William O’Brien State Park on an afternoon in early November 2015
There are six Minnesota state parks along the St. Croix River and its tributaries. Going from north to south they are:
- Banning on the Kettle River in Sandstone,
- St. Croix east of Hinckley,
- Wild River near North Branch,
- Interstate at Taylors Falls,
- William O’Brien in Marine, and
- Afton in… Afton.
That’s 51,180 acres of land, 80 square miles (St. Croix, Minnesota’s largest state park, makes up more than half the total). Dozens of miles of trails along the river. This natural beauty is open to any state residents at a cost of $5 per day or $25 per year.
On Nov. 27, it will cost nothing.
Lt. Governor Tina Smith presented a proclamation on Friday, Nov. 13, signed by the governor, that the day known for deep discounts and hyperactive consumption would this year also be “Free Park Friday.” Admission fees would be waived, and the “doorbusters” would be people heading outside. The rewards would not be televisions but fresh air and exercise and seeing the subtle season of early winter in Minnesota.
“There is a Minnesota state park within 30 miles of almost everyone,” said Erika Rivers, director of Minnesota State Parks and Trails. “So no matter where you live or celebrate Thanksgiving, the restorative power of nature is always nearby.”
Besides the fact that state parks offer an escape many people crave after spending a day crammed in a house with a bunch of people, couches, and calories, late November may sound like a cold and bleak time of year to go outside. But don’t forget, there aren’t any mosquitoes! That huge bonus aside, there are many reasons to explore the St. Croix at such an austere time of year. The birds and bugs are gone, so silence reigns. Leafless trees let you see deep into the forest (even the buckthorn has mostly dropped its leaves now). Moving water appears silver and viscous. The last lonely ducks linger a little longer. There is always the chance there will even be snow for skiing and snowshoeing and sledding.
The “Free Park Friday” proclamation came a week after outdoor chain REI announced it would close its stores that day, pay its employees anyway, and encourage staff and customers to forgo shopping for nature.
The campaign dubbed #OptOutside seemed to strike a chord with Americans weary of commerce’s increasing intrusion on a day meant for gratitude and good food. It also seemed like we could surely do something better with a day off than buy more stuff. (Those are the reasons REI got a lot of free advertising on traditional and social media from its announcement).
According to the DNR, the average American consumes about 4,500 calories on Thanksgiving, and a brisk walk can burn about 300 calories in one hour. It’s also a lot of fun.
Those visiting Minnesota state parks and recreation areas on Nov. 27 are encouraged to share their adventures on social media using #FreeParkFriday and #OnlyinMN. For St. Croix 360 readers, please add #OptOutsideSTX to your Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter posts.