Change Your Product, Grow Your Base


The vision for the Parks & Trails Division of Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources “is to create unforgettable park, trail, and water recreation experiences that inspire people to pass along the love for the outdoors to the next generation.”

My anecdotal thoughts on this vision, taken only from my own [admittedly too brief] visits to Minnesota’s state parks is that the Division is doing well with the youngest families and also with the RVing set. Not, perhaps, as well among couples or families with older kids. Spend some time in a county or regional park in Minnesota–in a way these represent some of the DNR’s competition–and you’ll get a sense of what I mean. Especially when you consider the county and regional parks with brand new facilities and amenities, the state’s parks have some catching up to do.

Minnesota’s state parks are, basically, rustic ancestors for these more modern, playground-friendly and sanitized iterations. (Caveat: Catherine and I were married at Gale Woods Farm, a strong educational anchor to the counties’ Three Rivers Park District. We’ve been back countless times since our wedding because it’s an awesome park in another awesome park system. And yes, the unique “product” offerings at Gale Woods–hello, it’s a farm–certainly help.)

And that’s kind of the problem for the DNR: 75 state parks and recreation areas within a state filled with countless other options for those who are inclined to spend time outside. (We haven’t even talked about the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the rest of the Superior National Forest or Voyageurs National Park!)

The DNR is working hard to counter the problem. Exhibit A: recent news about the development of a new state park being added to the DNR’s parks system: Lake Vermillion State Park. A DNR press release about the state’s newest park contained most of what I heard on the radio, plus a bit of history about the legislative proceedings that made it all possible in the last decade. Those aforementioned county and regional parks are about to get a run for their money:

  • It’s Minnesota’s first new state park in 30 years. That’s what we call a news hook in and of itself, on a few different levels.
  • It’s located in Ely’s backyard. There will no doubt be a halo effect attracting those already in and around Ely for recreation.
  • It’s being built with the very kinds of amenities adventure-seekers, well, seek. From children’s tree houses and an “adventure trail” with a ropes course to nearby Soudan Underground Mine State Park–this park is going to keep visitors engaged.

A classic example of how to win by changing your product. I can’t wait to add this park to the Mandle Family list of must-see must-do activities next summer!

(This post has been in draft mode for a while. This more recent Star Tribune article about Lake Vermillion State Park went even further with explanations about the adventure-based mindset driving this new park’s development. It also reminded me to finish this post up and push it live.)


Interstate State Park

Since we’re in the hea[r]t of summer, with temperatures again to reach in the 90s and heat index above 100, it was well past time to update my masthead. Snowshoeing in July. It just isn’t right this side of the equator.

Truthfully had intended to do a change out to celebrate the solstice last month. Intended being the optimistic term.

So instead of celebrating solstice, lets celebrate the notion that, perhaps, the two-week-long Minnesota state government shutdown may finally be ending and our awesome state parks reopening again by next weekend.

(Image from the awesome wife-hubby-and-doggy-sans-kiddies weekend spent at Interstate State Park in early June for our wedding anniversary.)

Prairie Camping

Two years ago on the way back home from a wedding road trip to St. Louis, Catherine humored me enough to acquiesce when I turned off the highway to do a quick drive through of Myre-Big Island State Park. (It was, frankly, a testament of C’s flexibility given that St. Louis is something like a twelve hour drive. At the end of such a long haul, a state park stopover wasn’t my brightest moment. Then you also have to factor in some cold temperatures and winds and you can ask, just like she did, what I was thinking. Answer: scope-out the place for a future camping trip.)

This weekend we went back there for real with the family. Scope-out successful!

kettle moraine pond

Idyllic Evening in the Moraine

It was a short one-night stay but two days in the out-of-doors was just the right amount for our two kids.

We had a blast, all the more so thanks to the great company of some family friends who came down with us for the fun.

Some highlights:

  • Wildlife up the wazoo (grey herons, pelicans (!), ground squirrels, deer (!), toads, frogs, snakes (the safe kind: garter variety) and more.
  • Down at the border with Iowa, the park lies at the edge of Minnesota’s former glacial coverage area. So when the ice receded as the last Ice Age began to wane, it received a lot of the melt. The resulting water and gravel deposits are responsible for the area’s moraine topography. (The place looks a LOT like Glacial Lakes State Park or even Buffalo River State Park because of this.)
  • When the temperatures are right, prairie trails are the place to be with kids under five: You can see them most of the time regardless of how far off they’ve clomped.

    Prairie Hike

    An After-Dinner Stroll

  • The exception to the moraine is Big Island. Cross that bridge and you end up in northern hardwood forest. Deep, dark and thick. Great example of the stark differences in climes that are possible in Minnesota.
  • For whatever reason–(ironically) proximity to highway, high temperatures, lack of a beach WITHIN the park (awesome swimming at Fountain Lake was only a few minutes’ drive away), low awareness, other (?)–the park was nowhere near capacity. It made for a quiet stay–quiet, that is, until the kids wailed about something. 🙂