The Drive: When I asked Google Maps to guide me from Scenic State Park to McCarthy Beach, I was given two options. The first (which is the one on the map below) followed fast, well-maintained highways and estimated the drive at an hour and fifteen minutes. The second mazed haphazardly through Chippewa National Forest, had a little hazard sign next to it, and, while actually shorter, estimated an hour and forty-five minutes. Naturally I took the second.
The first part of the drive followed the appropriately named Scenic Hwy 7 and Edge of the Wilderness Scenic Byway (no kidding, that's what it was called). I quickly covered about three quarters of the drive in forty five minutes and was skeptical that the last section would take an additional hour. Google obviously just underestimates my driving abilities. I turn off the highway and the pavement ends. No problem, won't even slow me down. Turn. The road narrows. Turn. The gravel ends. Turn. I'm now creeping along on a curvy, single lane forest maintenance road hoping no one is coming the other way. Questions begin to go through my mind. Why is this road here? What does that No Service signal mean on my phone? How does google even know about this road? Will anyone ever find my body? Google's time estimation turned out to be spot on and an hour later I emerge once again onto a paved road right at the entrance of McCarthy Beach.
The Park: Because I was just here for the hike, I didn't get to see a whole lot of the park other than the Hiking Club trail. I understand, however, that Sturgeon Lake has one of the nicest swimming beaches in the country (top 17 in North American according to Highway's Magazine as the website proudly boasts) and is known for walleye fishing (not sturgeon ironically). I can tell you the park felt more remote than any of the other state parks I visited. It was quiet, empty, and unspoiled. It had noticeably fewer mosquitoes than anywhere else and, most importantly, it was easily the best hike of seven I did on the Mosquito Route.
The Hike: My Hiking Club booklet warned me that the trailhead is not easy to find, so I asked the friendly (and attractive) park ranger and she pointed me toward yet another minimum maintenance forest road with a warning to take the first trailhead "because the road starts to get bad after that." The 3 mile hike begins by leading down a hill to Pickerel Lake. With its loons, beaver lodges, wild irises, and sky blue water, Pickerel Lake is definitely the highlight of this hike. It has the simplicity and solitude you expect to find in a Minnesota lake, but so rarely do. Follow the Pickerel Lake Trail partially around the lake, then leave the the lake to head upland toward Big Hole Loop Trail. Take some time to check out the giant red and white pines along the upland portion before circling back to the lake. I had lunch on an easily accessible island in the far side of the lake and listened to the beavers trying to scare me off. Then it's back to the car and off to the next park!