Monday, February 25, 2013

Hike to, climb 100-foot observation tower

Entry to Mille Lacs Katho State Park in Minnesota.
Hikers can climb a 100-foot observation/fire tower for a fantastic view of Mille Lacs Lake and the surrounding countryside at Minnesota’s Kathio State Park. To reach the tower, you’ll hike a series of connecting trails for about two miles through dense woodland in one of the state’s most popular parks.

From Onamia, take U.S. Hwy. 169 about 8 miles north of Onamia. At the Kathio Arrowhead sign, turn onto County Road 26. After a mile, you’ll come to the park entrance where a small fee is required. Follow the park road past the observation tower. At the first and second intersections, continue driving straight; just past the Ogechie Campground is a parking lot. Pick up the Hiking Club Trail at the lot’s northeast end and go right.

The park’s 35 miles of trails all are well maintained but easy to get lost on as they meander and frequently intersect. Watch for the trail junction markers to stay on track.

Paralleling the road you just drove in on, continue walking in a roughly eastern direction. At trail junction marker 20, depart Hiking Club Trail by heading right; you’ll then cross the road you came in on.

The park itself is a section of a terminal moraine, a geological term for where glaciers stopped advancing during the last ice age. The glaciers left behind gravel and boulders carried here from Canada. Upon melting, this region was underwater and slowly has been draining ever since.

Wildlife abundant in second-growth forest
At marker 21, go right/south. The collection of trails to the tower route you through a second-growth forest, consisting mainly of aspen, birch, maple and oak. When you spot conifer stands, you’re glimpsing what this region looked like more than a century ago before loggers canvassed the area. Closer to the ground in June, you may notice pretty white trilliums blooming.

Go left/east at marker 33. You’ll then cross another park road. To give you a sense of where you’re at, this is the road that made the second intersection with the park road that you came in on.

At marker 32, go straight/east. Despite the number of trails and roads, by this time you’ll probably have noticed the great variety of wildlife in the park. White-tailed deer, squirrels, chipmunks and even black bear scurry about at ground level while high overhead eagles, osprey, Canadian geese, and loons abound. When coming across small clearings and aspen stands, watch for ruffed grouse.

Go straight/east at marker 29. You may be wondering where the park’s name, “Mille Lacs Kathio,” comes form. “Mille Lacs” is a French term meaning “1,000 Lakes,” which is what early European explorers and fur traders called the region. Blame “Kathio,” however, on poor handwriting – when explorer Daniel Duluth wrote that he called the area “Izatys” – which the native Mdewakanton Sioux living here called themselves – the “Iz” looked like a “K.” One more error turned “Katys” to “Kathio,” which doesn’t translate to anything.

Ascending Isle Harbor tower
At marker 3, go left/north. People have lived in what is now “Kathio” State Park for at least 9,000 years, or since that last ice age ended. In fact, the park can boast that it’s one of the most important collections of archeological sites in the state. Nineteen ancient sites have been identified. You can visit one of them when you return to the parking lot where your vehicle is located; the Cooper Site, an ancient Sioux village, is within walking distance and southwest of the parking lot, sitting on the shore of Ogechie Lake.

But first, let’s get to the observation tower. At marker 4, go right/east. In this area, watch your step: Some trails are for both equestrian riders and backpackers, so be careful of horse manure that sometimes is on the path. You’ll cross another park road (this road leads to the first intersection with the park road that you came in on). You’ll then come upon marker 5; continue straight to the observation tower.

The Civilian Conservation Corps constructed the Isle Harbor tower in 1936, and it was moved to the park in 1982. Anyone can go up it during daylight, but be aware that the open stairways makes this unsuitable for young children, who easily could fall or be scared; older children, teens, and the height-averse certainly may find it a worthy challenge as well. The views from the top make it worthwhile, though.

Return the way you came. If you have the whole day, the park offers picnic areas, swimming beaches, a visitor center, and several quality interpretive/nature programs.

Read more about day hiking with children in my Hikes with Tykes guidebooks.