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Minnesota's Backyard: Myre-Big Island State Park increases access, has plenty to offer

The first indication that you have left Iowa and entered the Land of 10,000 Lakes is a "Welcome to Minnesota" sign on I-35. The second, unmistakable indication is crossing Albert Lea lake, which is the centerpiece of our first Minnesota's Backyard destination of 2022.

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Cool summer breezes off Albert Lea Lake are one of the things that makes Myre-Big Island State Park a popular stop for hiking, biking, fishing and camping, and the waters of this wide, deep lake are one of the first bits of Minnesota scenery travelers see when driving north out of Iowa.
Contributed / Sara Berhow / Minnesota DNR
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ALBERT LEA, Minn. — The mostly flat farmland of northern Iowa can be pretty in its own way, but when you travel north on Interstate 35, there are two very clear indications that you have left the Cyclone State and entered the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

Minnesota's backyard logo

The first is a massive sign, right at the border, that says, “Welcome to Minnesota.” The next, maybe 10 minutes further north, is a bridge across the sprawling expanse of Albert Lea Lake, which tells drivers, “Bye Iowa, you’re in lake country now.”

That wide and shallow body of water is the centerpiece of Myre-Big Island State Park , which was established shortly after World War II to preserve the 116-acre wooded island for which the park is named. From that beginning, the park now includes nearly 1,800 acres of public land and 16 miles of hiking trails.

Track Chair
Brittanie Wilson of the Minnesota Council on Disability piloted an all terrain track chair around the Big Island trail at Myre-Big Island State Park on June 1, 2022.
Contributed / Deborah Rose / Minnesota DNR

Accessibility advancements

It was the dead of a Minnesota winter the first time Brittanie Wilson got the opportunity to try an all-terrain track chair. Wilson, who is the communications director for the Minnesota Council on Disability, has used a wheelchair to get around all her life. The track chairs can take users off the paved trails onto gravel, snow, whatever. It was a thrill that Wilson won’t forget, even in the winter.

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“You’re wrapped in such freedom that you don’t even notice the cold,” said Wilson, who was on hand at Myre-Big Island on a recent sunny weekday to promote the growing availability of track chairs (many of them made in Marshall, Minn.) at five Minnesota State Parks – Camden, Crow Wing, Lake Bemidji and Maplewood are the others) and at other county and municipal parks this summer.

MORE OF MINNESOTA'S BACKYARD SERIES
Located not far from the more popular parks along Lake Superior, George H. Crosby Manitou State Park is home to wilderness, challenging terrain and real solitude on the wooded trails that reach cascades and waterfalls along the Manitou River.
At 500 square miles, Minnesota is home to the largest peat bog in the lower 48 states, and a mile-long boardwalk at Big Bog State Recreation Area allows visitors to explore this unique and vital ecosystem.
It's a far cry and a long plane ride from California, but at Tettegouche State Park, visitors to the North Shore can find both the water and as close as we get to the mountains in Minnesota.
New in 2022, campers have another option on the North Shore with the opening of Shipwreck Creek Campground inside Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. The new facility had been discussed since 1980, but finally opened this year and is all but fully booked for the entire summer.
This region of Minnesota that has been home to people since 400 B.C. did not officially become a state park until 1957, but today there are 2,600 acres of Mississippi River bluff land preserved, featuring one of the most stunning picnic table views found anywhere.
Long before there were lumber camps in Minnesota's north woods, lumberjacks were downing what was thought to be a limitless supply of white pine along the St. Croix River. At William O'Brien State Park, visitors can hike, bike and paddle in the place where the industry began, nearly 200 years ago.
The border between Minnesota and Wisconsin here was formed by a combination of molten lava and melting glaciers over the past billion years. The St. Croix River Valley's hugely popular public access site features hikes along the bluffs and down to the river, and ways to see these stunning rock cliffs from water level.
Founded more than a century ago and expended during the Great Depression, this gem in western Minnesota features hiking, biking, boating, beaching and abundant wildlife, along with a quartet of camping options.
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The 20th destination on our 20-site tour of Minnesota's state parks brings us to the heart of the Twin Cities, where you will find an oasis of wilderness in the urban heart of the state. Fort Snelling State Park is neither as quiet or secluded as other parks in Minnesota, but for Twin Citians it offers history and hiking where the state's major rivers meet.

Indeed, taking a hike on the 1.5-mile loop around the perimeter of Big Island later that day, visitors could see tracks from chair users who had gotten out to see parts of the park not normally accessible via traditional wheelchairs.

“Access benefits everyone,” Wilson said, with a broad smile.

Learning on the lake

Myre-Big Island State Park
With multiple access points, limited motorized boat traffic and many types of fish, Albert Lea Lake at Myre-Big Island State Park is renowned as a great place for young anglers to learn how to fish.
Contributed / Deborah Rose / Minnesota DNR

In addition to great camping, bird watching and biking on site, the lake provides a good introduction to paddle sports and fishing, according to Adam Kurtz, the park manager.

“The lake is really, really shallow. It’s a fairly big body of water, but it’s only about 6 feet deep at its deepest point,” said Kurtz. “That’s why it’s such a great paddling lake is there’s not a lot of boat traffic creating waves … There is a walleye, northern and crappie population in the lake. Unfortunately, you have to work pretty hard to get those. I like to tell people it’s a great lake for teaching fishing.”

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With a wide variety of loose meat hamburgers (that come with a spoon so diners don't miss a morsel) and thick malts and milkshakes made on the spot, the Tendermaid in Austin, Minn., is a popular post-hiking spot for visitors to Myre-Big Island State Park.
Jess Myers / Forum News Service

Notable nearby

It’s a simple biological fact: hiking makes you hungry. To quench that rumble in the belly, it’s roughly 20 minutes east of the park to find Austin, which is the home of SPAM and the birthplace of legendary football coach and broadcaster John Madden. For more than 80 years, hungry visitors have stopped at the Tendermaid , a tiny takeout-only restaurant within sight of the town’s famous SPAM Museum, for their amazing loose meat hamburgers and milkshakes. Each order comes with a spoon, that is not for the beverage, but to pick up the occasional nugget of loose meat that falls off your burger. You will not want to miss a morsel.

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This article is part of the " Minnesota's Backyard " series which returns for the summer of 2022.

Jess Myers covers college hockey, as well as outdoors, general sports and travel, for The Rink Live and the Forum Communications family of publications. He came to FCC in 2018 after three decades of covering sports as a freelancer for a variety of publications, while working full time in politics and media relations. A native of Warroad, Minn. (the real Hockeytown USA), Myers has a degree in journalism/communications from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He lives in the Twin Cities. Contact Jess via email at jrmyers@forumcomm.com, or find him on Twitter via @JessRMyers. English speaker.
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