Lisa Meyers McClintick, travel writer & photographer

Friday, July 25, 2014

Minnesota's Big Bog State Recreation Area

The boardwalk built in 2005 allows visitors rare access to a bog landscape at Big Bog State Recreational Area.

Fire tower with views of Red Lake.
Finding beauty in one of 
America's biggest bogs

Photos & text by Lisa Meyers McClintick

With the excitement of a birder spotting a rare warbler, my daughter and I quickly sunk to our knees on the edge of the Big Bog boardwalk to study our botanical target: insect-eating pitcher plants.

Black spruce
They carried enough of creepy-crawly “eew” factor to convince my 10-year-old daughter, Kylie, to road trip an hour north of Bemidji to see what Minnesota’s Big Bog was all about. Here, this glimpse of the sprawling 500-square-mile peatland thick with spongy moss and dotted with skinny spires of spruce and tamarack was a natural world we’ve never seen before.

Few Minnesotans have, but a mile-long bog boardwalk built eight years ago made it possible to access what some call Minnesota’s last true wilderness. Technically named the Red Lake Peatlands (and aptly located north of Red Lake), it ranks as the biggest bog in America's lower 48 states.

Pitcher plants trap insects for nutrients.
Ancient patterns, modern bombs

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a bog differs from other wetlands--swamps, fens and marshes--in that it usually forms in the ancient glacial lake beds of northern climates. They’re also dominated by sphagnum peat, usually high in acid, low in oxygen. Peat piles up over thousands of years, forming a spongy island two to 20 feet deep atop the water table.

Sphagnum moss covers the peat and is considered antiseptic and three times more absorbent than cotton. It’s been used to dress wounds and as a component of primitive diapers. Big Bog State Recreational Area Superintendent Doug Easthouse says it also can hold water up to 27 times its dry weight.

Put another way, he says, “If the bog were drained, it could cover the state in water.”

With his quiet, calming voice, Easthouse hunches over an aerial photograph of the Big Bog on the floor of the visitor center to point out bog patterns that have formed over the last 5,000 years across land once covered by Glacial Lake Agassiz. The bog ripples with glacial ridges and depressions (also called strings and flarks) and ovoid islands (elevated stands of black spruce like sandbars in a river).

Bloom of the pitcher plant at the Big Bog.
Globally, the peatland’s unique patterns make this bog stand out, as well as the fact it remains mostly pristine. Early pioneers failed to successfully drain and farm the land, and there hasn’t been extensive peat harvesting that has depleted bogs in other countries such as Ireland.

Easthouse shows just a few human scars left on the bog: one remote lake and a few ponds created by practice bombing in the 1950s and 60s by Navy pilots, but they are hard to spot in this vast wilderness of 1,728 acres.

“It’s almost like it’s frozen in time,” Easthouse says.

Exploring the bog

On the day we visit, a man has journeyed from Pittsburgh to seek a rare Connecticut warbler. He finds it, along with a LeConte’s sparrow, and more, winding up staying three nights in the park, Easthouse says.

More than 110 of Minnesota’s 304 bird species live in the peatland, including the great gray owl. Keen wildlife observers might also catch turtles, frogs and sandhill cranes.

Minnesota's Big Bog boardwalk.
When we arrive at the bog walk parking lot, horseflies swarm the minivan and hurry us past a pond where wild roses sweeten the breeze and clusters of white-striped admiral butterflies flit across the gravel path. Then we duck into a thick arch of foliage where the aluminum boardwalk begins.

It feels cool and dense, reminding us of mangrove walks in Florida before opening into thick stands of bog birch, dogwood and willow before thinning to resilient spruce with snug little cones and tamarack with clusters of bristle-brush needles. The drone of flies quiets the further we walk.

Bog laurel in bloom
Along the way, blueberry shrubs and cranberries intertwine with bog laurel and fuzzy-topped cotton grasses sway and cluster together like white shrink-rayed versions of Dr. Seuss’s truffula trees. We finally reach the interpretive panels and first signs of carnivorous plants, which adapted to eating insects for nutrients other plants get from soil.

