State parks might be a backpacker's best-kept secret getaway.
By Gustave Axelson
Backpacking is part agony, part glorious reward. On this summer dawn, I had suffered through my fair share of agony. My legs were scraped and bleeding, cut by the prickles of bushes alongside the trail. My lower back throbbed in a painful response to the burden of my pack. My hands were growing weary of trying to relieve the intense pressure my packs straps placed on my shoulders.
But as I reached a clearing in the woods, atop a bluff overlooking Lake Superior, I reaped my reward. The new days sun had just surfaced from Superiors waters, appearing to float like a freighter ship off in the distance. The rays reflected off the waves as they rolled into shore, creating a dazzling display of orange, rose, and blazing gold. A crisp breeze cooled my brow and carried the purifying scent of pine.
It was 6 a.m., and the smile on my face was bursting with the satisfaction of accomplishment. I was a backpacker, a seeker of wilderness and solitude. And I had found these treasures in a Minnesota state park.
A state park? Most people think camping at a state park consists of pulling your car into a site and then unloading the charcoal grill to cook hamburgers. But Minnesotas parks possess natural features and customized amenities that make them ideal for back-country camping.
For the novice looking for a safe place to test skills and equipment, or for the experienced metro-area backpacker who just wants to get away for a night, Afton State Park is a trip that requires minimal planning, driving, and set-up time. For me, it was the perfect place to spend a night in the woods on an afternoon whim.
As I ventured onto the mile-long trail to the campground, my first thought was that the parks natural beauty belied its location just 20 miles from St. Paul. After 10 minutes of a pleasant stroll through a forest of birch and aspen, I also thought the trail belied the park maps description of it as "strenuous." This thought was abruptly proven wrong as I met the trails last 200 yards, a grueling 200-foot climb at a seemingly 80-degree angle.
The climb seemed worth it, though, when I reached two welcome sights atop the hill. One was a spectacular view of the verdant St. Croix River valley. The other was the backpackers equivalent of a quick mart—a vault toilet, a cut-your-own-firewood station, and a solar-powered well, which delivered drinking water with the push of a button. Within two hours of leaving my house in south Minneapolis, I had set up my tent under a giant oak tree and settled in with plenty of firewood and water to last me through the night.
At dusk I relaxed by my fire with a cup of coffee and watched the fading sunlight paint the Wisconsin dairy farms across the river in subtle lavender. I imagined that the people living on those farms were settling down on their couches to watch prime-time TV. Meanwhile, I looked overhead and watched a great blue heron glide above the trees.
If Afton is a backpacking trip of convenience, then St. Croix State Park is its polar opposite. The trails to the campsites are five miles long, and the sites lack a readily accessible source of water. At the Bear Creek site, I had to walk 15 minutes to a spot where I could filter water from the creek.
Perhaps the most daunting aspect of a St. Croix backpacking trip is the insects. When it comes to bugs, timing is everything. The first time I backpacked there, I went in early May and encountered nary a gnat. The second time, in June, I was besieged by clouds of mosquitoes and biting flies. Every 10 paces I had to stop and rid myself of the fast-moving ticks that scurried up to my thighs.
But for those willing to brave the bugs and backaches of lugging a pack for two hours, the rewards are grand. The hike-in sites feature comfortable screened-in shelters with bunks, which eliminate the need to carry a tent. Nearby back-country streams are prime fishing waters, where you might stand a chance of catching trout for dinner. And most important, backpackers enjoy complete deep woods solitude, with a greater likelihood of seeing a black bear than another human being.
Two years ago, I spotted my first black bear—an impressive specimen that must have weighed more than 300 pounds—on a trail along the appropriately named Bear Creek. Hiking to the Bear Creek backpacking campsite last June, I hoped for a repeat of that exhilarating experience. I saw bear tracks and tree scratchings, so I expected another encounter. Then, while reading in my shelter, I suddenly perked up my ears: A creaking noise was emanating from the outhouse.
Quietly, I crept over to investigate. As I got closer, I heard something rocking back and forth. The outhouse was swaying. Reason told me to leave whatever it was alone. But curiosity willed me to push open the door and wave my hand in some sort of "I come in peace" gesture. The creaking immediately stopped, and the only noise I heard was the pounding of my heart.
Was it a bear? Was it a person? I wasnt sure which I preferred, but I simply had to find out. Gathering up my courage, I swallowed hard, poked my head in the doorway, and saw a very perplexed . . . porcupine. It was sitting on the toilet, gnawing on the particleboard walls. Its eyes were wide, its mouth agape, and its quills bristling as a warning to me not to come in and sit down. Had I had my camera ready, my photo of "pricklepig on the potty" surely would have made me rich and famous.
Bear Head Lake
Another challenging place to hike is Bear Head Lake State Park, near Ely. Here the ancient glaciers were particularly ruthless, carving an undulating topography and depositing rocks and soils from all over. Though backpack sites were less than a mile from the parking lot, my wife and I grew tired as we seemed to always be going either uphill or down. Every step of the way, we kept our eyes fixed on our footing, since the glacial debris that littered the ground made twisting an ankle a real possibility.
