor homes that need power hookups. Most campgrounds offer both nonelectric and electric loops, so look for the former. (Campsites with electricity will be marked with an “e.”)

2. Sites on the outside of loops usually offer more privacy. Especially in campgrounds that are not heavily wooded, tent pads on inside loops are sometimes barely separated from each other — which means you could end up sleeping only a few feet from your neighbor’s abode.

3. Decide if you want to be near toilets and shower facilities. It’s more convenient to be close, but sites further away from such amenities will have less traffic and noise — if you’re a light sleeper, outhouse doors slamming at 6 a.m. may not be your cup of tea.

(This is part of the Big List here)


"Pocket Bike Maintenance" for Outdoors Weekend
Provided photos

Look, listen, do

“Wise Trees” by Diane Cook and Len Jenshel (Abrams, 192 pgs., $40)

Like their beauty in the photography book, these revered trees have stories that are equally deep. The authors traveled to 59 sites across five continents for their book, and give each tree a singular presence. Many are symbols of hope (9/ 11 and Oklahoma City survivor trees) or spiritual meccas, while others have historic significance. Did you know the cherry trees around the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C., originated as a gift from Japan, an overture of goodwill when relations were frayed in the early 20th century? A reader won’t be able to view an ancient tree — wherever it stands — the same way again. “It’s enough to admire them, to try to understand their lives and to cultivate, so to speak, a deciduous philosophy,” writes Verlyn Klinkenborg in introducing the wisdom within.

“The Naturalist’s Notebook” by Nathaniel T. Wheelright and Bernd Heinrich (Storey Publishing, 208 pgs., $19.95)

This is a nature field tool for sure. The authors devote more than half of the book for use as a five-year calendar-journal — but there are many tools here. With delicate illustrations of flora and fauna by one of the authors and thoughtful and concise discussion on the “art” of nature journaling, the novice or experienced naturalist gets a lot of guidance. Heinrich writes that it’s more vital than ever in our frenetic world to “leave room in our lives for genuine, direct and contemplative connection with nature.” Heinrich and Wheelright help answer how. (Storey Publishing has a promotion to give away signed copies. Details here.)

“Pocket Bike Maintenance” by Mel Allwood (Carlton Books, 192 pgs., $16.95)

The motivation to come up with this handy book was born of city life. Allwood acknowledges the virtues of rolling (the fitness, doing good for the environment), but it’s the freedom to move in the city that gets him on two wheels. “I’m an impatient traveler. Bikes are the quickest way to get around and mean you’re traveling under your own steam.” If you’re going to ride, you need to be ready for roadside emergencies. Allwood’s tidy book, with some step-by-step illustrations in places, is worth the investment. The book is rangy, from the simplest of fixes and basics about tools, to deep dives into, say, building a wheel. But that is by design: Allwood hopes the curious reader-cyclist will commit to the simple principles of bike maintenance, thereby giving him or her confidence to take on bigger jobs.

“Walks of a Lifetime: Extraordinary Hikes From Around the World” by Robert and Martha Manning (Rowman & Littlefield, 245 pgs., $34.95)

This book is wanderlust in big, bold letters, coursing through 30 trails around the world (17 in the United States). The husband-wife writing team sets the tone up front that this is a guide about long-distance or multiday walks, not hikes, for fear of scaring off readers. Try as the Mannings might, nothing about this book says saunter. But no matter. The Mannings’ goal is to inspire walking as “a celebration of life” and a means to see the world’s beauty. Their walks, additionally, are an education in natural and cultural history whether their hoofing in the Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness in Arizona or traversing the jewel of Britain’s trail system, the Pennine Way along the backbone of northern England. The Mannings emphasize that these are “extraordinary hikes for ordinary people,” but their sense of adventure and curiosity give them away.

“Classic Campfire Stories: Forty Spooky Tales” by William W. Forgey (Falcon Guides, 374 pgs., $16.95)

The author, aka Doc Forgey, created many of the entries around campfires while leading Boy Scout troops in North Carolina and Indiana. He clearly enjoyed it. There is a fun nod, too, to Mark Twain, who Forgey excerpts from an essay called “How to Tell a Story.” Twain emphasizes the power of the pause — “the pause in front of the snapper at the end.”

There lies the power of storytelling at its finest. Of course, ghost stories go with campfires like campfires go with Minnesota, and “The Minnesota Maggot of Death” ghost story punctuates the book. In it, a creature from beyond the grave haunts a local baker. Where? Wherever you want it to be. That’s part of the fun.

(This is part of the Big List here)


Egg in the eagles' nest.

Nongame projects: Good for eagles, warblers

Three prized, nongame wildlife projects at the Minnesota DNR:

• November marked the return of Eagle Cam, the livestreaming DNR video feed from the nest of two American bald eagles in St. Paul. The old cam self-destructed a few weeks after eaglets hatched early this year. Upgrades include infrared technology and a microphone.