A thick-petaled maroon flower nods above the pitcher plants with cupped leaves that discreetly emerge from mounds of moss with vivid greens and streaks of red and yellow. Cupped leaves shimmer with rainwater that traps flies and other bugs drawn to its musty scent and thwarted by tiny hairs on the leaves.

We fail to find the wild orchids or carnivorous sundew plants on our own, but the pretty lavender rose pogonia orchids should be in bloom through International Bog Day July 26 when naturalists will help visitors spot the bog’s hidden treasures. 

Minnesota Big Bog  cotton grasses bob in the wind.
John Devins, a Waconia resident and longtime Red Lake visitor, knows those gifts of the bog continually change. His family has owned a local cabin since the 1950s, and his mom, Patty, in particular is an admirer of the Big Bog and how it changes with seasons, including fall when the tamarack turn to bright gold against sharp blue skies.

“It’s probably one of the best-kept secrets in northern Minnesota,” he says.

Click here to read the full feature in the Star Tribune Outdoors Weekend section and get information on International Bog Day activities.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Best North Shore adventures along Minnesota's Lake Superior

With crystal clear water and a stunning lakeshore, kayaking along Lake Superior can't be topped.

Top 10 things to do in Lutsen and Tofte, Minn. 

Photos & feature by Lisa Meyers McClintick

Looking for one of Minnesota's most scenic spots and best destinations for adventures? Point the car north and buzz up the North Shore along Lake Superior for a guaranteed great getaway.

Crystal clear waters at Bluefin Bay in Tofte 
One of our favorite places to stay is Lutsen and Tofte, only a few miles apart, but with a wide choice of lodging, plenty of outfitters for biking and paddling, the incredible Sawtooth Mountains, beautiful coves on Lake Superior and fantastic dining.

Here are our top picks for things to do and where to go in Lutsen and Tofte.

1. Get out on the water. Even if you've never gone kayaking or consider yourself so-so with a paddle, you can't pass up this opportunity on calm, serene summer days when Lake Superior's so clear, you can see deep down to volcanic ledges and tumbled-smooth boulders that seem to waver and shift with sunlight and shadows.

Temperance River State Park
Tamper down any niggling fears of capsizing and succumbing to hypothermia. There are plenty of guides to make sure you know what you're doing and have all the support you need. If you stay at Bluefin Bay or Lutsen Resort, complimentary kayaking comes with your lodging. You can also arrange paddling trips through Sawtooth Outfitters, which also does trips to the Temperance River, Palisade Head and sea caves, or Split Rock Lighthouse with a chance to paddle across the Madeira shipwreck.

Temperance River State Park
We did a trip starting at Tofte Bay, admiring rugged cliffs, envying those who own private homes tucked into woods and watching for streams spilling into Superior. Here, along this shore where we’ve vacationed for more than four decades, kayaking gave us a new perspective on a familiar and beloved place and a chance to relax with the tick-tock rhythm of paddling. Dip. Pull. Flip. Dip.

If you have young kids with you or the weather looks breezy, guides can take you inland to warmer, easier lakes.

2. Take a hike. Temperance River State Park offers beautiful trails along the mouth of the river and onto the Lake Superior shore, but don’t miss inland hiking along the river’s series of thundering falls that carved dramatic gorges and sculpted giant potholes. Hike back far enough, and you’ll reach its more placid beginnings and a great spot to hop rock to rock across the water.

Bike along the Gitchi-Gami Trail.
The park also connects to the Superior Hiking Trail, which heads north to Carlton Peak. You can also drive up Carlton Peak Road for a short, steep hike that rewards you with a 1,526-foot elevation view of the Sawtooth Mountains. The state park includes more than 50 campsites. 

3. Bike the trail: Tofte offers two paved sections of the Gitchi-Gami State BikeTrail: A three-mile stretch from Tofte that heads south to Schroeder’s Cross River Falls (gorgeous and easy to admire from the Highway). Another section starts on the northern edge of Tofte and runs for 7.3 miles to Ski Hill Road by Lutsen. 

