Minnesota's Backyard: Travel back in time to wonders both natural and man-made at Glendalough State Park
Destination No. 4 on our 20-site tour of Minnesota's state parks is an idyllic spot in west-central Minnesota that was once a private outdoors playground for the rich and famous. Now it is open for all to enjoy. At Glendalough State Park, visitors find a scenic spot to enjoy "silent sports" like biking, paddling and old-school fishing.
BATTLE LAKE, Minn. -- It sounds like something out of a feel-good family movie, except in reverse. You know, that tired plot where there is a park or other amazing natural area enjoyed by everyone in a community, and a greedy wealthy family wants to buy up the land and have it all for themselves.
The story of Glendalough State Park , in Otter Tail County near Battle Lake, is the photo negative of that. A few generations ago, this amazing plot of towering forests, lakes, streams, rolling prairie and centuries-old Minnesota history was a private game farm and hunting/fishing preserve owned by a prominent Twin Cities family for the exclusive use by them and their high-powered friends.
Today the property, with a crystal-clear 335-acre lake at its center, is there for all to visit. In the early 1990s, the wealthy Cowles family -- former owners of the Minneapolis newspaper -- donated the land and buildings to the Nature Conservancy, which handed it off to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in 1992, and a new state park was born.
Amid all of Glendalough’s natural wonders, there are a few man-made spots that are must-see attractions. The historic hunting and fishing lodge on the north shore of Annie Battle Lake has been preserved and refurbished for visitors to see where late-night card games were played and early morning fishing excursions began. The photos displayed are a treasure trove of the 20th century outdoor lifestyles of the rich and famous, showing former U.S. Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon fishing the still waters of west-central Minnesota on visits to the lodge.
A mile or so down the paved bike trail, which is an easy six-mile loop around the park, another amazing bit of history was discovered while the property was being developed by the DNR.
“We always knew that there was Native American history here, where the savannah and the lakes come together,” said Dan Malmstrom, from the Glendalough Citizens Advisory Board. “But what blew us away was when we did the bike trail and the DNR came in to do the geology and actually survey and map the trail ... they were uncovering earthen ovens that were the oldest ever discovered in the state of Minnesota. We actually had to move the trail.”
"There’s a growing population in Minnesota that wants it that way. We’re trying to teach conservation stewardship, and the best way to do it is to keep it simple."
- Dan Malmstrom, Glendalough Citizens Advisory Board
While swimming and fishing are popular in the summer, the angling is old-school only, by law. The waters at Glendalough have been designated as heritage lakes, meaning no motors (electric or gas) and no electronics. Malmstrom said the park is a place where “silent sports” are celebrated -- canoeing, kayaking, biking, hiking and the like. For camping, the sites are walk-in only, with no vehicles and no RVs allowed. For a different camping experience, there are camper cabins and even two yurts for rent on-site. While there is definitely cell service on-site, and the community of Battle Lake, with a variety of places to eat, drink and shop is just a short bike ride away, a visit to Glendalough is a step back in time.
“There’s a growing population in Minnesota that wants it that way,” Malmstrom said. “We’re trying to teach conservation stewardship, and the best way to do it is to keep it simple.”
A 20-mile drive south of Glendalough sits a geological anomaly in this region of rolling hills and lakes. Inspiration Peak rises some 400 feet above the surrounding countryside, to an elevation of more than 1,700 feet. A (mildly strenuous) hike to the top of this vista, which was designated as a state wayside in 1932, affords visitors with a stunning view of all things Minnesota: lakes, farms, forests, rolling prairie and abundant skies.
Legendary Minnesota author Sinclair Lewis was a well-known visitor to Inspiration Peak and once wrote, “there is to be seen a glorious 20-mile circle of some 50 lakes scattered among the fields and pastures, like sequins fallen on an old paisley shawl.” We won’t even bother trying to describe it better than that.
Second-best thing to do
There is on-site equipment rental, meaning that you do not need to own and haul a canoe, a kayak or a bicycle to enjoy the park. Malmstrom and his organization have worked to develop a network of a dozen miles of designated bike trails in the region, and the gently rolling topography makes for some relatively easy and scenic riding.