Reasons For Visiting What Already Belongs To You: A Minnesota State Park Or Trail
By Deborah Locke, DNR Information Officer
No matter what the season or where you live, everyone in Minnesota deserves their own state park. Our family adopted Jay Cooke State Park near Cloquet in the 1960s, which became the setting for picnics and walks across the Swinging Bridge. (Back then it did swing a little). Our senior class picnic was held at that park. Many of us felt an ownership for Jay Cooke, and still do.
The park watched us grow up and, in some cases, later watched our children grow up. That is the enduring beauty of publicly owned property that welcomes all visitors. You can count on it being there.
But there are more reasons for visiting a state park than just taking in scenery while eating outside. Here are a few:
Mental Health And Thinking
The American Psychological Association in 2020 reported that spending time in nature triggers a physiological response that lowers stress levels. Time outside in a relaxed setting also restores our ability to concentrate and improve memory. Why are humans drawn to the outdoors? A theory holds that because our ancestors evolved in natural settings, relying on the environment for survival, we easily connect with nature. The impulse to go outdoors is innate, buried in our DNA.
Learn New Skills
Many state parks host programs that teach a variety of skills, like snowshoeing, canoeing, shooting a bow and arrow, tree identification and how to recognize animal tracks. Everyone from toddlers on up can learn something new during one of these one- or two-hour programs. Most programs do not have a fee and only require pre-registration. For a program list, see https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/events.html
State parks are the site of historical events that shaped Minnesota and U.S. history. Learn about bison at Blue Mounds or Minneopa state parks. Check out Lake Shetek State Park with its history of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. Learn about the World War II German internment camp at Whitewater State Park. Watch grain turn into flour at Old Mill State Park. View Mystery Cave’s ancient rock formations at Forestville Mystery Cave State Park or check out the glacial hills at Glacial Lakes State Park. The ground beneath our feet remembers what happened here. To connect with your state’s past, view state parks as a large outdoor classroom eager to teach.
Check each park’s website and reserve a campsite and bring a tent or RV, or rent a yurt, camper cabin, room, lodge, or four-season suite. For our first ever vacation, my family stayed at the Itasca State Park campsite where I learned how much better food tasted when it was cooked over an open fire. I also learned that few experiences draw people closer than a seat around a night campfire under a starry sky. Today during a state park visit, I am more likely to opt for the luxury of a lodge or suite. Where you decide to stay depends on where you are at in life.
The Parks and Trails Division of the DNR offers the following free loaner equipment to get you started on a hobby that could last a lifetime:
- GPS units.
- Kids Discovery kits: Activities and stories designed for children ages 5-12.
- Fishing kits: Rod, reel, and a stocked tackle box. (In many parks, you do not need a fishing license to fish. Call the park or the DNR info desk (651-296-6157) to see if fishing at a particular lake is free.)
- Birding kits: Binoculars, guidebooks, and park-specific bird lists.
For a listing of parks with loaner equipment, see https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/loaner.html. A hike down a Minnesota trail brings a host of benefits. For more information on those benefits, see this story from the Mayo Clinic website: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/walking/art-20046261.
From the flowing tall grass of the prairie parks, to rippling river water, breathtaking sunsets, gorgeous night skies, deep forests, lakeshore: we have it all. Amateur and professional photographers see endless photo possibilities with the gorgeous scenery at Minnesota state parks and trails.
Children love the parks. They blow off steam, play, learn, explore, gain skills. Many times, I’ve watched adults walking a trail in pairs, deep in conversation. There is something about sharing a story in a beautiful place that brings about peace and solutions. Bikers ride the trails in groups, rolling along at a good speed and slowing down in communities located near trails for lunch or a quick shopping trip. Marathoners seek the challenge of the Paul Bunyan Trail through north central Minnesota, or the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area and its mountain bike trails, known nationally for their quality.
Nearly every state resident lives within a half hour of a state park, trail, or recreation area. Once you arrive at a park, a day pass is $7 per vehicle, and an annual pass is $35. That is reasonable, considering that you will get a full day or full year of entertainment. Before leaving home, always check the park website for visitor alerts.
I will close with one final, and perhaps most important, point. The times my family spent at Itasca and Jay Cooke State Parks created memories that lasted a lifetime. I vividly remember Itasca State Park and the steps taken across the Headwaters of a great river. I remember walks on trails through dense woods, a quick swim and flopping down on a beach towel, and a secret crush on the boy two tents down. Everyone deserves their own state park, and there as many reasons for visiting one as there are Minnesota state parks and trails. They belong to you. Enjoy them.
Images from Jay Cooke State Park Courtesy Minnesota DNR.