Minnesota's Backyard: Amid the glacial lakes of the west, Sibley State Park offers something for everyone
Founded more than a century ago and expended during the Great Depression, this gem in western Minnesota features hiking, biking, boating, beaching and abundant wildlife, along with a quartet of camping options.
NEW LONDON, Minn. — While most of us can easily spot the difference between pine forest and tallgrass prairie, biologists have a cool map that shows Minnesota’s four distinct ecological zones. And some of the state’s most interesting landscapes are the places where one zone meets another, and you get the best of both worlds.
Take the landscape in and around Sibley State Park in western Minnesota. From the observation tower atop Mt. Tom, the viewer can see a dozen miles or more in all directions on a clear day, and can get a glimpse of seemingly everything Minnesota has to offer. There are rolling wheat fields next to clear blue lakes and stands of swaying hardwoods that give way to the water towers of several vibrant small towns that dot the region.
Inside the park — which is one of the state’s oldest, dedicated in 1919 — there is truly something for everyone who enjoys a slice of the Minnesota outdoors. The Mt. Tom hike is strenuous and is subject to the seemingly endless winds that sweep in from the west, but offers one of the best viewpoints anywhere in the state.
From there, one can see the park’s four (yes, four) camping areas, which include a group camp, a camp specifically for horses and two more traditional campgrounds, one situated in the woods and another featuring a view of Lake Andrew.
With miles of biking, hiking and horse trails, it is a place that fills up quickly on summer weekends, but even during the week, this is a place abuzz with activity, from the interpretive center where visitors can learn of the history of this gem amid Minnesota’s glacial lakes. And for those not content to check things out from the shore or the beach, there are kayaks, canoes and boats for rent in the summer, or snowshoes available in the winter.
The regional center of this lakes area is Willmar, roughly 20 minutes south of the park, which is home to one of the largest turkey producers in the country. From there, turkeys and related products like deli meat and ground turkey are shipped all over the country, year-round, not just at Thanksgiving. The industry has attracted a diverse workforce to the region, and as a result, Willmar is home to a surprising number of eateries where visitors can find authentic Latin and Somali food, and where newcomers to the region can get a taste of home.
While the park was founded shortly after World War I and named after Minnesota’s first governor, the Great Depression spurred important expansion and development of the public lands. Between 1935 and 1938, crews from the Veterans Conservation Corps built roads, trails and other facilities in the park, under the direction of the National Park Service.
This article is part of the " Minnesota's Backyard " series which returns for the summer of 2022.