Resting on 14-foot concrete stilts, the camper cabins at Whitetail Woods Regional Park let visitors peer through a wall of windows into a forest of towering pines. From their perch in the treehouse-like cabins, park-goers might spy deer, wild turkeys, even a coyote.
The rentable cabins are one of many features at Whitetail Woods, a 456-acre area north of Farmington that was unveiled at a grand opening celebration Saturday.
The regional park, with its woods, wetlands, prairie and lake, is Dakota County's first new offering in nearly 30 years.
The long gap is partly due to a lack of available land, said Josh Kinney, senior project manager for Dakota County's capital projects division.
"Very few new regional parks are created [today]," said Al Singer, Dakota County's land conservation manager. "A lot of that was established in the '70s, '80s and '90s."
Officials are hoping the park, with features such as a sledding hill, an earthen amphitheater and a kids' nature play area, will entice residents to stay close to home rather than heading elsewhere to play.
Though Dakota County has four other regional parks, many residents still flock to Minneapolis or St. Paul mainstays like Como Park Zoo and Conservatory or the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes for recreation.
According to Metropolitan Council data, Dakota County residents make 1.7 million visits to regional parks outside the county, leaving for other parks more than 70 percent of the time, a higher percentage than residents of any other metro-area county.
Dakota County Commissioner Mike Slavik said the county's parks host more than a million visitors a year, but officials would like to see more use.
Opening Whitetail Woods and including appealing amenities are "part of some aggressive goals to have more people use our parks system who live in the county," he said. "And also to have people from other counties come to our parks, instead of the other way around."
And the park is unusual. Kinney said he knows of no other new parks in the state, and possibly the country, that were built from scratch — and all at once.
Instead, the vast majority of parks are created over time, with land purchased first and amenities added gradually, he said.
These days, in order for a new regional park to be created, there has to be a specific reason to do it, Singer said.
In Dakota County, with a population of 400,000 and more than 130,000 expected to move in over the next 15 years, that reason is geographic.
More than a decade ago, the Metropolitan Council saw that existing regional parks were clustered around the county's perimeter, leaving a void in the center, said Arne Stefferud, the council's manager of regional parks and natural resources.
Whitetail Woods fills a gap for residents in growing cities like Rosemount, Farmington and Lakeville.
The park's land, previously used for farming and hunting, was purchased for about $12 million in 2008 from a single family. It was originally part of a larger 810-acre parcel, Stefferud said.
About 360 acres of the property is now part of the Vermillion Highlands, adjacent to the park. To the north is the University of Minnesota's UMore Park, an educational and research area that will eventually house 20,000 to 30,000 people.
It was unusual to find such a large piece of land under single ownership. Dealing with one owner made things easier, Singer said.
The family has an interest in conservation and "is really pleased that this land could be forever protected," Singer added.
While urban parks offer an active, hip setting, colorful playgrounds and even pavilions with restaurants, Kinney said that Dakota County parks take a different approach, evidenced by their slogan "Forever Wild."
"We focus on more of a nature experience," he said. "It's kind of a different take on recreation."
That's where features like the camper cabins and nature play area, with its stumps, rocks and water pump, come in. Both are firsts at Dakota County regional parks.
"With children spending more and more time indoors rather than outdoors, we need to provide more close-to-home opportunities for children to connect to nature," said Steve Sullivan, Dakota County's parks director.
The county put $4.3 million over the past two years into Whitetail Woods' trails, architecture and site work, getting the place ready for visitors, Kinney said.
Other features include 10 miles of trails, a 53-foot sledding hill that will be lighted at night and a picnic shelter for 100, with an outdoor fire pit and kitchen.
There's also Empire Lake, which Kinney described as "majestic."
But the work isn't done. Future additions include more camper cabins — up to 28 total, split up into pods. The cabins rent for $68 a night.
A dog park and a disc golf course are planned for another phase.
"All of the materials are sustainable, and all of the fixtures are LED," Kinney said. "Everything is geared toward low-impact, ecological stewardship."
Stefferud thinks the cabins, new hiking trails and convenient location will make the park a popular place.
"Any time you can open a new park, it's a great thing," he said.