CROW WING STATE PARK — When it comes to winter activities, this is desolate country.
Nothing as far as the eye can see on the list of “happenings” at Crow Wing State Park.
And, maybe as a result, the same can be said of foot traffic at the park just south of Brainerd.
So while Mille Lacs Kathio State Park near Onamia and Charles A. Lindbergh State Park, just down the road from Crow Wing in Little Falls, are drawing folks with their candlelight hikes and the like, there is no such draw at Crow Wing this winter.
Or, for some, maybe that ultimately will be the draw this eventless winter at Crow Wing. Where else in the area — or Minnesota — can you have a state park all to yourself, complete with a maze of trails and a history lesson?
The park features 18 miles of hiking trails that wind through the Old Crow Wing townsite, along the Mississippi River and through the heavily wooded expanses that make up a good chunk of the 2,871-acre park. And this mostly snowless winter, even a thin layer of snow turns every road into a trail when there is no traffic — foot or vehicle.
And all trails ultimately lead to and through the old town of Crow Wing. For more than a century, it was the northernmost European settlement on the Mississippi River, and in the 1860s, it reached its peak, with a population of nearly 600, including many Ojibwe and 30 or more buildings. But the Ojibwe moved to White Earth Indian Reservation in 1868, and in 1871 the Northern Pacific Railway was routed over the Mississippi River to what would become Brainerd. By 1880, Crow Wing was a ghost town.
But remnants of the town are everywhere. A boardwalk runs through the former town and signs indicate the location of main street, the town’s well and “The Meeting Place.” Other signs and historical markers can be found in and around what was downtown Crow Wing and mark the spots where the Mississippi and Crow Wing rivers converge. Other historical sites include the Beaulieu house, Chippewa Lookout and the Red River Oxcart Trail exhibit. And it’s all accessible via the hiking trails.
The Crossroads self-guided trails may be the centerpiece of the trail system at the park. The trails, which lead from the visitor information and display area to the picnic shelter, are short — only about a half a mile. But 13 numbered areas along the trail all tell a story (informative, history-packed pocket maps are available at locations throughout the park). Like the park, a lot crammed into a small area.
On a recent weekday at the park, a day after a rare snowfall, there were a pair of fairly fresh tracks on the trails and roads that cross-cross the park, but that was the only sign that anyone had been here this day. A cold, swirling wind blew off the Mississippi along the boardwalk as darkness quickly fell on the park.
This day was history at Crow Wing State Park.
But just before walking back to the parking lot at the park office, this hiker stumbled across a cache. Archaeologists Jim Cummings, naturalist at Mille Lacs Kathio State Park, and David Mather penned “The Medicine Bottle Mystery: A Geocaching Quest at Old Crow Wing.” The first chapter of the historical/fiction mystery piece is available at Brainerd Public Library, and the other chapters have been hidden throughout the park.
It would be worth the search.
For the history. And the hike.
BRIAN S. PETERSON, outdoors editor, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5864. To follow him on Twitter, go to www.twitter.com/brian_speterson. For his blogs, go to www.brainerd dispatch.com.