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100 years in the making: Exploring the history of Lake Bemidji State Park as it celebrates a century

Whether it’s a nature hike in the pines or a campsite to call home for a few days, Lake Bemidji State Park has something for everyone. This year, the state park is celebrating its 100th anniversary.

Lake Bemidji State Park bog walk.jpg
The 1.25-mile Bog Walk trail in Lake Bemidji State Park is one of the park's most popular hikes, as it follows a winding boardwalk through a spruce/tamarack bog to view pitcher plants, sundews, orchids and other plants all without disturbing the fragile bog.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Editor's Note: This story was initially published in the Pioneer's Spring 2023 edition of inBemidji Magazine. To see the full issue, visit issuu.com/inmagbemidji/docs/inbemidji_spring_2023.

Whether it’s a calming nature hike in the pines or a campsite to call home for a few days, Lake Bemidji State Park has something for everyone.

This year, the state park is celebrating 100 years of family picnics, sunset boat rides, fishing trips, and days spent bird watching, hiking, camping, biking, snowmobiling and cross-country skiing along with year-round naturalist-led activities.

The park is hosting several weekend activities in honor of the milestone. Starting with an Earth Day clean-up from 10 to noon on Saturday, April 22, with participants meeting in the visitor center. Afterward, attendees are invited to join in on the 100th-anniversary celebration festivities.

From 1 to 2 p.m., there will be a Voices from the Past presentation on "The Fight for Lake Bemidji State Park."


"Over 120 years ago, the first mention of the area by Rocky Point becoming a public park was sprinkled over the town," organizers said in a release. "In this program, attendees will learn about the history and the fight for the park at the head of Lake Bemidji through the voices of historical newspapers."

And from 2 to 4 p.m., there will be an official 100th-anniversary birthday celebration. Attendees are invited to enjoy live music along with cake and ice cream in the visitor center. 

About the park

More than 40 miles of hiking trails wind through the serene pine-moraine Northwoods and over bogs filled with rare orchids and lady’s slippers peeking through. The forest is calm and peaceful but comes to life in the evenings when the frogs and crickets sing. Deer, porcupines, raccoons, squirrels, rabbits and the occasional black bear wander through the woods and many birds, owls and bald eagles soar above.

Longtime Bemidjian John Flypaa worked at Lake Bemidji State Park for decades as the park’s naturalist from 1981 to 2017 and witnessed the park come to life firsthand.

Flypaa said people from Bemidji would boat to the north end of the lake beginning in the early 20th century for picnics and other outings.

“Initially (the park) was a place where various groups would go for a Sunday afternoon picnic,” he said. “They would either paddle a canoe over or there was a steamship on the lake that brought logs to the mill in the early days. On Sundays, that steamship would take people from town out to the park.”

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Lake Bemidji State Park's Rocky Point Trail includes a walk up steep terrain to reach an overlook on the highest point on Lake Bemidji, then returns back on a self-guided interpretive trail through a maple/basswood forest.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

History of the area

Like the land all around Lake Bemidji, its history dates back long before the development of the city. For generations, Sioux tribes used the land for hunting and fishing and later on in about 1750, the westward-moving Chippewa (Ojibwe) reached the area.


Lake Bemidji has many names — the Ojibwe called it “Pemidigumaug,” meaning “cross water” in reference to the path of the Mississippi River through the lake. Early voyageur records identify the lake as Lac Travers, which is French for diagonal.

In the late 1800s, European immigrants were drawn to the area to harvest the prime white and Norway pine trees. Lumber mills on the south shore of Lake Bemidji were the center of logging in the nation during its peak and the foundation of one of the mills is still visible today near the DoubleTree Hotel.

Flypaa said that there’s an indication that logging mills were within the park at one point in time, but the specific spots are unknown. One of the trails at the park today, called the Old Logging Trail, was used until the mid-1960s for timber cutting off of forestry land.

“In the park, there’s a little sluiceway that typically would be used to hold water back on a wetland area,” he added. “In the spring, they’d let the water through so the logs could float down to the south end of the lake.”

