Proposed Crow Wing Co. park would add a public swimming beach

For a county with 400 lakes, there are few public beaches. A plan to add one on Little Emily Lake would provide another option in northern Crow Wing County.

Destyn St. Hilaire splashes with his friends at Whipple Beach in Baxter in this Dispatch file photo.
Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

BRAINERD — Crow Wing County can be a conundrum. It’s rich in water resources with more than 400 lakes, but few places where the public can access a beach.

“In one of the premier counties in the state that has water, we don’t have a lot of public swimming opportunities for folks that either don’t live on a lake or maybe have a boat or something,” said Gary Griffin, Crow Wing County Land Services director.

Establishing a county park with a beach on Little Emily Lake would expand the public’s access to a swimming beach.

Map showing where the proposed park is located.
The proposed Little Emily Lake Park is in northern Crow Wing County.
Contributed / Crow Wing County

Griffin noted the existing public beaches include Whipple Beach in Baxter, the Department of Natural Resources’ Pelican Beach on the southeastern shore of Pelican Lake, a little swimming beach in Breezy Point.

“So it’s not that they’re nonexistent,” Griffin said. “They’re just very limited opportunity for that kind of activity.”


Crow Wing County commissioners, Tuesday, Feb. 14, discussed the option of creating a new county park with a swimming beach at Little Emily Lake on public land in the northern part of the county.

Commissioner Doug Houge said the city of Emiy tried to create a park on the land a couple of years ago but was unable to secure funding so the county got the parcel back. Now, Houge said, the thought was the county could take a run at it with its funding options.

What could the park provide?

Griffin said the lakeshore property with its existing sand beach wouldn’t take much work to create a nice swimming beach. Other ideas for amenities could include a picnic shelter and vaulted concrete toilet. Griffin said the DNR already seemed to be in favor of partnering with the county to put in a boat launch. A fishing pier, walking trails and features similar to the county’s other parks could be built at the site. Griffin said there is a lot of area, roughly 190 acres, that could create different types of trails in the future.

A map of the plan for amenities at the proposed park.
If funding is established for a proposed Little Emily Lake Park, it could be completed in 2024. Little Emily Lake is within Emily’s city limits and is along Highway 6. The proposed park would be on the lake’s southeastern shore.
Contributed / Crow Wing County

A cost breakdown with the fishing pier, dock, access road, boat access, swimming beach, covered picnic shelter, parking lot, walking trails with interpretive signs, walking trail between features, playground equipment, benches and tables, site preparation and toilet facilities added up to $690,000. Little Emily Lake is within Emily’s city limits and is along Highway 6. The proposed park would be on the lake’s southeastern shore.

Griffin said there are funding dollars with the potential to cover 91% of the park’s costs. Land Services’ dedicated parks and resource development funds could cover the remaining 9%.

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While the county may not get all the grants it applies for, the park would be a strong application, particularly given the money available for outdoor recreation in response to the pandemic, Griffin said. Grant opportunities include $350,000 from the state for an outdoor recreation grant program that comes with a 50% match. The property falls within the area open to the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation grant funding. Griffin pointed to a $30,000 IRRR culture and tourism grant, a $50,000 IRRR regional trails grant and a $200,000 federal recreation trails grant.

Board support

Commissioner Steve Barrows said with all the funding it looks like the county costs would be $65,000, which isn’t a lot of money in terms of building a park, but he questioned the likelihood of getting all the available grants. Griffin replied there is no guarantee, but the park could be built in phases as funding was available. Money could also come from county land and timber sales, Griffin said.

Commissioner Paul Koering expressed support for the project.


“I haven’t been a supporter of the county being in park business,” Koering said, attending Tuesday’s meeting remotely from Fort Myers, Florida. “But since I’ve lived down by South Long Lake, I’ve realized the utilization of the Lower South Long Lake Park. And there’s a lot of people that can’t afford to live on a lake or they can’t have access to a lake. And so I guess I’ve kind of changed my mind. I’m hoping we’re not going to get overloaded with parks. But I am going to support this.”

Staff and Crow Wing County Board members sit at the board desk.
The proposal for a lakeside park on Little Emily Lake came before the Crow Wing County Board Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023, as the board met in the historic courthouse in Brainerd.
Renee Richardson / Brainerd Dispatch

Koering said his support also comes in not using property tax dollars for the proposed project.

Board Chair Rosemary Franzen said she would also support the project as long as money for it comes from timber sales, land sales, and grants.

Barrows offered his support to move forward but said he wanted a lot more information before things are finalized.