Lake Superior cobblestones
North Shore lupine
4. Massage your muscles: Waves of Superior Spa provides pampering for stressed or achy muscles with massages, gentle acoustic music, a fireplace in the relaxation lounge and light lunches on a patio facing Lake Superior and adjacent Surfside on Superior townhomes. Regional influences include lake-tumbled rocks for hot-stone massage, spruce- or pine-scented massage oils, a ground wild rice body scrub and a blueberry-soy sugar scrub. Spa guests also can use the resort’s pool and whirlpool for the day. 

Surfside on Superior brings a modern look to the shore.
5. Explore history: Just south of Tofte, Schroeder’s Cross River Heritage Center is based in a beautifully rescued 1929 inn and general store. It blends the work of regional artists with historic displays, including a room that recreates the timber-frame style of architect Edwin Lundie. The center hosts an annual tour of Lundie cabins and distinctive vacation homes, as well.

6. Learn about fishing heritage. You can learn about Tofte's nautical roots and how early Scandinavian settlers made a living fishing Lake Superior and its rivers, and then selling or smoking whitefish, trout and salmon. The North Shore Commercial Fishing Museum includes indoor exhibits along with an interpretive boardwalk following the bay.

Surfside on Superior
7. Wake up to Lake Superior views. The lakeside condos at Bluefin Bay in Tofte make it easy to walk to breakfast or dinner, shop or visit the fishing museum. The resort includes the Bluefin Grille restaurant overlooking Superior, an indoor pool and an outdoor pool with a clear enclosure to protect it from lake winds.

Lutsen hiking on Moose Mountain.
South of Tofte, Surfside on Superior resort offers some of the North Shore’s most luxurious lodging with contemporary townhomes facing the lake. Huge picture windows and lofted master bedrooms make the most of the view, while full kitchens with red birch cabinets make it easy to stay put.

Both resorts are run by Bluefin Bay and include complimentary kayak lessons, the use of bikes and some dog-friendly lodging. 

8. Enjoy North Shore cuisine. Start the day with artisan breads, scones, pastries or granola pancakes at Coho Café. You can sit on the patio on warm days and cool off with creative salads and homemade dressings such as maple Dijon and strawberry rhubarb. Grab smoked fish dip and crackers to go for a lakeside picnic.  Don’t miss their pizzas, which include a Call of the Wild with locally made wild rice sausage.

Lutsen's tram ride is even prettier with fall colors.
9. Ride the Lutsen Mountains gondola. For an eagle-eye view of Lake Superior and surrounding forests, take a ride on the red mountain tram, which picks up visitors near the ski chalet, drifts above the Poplar River and lifts into the Sawtooth Mountains with a final swoop up the rocky ledge of Moose Mountain. Take the loop hike that circles the mountains and threads through shady trees and over craggy rocks. The resort also operates a fun alpine slide during the summer months.

10. Dine in Minnesota's Sawtooth Mountains. If you ride the mountain tram to Summit Chalet, you can grab a meal or just a cold beer (or hot coffee) with one of the best dining views in Minnesota. If you prefer a meal at Papa Charlie’s near the chalet, it hosts live music most weekends. (A bonus for parents: You can find some unique kids' meal items such as potstickers. (1-218-663-7281;
Summit Chalet at Lutsen

Sunburst lichen colors lakeshore rock.
Need more info? Contact the Lutsen-Tofte-Schroeder Visitor Information Center, 1-218-663-7804 or Cook County Visitors Bureau.

Visiting in winter? Check out my feature on skiing, dogsledding and a bucket-list sleigh ride along the North Shore.

St. Cloud-based Lisa Meyers McClintick ( wrote Day Trips from the Twin Cities and has been traveling to the North Shore for four decades. 

Monday, June 9, 2014

St. Louis offers flying trapeze at Union Station

Circus Harmony's new flying trapeze at St. Louis. Photos provided by Explore St. Louis.
Circus Harmony offers fresh way
to have fun and face your fears

Sometime in my late 30s, the inner equilibrium that fueled a childhood full of cartwheels, flips off swim rafts and summer pool somersaults disappeared, leading to severe vertigo with any upside-down dips. Roller coasters and thrill rides? No, thanks.
But a sense of daring? That was intact. Every year’s goals include “Do something that scares me.” Yep, a flying trapeze qualified. And then some.
Read my full feature on facing fear on the flying trapeze--which requires physically hanging on while mentally letting go--on Midwest Living.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Minnesota wildflowers at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park

Marsh marigolds brighten Hidden Falls at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park by Northfield.