• The vision for Heart of the Bog Bird Trail is still shaping up, but it aspires to be an international destination anchored by a giant boardwalk in the Sax-Zim Bog, southeast of Hibbing. Bird photos by Melissa Groo will grace interpretive signs and the noncontiguous “trail” would extend to birding sites from Bemidji to Warroad to International Falls.

• Minnesota has a mother lode of golden wing warblers, dainty birds colored in yellow, white, gray and black who live around shrubby swamps from May to mid-September. The population of breeding pairs has been stable, but a conservation plan would bring attention to habitat preservation.


Provided photo
Provided photo

Pick these backpacking sites

Want to try out backpacking but aren’t ready for a long slog through the woods? Many state parks offer sites that will get you away from other campers but require only a short walk. Some even have carts you can use to haul your gear, so you don’t even need a backpack. For an interactive map that shows where backpack or cart-in sites are available, visit the DNR’s parkfinder web page. Here are some of our favorites:

1. Lake Maria, site B5

2. George H. Crosby Manitou, sites 20-22

3. Cascade River State Park, site BP1

4. Wild River State Park, Breezy Valley site

5. Glendalough, cart-in site 22

(This is part of the Big List here)


Eagles Nest Outfitters hammock
Eagles Nest Outfitters

Trendy and updated

Hammocks: Lightweight parachute material and easy setups between two trees make these popular for backcountry tent alternatives and backyard snooze sacks. An ever-growing list of accessories are making them usable for all four seasons, too, with companies such as Eagles Nest Outfitters selling rain tarps, bug netting, insulated cushions and blankets for winter cocooning.

Waterproof gear: Yeti, known for soft- and hard-sided coolers made from performance white-water raft materials and able to keep food cool for days, has added something new. A duffel uses the same hydro-lock zippers and can be ideal for tossing into a canoe. Buckles and clips can secure it to watercraft.

Stowable stuff: Lighter, foldable materials in REI’s Flash 22 lightweight day pack, Matador’s Hydrolite or Beast28 Technical backpacks make it easier to pack up and explore warmer climates. All fit with hydration reservoirs.

More pockets: Lightweight vests, such as Duluth Trading Co.’s heirloom gardening vest for women or Columbia’s Silver Ridge vest for men, help on the trail or camping with a wealth of pockets for water bottles, matches, flashlights, phones, binoculars and snacks.

Solar power: With evolving technology fueling a boom in solar gardens statewide, more gadgets are harnessing the sun’s power, too, including iPhone or iPad recharger such as Goal Zero’s Nomad 7 solar panel. There also are compact lights that can collapse into flashlight form or open up and hang like a lantern.

Ride-along dogs: Outward Hound Grandby Splash life jackets come with handles on top for lifting dogs back onto SUPs or into boats when they decide to cannonball for crappies. High 5 Dogs CLIC leash lets you quickly tether pets to a tree, picnic table or backpacks while hiking.

(This is part of the Big List here)


Nine-Mile Lake campground.
Lisa Meyers McClintick

Options: National forests gems, too

State parks booked up? Try national forest campsites.

With camping surging in popularity, it isn’t always easy to find a site. Kampgrounds of America (KOA) 2017 North American Camping Report estimates more than 3.4 million U.S. households have become new campers in the last three years, with millennials driving much of the growth.

If you’re having trouble finding a spot at private campgrounds with pools and amenities, such as Lanesboro’s Old Barn Resort, or well-known state park campgrounds such as those on the North Shore, consider embracing the lesser-known and typically more rustic offerings tucked into Minnesota’s two national forests. These areas — post-logging wastelands when created in 1908 and 1909 — have made a major comeback in the last 110 years.

• The almost 672,000-acre Chippewa National Forest includes 21 designated campgrounds, such as Norway Beach Recreation Area, which tucks under the pines towering above Cass Lake. The Knutson Dam Campground on Cass Lake’s northeast shore includes canoe access to the Mississippi River.

• Northeast Minnesota’s Superior National Forest includes the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, but it also has 23 campgrounds throughout its more than 2 million acres, such as Trail’s End campground (where the Gunflint Trail ends 57 miles inland from Grand Marais); South Kawishiwi River (also on White Iron Lake); East Bearskin Lake (with a bonus of three camper cabins); and Whiteface Reservoir, which has some weekly and season-long campsite rentals among its 52 sites. Details and reservations can be made at Hit the road and start the weekend early to grab first-come, first-served campsites.

(This is part of the Big List here)



Geocaching: A gadget for exploration

Geocaching involves using a global positioning system (GPS) device to search for camouflaged containers (aka geocaches). The Minnesota state parks offer Geocaching 101 programs and loaner units for visitors to explore a wide range of terrain, including wheelchair accessible sites, as well as those that require scuba and rock-climbing gear. Some facts:

1. The state parks host upward of 9,000 participants in geocaching programs each year.

2. Geocaches are hidden at 74 Minnesota state parks and at seven state trails.

3. Previous geocaching programs have been inspired by historical sites, plants and animals. A new statewide program will be announced in the spring.

