Experience Minnesota’s seasonal beauty at Rice Lake State Park

(Last Updated On: July 10, 2020)

Minnesota’s Rice Lake State Park is small in size, but during spring and fall it offers great bird watching and plenty of colorful spring flowers or fall leaves.

White trout lily blossom with unopened blossoms

I use links to improve your browsing experience. Some may be affiliate links that pay me a small commission if you use them to reserve a room, rent a car, or purchase goods or services. You don’t pay anything extra, but it helps keep this website running without intrusive advertisements. To learn more, review my policies and disclosures.

The story behind Rice Lake State Park

Rice Lake State Park was once part of the Minnesota’s southern oak barrens, a prairie landscape studded with burr oak trees. Rice Lake formed in a depression in this landscape and, long ago, was much, much deeper than it is today. (Human alterations to control lake levels along with natural and human-caused eutrophication created the exceptionally shallow lake that exists today.) But today’s shallow, marshy lake is ideal for waterfowl and bird watchers!


Spring and fall shine at Rice Lake

Rice Lake State Park is open all year, with hiking and canoeing during the warmer months and skiing and snowmobiling during the winter.

But the best time to visit Rice Lake State Park is during the spring and fall. The park serves as a refueling stop for migrating birds (particularly waterfowl) during both the spring and fall migrations. In addition, spring brings an abundance of wildflowers, while fall brings colorful leaves along the wooded lake shore.

Bird watching

A “waterfowl observation area” (a shoreline path with signage) provides a good view of the lake. The signs have pictures and information on the waterfowl you may see throughout the year. But the wooded areas along the also attract a variety of birds, including seven species of woodpeckers.

The number and species of birds visitors may see (especially waterfowl) increases substantially during the spring and fall migration. That makes this the best time to visit, as the resident waterfowl are joined by migrating geese, diving ducks, and more.

Whenever you visit, bring binoculars and/or a very long lens. Because the marshy shore extends far into the lake, most of the birds you’ll see will be way out in open water.

You can find a checklist of birds you might see on the park’s birding checklist (PDF).

Spring flowers

I visited Rice Lake State Park on a cold, wet day at the beginning of May. While I came expecting to find spring wildflowers, I didn’t expect to find every unpaved bit of ground blanketed in flowers!

Both marshy areas and drier land along the parking and picnic area (and the picnic area itself) were swathed in layers of early wildflowers. (With more flowers yet to come.) The majority of flowers in bloom at the time were white trout lilies, but there were others as well, including bloodroot, false rue anemone, hepatica, spring beauty, and cutleaf toothwort.

 

The year I visited Rice Lake, spring was a bit late, or at least, unusually cool and damp. Normally I would expect to see a lot of these flowers by mid-April.

I’ll be interested to return to see what the flower mix looks like later in the season, as I could see more sprouting. But for early spring blossoms, Rice Lake State Park is hard to beat! The flowers are plentiful and easy to spot from the parking lot.

Fall leaves

I haven’t visited Rice Lake in fall, but it has a nice mix of trees rising above the flowers. That makes it look like a pleasant spot enjoy some fall color in a part of the state that doesn’t have a lot of hardwood forests.

flowers on forest floor

Plan your visit

Rice Lake State Park is located near Owatonna in southern Minnesota.

Although largely surrounded by agricultural land, the park itself includes the lake and a mix of shoreline marshes, prairie, and woodlands. Lakes of any type are rare in this part of the state, which is one reason the park attracts so many waterfowl.

This is largely a natural area. There is NO swimming beach.

The park is open year-round, but with limited staffing and services during the winter season.

Resources

The Rice Lake State Park website includes resources for planning your time in the park:

  • Rice Lake State Park map (PDF) is the same paper map you’ll (usually) find at the park
  • The Rice Lake State Park on-line virtual tour and map is a great way to actually see various areas in the park. It includes scenes from the picnic area, boat launch, and campgrounds. Just keep in mind that this is NOT a real-time link, so conditions may be very different from the pictures.

Those interested in options to improve and expand wetlands in the park might want to take a look at a study conducted around 2000 on Wetland Restoration Potential at Rice Lake State Park (PDF).

Roy Meyer’s 1991 book Everyone’s Country Estate: A History of Minnesota’s State Parks is a little opinionated and a little dated. However, it’s an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the history behind Minnesota’s state parks, including Rice Lake. The Minnesota Historical Society has a few new copies available, while both new and used copies are available on Amazon.

Where to stay

Rice Lake State Park is in a rural agricultural area. This means most lodging options are either in the park or in the nearby city of Owatonna. Rochester and Albert Lea are also options, although they are a bit farther away.

Camping in the park

There are several campgrounds in Rice Lake State Park.

  • 40 drive-in sites vary from open prairie to heavily wooded locations along two loops. These sites are said to be suitable for RVs of up to 55 feet in length, but reports from campground users indicate many sites are difficult for a vehicle of that size to get into. And all require backing in. I don’t think any have a lake view.
    • Three sites are designated as wheelchair accessible.
    • 18 sites, including two accessible sites, have electricity.
    • Showers and flush toilets are available from spring through fall.
  • Five walk-in sites with a vault toilet. These are a short walk from the parking area.
  • Four cart-in sites with a vault toilet. These aren’t terribly far from the parking area and they have a lake view.
  • Five canoe sites with a vault toilet and lake view, but no drinking water. Some of these appear to have limited privacy.
  • A group camp with a vault toilet for up to 40 people and 15 vehicles.

There are no camper cabins at the park.

All camp sites must be reserved through Minnesota’s online reservation system or by phone.

Hotels and other lodging options

Then nearest place with a variety of lodging options is Owatonna, an easy 15- or 20-minute drive from the park. Check your options, read reviews, and compare prices at TripAdvisor, Expedia, or Booking.com. (Watch out, as number of sites include “Owatonna” hotels that are in Northfield or Albert Lea. Always check the map view to know exactly where you will be staying.)

Airbnb also has a few listings for Owatonna. If you haven’t tried Airbnb, this link can save you $30 or more on your first booking.

three white trout lily flowers with text "Spring Wildfloewers and more: Rice Lake State Park, Minnesota"

 

If you’d like pictures of spring flowers for your home, please take a look at CindyCarlsson.com

small boats on a lake shore with text "Minnesota State Parks"

 

three white trout lily flowers with text "Spring Wildfloewers and more: Rice Lake State Park, Minnesota"
single white trout lily blossom with leaves and text "Rice Lake State Park"
single white trout lily blossom with leaves and text

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.