Discover Southern Minnesota's wildflowers

Wildflowers flank the trails at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park.
Story and Photos by Lisa Meyers McClintick

The trill of a red-winged blackbird swaying atop cattails instantly takes me back to growing up on the southern still-rural edge of the Twin Cities. April and May offered a daily scavenger hunt for new clusters and carpets of spring wildflowers.

Bloodroot emerged first, ­poking through the musty leaf litter beneath still-bare oak and basswoods. Muted green leaves curled protectively around bloodroot flower buds like a toddler’s hands cupped in prayer just before petals unfurled as crisply white as sheets on a clothesline.

Spring beauty

Dwarf trout lily
Within a week or two, the hillsides would burst into a carpet of pale lavender and pale pink rue anemone followed by trillium, Jack in the pulpit, violets, spiderwort and a rare patch of wild orchis with its tiny cluster of small white and purple orchids on each stem.

That land where I grew up is long gone, bulldozed and reshaped for suburban sprawl, but there are many places in Southern Minnesota where you can see a spectacular parade of wildflowers. And with this year's record-breaking winter and late arrival of spring, you can see the wildflowers in bloom later than usual.

These photos are from a May 13 visit to Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park, often considered one of the best spots in the state to see woodland wildflowers. The park's 2,884 acres of hardwood forest (remnants of the famed Big Woods biome) sits about 15 minutes south of Northfield tucked into a rolling landscape with ravines and small streams carved by glacial runoff.

Dutchman's breeches
Trout lily
Besides a lovely limestone ledge waterfall (that looks deceptively manmade), it's known for its rare dwarf trout lily (federally listed as endangered) and for carpets of flowers tucked into the woods and along the easy hiking trails.

Birders delight in seeing another species of special concern: the red-headed woodpecker. Keep your eyes peeled, too, for the brilliant colors of rose-breasted grosbeaks, indigo buntings and scarlet tanagers flitting among the maples and basswoods. You can check out a bird identification kit from the main office.

If you want to stay and explore--and soak up the spring birdsongs and peaceful woods--there are 51 campsites available.

Marsh marigolds
Can't get away for a short road trip? This feature I wrote for the Star Tribune Outdoors Weekend section includes The Eloise Butler Wildflower Sanctuary, the oldest public wildflower sanctuary in the country. This century-old garden lies west of downtown Minneapolis within Theodore Wirth city park. Look for ongoing programs and guided walks throughout the spring and summer.

To enjoy the showy blossoms of orchards, check out this blog feature.

Love touring domestic gardens? Check out the best destination gardens in Minnesota.

Love finding hikes to waterfalls? Here are some of the best waterfalls in Minnesota and a quick listen to Nerstrand Big Woods' Hidden Falls. Enjoy!

Monday, May 19, 2014

Spring Apple Blossom drives in Minnesota and Wisconsin

Apple orchards bloom across the hills above the Kickapoo River Valley in Gays Mills, Wisconsin.

Head south on the Great River Road

Photos by Lisa Meyers McClintick
Craving a Minnesota or Wisconsin road trip to celebrate the welcome end to winter? Let spring blossoms inspire your route. 

Some of Minnesota's most stunning views can be found along the 17-mile Apple Blossom Scenic Drive each spring. This byway, tucked above the Mississippi River Valley in southeast Minnesota, celebrates the apples which have thrived along these bluffs for more than 150 years.

Bluffs, like the hillsides along the Minnesota River or St. Croix River, shelter orchards from cold temperatures that sink into the valleys. The bluffs' rich limestone soil also nourishes the fruit and gives the area’s 30-some apple varieties a distinct taste.

Meander by farms, orchards

Catch the drive at County Road 3 a few miles south of Winona. This is one of the most striking stretches of the Great River Road. Look for a maze of islands to the east, along with deep ravines and lush, wooded ridges rising from both sides of the Mississippi.