Fall is a great time to explore the park, take a drive along the main road, hike the Rocky Point Trail, or walk or bike the Paul Bunyan Trail to see a variety of beautiful fall colors.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

The land now known as Lake Bemidji State Park started as a 421-acre plot used for logging in the late 19th century. Fortunately, a few areas within the park were untouched and the state park was officially established in 1923 by the Minnesota Legislature, which preserved the last few groves of hundred-year-old virgin trees.

The park’s landscape is a result of the last stage of glaciation in Minnesota. Soil, gravel and rock material carried by a glacier as it moved south was eventually deposited as the ice receded 10,000 years ago and the meltwater running off the surface of the glacier also played a big role in constructing the shape of the land.

Swamps, streams and bogs in the park were formed when ice chunks separated from the receding glacier and left depressions which later filled with water -- Lake Bemidji itself is the result of two giant blocks of ice left behind by the retreating glacier.

“(The park) has a lot of variety,” Flypaa said. “It has a lot of history, a little bit of geology, but mostly glacial geology which is typical in the region. There’s a lot to cover.”


Bringing the park to life

Flypaa might be best known for leading the park's "bog walks," a trail hike through the park that takes visitors through a kind of visual cross-section of its history, including areas that were logged heavily decades ago.

State park naturalists are like storytellers. They’re responsible for learning about the park, guiding visitors through nature, answering questions and providing a memorable experience. Flypaa found it important to expand awareness of the park to the public — and he did just that.

A group bikes into Lake Bemidji State Park on Saturday during the Loop the Lake Festival in Bemidji. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)
A group bikes into Lake Bemidji State Park during the annual Loop the Lake Festival in Bemidji.
Pioneer file photo

Even Bemidji resident and town historian at the Beltrami County History Center Lois Jenkins said when she moved to the area in the 60s she doesn’t remember anything at the park until Lake Bemidji State Park added naturalists. When Flypaa became a naturalist, he made the park come to life in a way.

“I think before (the attractions were) camping and the beach,” Jenkins said. “To me, during John's time it was the bog walk, cross-country skiing, the nature hikes, the pontoon rides and all these activities provided for the community to get out and enjoy nature.”

Upon asking Flypaa what sets Lake Bemidji State Park apart from other Minnesota state parks, his immediate response was the boardwalk across the conifer bog -- home to a wide array of some of the state’s most rare plant and animal species.

The boardwalk leads into areas where pitcher plants, sundews, orchids and other plants live without disturbing their habitat. Minnesota’s state flower, the Showy Lady's slipper, grows in bunches throughout the bog and can be easily spotted and photographed from the boardwalk path.

“It’s the best orchid stomping grounds around,” Jenkins added.

Lake Bemidji State Park bog walk lady slippers.jpg
The 1.25-mile Bog Walk trail follows a winding boardwalk through a spruce/tamarack bog to view pitcher plants, sundews, orchids and other plants all without disturbing the fragile bog.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Studying field biology and limnology — the study of lakes and streams — at Luther College in Iowa and Mankato State, Flypaa's background in aquatic ecology was a reflection of what he brought to the park and why most of the activities, like the bog walk, were centered around the water. But his favorite part was encountering and teaching all the different types of people about what he loved — nature.


“I started working in parks as a summer naturalist and I realized it's not just one section of people I would be able to work with so rather than, let's say college students, the naturalist program went from children through adults with a PhD,” Flypaa said with a laugh. “So it was always a broad range and that was fun. I learned from them just as much as they learned from me.”

Another big focus of a park’s naturalist is to inspire and introduce the next generation to nature. Working for almost 40 years as a naturalist, some memories stick out more than others. For Flypaa, he most enjoyed going into schools to teach the children and taking school groups into the park so they could see it for themselves.

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Trails in Lake Bemidji State Park can be explored year-round, and look especially beautiful on frosty winter days.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

“Helping people understand the natural world and having the opportunity to share more about Minnesota lakes was a highlight for me,” he said. “Being able to connect with the school kids, teach the aquatic programs and the bog walks back up into the wetlands helped me be able to connect with the community as well.”

