6 FUN Things to do at McCarthy Beach State Park + Hiking Club Trail

Have you ever had a vision for a place even before you get there? It’s almost magical in your mind, that is until you experience it. Las Vegas was one of those eye-opening experiences.

After spending all your time researching, and dreaming you’ve come up with an ideal vacation destination. Then when you get there, it’s nothing like what you thought. That was what McCarthy Beach State Park Hiking Club Trail was like for me.

McCarthy Beach was a perfect storm. We woke up on day 9 of 10 days of our trip in the camper deciding enough is enough. Everyone was on edge being in close proximity for so long and the bugs on the trip went from non-existent to a constant buzzing.

My dog is a covid puppy and didn’t get the opportunity to socialize as much when really young. This was her first big trip and was on low growl alert mode at every person in her vicinity.

Her stress was spilling over onto everyone. With two parks left to hit, we decided today was going to be our last on the road.

We could hit up McCarthy Beach in the morning, come back for lunch and visit Hill Annex and get back to sleep in our beds closer to dinner time.

Things to do at McCarthy Beach State Park

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The Beginnings of McCarthy Beach State Park

McCarthy Beach State Park has been a gathering place for locals for more than 10,000. In the 1930s McCarthy’s beach was a popular picnic and swimming destination for families.

Fifteen years later, the state turned it into a memorial to the area servicemen that lost their lives in WWII and named it after the former property owner, John A McCarthy.

First Glimpse of McCarthy Beach State Park

McCarthy Beach State Park is one hour away from our base camp of Scenic State Park. The forecast was calling for a 30% chance as Scenic.

We didn’t take into consideration that there was a 90% chance once we got to our destination. About 20 minutes into the drive the sky opened and we were under a complete downpour.

There was no way we were going to turn back now. By the time we got there, it changed to a drizzle. The damage was already done, the ground was thoroughly soaked and the humidity was on the rise.

We were hoping the park officials would be open to scoring some insider information. Whenever you get the chance to talk with the rangers, do it.

They are a wealth of information about ideal parking, and shortcuts and they may even be able to sell you an emergency poncho. No luck, they didn’t open for another hour. Thankfully we could still get our passports stamped out front.

Campground

We immediately got turned around and got a view of the campground. It didn’t look like a bad campground, with nice facilities.

The sites looked RV-friendly, with some brush between your neighbors. What I couldn’t help but notice was the looks we got from everyone who was taking their first steps out of their shelters after the rain. They looked like we were crashing their family gathering.

The McCarthy Beach State Park Hiking Club Trail

Miles: 3 miles
Difficulty: Medium with Hills
Total Miles Hiked: 141.5 miles

Parking

The park sits alongside three different lakes; Sturgeon Lake, Side Lake, and Pickerel Lake. It’s separated into two sections, camping on the Southern end, hiking, and mountain biking on the northern end. The upper second of the park is the least developed.

Getting to the parking was our first big adventure. On the main road, going through the park is a small gravel turn-off into someone’s property.

After driving for what seemed like forever on the worst road, wondering if we’d get stuck in the worn tracks, we finally found the parking area.

The small grassy section in the middle of the woods. It seemed like something out of a horror film. The parking lot has a spur trail leading to the hiking club.

There is a secondary parking lot, on the trial. It’s off of Ski Trail Road, also grassy. It was further down the sketchy road we were on. It looks like you can reach it off highway 5 too. I was done messing around on these backroads to find anything closer.

The Hike

The main portion of the hike is around Big Hole Loop. Based on the sound of it, we’d be walking the ridgeline. I was completely wrong. It was up and down the entire way.

I don’t mind a few hills, as long as there is a reward at the top. Unfortunately, it was more of the same woods over and over again.

The entire time, my feed was freezing, wet, and it the moisture was slowly creeping up my pant legs. All I could think was, when is this going to be over?

We saved the best part of the hike for last, the portion along Pickerel Lake. It was a nice break, even though it meant brushing past the tall grass.

It was flat and the water was a great change of scenery. Using the level of brush near the lake, and the lack of people we saw on the trail, I’m going to say the Hiking Club Trail at McCarthy Beach State Park is not used often.

We arrived back at the car cold, wet and miserable. There would be no beach visit for us.

I highly recommend downloading the McCarthy Beach State Park Map before you go. You can get a free McCarthy Beach State Park GeoPDF Map from MNDNR and Avenza. It makes hiking the trail a breeze, especially with all the spur trails on this route.

Other Things To Do at McCarthy Beach State Park

Swimming

McCarthy Beach State Park has been a popular destination for over 70 years, and it’s not hard to see why! With a long expanse of shallow water, it’s perfect for kids, and parents can choose to sit in the sun or shade while watching them.

The restroom building is handicap accessible and also provides changing rooms, so everyone can enjoy a day at the beach!

If you’re looking for a place to really spread out and enjoy some water activities, look no further than Sturgeon Lake! With a half mile of frontage, there’s plenty of room to run around and play games.

And if you’re looking to cool off, the shallow water stretches 100 feet or more from shore. It’s the perfect place to spend a summer day!

Fishing

If you’re thinking of visiting McCarthy Beach, there’s more than one way to get there! Boating is a popular option thanks to the chain of connected lakes in the area. On a hot summer day, you might see dozens of boats anchored in the shallow water.

Oh, the pier is just a delight in the morning! You can catch the most beautiful sunrise over Side Lake, and maybe even snag bluegill or crappie.

No need for a fishing license if you’re a Minnesota resident, just borrow a rod and tackle from the park office. It’s the perfect place to try your hand at fishing if you’ve never done it before.

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.

Bike

Within the park are 17 miles of mountain biking trails. From the Pickerel Lake Parking, take the Ridge Trail north through the woods, until it meets up with the Taconite State Trail.

The trail is a 165-mile one-way stretch of trail that goes from grand rapids to Ely. If you want to stay within the confines of the park, follow MN 5 south back to the park’s entrance.

This is one of the fun things to do at McCarthy Beach State Park you have to do!

Pickerel Lake

This picturesque trout lake is a favorite destination for anglers and hikers.

While the trail doesn’t quite go all the way around the lake due to some private land, hikers can still make a nice loop hike using parts of the Big Hole Trail and the Red Top Trail.

The carry-down access can be a bit of work, but kayakers and canoeists appreciate the more protected waters of Pickerel Lake on windy days.

Fire Tower

From atop this fire tower, you can see just how expansive the forest is that surrounds the park. Side Lake is in the foreground, with Sturgeon Lake behind the narrow strip of land containing the campground and day-use facilities. This tower is still an active fire lookout during high wildfire danger.

Things to do near McCarthy Beach State Park

McCarthy Beach State Park has a lot to do and explore but if you do decide to venture out, I recommend making your way to Scenic State Park. It’s absolutely stunning and a fun drive!

How much does it cost?

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

Would I go back to McCarthy Beach State Park?

My experience at McCarthy Beach State Park has left me jaded a little about it. I would love to see it under different conditions.

When people talk about the park on Facebook, it is the highest recommend location in the area. I would love to explore the fun things to do at McCarthy Beach State Park without the rain!

For that reason, I would love to go back and experience the beach, maybe even see their campground during the week when it’s not as chaotic.

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