Fishing Frenzy Fridays happen throughout summer at Lake Carlos State Park. The weekly event lures 15 to 60 children and adults to this lakeshore park in west-central Minnesota. With the guidance of park naturalists, they learn to shore-fish for bass and sunfish. The outings highlight two big draws—the park's large, deep lake and its year-round naturalist programs.
The park has multigenerational appeal, says naturalist Benjamin Eckhoff. "We have great-grandparents camping with basically their three next generations," he says. "It's something they've done for years." Adults recall coming to naturalist programs as kids. For many, he says, "this was their introduction to state parks and their introduction to the outdoors."
You could hardly think of a better place to enjoy outdoor recreation in Minnesota. Ten miles north of Alexandria, the park covers about 1,200 acres in a popular resort area. The state bought the original 404 acres during the Depression, and it became a state park in 1937.
The park's list of outdoor pleasures is as long as a summer day. Pitch your tent in a lakeside campground; beach your boat along the sandy shoreline. Go fishing for walleye, northern pike, bass, crappies, and sunfish. Walk to the beach to swim and play volleyball. Spread a blanket for a picnic or a nap. In the evening build a campfire.
You can check out free kits for birding, fishing, and geocaching. Rent a canoe or a paddleboat (snowshoes and portable ice-fishing houses in winter).
"One of the things I enjoy most about the park is the diversity of the landscape and the scenery and habitats," says Eckhoff, "since we are sitting right in that transition zone from prairie to hardwoods to pinelands." Encounter that rich mix along 14 miles of hiking trails. Hidden Lake Trail loops through the original parkland—old-growth forest—where owls roost and eagles nest. On the Maple-Basswood Trail, you might see deer, raccoons, fishers, and other wildlife. Listen for songs of cuckoos, wood thrushes, and orioles. The Prairie Pothole Trail winds through grassland and marsh. In late summer, prairie grasses and wildflowers color the rolling glacial hills. Nine miles of horse trails are inviting for scenic rides, especially in the coolness of spring and fall.
With 121 individual campsites, four camper cabins, and two group sites, the park hosts more than 170,000 visitors annually, including about 42,000 overnight guests. Popular for family reunions and gatherings, Hidden Lake group center has a rustic-style crafts building and a mess hall, both built by WPA workers. Between 1938 and 1942, they also built the stone bathhouse at the beach and the water tower, pump house, and sanitation building at the Lakeview group site.
Lake Carlos is the headwaters of the Long Prairie River, a 96-mile-long state water trail. Drive or take a long walk to the river dam at the park's southern end. Almost every day on his way home, Eckhoff stops by there because "it's not only a pretty spot, but all year there are unique birds." Last winter he watched some 200 trumpeter swans, trumpeting.