Otter Trail Scenic Byways

  • Post last modified:August 18, 2020

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Pilgrimage through the homeland! The Driveby Tourist grew up in Ottertail County. And did you know that Ottertail County MN has over 1000 lakes? That’s more than any other county in the lower 48. I recently took this drive through Ottertail County scenic areas. Of course, someone (likely in the tourist bureau) named it the “Otter Trail Scenic Byways”. And here is the obligatory link to an article written for taking the trip on a motor cycle. But please come back to this article!! And here is an Otter Trail Scenic Byway Map:

Otter Trail Scenic Byways

The Otter Trail Scenic Byways runs for 150 miles through varied scenic country. I visited in late October. The ride runs along many lakes and near many other lakes. Unfortunately, the fall colors were just beyond their best. (The previous weekend had rain, wind, even some snow, and cold weather. As often happens, the weather gets in the way of best-laid plans.)

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Ottertail County Large Animal Replicas

It seems like Americans like their large animal replicas. And Ottertail County is no exception. Above are four of them. All find themselves on the route. Initially, the turkey represents large turkey growing farms near the town. Next, comes the Loon. It’s Minnesota’s state bird, so that’s likely how it got there. Thirdly, the large Pelican, which is in Pelican Rapids MN. I hope that relationship is clear! Lastly, Otto the Otter resides near the Ottertail River. It’s in Fergus Falls which is the County seat of Ottertail County. And here is a link to another large animal just off the route. (P.S. It’s at the bottom of the post. A good excuse to have you see more of the post!) And it’s just outside of Ottertail County.

Silent Lake

Ottertail County
East Silent Lake

Had several options for pictures, including some of the resort from which this was taken. Decided to show the lake. This one is located about two miles from where I grew up! We’ll get to that in a bit. The Otter Trail Scenic Byways runs between East and West Silent Lakes. We went swimming in West Silent “back in the day”.

As you can tell by now, this post is very personal. It certainly takes me back to another time. A simpler time. Until I was almost 18 years old, I had never been out of Minnesota or nearby North Dakota. At the time I left the area to begin the rest of my life, President John F. Kennedy has just been assassinated. The Cuban Missile Crisis had just happened and Vietnam was just a name we (very) occasionally heard on the news. As Bob Dylan says “The Time’s, They are A’changin'”!

On to Dent MN!

Ottertail County

While on the trip, I took a side trip to the tiny town of Dent. Current population is just under 200. While I didn’t live in this town, it was my mailing address. I lived about 8 miles away. The pictured location, a liquor store, formerly was a bank. I think it’s a good change! Dent is a “lake town” in some ways. Lot’s of lakes and resorts close by. Keeps the town going all year.



If you drive through, don’t blink!
You might miss it!
You will see it, right?

Who ever heard of a town named Dent!?

The Homeland!

Ottertail County farm
I grew up here!

Here’s a picture of the farm where I grew up. (For those Minnesota geography scholars, it’s in Star Lake Township one mile off MN Highway 108 between Dent and Pelican Rapids. There is only a part of one building that’s still standing from my time here. The barn has been remodeled and the top level is gone. Plus rooms have been added. The house was torn down many years ago. The farmers who own the place now live in a mobile home on the property. The original 160 acres at this location has been reduced. Another owner between my family and the current owner sold the lakefront property (on Star Lake). The current owners bought other farms in the area so things really change over time!

Maplewood State Park Ottertail County

Located just a few miles from my “homeland”

Maplewood State Park sprang from a area in transition between prairie and forest. Mostly, it’s still forest but one can see clear transition areas to treeless prairie as well. Some local farmers were displaced in the process. I didn’t hear a lot of controversy so they must have been fairly compensated. The park was being planned about the time I left the area for my US Navy service. The eastern boundary of the park is only a couple miles from “the homeland”. Shortly after I left, my family sold the farm and I lost my connections to “the homeland”.

Scenic Lake Lida

Otter Trail Scenic Byways

Located within Maplewood State Park, Holloway Hill looks out upon Lake Lida. In the past, this was a skiing hill. With the opening of the state park, the skiing ended. The trail up the hill is a beautiful hike, and as you can see above, a beautiful view from the top. The view is of Lake Lida, a popular lake in Ottertail County and in the Pelican Rapids MN area. Much of the lake is surrounded by homes (both permanent and summer cottages) and resorts. Although originally built as summer resorts, four season use is now common, including hunting seasons, ice fishing, snowmobiling, cross country skiing and other winter sports.

Included below is a panoramic picture created in Adobe Lightroom. It’s likely hard to see on a mobile device. (I believe it’s left “unlocked” so you can download it. I only ask that you credit me with a link to this page if you post it online or send it to someone. Or, you can ask me to send you a higher resolution copy.)

Panoramic view of above picture

While the view above is taken from within Maplewood State Park, the lake is not in the park. Many of the lakes in Ottertail County and along the Otter Trail Scenic Byways have similar views. Surrounded by hills and trees. Rivers and streams connecting them to other lakes. By the way, most of Ottertail County’s rivers flow into the Red River Valley of the North system, which eventually flows into Hudson Bay in Canada. The southeastern corner flows into the Mississippi River system and eventually into the gulf of Mexico.

Off topic – “Triple Divide” points

Stepping away from the Otter Trail Scenic Byways for a moment; there is a “Triple Divide” in Minnesota. At a point near Hibbing MN, three distinct drainage areas join. The aforementioned divides into the Red River of the North and the Mississippi River are part of it. The other is a divide that flows east into Lake Superior and the Great Lakes water system which flows through all of the Great Lakes and into the St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic Ocean. Here is a link to a Hibbing MN website discussing that information.

