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The Horseshoe Chain of Lakes in Central Minnesota has been a well-loved vacation destination for many years. The chain of over a dozen lakes along the Sauk River has long been known as a great fishing, boating and resort location a bit west of St. Cloud. In recent years the chain has been renamed the Sauk River Chain of Lakes in official publications, but it's still the Horseshoe Chain to the residents and long-time visitors who know and love it. Two towns skirt the shoreline of the chain: Richmond and Cold Spring. These towns act as headquarters for the many visitors who come to relax, fish and generally enjoy the full lake experience.
Different numbers of lakes are quoted as being a part of the chain. Some count as few as 10 lakes while other reports speak of 17 lakes. In some instances, small adjoining lakes or bays are counted separately, while in others they are included in the main water body. Everyone pretty much agrees on the larger lakes, however, and all are connected as navigable by fishing boats. As proof of its long recreational reputation, the pontoon boat is reported to have been first constructed in the United States at the Horseshoe Chain of Lakes in 1952 by Ambrose Weeres, a local farmer.
The Sauk River enters Horseshoe Lake from the west and leaves the lakes 9.5 miles downstream at Knaus Lake near Cold Spring where it becomes a river again. Not all of the lakes are a part of the direct flow of the Sauk River; many are peripheral lakes connected by channels, mostly natural. The entire chain of lakes contains about 2,500 acres of surface and holds around 31,000 acre-feet of water at normal levels. The major lakes are Horseshoe Lake with 550 acres; Becker Lake with 176 acres; Bolfing Lake with 104 acres; Cedar Island Lake with Mud Lake, East Lake, Little Cedar Island Lake, and Koetler Lake included in the acreage with 998 acres; Great Northern Lake with 356 acres; Knaus Lake and including Park Lake with 205 acres; Krays Lake with 85 acres; Long Lake with 460 acres; Schneider's Lake with 54 acres; Zumwalde Lake with 106 acres; and Tschumperlin Lake, for which no figures are available. Some lists also count North Brown Lake but don't identify its location, so it is likely part of another lake.
The Horseshoe Chain of Lakes has been a resort-guest's dream for nearly a hundred years. Not too long after the Sauk River was dammed near Cold Spring in 1857 to power a mill, vacationers discovered the chain of lakes. The dam stabilized water levels on the natural, glacier-gouged lakes. By 1905, resort steamboats carried customers to and from Richmond. The City of Cold Springs now claims over 30 resorts within a ten-mile radius of town, many on the Horseshoe Chain of Lakes. The dam was last rebuilt in 1980. The Sauk River Chain of Lakes has been actively working with state officials and other interested parties since the mid-1980s to improve water quality and maintain a productive fishery.
Along with the many resorts, a large number of seasonal and permanent homes grace the 76-mile shoreline of the lakes and channels. Boating is a favorite here, and plenty of powerboating, waterskiing, tubing, wakeboarding and sailing fans join the canoes, kayaks and pontoon boats on the water during the warmer months. Most channels are no-wake areas, but these are usually clearly marked. There are public swimming areas available on many of the lakes, and most of the resorts and campgrounds provide a swim area. The Sauk River is a favorite among paddle-sport enthusiasts. Much of the shoreline is natural with many acres of wetlands that harbor birds and native mammals. The Cold Spring great blue heron colony can be seen near the river, along with numerous other species of birds.
The Horseshoe Chain of Lakes has been a famous fishing destination longer than it has been known for resorts. Walleye, muskie, northern pike, bass, crappie, bluegill, and channel catfish are all caught. The lake basins offer a variety of bottom conditions ideal for specific species, so most lakes are known to specialize in one fish or another. At least three public boat launches are listed on the chain, and resorts have their own boat ramps. Some of the resorts may rent boats to non-guests, but most are reserved for their patrons. Although no official marinas are listed for the chain, at least one facility rents fishing craft, pontoons, and jet skis. The smaller lakes and bays are ideal for canoeing and kayaking. In winter, ice fishing on the many narrow channels and non-flowage shallow lakes can begin relatively early in the season as ice forms there first. By mid-winter, the majority of the chain sees good ice cover, and anglers are out in force. Many of the resorts stay open year-round to accommodate both ice fishermen and snowmobilers.
Accustomed to their long role as destination villages, the towns of Cold Spring and Richmond offer amenities such as golf, horseback riding, movie theaters, spas and specialty shops. One golf course along the waterway even has dock space for visiting boaters to come for lunch in their eatery. Besides providing the wide range of services and entertainment expected in a lakeside town, both towns sponsor such events as fishing tournaments and festivals, often in conjunction with nearby resorts. Richmond produces an annual River-Lake Festival, featuring food, fun and entertainment along with a 5K River-Lake Run event. In keeping with the strong German ethnic heritage of area residents, Oktoberfest is a delightful festival featuring brats and beer, along with entertainment.
Other evidence of the German heritage of the early settlers remains in the often-visited Assumption Chapel in Cold Spring. The chapel was built by early residents to keep a promise to construct it if their prayers were answered. An invasion of grasshoppers appeared overnight in 1877 which devoured everything in sight. These Rocky Mountain grasshoppers, the same species and plague described in fiction in Laura Ingalls Wilder's "On the Banks of Plum Creek", wrought major destruction on prairie farmlands in the 1870s. Everyone, including the Minnesota governor, prayed for relief from the plague that was destroying the crops. When the grasshoppers disappeared as quickly as they had arrived, and didn't return, the residents built Assumption Chapel to fulfill their pledge. Interestingly, the Rocky Mountain Grasshopper quickly became extinct and disappeared completely by 1902.
Lake resorts share shoreline space with a number of campgrounds and guest cottages. Real estate is usually available, including waterfront lots for development. The nearby cities offer hotels and motels, while the surrounding countryside holds bed-and-breakfasts and unique farm-stay experiences. Because the Horseshoe Chain of Lakes is only an hour-and-a-half from the Twin Cities and 20 miles west of St. Cloud, the area is ideal for a seasonal cottage or year-round home.
*Statistics are for the entire chain, rather than individual lakes.
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