(This is part of the Big List here)


Trail Mix runners in the race April 22, 2017.
Three Rivers Parks District
Trail running

Races: Hit the dirt in 2018

It seems like every year new trail races get added to statewide running calendars and for good reason. Minnesota is home to some of the best trails in the country, whether urban or deep in the North Woods. To keep you motivated in the new year, here are a few well-run favorites:

Zumbro Endurance Run (April 13-14, Thielman)

This cadre of races includes a 100-mile, 50-mile, and 17-mile footrace. Less than two hours south of the Twin Cities, these races are held in the scenic bluff region of the Zumbro River Bottoms.

Trail Mix (April 21, Rockford)

Held in Lake Rebecca Park Reserve, this event goes back decades to its place at Hyland Lake. There are 50-kilometer, 25K, and 12.5K races on a 12.5K-loop that takes runners through prairies, wetlands and big woods. Be sure to pack a change of clothes because this one can get muddy, which is really part of the appeal.

Surly Trail Loppet (Sept. 22, Minneapolis)

If you’re looking for a race that showcases the Twin Cities’ urban trails, this is it. This event includes a half-marathon, 13.1K, 5K and relays, and takes runners on a tour of Theodore Wirth Park’s stunning trails, ponds, lake, bogs and wildflower gardens.

Superior Trail Races (May 19 spring races and Sept. 7-8 fall races, Lutsen)

The spring series includes 50K and 25K races, while the fall series features a 100-mile, 50-mile and marathon. All races are held on the Superior Hiking Trail in the gorgeous Sawtooth Mountain Range, which means runners should be ready for lots of climbing, descending, roots and rocks.


Hiker searching cache using global positioning device.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Check these mapping apps

An increasing number of hikers are using smartphones as navigational devices, eschewing dedicated GPS receivers for simplicity or to save weight. Here are some popular choices for mapping apps, but don’t forget that the first rule of hiking is to always carry a paper map — if your phone runs out of power or breaks, you won’t be lost in the woods.

1. Gaia GPS (iOS and Android, free and subscription options). Perhaps the most comprehensive set of offline maps and features available.

2. BackCountry Navigator (Android, $11.99). Downloads of free maps, but the paid version offers more comprehensive maps and ease of use. An iOS version is in development.

3. MotionX-GPS (iOS, $1.99 with in-app purchases available). This app has been around a long time. The interface feels a tiny bit dated, but it has plenty of capabilities for two bucks.

4. All Trails (iOS and Android, free, with pro version for $29.99, annual subscription). Clean interface and comprehensive set of features, but maps can only be downloaded for offline use if you’re a subscriber.

(This is part of the Big List here)


The Repair Lair, Nancy Ford's Minneapolis consignment shop specializing in outdoor clothing, accessories and repair.
David Joles, Star Tribune

Buying used: Meeting frugal needs

Let’s face it: Outfitting yourself for a variety of adventures can get expensive fast. Especially if you’re just starting out in an activity, and aren’t sure of your needs or desires, buying used or cheaper gear can make a lot of sense. Here are a few choices in the Twin Cities:

Repair Lair, 3304 East Lake St., Minneapolis: Besides offering repair services, Repair Lair offers a selection of used gear in good condition.

Thrifty Outfitters, 309 Cedar Ave. South, Minneapolis (part of Midwest Mountaineering):  Closeouts and sales rep samples that can save you big bucks.

REI (Maple Grove, Roseville and Bloomington) has regular “garage sale” events that feature returned merchandise, sometimes barely used, for pennies on the dollar.

(This is part of the Big List here)


Schoolcraft State Park.
Minnesota DNR

Least-reserved state parks: No obstacles for you

Here are the state parks by region where you are most likely to find an open spot:

Minnesotans like to plan ahead, which means that a lot of campsites at the most popular state parks have already been reserved for summer weekends in 2018. But if you’re willing to take the road less-traveled, consider staying at one of the 11 state parks that had at least 75 percent of their campsites go unused during the prime camping season (mid-June to mid-August) last year. Why the light use? Reasons vary from park to park, but include limited amenities (no flush toilets or showers) or recreational opportunities (no hiking trails) and a longer distance from the Twin Cities or other population areas.

If those are not obstacles for you, here are the state parks by region where you are most likely to find an open spot:

North: Zippel Bay (Williams), Schoolcraft (Deer River), and Franz Jevne (Birchdale).

Central: Monson Lake (Sunburg).

Southwest: Kilen Woods (Lakefield); Camden (Lynd), and Upper Sioux Agency (Granite Falls)

South: Fort Ridgely (Fairfax), Lake Louise (near Le Roy), and Rice Lake (Owatonna).