100 years and counting

Lake Bemidji State Park has seen many traditions, celebrations, events and activities unfold over its 100 years. Whether it's a candlelit ski or snowshoe hike, summer concerts at the amphitheater, family camping trips, catching a fish for the first time or simply enjoying the serenity of the trees and the waves crashing to the shore — the park is the perfect playground all year round.

But the park has come a long way since 1923.

Today, Lake Bemidji State Park offers both camping and cabin lodging. In the summertime, campers will find a total of 95 drive-in sites for a relaxing and private camping experience just a few miles from the bustling town of Bemidji.

“It certainly has very good modern facilities for campers now. Back when people first started camping there was nothing, quite a bit of emphasis has gone towards camping,” Flypaa said. “Another thing that’s important to people is that they’re close to Bemidji so they could be camping and be near a city at the same time.”

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The picnic shelter building at Lake Bemidji State Park was completed in 1940 with help from a work program called the National Youth Administration.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Many of the buildings that still stand at the state park play roles in the development of what it is today. By the time the 1930s hit and the nation fell into the Great Depression leaving many people out of work, the park responded with much-needed employment for local youth through a work program called the National Youth Administration.


With the help of the NYA, the park became the pride of the community. Dozens of young men and women between the ages of 16 and 25 got to work on the development and expansion of the park.

The work with NYA began with the hiring of Project Supervisor Peter Gregorson in 1936. He led the park’s construction for four years and supervised projects like the Shelter Building, the picnic area latrine, the swimming beach and bathhouse. Years later, he noted that the NYA was a valuable program, especially for the troublemakers.

“Most of (the boys allowed on the job) was townboys that had never done a day's work and didn't know the business end of an ax. Most of them were willing to learn though and everything went fine after we got started,” Peter’s words read on a sign outside the Shelter Building. “There were several boys from around town that had gotten into troublesome in one way or another.

“After the office authorities found that many of the boys behaved so well on our job, they began to get some out on parole and send them to me on trial to see how they would behave.

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The swimming beach at Lake Bemidji State Park allows for sweeping views of Rocky Point and is especially beautiful in the autumn.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

“At first, they would tell me when I could expect one of those so I should hold an eye on ‘m and report on their behavior… (later) I told the office supervisor just to send the boys out and I would take care of the rest. I must have had at least 3,000 boys on the job in the four years I was there and I never had a cross look or a sassy word from anyone.”

The Shelter Building was the third building to go up at the park in 1940. Before that, it was the Beach Building which was removed in 1978 due to deterioration. The first building was a latrine in the picnic area built in 1937 — all were built by the local boys through the NYA.

Park amenities

Today, the park has a variety of recreational facilities for visitors to use:

  • Picnic area: Shaded with a nice view of the lake with picnic tables and fire rings.
  • Picnic shelter: Located at the beach and includes fireplace, tables and electric outlets. It can be reserved by calling the park office.
  • Playground: Nestled in the shade of tall pines close to the picnic area and bathrooms.
  • Volleyball: Regulation court in the picnic/beach area. Guests can borrow a volleyball from the park office. 
  • Canoe and kayak access next to the marina. 
  • Boat ramp: Concrete ramp with 10 slips for guests.
  • Dining Hall: The hall and surrounding lawn is a day-use facility that can accommodate up to 120 people. It can be reserved by calling the park office.

Lake Bemidji State Park offers activities for everyone young and old. It features miles and miles of walking trails and over two miles of wheelchair-accessible trails. Another 11 miles of trails run through the forestland ranging from easy to moderate in addition to several miles of both paved bike trails and rugged mountain biking trails.
In the wintertime, the park provides many miles of snowmobile, snowshoe, hiking, cross-country and skate-ski trails.


Lake Bemidji State Park trails web art.jpg
Lake Bemidji State Park offers many miles of snowmobile, snowshoe, hiking, cross-country and skate-ski trails that can be explored year-round.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Maggi is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer focusing on outdoor and human interest stories. Raised in Aitkin, Minnesota, Maggi is a graduate of Bemidji State University's class of 2022 with a degree in Mass Communication.
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