"Peak color is the day you are here," says park manager Don DelGreco when asked the best time to catch the fall spectacle at Maplewood State Park. At the edge of the Red River valley, where prairie meets hardwoods, the 9,200-acre park is a westernmost home of sugar maples. Forests of maple, basswood, and oak cover rolling hills. Deep valleys sparkle with glacial lakes and prairie potholes.
DelGreco likens the changing season here to a symphony, tuning up with tinted leaves, moving into early oranges and yellows of sumac and ash. With sunny days, cool nights, and light frosts, plant pigments called anthocyanins form reds, purples, and bronzes. "There is this big crescendo," says DelGreco. "A full orchestra comes into play."
You can enjoy vistas from a short hike up Hallaway Hill or a daylong trek along 25 miles of trails. A scenic 4 ½-mile-long gravel road affords a chance to drive slowly through woods and restored prairie. Pull over to listen to the wind rustling grasses. "Native peoples referred to this as the place of the rustling leaves," DelGreco says, noting that people have been captivated by these leafy hills for centuries.
Carloads of tourists come from around the state and across the region to celebrate annual Leaf Days on the last weekend in September and the first in October. "Many parks wind down after Labor Day, but that's just our warmup," DelGreco says. Besides park staff, he counts on Friends of Maplewood State Park volunteers to help welcome "leaf lookers."
Lucky visitors may buy maple syrup to take home. Volunteers tap more than 100 sugar maples in spring, collect and boil sap, bottle syrup, and sell it exclusively at Leaf Days. Some of the proceeds are going to build a park sugar shack.
About 150 bird species weave their way through or live in the park. The international Pine to Prairie Birding Trail passes through. So do migratory waterfowl and shorebirds on the Mississippi flyway. Gulls, terns, swans, and loons congregate on Lake Lida and other large lakes. Walking woodland trails, a birder might hear the distinctive call of a red-shouldered hawk. The woods also shelter woodpeckers, thrushes, vireos, flycatchers, and 25 species of warblers. Grasslands are havens for clay-colored, field, savannah, vesper, and grasshopper sparrows. Bobolinks and blackbirds flock to the marshes.
Between forest and prairie, "lean one way or the other," DelGreco suggests, "and you'll get a chance to hear the different birds of the biomes here."
Fish the eight large lakes and you'll also find diversity—waters with sunfish and crappies, a walleye lake on the western edge, another with muskies, and a designated trout lake with rainbows. "A lot of youngsters learn to fish in this park," DelGreco says. "Otter Tail County is blessed with 1,000 lakes, and the park is right in the heart."
Naturally, the county's namesake otters live in the park. But visitors are more likely to see the bountiful beavers, as well as deer and raccoons. Marshes hold nesting trumpeter swans and snapping turtles.
Painters travel to Maplewood to study color, light, and texture. Local artists sometimes offer plein-air painting and drawing workshops here. In early morning and late at night, photographers aim to capture the play of light on this extravagant landscape carved by half-mile-high glaciers some 10,000 years ago. Curious to learn more about the geology? Pick up Maplewood State Park Down Under, a guidebook on sale at the park office.
Humans have a long history on this land. Artifacts of both prairie and woodland cultures have turned up. Old plows and combines on the edge of fields are remnants of attempts to farm the prairie slopes. According to DelGreco, some historical references call these hills the Maple-leaf Mountains.
Today's park campers have a choice of places to settle in for the night. Settings range from camper cabins to drive-in campsites to horse camp. Backpackers may hike to sites deep in quiet corners of the park.
Like DelGreco, a visitor to Maplewood State Park may simply appreciate being able "to go out to the edge of a forest and prairie and sit there and enjoy the sights and sounds … all the sensory experiences … of being in nature."