Lake Mille Lacs is a super popular tourist stop, especially for those who love to fish. Almost every property on the shoreline has a boat out front or is chartering rentals to visitors.
If it’s not that, it’s four-wheeling on some of the various backcountry kinds of wood to explore. That’s why I was so surprised to find that Mille Lacs Kathio State Park stays far away from all of that.
We wanted to get a jump-start on the weekend and decided to stay a night at the park before venturing on to Father Hennepin the next day. I was surprised at all the reasons to visit the Mille Lacs Kathio State Park.
Things to do at Mille Lacs Kathio State Park
First thing first, this is a big park. Everything in the park seems like a 10-minute drive. That includes the drive in from the ranger station to the campsite. From the campsite to the fire tower, from the fishing to the hiking trails. I didn’t mind the drive one bit. It was stunning.
Mille Lacs Kathio State Park Hiking Club Trail
Miles: 3.2 miles
Difficulty: Moderate – Hilly
Total Miles Hiked: 72.6 miles
The hiking club trail at Mille Lacs Kathio State Park has one of the best mixes of History and river view’s I’ve come across. The trail starts near the Ogechie Campground. It also follows along with the landmark trail, adding a little history to the mix.
Have you joined the MN State Parks Hiking Club Yet? It has given us the best excuse to see more trails and earn things like free nights of camping and patches along the way. 75 reasons to join the MN State Parks Passport and MN Hiking Club
The Cooper Site
One of the most interesting parts of the trail was visiting the Cooper Archaeological Site. It’s considered an active archeological site. Any artifacts you find, need to be left and reported to the rangers.
This area has been inhabited the area 2,500 years ago by Native Americans. They found ruminates of tools and other artifacts. Not much is known about these individuals.
There are many different sites and artifacts around the park, but the most notable is on the Hiking Club Trail, at the Dakota site.
You’ll see markers throughout the area, there were signs explaining the things they found and depictions of how the past inhabitants lived. I can only imagine what it would have been like to wake up here every morning.
The Rest of the Hiking Club Trail
After the Archeological site, the trail followed along Ogechie Lake. Fun fact, this lake actually feeds the Rum River, which we tubed earlier this year.
After that, the trail turned inland through some of the peaks and dips of the forest. Its combination of hills, humidity, and length that makes this hike a little more challenging than most of the others I’ve been on.
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One of the downsides to Hiking in Minnesota is the bugs. I say this with the greatest affection because it is what makes us tough. However, no matter how tough you are, I draw the line at bugs that like to fly in your ear.
This is the first hike that I did this year, that wouldn’t have been able to finish if I didn’t have my bug net. It was the best $2 investment I’ve ever made.
It is also why I flew through most of the trail. If you get the chance, I recommend doing this hike during the Spring or Fall to avoid the pesky insects.
The Hiking Club trail ends on the paved road. Thankfully it is less traveled by cars and does loop right back to the parking lot.
I highly recommend throwing some bug nets in your backpack. They are game changers. We bought a couple of sets and pair them with a brimmed hat to keep them off your face. If their buzzing bugs you, throw a headband over your ears.
They make a couple of types. I started off with the cheap one from Walmart. While they do the trick, they get torn while storing. We’ve been using the Head Mosquito Nets now for a few years now. They are great because they have their own storage bag. Click here to check the price.
Mille Lacs Kathio State Parks is one of a few parks in Minnesota that has an observation tower. It’s’ located on the road by the Horse Camp and Trail Center. There is also a small parking area right across from the trail to the tower that accommodates 3 cars. Otherwise, it’s a short walk.
The tower trail is about a third of a mile, mostly uphill. There are other hiking trails nearby for those looking to explore more. Whenever you get the chance to climb an observation tower, I always recommend you do so.
The State Park website did say that the Observation Tower is closed. I think this was due to COVID and trying to reduce the number of people gathering at popular spots.
They said the same thing at St Croix State Park too, but we found we were able to climb it there. It was not the case at Mille Lacs Kathio State Park. I was kind of ok with it since the Hiking Club Trail was already a lot for one morning.
The Buckmore Dam
Mille Lacs Kathio State Park has a small Dam located on the Ogechie Lake called the Buckmore Dam. It’s named after homesteaders that occupied the land in the area.
