The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions that followed to limit its spread resulted in a banner season for Minnesota state parks in 2020 as people scrambled to get outside for a reprieve. Visitation soared to an estimated 12.3 million people, an increase of 25% from 2019, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

In some cases, state parks were too busy, especially in the Twin Cities metro area, and parking lots overflowed, at times, Rachel Hopper, Visitor Services and Outreach Section manager for the DNR’s Parks and Trails Division in St. Paul, said in a recent interview.

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The crowding trend didn’t extend to far northwest Minnesota and adjacent areas of northern Minnesota, Hopper said. The closure of the U.S.-Canada border to nonessential travel kept traditional Canadian visitors away, she said, and Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home orders also discouraged people from traveling.

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While the pandemic isn’t over, there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and the appetite to get outdoors appears to be as strong as ever. For people seeking a less-crowded getaway, here are four off-the-beaten-path state parks worth exploring on that next road trip.

Old Mill State Park

Located in Marshall County about halfway between Argyle to the west and Newfolden to the east, Old Mill State Park offers 26 drive-in campsites and 10 electrical sites in a campground that’s open from Memorial Day weekend through mid-October. The historic Larson Mill on the Middle River is the centerpiece of the park, and 7 miles of hiking trails are available, along with a 1-mile self-guided interpretive trail.

Showers and indoor bathrooms are seasonal, while vault toilets are open year-round. Drinking water also is available year-round behind the park office. The park office is no longer staffed, so visitors should check the park page on the DNR website or call nearby Lake Bronson State Park at (218) 754-2200 for seasonal updates or other information.

Lake Bronson State Park

A popular destination for residents of northwest Minnesota and northeast North Dakota seeking a quick getaway – along with Canadians when they can cross the border – Lake Bronson State Park in Kittson County offers a variety of camping and hiking options, along with the largest observation and water tower in the Minnesota state park system, according to the DNR.

The historic water tower built by the Works Progress Administration is one of the centerpiece buildings at Lake Bronson State Park in northwest Minnesota. (Minnesota DNR photo)
The historic water tower built by the Works Progress Administration is one of the centerpiece buildings at Lake Bronson State Park in northwest Minnesota. (Minnesota DNR photo)

The park has 152 drive-in campsites in three campgrounds, 67 electrical sites, six pull-through campsites for RVs up to 50 feet long, three backpack sites, one canoe site and a group camp that accommodates up to 100 people. In addition, visitors to Lake Bronson State Park have access to 14 miles of hiking trails, 2 miles of paved bike trails and 5 miles of mountain bike trails.

Lake Bronson, a 312-acre reservoir formed by a dam on the Two Rivers, is the recreation centerpiece and offers fishing for a variety of species, including crappies, bluegills, largemouth bass, pike, walleyes and yellow perch. The park rents canoes, kayaks and fishing boats with electrical motors during the summer season, the DNR website states, and the Visitor Center is available for rent year-round.

According to the DNR, a 2019 fish survey conducted by the DNR’s area fisheries office in Baudette revealed a healthy population of walleyes in a range of ages and sizes. Perch numbers were up, but the average size was down from previous surveys, and largemouth bass up to 2.8 pounds were sampled.

For more information, check out the park page on the DNR website or call the park office at (218) 754-2200.

Hayes Lake State Park

A fisherman uses a cataraft to navigate the waters of Hayes Lake State Park in August 2016. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)
A fisherman uses a cataraft to navigate the waters of Hayes Lake State Park in August 2016. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)

Located in southern Roseau County adjacent to Beltrami Island State Forest, Hayes Lake State Park might be one of the best-kept secrets in the Minnesota State Park system. The park offers a variety of camping opportunities, including 35 drive-in sites, 18 electrical sites and two backpack-accessible sites located within about a block of the parking area. Two camper cabins also are available to rent. Showers and flush toilets are available from Memorial Day through Labor Day, while some of the park’s vault toilets are open year-round.

Hayes Lake State Park has 13 miles of hiking trails, two trails with 2? miles of self-guided interpretive hikes, a 5-mile mountain bike trail and a 7-mile horse trail.

Other amenities include a swimming beach, fishing cleaning shack, two fishing piers, a single-wide boat ramp and canoe rentals.

Formed by a dam on the Roseau River, 181.5-acre Hayes Lake is popular among kayakers, canoers and anglers for its undeveloped shoreline and wilderness-like setting. Boats are limited to oars or electric motors.

Based on results from a 2019 fish population survey, Hayes has a healthy population of largemouth bass, including fish weighing more than 4 pounds. Pike are abundant, with an average length of 18 to 22 inches, and bluegills and black crappies also are present.

For more information about Hayes Lake State Park, check out the park’s page on the DNR website or call the park office at (218) 425-7504.

Franz Jevne State Park

Drive a bit farther east, and you’ll come to Franz Jevne State Park in Koochiching County, a 118-acre getaway just east of Birchdale, off state Highway 11.

Franz Jevne State Park near Birchdale, Minn., overlooks the Long Sault Rapids on the Rainy River and the province of Ontario on the northern shoreline. (Minnesota DNR file photo)
Franz Jevne State Park near Birchdale, Minn., overlooks the Long Sault Rapids on the Rainy River and the province of Ontario on the northern shoreline. (Minnesota DNR file photo)

Overlooking the Long Sault Rapids on the Rainy River and the province of Ontario on the northern shore, Franz Jevne State Park offers a more rustic getaway than most state parks, with 18 drive-in campsites, two electrical sites and three walk-in sites; RVs can’t exceed 30 feet in length. The campground does not take reservations, the DNR website states, and all sites are first-come, first-served, with self-registration available upon arrival. There is no indoor plumbing, but vault toilets are available year-round, as is drinking water from a hand pump in the park.

Because of its location on the Rainy River, fishing is a popular option for visitors to Franz Jevne State Park. Walleyes, sturgeon, pike and smallmouth bass, along with nongame fish such as suckers and redhorse, are among the species available to visitors.

Information on Franz Jevne State Park is available on the park page on the DNR website, by calling Big Bog State Recreation Area at (218) 888-7310 or by email at franzjevnestatepark@state.mn.us.

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