“I think there is a lot more financial information that we’re going to need on this,” Barrows said. “Is there going to be any collaboration with the city of Emily?”

Houge and Griffin planned to attend a meeting with officials from Emily after the county session. Barrows said he was also concerned about costs for future park maintenance and even though tax levy dollars weren’t involved, he wanted a clearer financial picture.

The board voted unanimously to authorize applying for grants. Griffin said if funding is secured, Land Services would budget for the project in 2023. It could be completed in 2024.

Currently the county has three parks — South Long Lake Park, Milford Memorial Park, Paul M. Thiede Fire Tower Park, and is involved in a joint venture in the Rollie Johnson Natural and Recreational Area and has a remote and primitive landing on Rush Lake Island.


Crow Wing County Parks

South Long Lake Park

How it started: South Long Lake was the county’s first park. Established in 2007 after the land was donated by John and Barbara Burton and Dennis and Pamela Thomsen.

Location: The park is at the junction of Highway 25 and County Road 22, 7 miles south of Brainerd on Highway 25. The small recreation area is on the southwest river outlet of South Long Lake.

Amenities: Picnic tables, barbecue grills, fishing pier, portable toilet from May-September and ample parking.

Hours: The park is open year round from dawn to dusk, with minimal maintenance (i.e. snow plowing) during the winter months.

Milford Mine Memorial Park

How it started: Milford Mine is the site of the state’s worst mining disaster on Feb. 5, 1924, when 41 miners were killed after a mine shaft collapsed and water flooded in from then named Foley Lake. The 200-foot multi-level mine was full of water and mud in less than 20 minutes. Seven men were able to escape to the surface. A concept for a memorial park was approved in 2007 and the park was completed in phases. Phase one was done in 2010. Final work was completed in 2017.

Location: The park is at 26351 Milford Lake Drive, Crosby.


Amenities: Covered picnic shelter, cooking grills, small lakeside picnic area, benches, bike rack, canoe landing, boardwalk, trails, permanent outhouse, kiosk and interpretive displays with information about the miners.

Hours: The park is open year-round from dawn to dusk with minimal maintenance in the winter.

Paul M. Thiede Fire Tower Park

How it started: The tower and surrounding 40-acre property were acquired by Crow Wing County from the Minnesota DNR in November of 2018 in an effort to preserve and protect the tower, while also opening it back up for public use. The tower was built in 1935 and remains in excellent shape today, the county reports. Crow Wing County Commissioner Thiede, who represented the area, championed the purchase of the tower so it could be reopened to the public.

Location: The park is located at 5230 County Road 11, Pequot Lakes, about 1 mile east of downtown Pequot Lakes.

Amenities: The historic fire tower is open for the public to climb. There is a large picnic shelter and 3,000 feet of walking trails with interpretive signs, vaulted toilet.

Hours: The park is open year-round from dawn to dusk. Minimal maintenance is performed during the winter.

Rollie Johnson Natural and Recreational Area


How it started: A series of islands, two small — Steamboat Island and Little Island — and one large island — Big Island — in the Upper Whitefish Chain. The islands are managed by the DNR, Crow Wing County and Ideal Township under a Joint Powers Board with seven members. The Joint Powers Board was organized in 1992 to bring the islands back to their natural state and maintain responsible public use. The islands were named for dedicated volunteer and ecologist Rollie Johnson after his death in 2002.

Location: Upper Whitefish Lake, about 25 miles north of Brainerd.

Amenities: Nature walks in a place populated by trees that are more than 150 years old, camping, fishing, shore lunches. There are 12 campsites with firewood provided. Collecting firewood on site is prohibited. The campsites are on a first-come first-served basis. The Big Island is about 100 acres. The small islands have sandy bluffs with sweeping lake views.

Rush Lake Island

Location: On Rush Lake, on the Whitefish Chain west of Crosslake. There is a remote and primitive landing access on the island’s east side. Access is by water craft only.

Amenities: Few beyond an opportunity to enjoy nature and have a place for a shore lunch. Hiking trail. Gathering of firewood is prohibited. Guests are asked to pack any waste or trash to take back out with them.

Source: Crow Wing County and DNR

Renee Richardson, managing editor, may be reached at 218-855-5852 or Follow on Twitter at

Renee Richardson is managing editor at the Brainerd Dispatch. She joined the Brainerd Dispatch in 1996 after earning her bachelor's degree in mass communications at St. Cloud State University.
Renee Richardson can be reached at or by calling 218-855-5852 or follow her on Twitter @dispatchbizbuzz or Facebook.
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