Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Free state park passes available at Minnesota libraries June 8, 2022

Photographed from the public dock at Rice Lake State Park, rural Owatonna. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo May 2020)

IT PAYS TO CHECK OUT community bulletin boards, like the one at my local library. While perusing the paper postings at Buckham Memorial Library on Saturday, I discovered information about free passes to Minnesota state parks. Anything free piques my interest, especially as inflation rises and most of us are trying to save money, me included.

Buckham Memorial Library, Faribault, Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2017)

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is collaborating with regional public library systems (and two affiliated libraries) across the state to offer free 7-day park passes. Simply go to a participating library (check the DNR website), check out a pass and you can visit a state park for free. Without the pass, entry to a Minnesota state park costs $7 daily or $35 for a year.

The sign welcoming visitors to Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, known for its beautiful fall colors. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2013)

My library in Faribault has three park passes, first-come, first-served. The number of passes available at a library ranges from one to four, depending on community size. After seven days the checked out pass expires and cannot be renewed.

A chipmunk spotted at Rice Lake State Park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo May 2020)

So why offer these free passes? According to the DNR website, the goal is “to provide a way for Minnesotans living in low-income communities across the state to visit state parks without the financial burden of an entry fee.” Low income is defined as “where the median annual household income is $58,000 and/or schools nearby the library have more than 40% of students enrolled in the federal free and reduced lunch program.” That definitely fits Faribault. No proof of income is required for anyone checking out a pass.

Maplewood State Park east of Pelican Rapids in northwestern Minnesota is a remarkably beautiful park in the autumn. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo October 2019)

I am thrilled that the DNR and libraries in qualifying communities are teaming up to offer these free passes. Any program that gets individuals and families exploring the outdoors is a good thing. And to visit a state park at no cost, especially if you are on a tight budget, can make all the difference on whether such an outing is possible.

Well-kept and well-traveled paths take hikers deep into Nerstrand Big Woods, a must-see park, especially in autumn. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo October 2011)

Other participating libraries in my immediate area include those in Owatonna, Waseca and Blooming Prairie. We have several state parks nearby: Nerstrand Big Woods, Sakatah Lake and Rice Lake.

This free park pass program, which just began in June and will continue through June 2025, reminds me of a similar program available to library patrons in the metro. Through Metropolitan Library Service Agency, an alliance of 101 public libraries in the 7-county Twin Cities metro, residents can access free or discounted admission to arts experiences via a smARTpass. The list of participating arts groups is extensive, but includes the Minneapolis Institute of Art, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the American Swedish Institute and many more, for example.

The Steele County History Center in Owatonna, one of my favorite area history centers. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2022)

I’d love to see something like this in rural Minnesota. We have many wonderful museums/history centers, theaters and arts centers that are not necessarily accessible to all because of cost. (Note that most area arts centers offer free admission to their galleries.) Just as getting individuals and families outdoors and into our state parks is important, so is experiencing the arts and learning about area history. Perhaps some day we’ll get there. We’re off to a good start now with the free state park pass program.

FYI: For more information about the Minnesota State Parks Library Program, click here.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling