Minnesota's Backyard: Amazing ecosystem awaits under the boardwalk at Big Bog State Recreation Area
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.
WASKISH, Minn. — It is unlikely that Winston Churchill ever visited the vast bog north of Red Lake in some of Minnesota’s most remote country, but when he famously said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste,” the British wartime leader perfectly described the formation of one of the newest gems in the Minnesota State Parks and Trails system.
In the 1990s, the walleye population on Upper and Lower Red Lake collapsed, and the absence of Minnesota’s official state fish meant a hard blow to the tourist economy in the tiny town of Waskish, which relies heavily on folks who visit the lake in winter and summer for sport fishing. There was a local grassroots effort to find a new tourist attraction in the region, and the solution was what once was considered miles and miles of useless land.
Perhaps the centerpiece of Big Bog State Recreation Area , which was established in 2000, is a mile-long boardwalk that gives visitors a look inside the 500-square-mile peat bog — the largest in the lower 48 states — that dominates the landscape north of Red Lake.
The landscape and the silence, save for the cry of birds and the rustling of the wind, is all encompassing, and signs along the way point out the many wildflowers, the carnivorous plants, the stunted strands of spruce and tamarack, and even the ill-fated attempts to tame and drain this wetland a century ago. That effort to turn this into farmland failed spectacularly, but the scars of the fruitless labors can still be seen today.
The park, located in one of the most remote areas of Minnesota, is divided into north and south units. The north unit’s highlight is the boardwalk, along with a walking trail around Ludlow Pond and a secluded picnic area. Be warned that mosquitoes and black flies are the area’s primary inhabitants in the summer and a can of repellent will serve visitors well.
Nine miles further south on Highway 72 is the south unit, which features a 30-unit campground, camper cabins nestled between Red Lake and the Tamarack River, a 100-foot fire tower that visitors can climb for a commanding 360-degree view of the region, and a sandy beach on the east shore of one of Minnesota’s biggest lakes. Fishing is still a popular pursuit here both winter and summer, and the camper cabins are winterized for those who like to do their angling through a hole in the ice.
The park’s visitor center offers a history of the region — including the historic Waskish Fish Hatchery — and a primer on the abundant wildlife one can see, as well as offering canoes, kayaks, paddleboards and snowshoes for rent.
For most of my childhood, it was impossible to pass through Kelliher (about 15 miles south of the park) without my father making a stop at the Road Runner — a classic small town drive-in featuring burgers, milkshakes and his favorite, fried chicken. The original place was torn down maybe a decade ago, but in its place rose an all new Road Runner featuring the same classics plus daily menu specials where one can quickly and deliciously replenish those spent calories following an afternoon of hiking the Big Bog.
This article is part of the " Minnesota's Backyard " series which returned for the summer of 2022.