Shortly after the entrance sign I was trying to keep an eye on the turn so I could setup for a hike near the hiking club trail noted as Big Hole Loop and Pickerel Lake Trail. While doing so I nearly ran over a flock of 8 Red Crossbill sitting in the middle of the lane gritting on the road. I had to jam on the brakes and they cleared at the last second. I'm sure the negative karma of hitting a Crossbill with the car would have been enough to make me drive home so thankfully that was not the case.
I seemed to miss my turn though as I ended up at a split in the road I didn't expect and figured I was already deep into Link Lake Forest Road. Totally feel like a newb in the north woods as I just expect all season maps found online to depict what is open and not open in each season of the year. Eventually I found a split from the road that seemed to indicate the Minimum Maintenance Road was what I wanted. It felt like a driveway and in a way it was as a home owners driveway split off and the forest road followed their property line tightly for a while further and then opened to a larger parking area advertising lake access and trail access.
I found the snow much deeper than Scenic State Park and put on my snow shoes. For the first 1/2 mile I trekked along the unplowed road as did 1 prior hiker. I got the feeling quickly that the majority of the trails in this area go unused by hikers and snow-shoe users.
This segment of trail showed I was blazing my own path for a good distance. Someone had perhaps hiked this when just a few inches were present, but the present snow pack was only broken by White-tailed Deer prints that I could see.
The map showed miles of trails leading off to the north and west, but I saw little indicating humans had been using them with any regularity.
I followed the hiking club trail and eventually had to truncate the hike. A fresh pack of 10" of snow was present and I was burning serious calories just trying to lay down my own track as my snow-shoes still dropped several inches deep. Despite that I found myself covering over 2 miles with some excellent elevation changes.
Birding was quiet, but as I dropped near the edge of Pickerel Lake I heard the chatter of a couple White-winged Crossbill. The calls were easily different than the Red Crossbills I heard in the morning and I was satisfied with the calls as they moved between some trees overhead. Getting views or pictures proved impossible all day on Crossbills as I struggled to even see them in my bins. This was my second crossbill species of the day in a State Park and turned out to be my personal #300 species for the state of Minnesota. I later noted some relatively fresh beaver activity on the shore of the lake and wanted to note it for a location to return for a possible State Park mammal add later this year.
The base of this Paper Birch was well chewed, and is a prime sign that Beaver are present in this lake. I look forward to a future effort and finding the species for my mammal list.
A view of Pickerel Lake at McCarthy Beach State Park. It was a beautiful 40 degree day as I finished my hike along the lake side while hearing White-winged Crossbills.
After my exhausting hike I drove back to the beach parking area figuring I could sit down in the near 40 degree weather at a picnic table and have some lunch. As I sat and nibbled on a sausage, cheese, and cracker pack I heard more Red Crossbills moving about the canopy and even got a few second glimpse of them before they moved away. Red-breasted Nuthatches also made sure to talk over the Crossbills as much as possible to ensure an audio recording wasn't going to be happening either.
Mature trees on slopes and a couple good sized lakes have me looking forward to a return trip to scope for ducks and maybe find a species in the woods on territory. Even if that fails I see some excellent distance hikes extending to the North along with the Taconite Trail that runs through the park.
The Great: This park is offering a solid amount of distance hiking and finding both species of Crossbill on a single 2.5 hour effort tells me that a lot of good stuff is hiding in this park. The park is not overflowing with amazing vistas or rock formations that I saw, but is an incredible natural space I look forward to exploring. I'm betting the beach area is tourist heavy, but I imagine the hiking will get a person well away from that business in the summer months.
The Meh: The winter shuts down a lot of parking options and forest roads appear to turn into trails this time of year, even if they aren't noted as such on the maps. You will want to be very flexible on a visit in the winter. Based on what I saw, you will want to be a serious snow-shoe or ski user to enjoy much of the trail space in this park when it's cold. Also be prepared to hear snowmobiles the entire time you are out hiking. This area appeared to be a nexus of such activity as I noted at least 10 groups during the time I hiked or sat and ate lunch.
The Verdict: Getting both Crossbills made this outstanding. I can see the spring/summer value of this park and the extended trails. I'm not sure I would recommend this park in the winter beyond a stop at the beach lot to try for Crossbill. Beyond that the little used trails will make it a next level effort to hike and enjoy.