Minnesota's Backyard: Visitors come for the hiking, stay for the history at Savanna Portage State Park
We reach the halfway mark on our 20-site tour of Minnesota's state parks with a visit to a geographical anomaly, and a site of centuries-old history, in mostly flat Aitkin County. Savanna Portage State Park is home to remote lakes, an excellent campground, and miles of hilly hiking trails, one of which was in use hundreds of years ago.
McGREGOR, Minn. -- There is a running joke among the residents of Aitkin County, and the countless cabin owners that seemingly double the region’s population in the summer, “If you dig a hole for a fence post, you also have a well.”
Much of the county is flat, and much of it is low-lying wetlands, making it a perfect place for ducks, muskrats and sadly, mosquitoes by the millions. But if you venture 18 miles northeast of McGregor, past popular lakes like Big Sandy and Minnewawa, and come to the entrance of Savanna Portage State Park , you will notice a decided change in the landscape.
The park is a hilly place, with dozens of miles of hiking options where visitors will see pines and hardwoods towering overhead, and countless rises and valleys that will test the lungs -- and the knees -- of those out for a day on the trails.
But this is Minnesota lake country, so the half-dozen or so small lakes within Savanna Portage are popular places to angle for dinner, winter and summer. The state park is the 10th so far to be featured in our 20-stop series, Minnesota's Backyard.
“Most people that have come to the park today are renting boats to hit the lakes and go fishing,” said Courtney Dowell, the park manager. The ranger station at Savanna Portage has an informative display on the region’s history, as well as electric motors for rent. “We have one designated trout lake stocked with rainbow and brown trout, as well as brook trout. That’s pretty popular for people to try out. Our other lakes are shallower, but we have decent bass and panfish.”
The park’s campground overlooks Lake Shumway, and features more than 60 campsites -- all of which were booked on a recent holiday weekend. And while Aitkin County generally lacks the traffic of the Brainerd Lakes Area and some other summer popular regions of the state, Savanna Portage has actually been attracting travelers for thousands of years.
The park sits atop the Continental Divide, with water on the east side flowing to the Savanna River, then to the St. Louis River, then to Lake Superior. Water on the west side flows to the Mississippi River, which is roughly a dozen miles away, making this patch of land a crossroads for explorers and native people alike. Savanna Portage is named for the challenging 6.3-mile overland trail linking the two watersheds.
While a handful of visitors come to explore the region’s history, many who come to the park find the centuries-old legacy to be a pleasant addition to a weekend of water, woods and wildlife.
“A few people know the history. From my experience, either people know about Savanna Portage and are coming to see the history, or they have no idea, and they learn about it when they get here” Dowell said. “There’s not much in between.”
There are smaller crowds, and a greater level of noise, in winter, as many of the park’s miles of trails are groomed and used by local snowmobile clubs in December, January and February. And those challenging hills and valleys are popular with Nordic skiers as well.
The park is located 10 miles off state Highway 65, so experts suggest calling ahead or making online reservations for the popular campground, which is usually 90% full or better on summer weekends.
If you are hungry after a long day of hiking and are longing for pizza, you have come to the right region. On the shore of Big Sandy is a branch of the popular Zorbaz chain, which serves a wide variety of specialty pies, and in McGregor are two local eateries serving excellent versions of the classic bar pizza, Mark’s Bar on Highway 210 and the Buckhorn on McGregor’s main street.
That aforementioned abundance of low-lying wetland in Aitkin County makes the region a perfect breeding ground for all manner of insects -- especially those that like to bite and bug unsuspecting hikers. When out in the woods, carry insect repellent or a Thermacell , wear sleeves and pants if the weather allows, and check thoroughly for wood and deer ticks when you are done.