Minnesota's Backyard: Myre-Big Island State Park increases access, has plenty to offer
The first indication that you have left Iowa and entered the Land of 10,000 Lakes is a "Welcome to Minnesota" sign on I-35. The second, unmistakable indication is crossing Albert Lea lake, which is the centerpiece of our first Minnesota's Backyard destination of 2022.
ALBERT LEA, Minn. — The mostly flat farmland of northern Iowa can be pretty in its own way, but when you travel north on Interstate 35, there are two very clear indications that you have left the Cyclone State and entered the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
The first is a massive sign, right at the border, that says, “Welcome to Minnesota.” The next, maybe 10 minutes further north, is a bridge across the sprawling expanse of Albert Lea Lake, which tells drivers, “Bye Iowa, you’re in lake country now.”
That wide and shallow body of water is the centerpiece of Myre-Big Island State Park , which was established shortly after World War II to preserve the 116-acre wooded island for which the park is named. From that beginning, the park now includes nearly 1,800 acres of public land and 16 miles of hiking trails.
It was the dead of a Minnesota winter the first time Brittanie Wilson got the opportunity to try an all-terrain track chair. Wilson, who is the communications director for the Minnesota Council on Disability, has used a wheelchair to get around all her life. The track chairs can take users off the paved trails onto gravel, snow, whatever. It was a thrill that Wilson won’t forget, even in the winter.
“You’re wrapped in such freedom that you don’t even notice the cold,” said Wilson, who was on hand at Myre-Big Island on a recent sunny weekday to promote the growing availability of track chairs (many of them made in Marshall, Minn.) at five Minnesota State Parks – Camden, Crow Wing, Lake Bemidji and Maplewood are the others) and at other county and municipal parks this summer.
Indeed, taking a hike on the 1.5-mile loop around the perimeter of Big Island later that day, visitors could see tracks from chair users who had gotten out to see parts of the park not normally accessible via traditional wheelchairs.
“Access benefits everyone,” Wilson said, with a broad smile.
Learning on the lake
In addition to great camping, bird watching and biking on site, the lake provides a good introduction to paddle sports and fishing, according to Adam Kurtz, the park manager.
“The lake is really, really shallow. It’s a fairly big body of water, but it’s only about 6 feet deep at its deepest point,” said Kurtz. “That’s why it’s such a great paddling lake is there’s not a lot of boat traffic creating waves … There is a walleye, northern and crappie population in the lake. Unfortunately, you have to work pretty hard to get those. I like to tell people it’s a great lake for teaching fishing.”
It’s a simple biological fact: hiking makes you hungry. To quench that rumble in the belly, it’s roughly 20 minutes east of the park to find Austin, which is the home of SPAM and the birthplace of legendary football coach and broadcaster John Madden. For more than 80 years, hungry visitors have stopped at the Tendermaid , a tiny takeout-only restaurant within sight of the town’s famous SPAM Museum, for their amazing loose meat hamburgers and milkshakes. Each order comes with a spoon, that is not for the beverage, but to pick up the occasional nugget of loose meat that falls off your burger. You will not want to miss a morsel.
This article is part of the " Minnesota's Backyard " series which returns for the summer of 2022.