From the picnic area and overlooks at Great River Bluffs State Park, you can even seen Wisconsin’s Black River delta on the opposite shore. The park’s hiking trails thread through the hardwood forest, thick with maples, basswood, oak and hickory. They flame into full glory by late September and early October. If you want to camp here, reserve these spots early.

Historic farms sprawl across Gays Mills' Orchard Ridge.
Most of Minnesota's Apple Blossom Scenic Drive hugs the ridges above Mississippi River, curving through horse and hobby farms and passing historic red barns. As the byway meanders southeast, it nears the orchards. They’re showered with delicate white blossoms in early May and thick with apples by late summer. 

Take a drive to Gays Mills

Because many of these bluff-top farms and orchards (given the proximity to La Crosse and great views) have become homesites, I actually prefer to head into Wisconsin and drive about 45 minutes south of La Crosse, Wis., along the Great River Road, where you may spot eagles and migrating waterfowl and an Amish buggy or two. 

At Wisconsin State Highway 171, head about 12 miles east to the tiny town of Gays Mills. It welcomes visitors with a burst of showy white blossoms then wows them on the east side as the highway climbs the high ridge above the Kickapoo River Valley where orchards have grown award-winning apples since 1905.

An elegant dinner at LaCrosse's The Waterfront Restaurant.
While orchards aren’t open in the spring, wooden signs promise fresh-picked fruits and sweets from apple pizza to pies—a perfect reason for a return trip in the fall.

Loop back to La Crosse

If you head back to La Crosse via Viroqua on Highway 61, the approximately 100-mile loop drive meanders through steep coulees and past brooks squiggling through lush meadows. Viroqua's also an ideal lunch stop with the Driftless Cafe. It serves tasty seasonally inspired meals with local ingredients, such as roasted root vegetables and trout. 

For an elegant finish to the day, enjoy the riverfront views, drinks and date-night meals at The Waterfront Restaurant and Tavern. If the weather's balmy, you can sit on the patio to catch warm spring breezes drifting along the Mississippi River.

Lupine growing along Lake Superior.
Take more scenic spring blossom drives:

Here are my favorite picks for scenic spring blossom drives in Minnesota and Wisconsin:

Bayfield, Wisconsin
You can't beat the gorgeous Lake Superior setting, artsy shops, great cuisine and views of the Apostle Islands. The month-long Bayfield in Bloom festival includes blooming orchards plus 54,000 daffodils. Our favorite Bayfield flower? June-blooming lupine which fills the ditches with an explosion of purple and tinges of pink.

Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, Chaska, Minn.
A great option if you don't have time to travel far from the Twin Cities and want to research planting your own apple or fruit trees. Call the Bloom Line at 612-625-9791 to find out what's blooming.

Door County, Wisconsin.
Another lovely Great Lakes setting and the chance to meander by both cherry and apple orchards. Door County's six-week Festival of Blossoms runs through early June and includes several package deals. It's a great time to visit before summer crowds hit.

--Photos and text by Lisa Meyers McClintick

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Family fun at Brookings, South Dakota

It's not all tame at the Children's Museum of South Dakota. T-rex Jr. (above) provides a thrill, as does big mama.

T-rex, prairie playland create one-of-a-kind fun 

Photos and story by Lisa Meyers McClintick

To the right, kids line up shoulder to shoulder to fish in a pond, squealing as they haul out and net realistic trout and sunfish. To the left, beyond willow twig tunnels and mazes of prairie grasses and flowers, there’s a roar building behind Brookings’ former school building.

A towering, protective T. rex mama snarls and twitches her tail as kids get too close to her or her offspring. That only ratchets up the shriek factor and adds to the thrill fest created by the Children’s Museum of South Dakota. Opened in 2013 in the historic 1920s school, it combines the fresh fun of an interactive, modern museum with a distinctive South Dakota setting.

Kids not quite brave enough to face the T. rex in person can watch the roars from inside for the former school gym where they can climb clouds up two stories, play house in a sod home, explore a tepee or harvest potatoes on a farmstead.

