Father Hennepin State Park sits at the southeast end of Lake Mille Lacs and is an easy two-hour drive from Minneapolis. With three campgrounds, a beach and two boat launches, this park is mainly focused on providing lake recreation, but the 4.5 miles of trails hide surprises that should not be missed. The trails offer several loops with one notable exception: The trail to Pope Point. It travels out and back from the main parking lot (where the beach and picnic areas are) and is the perfect starting point for your adventure.
The trail runs to the northwest and follows the beach until entering the forest, a mix of hardwoods, ponds and marsh. The half-mile gravel path is flat and follows the lake's rocky shoreline all the way to the point. Look for turtles, ducks and other water-loving animals along the way. At the point is an expansive view of the lake and a bench for a break. Straight off the point is Hennepin Island. Combined with Spirit Island (to the west), these rocky masses make up the half-acre Mille Lacs National Wildlife Refuge. The islands are nesting sites for the not-so-common Common Tern and this is the smallest National Wildlife Refuge in the country. The island is well off the shore so pack your binoculars. Once you have enjoyed the view, return to the parking lot by the same trail.
Back at the parking lot, there are a couple ways to continue your hike. The hiking club route is a good choice. It is just under two miles and passes most of the park's interpretive signs covering history, wildlife and plants. Going southeast from the beach, the trail climbs slightly out of the marshy areas and into the woods. Here, keep your eyes peeled for a flash or two of white and you might be treated to a view of the park's albino deer (I saw 4 shortly out of the parking lot). The trail descends again and wanders through the south section of the park before turning north and skirting the group camp. Keep hiking northward to the Lakeview Campground. The trail dies out and follows the road to the lake. Pick up the trail again and stroll along the lakeshore back to the starting point. Don't forget your swimsuit! A dip off the sandy beach is a great way to finish off your visit.
Combine Father Hennepin State Park with a visit to nearby Mille Lacs Kathio State Park for a long day or great weekend of hiking.
Check out more trails in your area: Examiner.com's Trail Guide