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Minnesota's Backyard: Amid the glacial lakes of the west, Sibley State Park offers something for everyone

Founded more than a century ago and expended during the Great Depression, this gem in western Minnesota features hiking, biking, boating, beaching and abundant wildlife, along with a quartet of camping options.

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With miles of trails developed for hiking, biking and horses, Sibley State Park is a popular spot to get out on two legs, or four, depending on your preference.
Forum News Service file photo
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NEW LONDON, Minn. — While most of us can easily spot the difference between pine forest and tallgrass prairie, biologists have a cool map that shows Minnesota’s four distinct ecological zones. And some of the state’s most interesting landscapes are the places where one zone meets another, and you get the best of both worlds.

Take the landscape in and around Sibley State Park in western Minnesota. From the observation tower atop Mt. Tom, the viewer can see a dozen miles or more in all directions on a clear day, and can get a glimpse of seemingly everything Minnesota has to offer. There are rolling wheat fields next to clear blue lakes and stands of swaying hardwoods that give way to the water towers of several vibrant small towns that dot the region.

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From the observation area atop Mt. Tom inside Sibley State Park, visitors can see more than a dozen miles in all directions on a clear day, and view the variety of landscapes that western Minnesota has to offer.
Jess Myers / Northland Outdoors

Inside the park — which is one of the state’s oldest, dedicated in 1919 — there is truly something for everyone who enjoys a slice of the Minnesota outdoors. The Mt. Tom hike is strenuous and is subject to the seemingly endless winds that sweep in from the west, but offers one of the best viewpoints anywhere in the state.

From there, one can see the park’s four (yes, four) camping areas, which include a group camp, a camp specifically for horses and two more traditional campgrounds, one situated in the woods and another featuring a view of Lake Andrew.

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With four different camping options, including a campground specifically for visitors with horses, the population of Sibley State Park has been known to grow exponentially on the weekend.
Forum News Service file photo

With miles of biking, hiking and horse trails, it is a place that fills up quickly on summer weekends, but even during the week, this is a place abuzz with activity, from the interpretive center where visitors can learn of the history of this gem amid Minnesota’s glacial lakes. And for those not content to check things out from the shore or the beach, there are kayaks, canoes and boats for rent in the summer, or snowshoes available in the winter.

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In the summer, visitors to Sibley State Park often rent canoes, kayaks and boats to get out on the glacial lakes in the area. In the winter, snowshoes are a popular rental item.
Carolyn Lange / Forum News Service
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Notable nearby

The regional center of this lakes area is Willmar, roughly 20 minutes south of the park, which is home to one of the largest turkey producers in the country. From there, turkeys and related products like deli meat and ground turkey are shipped all over the country, year-round, not just at Thanksgiving. The industry has attracted a diverse workforce to the region, and as a result, Willmar is home to a surprising number of eateries where visitors can find authentic Latin and Somali food, and where newcomers to the region can get a taste of home.

History happens

While the park was founded shortly after World War I and named after Minnesota’s first governor, the Great Depression spurred important expansion and development of the public lands. Between 1935 and 1938, crews from the Veterans Conservation Corps built roads, trails and other facilities in the park, under the direction of the National Park Service.

MORE OF MINNESOTA'S BACKYARD SERIES
It's a far cry and a long plane ride from California, but at Tettegouche State Park, visitors to the North Shore can find both the water and as close as we get to the mountains in Minnesota.
New in 2022, campers have another option on the North Shore with the opening of Shipwreck Creek Campground inside Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. The new facility had been discussed since 1980, but finally opened this year and is all but fully booked for the entire summer.
This region of Minnesota that has been home to people since 400 B.C. did not officially become a state park until 1957, but today there are 2,600 acres of Mississippi River bluff land preserved, featuring one of the most stunning picnic table views found anywhere.
Long before there were lumber camps in Minnesota's north woods, lumberjacks were downing what was thought to be a limitless supply of white pine along the St. Croix River. At William O'Brien State Park, visitors can hike, bike and paddle in the place where the industry began, nearly 200 years ago.
The border between Minnesota and Wisconsin here was formed by a combination of molten lava and melting glaciers over the past billion years. The St. Croix River Valley's hugely popular public access site features hikes along the bluffs and down to the river, and ways to see these stunning rock cliffs from water level.
Our summer tour of Minnesota's public spaces continues in a southeastern Minnesota oasis that can take visitors up onto the bluffs, into the trout streams deep underneath the ground and back in time, as Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park offers a little bit of something to appeal to a wide range of interests.
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.
The 20th destination on our 20-site tour of Minnesota's state parks brings us to the heart of the Twin Cities, where you will find an oasis of wilderness in the urban heart of the state. Fort Snelling State Park is neither as quiet or secluded as other parks in Minnesota, but for Twin Citians it offers history and hiking where the state's major rivers meet.
Destination No. 19 on our 20-site tour of Minnesota's state parks brings us to one of the great waterfalls, and one of the state's greatest mysteries, at Judge C.R. Magney State Park. One of the quieter and more remote places on the North Shore, a hike to see the Devil's Kettle has fascinated visitors for generations, even after the mystery was solved.
The 18th stop on our tour of 20 Minnesota State Parks is to a place where you can explore the land and the water, but the most intriguing visitors arrive by air. Kilen Woods State Park offers hiking in the woods and the prairie, canoeing and kayaking on the Des Moines River, and some of the best birding in Minnesota.

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Many visitors to Sibley State Park enjoy the most Minnesotan way to beat the heat, hitting the beach on Lake Andrew.
Forum News Service file photo

This article is part of the " Minnesota's Backyard " series which returns for the summer of 2022.

Jess Myers covers college hockey, as well as outdoors, general sports and travel, for The Rink Live and the Forum Communications family of publications. He came to FCC in 2018 after three decades of covering sports as a freelancer for a variety of publications, while working full time in politics and media relations. A native of Warroad, Minn. (the real Hockeytown USA), Myers has a degree in journalism/communications from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He lives in the Twin Cities. Contact Jess via email at jrmyers@forumcomm.com, or find him on Twitter via @JessRMyers. English speaker.
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