Any Minnesota camper worth the down in their sleeping bag isn’t concerned about booking a state park campsite for this summer — they’re already making reservations for 2019.
Yes, Minnesotans are a planful bunch; if the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) allows them to nail down a tent pad a year in advance, they’ll take full advantage of the opportunity.
But where does that leave campers who can’t plan so far ahead? Or who just like to do things at the last minute?
Until two years ago, as a nod to Minnesotans with unforeseeable schedules, the DNR designated about 30 percent of its 5,000 campsites as first-come, first-served, available for booking only upon arrival at a park, with no same-day reservations allowed by phone or online for any sites. Since 2016, however, all state park campsites can be reserved ahead of time, even on the day of arrival.
It’s a change that helped increase state park campsite reservations by 6.1 percent in 2016, said Patricia Arndt, manager of visitor services and outreach for the DNR’s parks and trails division. And there was a 4.1 percent jump in campsite use from 2016 to 2017.
It has also meant that campsites at the most popular state parks in Minnesota — such as several along the North Shore — are often fully booked far in advance, drawing a variety of reactions in a random survey of Minnesota campers.
“I don’t have a normal 9-to-5 job and last-minute trips are 75 percent of our camping,” said Karl Lamb of Hector, Minn., who camped 29 nights with his family in 2017. “I understand the state can generate more revenue this way because the system ensures that all sites are booked, or at least paid for, on the weekends. But that leaves a lot of us out of luck when it comes to getting into campsites.”
“One of the special things I enjoy as a senior is being able to be more spontaneous after decades of having to plan camping months in advance,” added Jane Onorati of Minneapolis. “After I retired, I started exploring Minnesota parks I didn’t have the time to visit when I was working. I could typically grab a nonreservable site during the week and stay through the weekend if I desired. I can’t do that anymore.”
However, Arndt said there was a problem with the old system — the demand for those last-minute sites was higher than the supply.
“Just because there were ‘first-come first-served’ sites didn’t mean you were going to get one of them,” Arndt said. “People might call Tettegouche [State Park] from the Twin Cities on Friday morning, and they’d have three sites open, but by time they packed up the car and drove up there, those sites were filled. We had a lot of disappointed people.”
The result, Arndt said, was that some people just ended up staying home. “We were hearing from people, parents especially, that they weren’t willing to pack up the car and go to a park without knowing they had a campsite when they arrived,” she said.
That was an issue, Arndt said, for an agency that was “really working hard to connect more young families with the outdoors.”
So after a test at 17 state parks in 2014 and 2015, the system was changed, with a goal of providing campers “peace of mind” that they would have a place to stay when they showed up at a park, she said.
And while it may seem counterintuitive, the arrangement also is meant to encourage spontaneity — not inhibit it.
“Instead of going to Tettegouche and hoping for a spot, you’ll know if one is open or not,” Arndt said. “If it’s full, instead of staying home, you can search for open sites at a different place, and maybe you go over and try Scenic State Park or some other place nearby,” she said. “People tend to go with what’s familiar, we all do it, but trying new locations can be exciting. It gives people the opportunity to try different things and explore new areas.”
To encourage last-minute reservations, the DNR eliminated the normal reservation fee ($7 online or $10 by phone) for bookings made on the day of the stay. It also increased the promotion of campgrounds in state forests for those who want to stay in the same area of a state park that is full but are willing to gamble a bit. Campsites in state forests cannot be reserved in advance, and largely because they don’t offer all the amenities of a state park, they’re less likely to be full.
Inspiring discovery for some
Lisa Kapsner-Swift is a camper from Fridley who likes the new system.
“I think it encourages folks to visit some of the state’s lesser-known gems,” she said. “Discovering that a popular park is fully booked is an awesome excuse to decide to head somewhere else.”
“Any chance we get to travel out into different natural areas and biomes is really fun for my family,” she said. “It’s become a bit of a game for us, to see all these different places, and I don’t know that we would have been so inspired if it were easier to get sites on the North Shore.”
Added Kayla Berg of Crystal: “I’d say 99 percent of my trips are planned the night before, so I find it much easier to plan a last-minute trip now instead of hoping that sites would be available. I’m generally a more flexible camper and am more willing to just camp where I can find a spot if need be.”
On the other hand, the new system does pose some challenges for one particular group of users — backpackers on the Superior Hiking Trail. Many of them take a break from staying on the trail to camp at the eight state parks on the North Shore that are on or near Lake Superior. Because those hikers don’t always know their itinerary far enough in advance to make a reservation, they may hike into a park only to find it full. And, with cell phone coverage spotty along the trail, they aren’t always able to check for openings or make reservations while hiking.
Being able to hike into a state park to avoid bad conditions on the trail “saved my life,” said Liz Imberi of Brainerd: “I have had two hikes that didn’t go as planned due to weather, and [getting a state park campsite] meant the difference between hypothermia from a cold, unexpected rain and life that came in the form of a hot shower and a warm campfire to sit next to.”
But all is not lost under the new system for hikers such as Imberi, as well as other visitors who arrive at a state park by nonmotorized means, including bicyclists and paddlers.
“We recognize that such travelers are susceptible to conditions that impact travel time and make it difficult to schedule daily stopping locations,” said Amy Barrett, DNR parks and trail division information officer. “So park managers have the authority and are encouraged [when a campground is full] to allow emergency overnight camping, for one night.”
Barrett said the DNR defines an emergency accommodation “as a situation where personal exhaustion, injury, or equipment breakdown prevent further travel or when alternate accommodations cannot be readily obtained.”
When camping is allowed in that situation, Barrett said, the nightly fee will be determined by the park office based on features available at the designated campsite. She said the site may not provide standard amenities such as picnic tables or fire rings, and access to water and restrooms also may not be in an ideal location.
Despite the DNR’s efforts to improve the system, with more than 1.1 million overnight visits to the state parks each year, it’s a tough job to keep every camper happy. Arndt said the DNR welcomes comments on the process. Direct them in an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jeff Moravec is a freelance writer and photographer from Minneapolis. Reach him at email@example.com.