Our hike was further complicated by a nongeological factor: competition. When we arrived at our assigned site, we were flabbergasted to find two tall tarp shelters with a line of drying clothes strung between them. Two cats came running to greet us.
Now, I had thought about the possibility of encountering a moose or a wolf, but nothing had prepared me for the sight of house cats with collars sporting little ringing bells. Moments later, a young couple walked up behind us and explained that they had reserved the site long ago, and had been living there for more than a week. I wasnt about to argue with people who would cart their cats back to a remote campsite, so my wife and I moved on to the next site, a secluded spot on Becky Lake.
By secluded, I mean the kind of solitude one would expect to find in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The only noises we heard during our stay were loon calls and the stark cries of a pileated woodpecker. The only visitor to our camp was a white-tailed buck, feeding by the lake when we emerged from our tent one morning.
Before I hiked at Glacial Lakes State Park, I never thought it would be much fun to backpack in western Minnesota. Now I say no backpackers life is complete without camping on Minnesota prairie. Glacial Lakes offers a glimpse of the vast, open grasslands that once dominated the Midwest.
I never realized the camaraderie I shared with trees until I visited this park. Hiking the mile and a half to my campsite, I felt more alone than I ever had before in my life. There were no leaves to rustle in the wind; there was just wind. There were no trees to cast shadows in the afternoon sun, just miles and miles of amber prairie grasses. From atop a glacial hill called a kame, I surveyed the entire park and felt as if I were living a scene from Dances With Wolves. I could see five lakes from that ridge.
Down at the site by Kettle Lake, I talked to myself as I set up camp, hoping my voice would provide companionship. For some reason I found myself speaking in hushed tones, as if I were in a church. Its odd how the prairie can command such reverence.
Suddenly, a noise from the waters edge startled me. It sounded like a moaning calf, but it turned out to be the resident beaver couple. A treeless prairie is the last place I expected to find beavers. As I walked by the lake, the beavers swam closer, as if they were the campground hosts and it was their duty to welcome me. I appreciated their willingness to share their lake with me.
That night I started a roaring fire, thanks to the generosity of previous campers who had left ample wood. Every star in the universe seemed to be on display, each competing with the other to shine more brilliantly. As the dew settled, the fragrance of sage wafted through the air. At midnight a strong wind kicked up and howled unfettered across the plains.
When I think about that night, I look forward to returning to Glacial Lakes. I recommend visiting the park in the fall when prairie grasses are at their peak height and color, and the bird migration is in full swing.
To me, George H. Crosby Manitou State Park is the crown jewel of Minnesotas state park system. Six miles inland from the North Shore, it offers an untamed backpacking experience in which you can follow in a wolfs tracks and go fly-fishing in some of the states most beautiful trout waters. Last October I returned to Crosby Manitou for the sixth time since discovering it three years ago.
Established as a backpack-camping-only park, it provides a tent pad, field latrine, and bear locker or pole for hanging a food bag at each site. For an easy outing, you can find three very nice, quiet sites right on Bensen Lake, just a quarter-mile from the parking lot. Backpackers seeking a challenge can hike back to sites on the Manitou River along steep and rocky trails that Sigurd Olson called "as rough and rugged . . . as there is along the north shore of Lake Superior." Some of these sites are a bit too close to the trail for my liking, but I found a secluded one at the end of a lengthy spur.
After setting up camp, I headed out to explore the parks varying topography along 23 miles of back-country trails. Trails in the parks southern third wind through aspen and birch forests. In the middle section, dramatic gorges and furiously rushing waters attest to the Manitou Rivers wildness. And at the northern end, level trails traverse thickets amid marshy lowlands. Here lazy waters come to life at the Cascades, a favorite visitor attraction.
At the bottom of these waterfalls, I found a familiar tree, which leans out over the water. Setting down my heavy pack, I nestled into the odd bend in its trunk—a kind of hammock—and let the rushing waters lull me into a contented nap, as I have many times before.
Natural features such as that tree, combined with fond memories, have made this park a special place for me. Hiking along a bluff on the Humpback Trail, I remembered the time I sat there eating lunch with a friend while we watched a cow moose eat her lunch in a tributary of the Baptism River. Passing through the far southern section of the Matt Willis Trail, I recalled how excited I was when I spotted the uncommon and reclusive black-backed woodpecker, and added it to my birders life list.
And upon reaching a clearing on the Cedar Ridge Trail, I recalled the time I made an agonizing, uphill dawn hike through prickle bushes and was rewarded with a glorious sunrise over Lake Superior.
Back-country camping is available at most of Minnesotas 66 state parks. Like drive-in campers, backpackers must use and pay for designated campsites. Theres always the possibility that youll hike a few miles to your site only to discover its already occupied, but you can lessen the risk by making reservations. For more information on state parks and reservations, see the listings on page 63.
Gustave Axelson is a free-lance writer from Minneapolis.