mnstate parks: north central

mnstate parks: north central

since i was up at leech lake for a family reunion, i decided that was an ideal time to just take off up to the northern third of the state to get my north central and north west parks visited. i woke up tuesday morning, and within an hour i’d packed, said my goodbyes, and was on the road.


the first stop was schoolcraft, named after the guy who “discovered” the source of the mississippi (he was led there by an ojibwe guide).

this was the first glimpse of the mississippi in this very river-heavy set of parks to visit. unfortunately for my cousin lori, there were no schools at the park. there were some angler though, jetting their boat down the river.

knowing how the mighty mississipp looks in central mn, this river seems much more serene (and cleaner).

after a short hike and stumbling on some vibrant mushrooms, i headed east. i had a lot of parks to pick up, along with a detour where i wanted to spend some time, so i didn’t dawdle.

hill annex

the next stop was hill annex mine, which is in calumet, a very sad looking range town. speaking of the range, those rangers sure do love amy klobuchar! so many giant signs for her upcoming election.

hill annex seems SUPER interesting, and if i’d been there on the weekend, i might’ve taken a tour of the old mine. alas, there was no one there, either on a park capacity or visitor capacity, while i stood on the overlook and took a few pics.

this would be a recurring theme the next few days. so many of the parks are self service and have so few visitors. whether this is due to lack of knowledge of the parks or just lack of funding, and do the two cause each other to continuously decline into this spiral toward non-existence? there are so many parks i was unaware of before i started this trek. how many local people know about the parks and what they offer?


onward from hill annex to scenic park. now it’s certainly scenic, but there wasn’t a TON to offer from this park. granted, if it were plopped as is 10 miles from my house, i would be there every day.

as i steadily drove north, i became more and more ensconced in pines. it was glorious. now i do like the biome* i live in, but man the pines just whisper just right.

THEN, it was time for an INTERLUDE.

lost 40

i have wanted to go to the lost forty for a long time. when the first loggers went to survey the northwoods, it was so cold that they mis-surveyed and “lost” 40 acres. those 40 acres have hundreds of years old non-logged pines.

(foot for scale) (so these trees aren’t as big as general sherman, but considering the conditions they survive, i’d say they’re doing ok!)

it was on the way to the lost 40 that the screen on my phone crapped out and i was having a minor breakdown on top of wondering if my maps still worked.

but i made it.

i drove onto a gravel road, then onto another gravel road that was a logging road. i began to wonder if i was in the right place. i trundled down the gravel ruts for about a mile and was ready to turn around when i saw a small turn in with 3-4 cars parked.

the lost 40 is about a mile-long hiking loop that wanders through the old-growth pines and then some new growth so you can see the difference. the path was nicely kept, packed down with wood chips, and lined with informational placards as you walked along the path. it was a lovely walk in the woods.

reluctantly i had to leave my green cathedral. if i’d had all day, i’d’ve whipped out my camp chair and perched under a tree with a book.

big bog

then it was time for a long haul up through the start of the sparsely populated part of the state. instead of finding roads that took me on a somewhat direct route, i had to find roads that would just get me there, no matter how circuitous. the trees started diminish a bit, turning scrubby and short, and the land turned a bit flat after the rolling hills of the range. we were entering bogland.

i don’t think i’d been to the red lakes before this trip. big bog recreation area was at the top of the upper red lake, and the wind was racing across the open water. the almost marsh-like edges of the lake gave it a more wild feel, unlike the smaller, more controlled lakes i’m used to.

i have to hand it to big bog – the amenities are pretty nice. there’s a fire tower and several trails, then you drive 7 miles north and take the bog walk.

here you can see the sort of scrubby landscape that dominated on the drive through the peat bogs. i didn’t go too far out on the bog walk, but i did confirm that we were walking over some very bog-like stuff.

franz jevne

after the bog walk, i hoofed it up north. at this point, you’re wondering how much more north can there be? my thoughts, too. also annoying was the lack of roads that could’ve taken me directly to franz jevne park. nope; i had to go nearly all the way to zippel bay, then 24 miles out and 24 miles back to pick up franz. nate discouraged me from the beginning to not go to franz jevne, but i did, waving to canada the entire drive along the rainy river.

franz jevne is mostly just a water access along with some campsites. it’s probably the second-sparsest self service park i’ve seen so far (better than john a. latsch and a couple recreation areas).

on the plus side, on my way back to zippel, i was cruising through some radio stations and ran across something that sounded like spanish mariachi rap. the DJ came on, and it was a FRENCH station. that was some delicious french mariachi rap music!!

zippel bay

this far north we’ve gotten free of the peat bogs, but the pines aren’t back. there are no oaks or maples – just some aspen, birch, and other “light” trees as i’ve come to think of them (oak and maple are “heavy”).

and zippel bay was something else.

lake of the woods is massive. i felt like was standing at the edge of an ocean. the wind was coming in off the lake something fierce, whipping everything around.

this lake was so big, that i’m pretty sure there were waves out past the bay where they were breaking into the bay and into calmer water. i mean, isn’t that ocean behavior? i can’t be certain as they were pretty far out, but i’m pretty sure they were there.

zippel was also a little eery for me because i was one of three campers in the park. it was so quiet and still. i lay in my cot that night and could hear the waves hitting the shore half a mile away. while i was trying to get to sleep, i heard these muffled booms, like fireworks from afar. after a few random booms, i realized that it was giant waves hitting rocks or some other structure out in the lake. they stopped pretty quickly.

at zippel i felt very alone and small. but i got the best night’s sleep of my trip.

*did you know that minnesota is rare in its three biomes in that it’s very unlike a non-mountainous state to have that many? it’s the same way with its three watersheds in the state. because of MN’s location on the continent (almost dead center), it’s got these ecological oddities.

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