BIGFORK, Minn. — Even a century ago, the people of north-central Minnesota knew there was something special, worth preserving, at Coon-Sandwick Lake. Those two bodies of water, carved by glaciers millions of years past, are separated by a narrow, rocky promontory, which today is visited by thousands of Minnesotans each year.
The fact that, 100 years ago when this place was preserved as public land, they named it Scenic State Park is perfectly descriptive. And it is the reason people have kept coming back for the past 10 decades.
“The draw really is the old growth pine and some of the geological formations up on the lakes,” said Jack Pellinen, the park manager. “Probably the most popular hiking trail we’ve got is called Chase Point and it’s a big glacial esker. You walk almost a mile out on this raised ridge in the middle of the lake with a steep hill on either side of you, 30 or 40 feet down to the water. The whole thing is covered in big pine trees. It’s a pretty nice park.”
And, since Scenic sits in a kind of northern Minnesota neutral zone, north of Grand Rapids and south of International Falls, it is less popular than some other public lands in the state, making it a more serene place to camp, even when all 93 spaces are booked.
“It’s got a nice campground and it gets you away from some of the more heavily-visited parks, even though our campground is full every weekend,” Pellinen said, noting that the visitor numbers at Scenic are lower than places like the North Shore parks.
After its establishment in 1933, the Civilian Conservation Corps had an impact on several parks around the state. But Scenic was the first Minnesota state park that had a major CCC presence, and that can still be seen today
“We’ve got a pretty phenomenal collection of CCC architecture here,” Pellinen said. “Scenic was the site of the first CCC group established at a Minnesota state park, so we have some great log buildings here, and inside the lodge building we have a lot of artwork and furniture that was created by the CCC. You don’t see that surviving in a lot of places.”
The lakes host all sorts of water-based activities, from paddle sports (they rent canoes and kayaks on-sites) to fishing for bass, northerns and panfish. Motorized boats are allowed, but are limited to 10 miles per hour or less, making it in effect a large-scale no-wake zone. And to allow more people to try landing a fish, Minnesota residents who pay the park entry fee can fish without a license.
The summer of 2021 is the last before big changes are to come at Scenic. Many of the campsites will be closed in 2022 as they install a new wastewater system and a new shower building. Alas, things will be different, and better, on the other side.
“In 2023 we should reopen with all updated facilities,” Pellinen said. After 100 years, a few little tweaks now and then are understandable.
The region’s maps were a bit less accurate in 1882 than they are today. So loggers ignored a swath of land inside what today is Chippewa National Forest, thinking it was part of a lake, because that’s what the map said. The cartographer's error meant than hundreds of towering pines — some of them 400 years old — were never logged, and remain today as a rare example of old growth timber in Minnesota.
The remote Lost 40 Scientific and Natural Area can be found down a series of winding forests roads. There, just beyond a parking area, is a hilly, winding one-mile path that takes visitors on a hike amid these towering giants, and make one wonder what Minnesota would look like today of more old growth had been preserved. Talk about a fortunate mistake.