The effects of the dam became detrimental to the fish and wild rice fields that used to grow in Ogechie Lake. In the last 10 or so years, they have made significant improvements to the dam and have restored it to its original water levels. Now fish can flow freely to the lake and the rice is starting to make a comeback.
Visiting the Dam was not at all what I expected. Instead of a traditional dam, it was submerged below water.
The dam could have been down at this time to enable the optimal growth of wild rice, or it could just be the new modifications. Either way, it provided a stunning overlook that I would highly recommend checking out.
The dam is a popular spot for fishing. While there is no official boat launch, you can drop a line in from shore. There is plenty of river access too along the hiking trails.
Fish For Free in Minnesota State Parks
Did you know if you have a Minnesota driver’s License you can fish for free in Minnesota State Parks? The only expectation is if the body of water requires a trout stamp, or if you are in a Recreation Area. To fish for free you must be:
1. Fishing from shore or wading in water within the state park; or
2. Fishing through the ice, from a boat or a float on a designated lake that is completely encompassed within a Minnesota state park.
Click here for the official statue.
Near the Dam parking is a small beach to play in. Calling it a beach is laughable, but you could use it in a pinch. Instead of having lake access, they carved out a square of land and filled it with water and sand. There is a max depth of 6 ft.
Nearby is a playground that puts most of MN State Parks to shame! My kids loved it!
If you are looking to swim in the area, I recommend checking out the beach at Father Hennepin State Park. It is on Lake Mille Lacs and has plenty of space and shade.
The park has multiple camping options, including; two traditional campgrounds, group camping, and equestrian camping.
What I love is how isolated all of the sites were in thick woods. If it weren’t for the trail connecting sites together, you would think you are camping all alone.
There are 70 drive-in sites, 3 pull-through sites, and 22 electric. They also have 3 walk-in campsites too.
The area is home to bears. Unlike St. Croix State Park, their signs all stay that bears are VERY active. That is because a few days before I visited, there were a couple of bears pictured hanging out by the garbage bins having a snack.
The park has taken steps to ensure the bears are not in the camping section, but it did have me a little unnerved. Especially when I was taking my trash to the dumpster at night. I kept thinking, as I’d turn the corner, what would I do if a bear was there?
As much as I think I’d play it cool, I’d probably throw the bag of trash at them and run in the other direction. In reality, you should just make a loud noise to scare them off. Any noise I make, my husband probably would have come running to my rescue.
Even though I was on high alter for bears the whole time, we didn’t see a single one. If you practice good behaviors, they won’t come near you.
Plus my kids make just enough noise to keep prevent us from seeing any wild animals, with the exception of a few squirrels. On this trip, we did actually see a dozen different dear, all paired up as they crossed the road.
Mille Lacs Soo Line Trail is an 11-mile paved trail connecting Father Hennepin State Park to Mille Lacs Kathio State Park. From inside Mille Lacs State Park connect to the trail using low-traffic roads, like Shakopee Lake Road south. The trail starts in Onamia.
Other questions about the Park
Is Mille Lacs Kathio State Park open?
The park is open year-round daily from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. The park closes for a couple of days in the fall for scheduled hunts. Make sure to check the website for all the latest details.
What does it cost to visit?
All Minnesota State Parks are free with an annual permit. You can buy them in person or online for $35. If you are planning to visit for the day, expect to pay around $7. Throughout the year, there are a few free days and other discounts you can check out too.
Camping costs anywhere from $25-35 a night.
Pro Tip: Visit any State Park during one of their free days. Check out Minnesota State Park Pass Hacks, Tips, and Free Days to find all the days
How far in advance can I make a reservation at MN State Parks?
You can make reservation 120 days before the start of your arrival. Reservations can be made for up to two weeks. If the site is not occupied by 11:00 am on the day after the scheduled date of arrival, the reservation may be canceled.
In Minnesota, it can get competitive to find a spot with electricity or along the North Shore. I highly recommend planning ahead. With Mille Lacs Kathio, we were able to secure one on shorter notice that was during the week.
Would I go back to Mille Lacs Kathio State Park?
Simple answer, Yes. Mille Lacs Kathio was more of my style of camping. Plus they have great amenities for everyone in the family. The kids even got the chance to play on their playground. This is a true Minnesota wilderness experience. I would definitely visit Mille Lacs Kathio State Park again.