NEW ULM - Most of the county parks in Brown County are easy to pass on the highway, with the exception of Lake Hanska County Park, which has plenty of signs and large wooden gates to alert a passersby of its presence.
For those to take the road less traveled, the other three parks in Brown County's system can provide quiet, remote opportunities to fish, hike, play Frisbee golf or swim.
Located about five miles southwest of New Ulm, the entrance to Lost Dog and Fox Hunters Park is a dirt road off 125th Avenue in Sigel Township marked by a brown wooden sign with yellow letters.
A view from the top of the waterfall at Mound Creek Park.
Just about everything in Lost Dog and Fox Hunters Park is shaded by trees - the parking areas, the picnic shelters, the play equipment and even part of the volleyball pit - except for the floating dock on Clear Lake.
Like many lakes in southwestern Minnesota, Clear Lake is shallow and is green from collecting farm runoff. Brown County Parks Director Laine Sletta said Lost Dog and Fox Hunters is a popular place for panfishing and ice fishing.
The park took its name from the Lost Dog and Fox Hunters Club, which donated the land for the park in the 1980s. The park was named after the club in 1991.
Lake Hanska County Park is south of Lost Dog and Fox Hunters down CSAH 13 through the city of Hanska and then west on CSAH 20 until 177th Avenue, where you turn left until reaching 115th Street to CSAH 11, which first passes the campsite of Lake Hanska County Park. Sletta noted the updates made to the amenities at the site - the electric and septic systems were updated last year. Like Flandrau State Park in New Ulm, Lake Hanska has two types of campgrounds - modern grounds for people with camper trailers and rustic campgrounds for campers who prefer to use tents.
The largest part of Lake Hanska is farther up CSAH 11. The Torgrimson-Thordson log cabin, which was built in 1857 and moved into the park from a nearby farmsite, greets visitors from the parking lot. The path from the parking lot takes visitors past a couple of the dugouts that settlers made during the U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862 for protection. Close by is Fort Hill, which holds the remains of Fort Hanska, an outpost built in 1863 in the aftermath of the uprising. The hill that surrounds what remains of the fort slopes downward underneath a canopy of tall trees towards the Lake Hanska beach, which is the largest public beach in Brown County. Picnic shelters, a historical kiosk and a blacktop walking path sit at the base of the hill and the grassy area leading up to the beach is dotted with picnic tables.
Lake Hanska is a long park, Sletta pointed out, with 800 feet on one side of the beach and 700 feet on the other. The shape of the lake itself bodes well for boat races in the summer and snowmobile time trials in the winter, in addition to other community activities.
"This park is used a lot," said Sletta.
Lake Hanska was Brown County's first county park. It was dedicated in 1978 after close to 10 years of studies and development. The DNR considered Lake Hanska as a possible state park at least twice, but decided against it both times because of a lack of acreage.
Lake Hanska is the only Brown County park listed on the National Register because of the Native American artifacts that were first located there in 1900 by railroad workers who were digging for gravel. Their work stopped after human bones were found and archaeologists were called to the site.
The Indian mound where the artifacts were discovered is very close by the main entrance to the park. It is just a few hundred feet up County Road 11 from the beach on the opposite side of the road. The trail that leads to the top of the hill, where the Dakota burial mound was found, goes around the circumference of the hill. The trail was developed after the park was established.
Down CSAH 11 to CSAH 6, the trip to Mound Creek County Park takes you across the southern edge of Brown County. The entire trip takes about 33 miles through cornfield after cornfield along the border with Watonwan County and then, as you head farther west, Cottonwood County.
"You really don't realize how big Brown County is until you're in a car," said Sletta.
Mound Creek County Park is at the southern edge of Brown County, but is on the border with Cottonwood County at the very southwestern tip of Brown County. It has the only man-made body of water in the county park system, which is the reservoir created by the Wellner-Hageman Dam. The dam was built in 1992 in response to farmers' concerns about flooding in the area.
Mound Creek is easily Brown County's largest park, since it has a total of 318 acres, including the 70 acres occupied by the reservoir. It was formally dedicated as a county park in 1993.
The dirt road that leads into the park is lined with rows of green ash on either side makes a straight, flat line in from 450th Avenue. Sletta said the park road was deliberately left bumpy to prevent visitors from speeding across it.
The parking lot for the waterfall and Frisbee golf course gives the first indication that a visitor is in a county park. The reddish quartzite outcroppings that serve as a staircase to the waterfall and a view of the park's reservoir are a second clue. A small waterfall about a foot wide runs through the rocks and plummets 20 feet into the southernmost tip of the reservoir.
Like the historical site at nearby Jeffers, Mound Creek also has petroglyphs hidden among the different pieces of quartzite. Sletta said the state did a survey and found some petroglyphs in Mound Creek, the exact locations of which were not revealed by the state archaeologists who discovered the ancient drawings, although they did furnish Brown County with photographs.
'Every time I come out here, I try to find the petroglyphs," said Sletta, who has been unsuccessful in his search so far.
From the waterfall area, the park road turns right and moves around the lower tip of the reservoir to one of two overlooks, where two picnic shelters sit at the top, looking out onto Brown County's second-largest public beach, which sits at the western end of the southern bay of the reservoir. More quartzite outcroppings are visible along the shore.
This is the part of the reservoir where, Sletta said, the DNR and some sporting groups are trying to establish a fishing pier. The reservoir is a place to fish for bass, crappies and sunfish, Sletta said.
The picnic shelters near the top of the overlooks at the western edge of the reservoir give visitors a view of the bay that the waterfall empties into, as well as the top of the Wellner-Hageman Dam, which sits at the north end of the park.
The last area off the road in Mound Creek County Park is the public boat access, which appears immediately after driving over a dramatic drop on the other side of the hill at the end of the park road. A private campground owned by Mound Creek's caretaker sits adjacent to the boat launch.
From CSAH 17 east, the trip to Treml County Park ultimately ends up at the intersection of 170th Street W. and 329th Avenue in Leavenworth Township, where the park's entrance is a small dirt road off 329th Avenue marked by a metal sign. The road goes back through a cornfield into a clearing, where a picnic shelter stands overlooking the eastern shore of Altermatt Lake.
For such a small piece of land - 18.2 acres - Treml County Park stirred up a lot of controversy in the days before it was formally dedicated in 1988. A Sleepy Eye man first proposed using the land for a park in 1986. The county received the land as a donation from the Catholic Church of the Japanese Martyrs Parish, which received the land in a will from brothers John and Herman Treml, who once farmed it. While some residents wanted the park, others questioned the need and whether or not it would be used often enough. The park's name was also the subject of some controversy and residents fought over whether or not it should be named after the Tremls or after the Altermatt family, who settled the land that includes the lake.
Sletta said some improvements have been made, such as sealing the well, and more, like new shingles for the picnic shelter, are on their way.
"This is the most remote," he said. "And we get a lot of vandalism out here."
Altermatt Lake is another place to fish for bullheads, but unlike the other parks in the county system, Treml does not have a public boat launch. It does have hiking trails that encircle Altermatt Lake, which has 4,000 feet of shoreline.
Sletta said Treml County Park will receive more updates - such as a new roof on the picnic shelter - soon.