While most experts agree this point is a “triple divide” along with one in Montana and another in Pennsylvania, experts do not agree on two additional points, one in Colorado and one in Wyoming. (Totally off topic, Hibbing is the home town of Bob Dylan. And if you are an NBA basketball fan, you may also know it is the home of Kevin McHale, Hall of Famer for the Boston Celtics.)

Pelican Rapids, Phelps Mill and more Ottertail County

If I may get personal again, Pelican Rapids was the home of my high school. Here is a link to more information about the town from a high school reunion post. The large Pelican replica (pictured above) stands near the center of town on the Pelican River. The first picture in the gallery above is just south of Pelican Rapids. The Byway passes on the south side of Maplewood State Park. From there, the trail goes into Maine Township, the home of Phelps Mill.

The old mill drew power from the Ottertail River. Here is a link to Phelps Mill. The mill construction began in the spring of 1888 and operation began in December of 1889. Business at the mill declined after the turn of the century. After 1919, the mill was strictly used to grind cattle feed and finally ceased operations in 1939 when the aging machinery and larger, more efficient mills rendered it ineffective to continue.

Fergus Falls MN

Fergus Falls is the largest city of Ottertail County with a population of just under 14,000 people. It also serves as the county seat. Otto the Otter (picture above) resides in a park near the Ottertail River. The above memorial is also in that park. It is dedicated to children who died in the area. There are also pillars with names of children engraved. Very moving display.

Since it’s the county seat, here is a link to Fergus Falls MN weather. The weather is similar throughout Ottertail County. Temperature averages range from an average high in January of 16 degrees F to 80 degrees F in July. The average lows for those months are 3 degrees and 60 degrees respectively. Fergus Falls also gets approximately 24 inches of precipitation a year. The average snowfall is 47 inches. For comparison purposes, Minneapolis MN gets about 32 inches of rain in a year and about 52 inches of snow.

Dalton and beyond

Dalton MN, a small town of about 250 people is home to the Dalton Opera House. The Dalton Opera House (link here) construction completed in 1903. The building housed many community events until it closed in the 1960s. In the early the 2000s, Greg and DeeDee Peterson purchased the building and restored it, beginning in 2003. Now, the building continues it’s community role of hosting weddings, receptions, concerts and plays.

Inspiration Peak

Inspiration Peak is the highest elevation in Ottertail County at 1750 feet. (The lowest elevation is about 1175 feet.) Above is a sign with some information about Inspiration Peak. Below is a picture from the summit. The summit has a “bald top” making great views in all directions. Lakes, hills and trees!

As I continued with the drive, the day is winding down, so needed to move on. From here, through the small town of Urbank and on into Vining. Out here, there is more prairie and open country. We’re in the southeastern corner of the county. Need to go north and west again to get back into lake country.

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Vining MN – Sculptures and astronauts in Ottertail County

The small town of Vining hosts Nyberg Sculpture Park featuring Ken Nyberg Sculptures. Ken is the father of Karen Nyberg, a NASA astronaut who spent 180 days in space between 2008 and 2013. Sculpture #1 above honors her accomplishments. Ken built the sculptures in this park and in other locations around Ottertail county mostly since his retirement in 1999. Most of the sculptures are made from scrap metal. Here is a link to his website.

Ottertail Lake and Ottertail City

Ottertail Lake

Picture along the shoreline of Ottertail Lake. It’s the largest lake in Ottertail County and about the 15th largest in Minnesota. Interestingly, the Ottertail River does not originate here but does flow through the lake. Ottertail City is also located a couple of miles from the lake. (Had enough “Ottertail” yet?) Ottertail Lake is a very popular lake with much of it’s lake shore sandy and relatively flat. Although it’s deepest point is about 120 feet, over half of the lake is 15 feet deep or less. (My father grew up on a farm adjoining the lake. My grandfather homesteaded the land and once owned about 1/8 mile of lake shore property.)

Ottertail City

Ottertail

Ottertail City was once the county seat of Ottertail County. My mother used to tell us a story about Fergus Falls residents breaking into the court house and stealing most of the records. Thus, moving the county seat to Fergus Falls. Apparently, that’s an “urban legend” as I can’t find any reference to it. I’ve heard there are remains of the original Ottertail County Jail located in Ottertail as well.

Wrapping up the trip – Leaving Ottertail County

After leaving Ottertail, the sun is approaching the western horizon and I head for Perham. It’s still a personal trip as I was born in a hospital (that no longer exists) in Perham. I did stop for and unmemorable dinner and headed out of Ottertail County as darkness fell. A fitting end to a great drive and a great day!

“Back Home Again” by John Denver

There’s a storm across the valley, clouds are rollin’ in
The afternoon is heavy on your shoulders
There’s a truck out on the four-lane, a mile or more away
The whinin’ of his wheels just makes it colder

……….(lines removed)…………

Hey, it’s good to be back home again
Sometimes this old farm feels like a long lost friend
Yes, ‘n, hey it’s good to be back home again

Written by: John Denver
(There’s some question about John Denver being “Classic Rock” but it’s a good, appropriate song!)

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Kirk Allan Mahlen

    Great pics – brings back memories from a few motorcycle trips on the Otter Trail. Also, lived in Fergus PT a few years ago.

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