WANNASKA, Minn. -- The eastern edge of Roseau County is formed by the shore of Lake of the Woods, which is one of the foremost fishing and recreation destinations in Minnesota. For the serious angler equipped with all of the top-end gear and electronics, there are few better places in the world to chase walleyes.
But more than 50 years ago, the folks with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources saw a need for a smaller, quieter and more user-friendly recreation spot in this northernmost part of Minnesota, where pine forests and endless fields of wheat, sunflowers and soybeans dominate the landscape. So in 1967 they built an earthen dam on the Roseau River, which meanders from the bog land north of Red Lake into Canada and eventually into the Red River of the North. That ambitious undertaking created the peaceful body of water for which Hayes Lake State Park was named.
“People come here for the peacefulness,” said Allen Larsen, the park manager. “It’s a smaller park not like Itasca or Lake Bemidji, and the lake is electric motors only so we don’t have the big boat traffic. It’s a little quieter, and people like that.”
Hayes Lake State Park is the 12th stop on our tour of 20 Minnesota State Parks, called Minnesota's Backyard, this summer.
Water recreation abounds on the 180 acres of Hayes Lake. For those who like to fish, there is an abundance of crappies, bluegills, northern pike and bass. Canoes and kayaks are plentiful on most calm days, and the on-site sand beach is a popular place for families to picnic and cool off on a hot day.
There are more than 30 campsites and camper cabins on-site, tucked back into the woods and an easy walk from the lake. Larsen points out that only a few of the sites have electricity and there are no sewer and water hookups, making Hayes Lake a more rustic camping destination. That has not affected the park’s popularity in 2021.
“It has been a really busy summer,” Larsen said. “The campground has been full every weekend and there’s a lot of water use. The beach and the public access have been crazy busy. A lot of people getting out on the water.”
The park’s network of trails loop around both sides of the lake, and there are places for hiking, biking, horseback riding and even Nordic skiing in the winter. Hayes Lake is not far from Roseau and Thief River Falls, the state’s snowmobile capitals, and hearing the hum of snow machines passing by in the winter months is not uncommon, as the park is adjacent to Beltrami Island State Forest and its popular network of trails. But more than 50 years after it was created, the lake remains the park’s primary draw.
“It’s a nice little lake where a lot of people come out in their small boats and kayaks and canoes and fish here,” Larsen said.
Second-best thing to do
Hayes Lake is on the edge of the massive bog that dominates the northern Minnesota landscape between Red Lake and Lake of the Woods. The park includes a boardwalk trail where visitors can learn more about bog life without getting their feet wet.
“It’s a small walk into our little bog and it’s an interpretive trail,” Larsen said. “This year it’s been a little dry, but normally it would have some of the different flowers and plants that people see.”
On the edge of the Red River Valley, Roseau County is mostly flatland, perfect for farming. The notable exception is a few miles east of Hayes Lake State Park, where the shore of prehistoric Lake Agassiz once was. Centuries of waves hitting that shore created a sandy ridge called Bemis Hill, which is a fantastic spot for winter sledding and snowmobile riding.
The vast network of trails winds through the pines of a state forest, and the sledding hill is home to a log chalet with a massive stone fireplace which is a perfect place to warm up between runs down the hill.