When I agreed to write and photograph “Minnesota Adventure Weekends,” a guidebook about the outdoors for Menasha Ridge Press, the assignment seemed fairly simple: Pick a dozen spots in the state and opine about their best camping and recreation opportunities.
What I hadn’t thought about until I spread out a giant paper map of Minnesota was just how many good choices there are for outdoor destinations in this state. It was a good problem to have, but the task became what to leave in and what to leave out.
I figured some well-known locations — like those along the North Shore, or the Root River area in the southeast — would be conspicuous by their absence. They needed to be included, if for no other reason than to help visitors narrow down their options, and maximize their time, while spending a weekend there.
Otherwise, besides ensuring there was at least some geographical balance, I decided it might be most helpful — and most fun — to include a handful of places a little more off the beaten path, especially for metro folks. Maybe Minnesotans had heard of these places, but they would most likely not have risen to the top of most bucket lists.
While I had visited all the locations that ended up in the book, I hit them again during the year I spent in research. The wisdom of my strategy was confirmed. These more remote areas each have unique characteristics — in both activities and lodging — that make them excellent choices for Minnesotans looking for a fun and interesting weekend. What follows are excerpts from the book covering four of those locations:
Glendalough State Park (Battle Lake, Minn.)
The western border of Minnesota, which snuggles up against the Dakotas, spans more than 400 miles, but there isn’t much population along that line, except for Fargo/Moorhead and Grand Forks. In other words, there’s a fair chance you’ve never been out in that territory for any reason, let alone seeking outdoor adventure. But if that’s the case, you’re missing out. There’s a great little spot I love anchored by Battle Lake, a nice little town of 800 people about an hour east of the border, 80 miles straight west of Brainerd and roughly a three-hour trek from the Twin Cities. While there is a resort presence in the area, Battle Lake is an unspoiled, well-kept little town, with its biggest advantage being that it’s just four miles from Glendalough State Park — a true gem of the Minnesota state park system.
Glendalough, which surrounds Annie Battle and Molly Stark lakes, is a quiet, relaxing destination because it offers only a cart-in campground (although it has camper cabins, too), on the west side of Annie Battle, along with three very secluded canoe-in sites on the southeast side. Additionally, Glendalough is one of only three parks in the state where you can stay in a yurt — an insulated canvas tent with a wood floor and woodstove. The yurts are near the canoe-in sites.
Blue Mounds State Park (Rock County)
Minnesota, as everybody knows, is the Land of 10,000 Lakes. So it’s not surprising that much of the state’s recreational activities revolve around water. But I would make the argument that Minnesota has topography as diverse as almost anywhere in the country (not something that everyone who hails from urban areas might know, let alone appreciate), allowing for plenty of outdoor adventures that have little or nothing to do with water.
Let’s take Rock County. Located in the far southwest corner of the state, Rock County features miles of stunning prairie landscape that is getting harder and harder to find anywhere, let alone Minnesota. And as much as I love the big woods and water of Minnesota, the prairie has a unique beauty and evokes a bygone era. (Laura Ingalls Wilder, anyone?)
What makes this area of Minnesota really special, however, is an additional bit of terrain responsible for the establishment of Blue Mounds State Park, which sits at the center of the county. The park takes its name from a wall of Sioux quartzite that rises nearly 100 feet high and runs a mile and a half long on the edge of the park, its moniker coming from settlers who saw the colored rock as they headed west in the 1860s. The park’s 1,500 acres of prairie allows you to walk through the grasslands atop the cliffs, where you can see for miles in any direction, or to hike or bike along trails at the base of the rocks, where you can truly appreciate the immensity of the formation.
The drive-in campground at Blue Mounds is fine, but the cart-in sites are better for both privacy and aesthetics. That said, if you have the chance to snag one of the three tipis on the southeast end of the cart-in campground, do not hesitate. Blue Mounds is one of only two state parks in Minnesota (Upper Sioux Agency is the other) that has tipis.
Lake Maria State Park (Monticello, Minn.)
Lake Maria State Park is less than an hour’s drive away for nearly three-quarters of Minnesota’s population, including the Twin Cities. So why is this true treasure of the state park system among the most overlooked for Minnesota campers?
With only 17 campsites, Lake Maria (pronounced “muh-RYE-uh”) is among the smallest in the state system, with about 4% the capacity of Itasca, the most popular park for camping.
But the main factor is that Maria’s sites are for backpacking only; except for a couple of group spots, there’s no drive-in camping.
Notice, however, I said the campsites are for backpacking ... not that you had to be a backpacker to use them. Because many of the sites at Maria require a hike of only a few minutes, they are perfect for people who want to dip their toe in the water without committing to a total backpacking experience. It’s easy to load your car camping kit into a couple of duffel bags or a plastic bin for the walk in — although until you realize that you really don’t need a 55-quart cooler for an overnighter, it might take a couple of trips.
If you haven’t experienced this kind of camping before, being away from the security blanket of a vehicle may seem daunting. (If bathroom facilities are your security blanket, don’t worry — there’s a vault toilet at each site). For many people though, the trepidation turns into a love affair with the solitude of the deep woods that simply can’t be found in a traditional campground.
Lake Maria is what a state park is supposed to look like. It’s is a reminder of the kind of forest Ingalls Wilder wrote about in “Little House in the Big Woods” — rolling hills and lakes and ponds.
The New Ulm area in south-central Minnesota attracts visitors because of its strong German heritage, but it isn’t a locale particularly known for outdoor adventures. That may be because there isn’t a spot — like a Grand Marais or a Root River — that serves as a singular recreational draw. However, one state park on the edge of New Ulm and two others a stone’s throw away offer a combination of outdoor activities that will more than fill a weekend. In fact, there are outdoor attractions here that are rare anywhere else in Minnesota.
Flandrau State Park is right on the edge of New Ulm; you might be surprised when you arrive how close you are to town. So while you’re not exactly deep in the wilderness, if you’re planning to see what New Ulm has to offer, it’s nice to be so close.
Otherwise, Minneopa State Park is about 23 miles southwest of Flandrau, just west of Mankato, and it might be a better choice for camping than Flandrau if you’re not interested exploring New Ulm.
Minneopa has two of the coolest things you’ll find in any state park in Minnesota — a spectacular set of waterfalls, and if you’re interested in wildlife, a unique bison herd. Fort Ridgely State Park is about 17 miles northwest of New Ulm. The main attraction of this park, whether you are camping there are not, is the historic fort site. The fort was built in 1855 and was attacked twice during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. A museum on the grounds is operated by the Minnesota Historical Society, but exploring the ruins on the grounds is more fun than the museum.
Excerpts from “Minnesota Adventure Weekends” (Menasha Ridge Press, 2019) printed with permission of the publisher.
Jeff Moravec is a writer and photographer from Minneapolis. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. “Minnesota Adventure Weekends” is available at bookstores and online. Learn more, too, at minnadventureweekends.com.