State parks & natural areas

  • Drama on the Prairie Coteau

    In the land of 10,000 lakes, prairie often is dismissed as, well, dull. But in the farthest corner of Minnesota, a dramatic patch of terrain offers more spectacle than an Imax show.

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  • High drama at Devil's Lake

    We’re at the end of the Ice Age, at the edge of an endless mound of blue ice whose vast, super-cold surface has sent 200-mph winds whipping into Wisconsin. The winds can strip the flesh off a face in 30 seconds, so the local mammoth hunters have gone south for the winter.

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  • A roof in the woods

    For people who love the outdoors, luxury is in the eye of the beholder. Is it a Jacuzzi or a latrine? A four-course breakfast or a fire ring? The answer is not so obvious. If the choice also includes starry skies, silence and snow-laden pines, many folks would take a camper cabin over a fancy inn, even if they have to use vault toilets and cook over a fire.

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  • The divine Devil's Lake

    In Wisconsin, a bunch of rocks sets hearts aflutter. They enchant geologists, of course, but also scuba divers, rock climbers and botanists. The rest of us, too — hikers, birders, campers, Boy Scouts. We all go to give Devil's Lake its due.

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  • Free days in Minnesota and Michigan state parks

    admission to all Minnesota state parks is free. events. This year, they included guided nature hikes in many parks as well as programs on fossils, falcons and frogs.

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  • Minnesota's cave country

    Under the cornstalks of Fillmore County, an unusual sculpture garden sits in shadow. Stalagmite topiaries line walkways, alongside pale-green flowstone as translucent as Chinese jade. Stalactite statuettes dangle in artistic arrays. They’re obviously created by a Pollock of rock, a Van Gogh of stone. Yet their genius relies not on the medium — water, applied one drop at a time — but on eons worth of time.

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  • Ski or snowshoe by candlelight

    If you do only one thing outdoors in winter, do it by candlelight. Nothing is more magical than a forest full of flickering lights. I got hooked when I skied in Minnesota's Mille Lacs Kathio State Park. A fat blue moon hung in the sky, sparkling hoarfrost made twigs as nubby as reindeer antlers and more than 400 glowing bags gave the forest a fairy-tale aura.

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  • The people's park

    In Minnesota's early days, creating a park was no picnic. As the public admired the towering pines around Lake Itasca, loggers dreamed of the miles of board feet they could produce. "No measure was ever more unreasonably harassed and opposed," wrote park founder Jacob Brower. But in 1891, the Legislature gave the people their first state park by one vote.

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  • A present to the future

    As Will Rogers famously said, the trouble with land is they're not making any more of it. In the north woods, land previously used by the public for hunting and hiking and by birds and animals for habitat is disappearing fast. When it's gone, it's gone, and the public has that much less land to enjoy — and around here, we love our open spaces.

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  • Afoot in the Porkies

    Just up north, there’s a vast wilderness of lakes, virgin forest and wild rivers lined by waterfalls and rapids. It isn’t like other north-woods forests — not as they are in this century, anyway. It’s a wilderness unto itself, and though it’s no farther than the state parks farther up Minnesota’s North Shore, it seems a world away. It feels a world away, too.

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  • Wisconsin's Icelandic outpost

    In Wisconsin, the American dream came true for a penniless boy from Iceland — and the rest of us made out pretty well, too. The youngster's schooling stopped in second grade as the family moved to farms in Wisconsin and North Dakota, then resumed when the boy — called Chester — joined his married sister in Chicago and, at age 18, entered the fourth grade.

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  • At SNAs, step off the beaten path

    One spring, I hit the nature-lover's jackpot, almost without trying. I saw a panorama of the Mississippi as the Dakota would have seen it 200 years ago. I walked under the budding canopies of old-growth forests and listened to choruses of courting frogs.

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  • The quiet side of the Dells

    See the FUDGE sign in blinking white lights. See the plane tail protruding from the faux-ruin façade of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. See the Wax World of the Stars, the Dungeon of Horrors, the Trojan Horse . . . only Wisconsin Dells.

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  • On the rocks in the Ozarks

    Only a day's drive from Minnesota lies a world as old as the glacier-cut north woods are new. Here, in the foothills of a worn-down mountain range, elephantine boulders stand in herds.  In riverbeds, billion-year-old slabs are as slippery smooth as clay just pressed by a toddler’s thumb.

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  • Marvels of Starved Rock

    Like many places, Starved Rock State Park has a name whose origin is lost in the mists of time. Supposedly, the Potawatomi and Ottawa trapped a band of Illini on a 125-foot butte along the Illinois River. However, anyone who’s actually climbed up Starved Rock — and millions of tourists have — can see that no one could defend it long enough to starve. “It’s like Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox,’’ says Kathy Higdon of the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center across the river. “It’s a legend, like the Lover’s Leaps we've got all over the place.’’

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  • Watch out for wild parsnip

    In the good old days, the only plant people had to watch out for was poison ivy. Now, there's wild parsnip, the evil sister of Queen Anne's lace. A native of Europe and Asia, it has spread like wildfire across the Upper Midwest, and fire is what it feels like on exposed skin. "Most people get a nasty, nasty rash from it," says Karla Bloem, naturalist and director of Houston Nature Center in southeast Minnesota. "It's not like nettles or poison ivy; this is like a chemical burn. If you get it bad enough, it can scar you for life."

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  • Free time in state parks

    If you don't spend at least part of the first two weekends in June outdoors, you'll be missing the boat. Especially in Wisconsin, where June 5-6 in 2021 is Free Fishing Weekend. In Michigan, June 12-13 is Free Fishing Weekend, and in Minnesota, there's free fishing for kids June 11-13.

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  • Road trip: Wisconsin's Muir Tour

    In its marshes and woods, John Muir first discovered the joys of wilderness. On its sandy plains, Aldo Leopold became a pioneer of land stewardship. On its meadows, two young ornithologists created a haven for cranes. Leopold inspired legions with such books as “A Sand County Almanac.’’ George Archibald and Ron Sauey founded the International Crane Foundation.

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