Minnesota's Backyard: A perfect confluence of rivers, history and nature at Crow Wing State Park
The third stop on our 20-site tour of Minnesota's state parks brings us to the center of Minnesota, where two rivers meet and people gathered, traded, battled and passed through, both long before and some time after European settlers came to the region. Crow Wing State Park is a perfectly preserved slice of nature and history.
CROW WING, Minn. -- Since long before European settlers came to what is now known as Minnesota, confluences have always been where people gather. A bustling inland port known as Duluth sprung up where the St. Louis River meets Lake Superior. Two massive cities have grown where the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers meet.
In a similar vein, at the spot where the Mississippi and Crow Wing rivers meet, between the modern day cities of Brainerd and Little Falls, is a perfect confluence of nature and history, now preserved in Crow Wing State Park .
Nearly 200 years ago, a city grew on the west bank of the Mississippi, at a spot where native people had gathered long before newcomers arrived in the region. Nearly a decade before the Declaration of Independence was signed, this was the site of a deadly battle between the Dakota and Ojibwe people. With the arrival of Europeans, a town grew here, as the rivers, and the Red River oxcart trail, brought people to and through the community.
Today a network of hiking trails bring visitors to the site of that 1768 battle between native people, and to what remains of the town that existed here for roughly five decades in the 1800s. Like the many ghost towns that dot the American West, depressions in the earth where building cellars were once dug, a recreated wooden sidewalk, and stories from early Minnesota history, are all that remain of the community of Crow Wing today.
“We get quite a few people from the area who have lived here their whole lives and finally stop in one day and never knew this was here,” said Barry Osborne, the park manager. “It’s interesting because historically it predates Brainerd.”
In fact, it was the removal of native people from the region, and the establishment of the Crow Wing County seat in Brainerd that effectively signed the death certificate for the community of Crow Wing. Travel 500 miles or so downriver and the Mississippi is like a superhighway of barge traffic. Here it is a quiet woodland stream, and a secretly good fishing spot for visitors who come with boats, canoes and kayaks.
“Back in the day, when this was a town, the rivers were the interstates, because water was the main mode of transport,” said Osborne, speaking to a visitor on a sunny day while a bald eagle soared lazily overhead. He noted that one can still see the spot where ox carts would cross the Mississippi on their journeys from St. Paul to Winnipeg, wading across in low water, and floating through the swollen current in the spring.
“It varies depending on the water level. Some years you could definitely walk across. Other years it can be 15 feet deep,” Osborne said.
While the river is a lesser-used transportation route today, the paved 115-mile-long Paul Bunyan State Trail begins at Crow Wing State Park and stretches all the way to Lake Bemidji State Park, providing a unique and strenuous way for bicyclists to see a scenic stretch of central Minnesota.
The park has around 60 full campsites with a riverside amphitheater, and 18 miles of hiking trails.
“It’s kind of a traditional park in that it is a mixture of history and nature,” Osborne said. “With the confluence of the two rivers, there’s a lot of room to explore here.”
The wooded and secluded campground has plenty of great sites, but if you want to fall asleep to the sounds of the gently rippling Mississippi River nearby, try to grab sites 24 through 28, all of which have a filtered view of the river through the trees.
The northernmost part of Camp Ripley Military Reservation is literally across the river from the southern end of the park. The training site for the Minnesota National Guard is an active and secured military base, and park visitors should be warned that from time to time, the peace and tranquility of the remote north woods can be pierced by the sound of far-off artillery training.