With the museum as the star attraction and a variety of laid-back family-friendly fun, the town of 22,600 residents and home to South Dakota State University provides a fun stopping point for a trip west or a hub for exploring the town and getting a glimpse of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s legacy in De Smet, about 45 miles west on Highway 14.

Get a little wet
It may be tough to get Children’s Museum of South Dakota visitors indoors when a 1.5-acre whimsical outdoor play area beckons with a stream for splashing and collecting buckets of water for activities such as rock-filled cyclinders that teach about filtration. Word to the wise: Bring a towel or change of clothes ($6; 1-605-.692-6700;

Here are some other top things to do Brookings, SD:

McCrory Gardens

Stop and smell the flowers

Junior green thumbs will enjoy a long romp through the 25 acres of McCrory Gardens, an arboretum run by the university. Among its draws are gardens dedicated to daylilies, sensory plants, new varieties and seed trials, and an eco building made of straw bales with a living room planted with sedum (Technically free, but donations of $3-$6 requested).
South Dakota Ag Heritage Museum 

Tractors and big machines

With no admission, South Dakota Agricultural Heritage Museum shows off the evolution of tractors, threshers and other technological advances that changed farming from the 1860s through the 1960s. It’s best for anyone who can appreciate engines or grandparents who can lightheartedly point out the farm chores and responsibilities older generations had. It's a perfect time to trot out those "When I was a kid..." stories.
SDSU Dairy Bar

Cookies and cream team

 Less than a block from the agricultural heritage museum, the modern Dairy Bar at Alfred Dairy Science Hall offers affordable ice cream and a sweet afternoon pick-me-up. Look for flavors such as butter almond or playful variations of cookies and cream, which the university claims to have invented.

 Prairie art

"The Prairie is My Garden"
Before leaving campus, stop in at South Dakota Art Museum anchored by Harvey Dunn’s painting, “The Prairie is my Garden.” His idyllic prairie works were inspired by his memories as the son of South Dakota homesteaders. He went on to illustrate World War I as it unfolded and to be one of the most prolific artists of his time. Other exhibits include works by Native American and South Dakota artist
Oscar Howe and an area dedicated to art that appeals to children.

Take a field trip
It’s less than 45 minutes to reach tiny De Smet, pop. 1,100, where kids can wander through barns, play with kittens, see newborn foals and take a buggy ride to a one-room school house on the 1880s Ingalls Homestead which inspired stories in “By the Shores of Silver Lake.” It’s open Memorial Day through September. The town also has additional historic sites and the cemetery where several members of the Ingalls family are buried.

Generous landscaping livens up Brookings' downtown.

How to get to Brookings

It takes just under four hours to reach Brookings from Minneapolis. Follow U.S. Hwy. 212 west to Granite Falls, then head southwest on Minnesota Hwy. 23 for 50 miles. Take U.S. Hwy. 14 west to Brookings, S.D. 

Brookings lodging

Several chain hotels can be found in Brookings (especially along Interstate 29). Hampton Inn and Suites ranks among the newer properties with 87 rooms ($114/night and up; 1-605-697-5232;

Brookings dining

Pheasant lettuce wraps
Handcrafted ice cream
The Pheasant Restaurant may look a little ho-hum on the outside, but it’s a
winning blend of creative and sophisticated on the inside with an oil and vinegar tasting room, a wine cellar and frequent live musicians. Fresh twists on comfort foods range from bison burgers with Thai flavorings and crisp pheasant salad wraps to homemade dulce de leche ice cream floating in a frosty, foamy mug of oatmeal stout. Daily ice cream flavors catapult past usual standards with combinations such as peach and Riesling sorbet, coffee ice cream with candied bacon and saffron ice cream with pistachios and pomegranate ripple.
Old Market Eatery

Coteau Cafe grilled cheese
Within view of the children’s museum and Brookings’ main street, Old Market Eatery and Bar serves refreshing salads, Mediterranean pitas, basil hummus, hand-cut market fries and desserts such as rhubarb upside down cake.

For the ultimate in kid-friendly dining, grab a seat in the sunny atrium of the children’s museum where the Coteau Café serves grilled cheese sandwiches that look like owls, plus plenty of salads and pastas.