County, state facilities maximize natural settings
Forest Lake residents have access to a 2,270-acre lake chain in their backyard, but they are also positioned to take advantage of other nearby aquatic recreation destinations. Many can be reached from Forest Lake in the time it takes Twin Cities residents to drive to their local community pools.
To the southeast, a lake in a Washington County park is a haven for scuba divers, thanks to clear waters and interesting sunken objects.
To the southwest, a massive park reserve containing a chain of lakes features a nature interpretive center and a wide range of ongoing programs and events.
To the northwest, an Anoka County park preserves a natural environment around three lakes.
A state park and two county ones offer access to lakes in the northern third of Washington County.
William O’Brien State Park’s 2,200 acres in Marine on St. Croix include several miles of St. Croix River shoreline, but the park also features amenities related to Lake Alice, a 26-acre lake near the river. The shallow, spring-fed lake was managed as a children’s fishing pond beginning in the 1960s, and since 2001 has been managed by the Department of Natural Resources for its Fishing in the Neighborhood Program. Free loaner poles for youth are available at the state park, and a pier offers easy access to the lake.
The lakeshore area includes a swimming beach, picnic shelter, volleyball court and horseshoe pits. Much of the park’s 1.5-mile Riverside Trail loop winds along Lake Alice.
Five miles straight west, another family-friendly park sits on nearly 700 acres on the west shore of the biggest lake in the Carnelian-Marine-St. Croix Watershed District. In 2008, Washington County opened Big Marine Park Reserve north of County Road 4 in May Township. A boat launch, swimming beach and Big Marine Lake’s only public fishing pier cater to lake users, and fishing poles and tackle are available at the park station.
A large playground and picnic shelter are nearby. The size of the playground and the gentle slope of the beach make the park reserve popular with families, said Washington County Parks Manager Peter Mott.
“If you want to let your hair blow in the wind and surrender to what nature has going on, Big Marine is a great way to get to those places without a whole lot of effort,” he said. “A young family can plan a pretty unique day without an iPad or anything – just your own two feet and your family.”
Plans call for the reserve to more than double in size, as more than 1,000 acres south of County Road 4 are marked for eventual acquisition, Mott said.
Farther south in May Township, another county park features activities that attract a more grown-up crowd. Square Lake Park is home to all sorts of recreation. It has a fishing pier and boat landing and is a popular fishing destination due to the lake’s population of rainbow trout.
Scuba divers enjoy a steep drop-off, clear water and a wealth of interesting dive subjects, such as friendly bluegills, sunken boats and the tail section of an airplane.
Washington County will offer stand-up paddleboarding classes on Square Lake this summer.
The park is situated along a county bike path and boasts 690 feet of beach on one of the cleanest lakes in the Twin Cities metro area. Square Lake is deep and isolated from outside pollution.
“It’s a beautiful, spring-fed lake with a very small watershed around it,” Mott said.
Several other local Washington County lakes have public accesses. The DNR maintains ones on Scandia’s Bone Lake and Forest Lake’s Clear Lake. The city of Scandia has an access on Goose Lake.
Eastern Anoka County is rich in recreational areas of regional significance, and they are centered around lakes.
“Basically every park property we have has a body of water in it, which is kind of a unique thing for a county park system,” said Andy Soltvedt, marketing and visitor services manager for Anoka County Parks.
Just south of the Interstate 35 split in Lino Lakes, the Rice Creek Chain of Lakes Regional Park Reserve encompasses 5,500 acres and five lakes: Peltier, Centerville, George Watch, Marshan and Rice.
The island on Peltier Lake is home to a great blue heron rookery that measures among the state’s largest.
Near the park entrance, the beach on Centerville Lake includes a volleyball court, playground and picnic pavilion.
The park reserve has two boat launches and several canoe launches. Among other recreational equipment, it rents canoes, kayaks and a 30-foot voyageur canoe that is a replica of a birch bark canoe used by fur traders in the 1800s.
The Joseph E. Wargo Nature Center is located on a peninsula overlooking George Watch Lake. Open 11 months a year, it is a top draw for camps, field trips and educational programs.
“The Rice Creek Chain of Lakes Park Reserve is really a unique amenity, and Wargo was established 20 years ago to take advantage of that peninsula there and the different environment forms of wetland, lake and forest habitats,” Soltvedt said.
Between Wargo and Centerville Beach, dozens of programs and special events are held each year at the park reserve. Chomonix Golf Course and a 78-lot campground are also part of the park reserve.
“That park has about everything to offer you can think of from an outdoor recreation perspective,” said Jeff Perry, park planning and resources manager for Anoka County Parks.
The Rice Creek Water Trail, a 23-mile canoeing and kayaking route, starts at the Peltier Lake boat launch and spans 23 miles to the Mississippi River in Fridley. The trail goes through five lakes in its first 7 miles before narrowing into a creek. The southern part goes through Long Lake, Locke Lake and more populated areas.
In Linwood Township, another 737 acres of undisturbed land is open to the public at Martin-Island Linwood Lakes Regional Park.
Like Rice Creek Chain of Lakes, it has been deemed a regional park by the Metropolitan Council. This designation makes it eligible for funding but also subjects it to various requirements. Still, Perry feels Martin-Island Linwood Lakes Regional Park is underutilized due to its location.
All three lakes at the park are productive fisheries, Perry said. Martin Lake and Linwood Lake have boat launches. A swimming beach is the highlight of Island Lake, which earned a grade of A for water quality from the Metropolitan Council.
The park is also home to Camp Salie, which rents 12-person cabins and is home to 4-H camp in the summer.
The regional park is adjacent to two spaces managed by the DNR: Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area and Boot Lake Scientific and Natural Area.
The latter is home to 159-acre Boot Lake, which has no public access and is closed to fishing. Boot Lake SNA has no recreational facilities or maintained trails, but its 660 acres are open to the public and it has pull-off parking. Vast populations of wildflowers and birds attract visitors.
Immediately south of Boot Lake SNA is Coon Lake County Park. The 125-acre Anoka County park on the east end of Coon Lake provides a swimming beach, boat launch, playground and picnic pavilion.
Farther southeast in Columbus, the 1,291-acre Lamprey Pass Wildlife Management Area surrounds Howard and Mud lakes, which are two of the largest metro lakes to offer non-motorized boating opportunities where motorized boats are not allowed. Those visiting to view wildlife often observe eagles.
Vehicles need a permit costing $5 per day or $25 per year to enter county parks. Conveniently for residents of the Forest Lake area, annual passes bought in either Anoka County or Washington County are accepted in either county.
“You get your money’s worth if you buy a park pass in Anoka or Washington county,” Perry said.