Saturday, September 11, 2010

Bear Head and Others

A recent on-line poll sponsored by Coca-Cola to determine the nation’s favorite park was won by little-known Bear Head State Park in northeastern Minnesota. Even in Minnesota, Bear Head is nowhere near the most popular park in terms of annual visits. And when we throw Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and the Great Smoky Mountain parks into the mix, the result is downright absurd. The win has been attributed to a video camera that was strapped to a bear in the park last winter and transmitted via the park’s website. Of 5.7 million votes cast, Bear Head snagged a whopping 28 percent. To achieve that result, every man, woman, and child who visited the park last year would have had to vote for it ten times.

I was at Bear Head a few weeks ago, and I would put it in the category of “nice” but hardly extraordinary. The lake is attractive and there are some impressive white pines at the picnic area, but the campground is flat and the loops are utterly conventional. If someone asked me to name the best parks in Minnesota, the list might go something like this:

BWCA: A wilderness paradise, with sparkling lakes, luscious pine woods, and picturesque rocky campsites and portages extending for miles in every direction.

Itasca: A miniature Yellowstone with rugged log cabins, plenty of history, old growth forests, numerous lakes and backpacking sites and a fine 18-mile bike trail through the woods.

Gooseberry: It has a beautiful Salmela-designed visitor center, great hiking and cross-country ski trails both down to the lake and up into the hills, five spectacular waterfalls, and a rugged shoreline facing majestic Lake Superior. (But to be honest, Split Rock and Tettegouche are no less impressive.)

Forestville: Two branches of the Root River wend their way through the hardwood-covered hills here. The river bottoms are festooned with wildflowers in the spring, owls and coyotes howl nightly, there are trails everywhere and a ghost town where the river opens out across the valley.

Afton: There’s something awfully nice about backpacking in to the widely-separated campsites in the hilly fields above the St. Croix on a weekday. Once settled, you can hike down to the river or back into the fields through sunflowers and bluestem, with burr oak here and there and swallows knitting the sky a few feet above your head.

Grand Portage: The reconstructed fur-trading fort is impressive, but the view from the hills behind it are positively sublime. It may be corny buy it’s true—you can easily imagine brigades of canoes approaching loaded with trade goods and “On roll-on du la jean roll-on” echoing off nearby Mt. Josephine. You can gamble at the casino or hike to the high falls on Pigeon River: the atmosphere of history and remoteness is everywhere.

Frontenac: A spectacular view our across Lake Pepin and a skein of trails through the woods and fields make this an easy winner. Spring birding is always good.

Pipestone: The trails are nice, the quarries are fascinating, the history deep.

Jay Cooke: There are miles of trails through the lovely, hilly woods and the St. Louis River has the best rock-jumping in the state.

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