Ask Twin Cities residents about overnight camping options, and they might suggest a two-hour drive to find a good place.
If they did, they’d be ignoring lots of opportunities in their own back yards.
More than a dozen state, regional and private parks in the seven-county metro area offer camping, from Baker Park Reserve in the west to William O’Brien and Afton state parks in the east. Some have only a limited number of spots, but others have 100 or more.
Each year, tens of thousands of people camp at them, with traffic especially heavy on weekends. The Father’s Day and Independence Day holidays typically are the busiest.
“From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the campgrounds are pretty full on weekends, but on weekdays … they’re pretty quiet,’’ said Mike Polehna, who manages Washington County parks, including campgrounds at Lake Elmo Park Reserve and St. Croix Bluffs Regional Park.
Options vary, from modern sites that have gravel paths, fire pits, picnic tables, electrical hookups and nearby showers and toilets, to primitive sites that require hikes to reach them, to comfortable camper cabins. There even are two Kampgrounds of America parks in Maple Grove and Jordan.
“Every campground and camp site is going to have its own unique characteristics,’’ said Arne Stefferud, manager of regional parks and natural resources at the Metropolitan Council. “If a camper is looking for a variety of different activities, Bunker Hills Regional Park provides you with a significant range of options, ranging from horseback riding to golfing, because they are all in that park. And if you want a more wilderness-type of experience, if you are interested in the natural environment, essentially some nice hiking opportunities and possibly the Minnesota Zoo, Lebanon Hills is right next door.’’
Here’s a quick glance at some of the more popular offerings around the metro area:
Bunker Hills Regional Park
Campers at this 1,600-acre park in Coon Rapids can ride horses, play a championship-level golf course, bike, hike or simply enjoy the scenery. There are 64 campsites, ranging from modern to rustic, with and without electricity, and one group site, which can accommodate up to 30 people. 763-862-4970
William O’Brien State Park
Set along the scenic St. Croix River north of Marine on St. Croix, the park has a variety of camping options, including more than 120 standard, rustic and remote campsites, three year-around camper cabins and one seasonal one. Campers also have terrific hiking, fishing and canoeing opportunities. 651-433-0500
Lake Elmo Park Reserve
The 2,165-acre park in Lake Elmo has two lakes and supports varied activities, such as archery, boating, fishing and mountain biking. It also has horse and bike trails and a two-acre swimming area with sand beach. The modern campground has 80 campsites. There also are five hike-in primitive campsites, 20 primitive sites at the equestrian center, and three group sites. As a park reserve, 80 percent of the acreage must remain in a wild condition and must display native landscape. 651-430-8370
Lebanon Hills Regional Park
The 2,000-acre park in Eagan and Apple Valley, which has 93 camp sites, offers miles of trails, many lakes, interactive nature displays, courses and programs, and is near the Minnesota Zoo. 651-688-1376
Baker Park Reserve
Located on the southeast edge of Lake Independence in Medina, the 2,700-acre park has more than 200 campsites, with all sorts of options, including ones with electrical hookups, ones designed for people with mobility problems, and four camper cabins featuring wooden bunk beds and screened-in porches. A long list of activities, such as swimming, biking and golf, are available. 763-694-7662
Other parks offering varied types of camping include the Rice Creek Chain of Lakes Regional Park Reserve in Lino Lakes, Afton State Park south of Afton, St. Croix Bluffs Regional Park south of Afton, Lake Byllesby Regional Park west of Cannon Falls, Baylor Regional Park north of Norwood Young America, Carver Park Reserve in Victoria, Elm Creek Park Reserve in Maple Grove and Cleary Lake Regional Park in Prior Lake.
Dennis Lien is an outdoors enthusiast and a former newspaper reporter and editor.