The last signs of winter in Minnesota are melting away, so it seems a reasonable time to start planning summer camping trips around the state. Reasonable, maybe. But not as practical as you may think.
In fact, one might have an easier time scoring tickets to the Adele concert in July at the Xcel Energy Center than finding weekend camping reservations at the most popular state parks for the 2016 vacation season. Many of the most-coveted spots have been booked (some for every weekend through late October), and sites for the peak period of mid-June to mid-August are moving fast in even some of the more overlooked parks.
If you haven’t figure it out yet, Minnesotans are an organized bunch regarding outdoor activities. They take full advantage of the ability to book camp sites up to a year in advance through the state Department of Natural Resources, which runs the park system and its 5,000 camp sites. While you were busy washing your car or mowing the lawn last summer, camp sites were getting snapped up.
However, not all is lost for those who like to be a little bit spontaneous. There are ways to make sure you can find a place to roll out your sleeping bag on a warm summer evening.
First, get to know the DNR’s state parks reservations website. It has advice and instructions, and you can check camp site availability (from systemwide by date to a specific site in a specific park) and make reservations.
While the most sought-after sites may be gone for peak dates, there still are plenty of spots available throughout the summer. Too, the DNR announced Friday that it will make all state park camp sites reservable online. Previously, about one-third of sites were held for campers on a first-come, first-served basis. The sooner you can book, the better — and if you’re able to be flexible with locations and/or dates, you’ll have a lot more choices.
The state park campgrounds are largely a “weekend system,” said Patricia Arndt, communications and outreach manager in the DNR’s parks and trails division. That means if you can book Sunday through Thursday nights, you’ll have a much better chance of finding what you want.
Arndt also said that it's easier to find a good spot during the first two weeks of June and the last two weeks of August than times in between, owing to families with school obligations.
Also, there is a clear pecking order when it comes to parks. Those on the North Shore are definitely in demand. In fact, five state parks among those with the highest camp site occupancy rates are there: Cascade River, Gooseberry Falls, Split Rock Lighthouse, Temperance River and Tettegouche. (Jay Cooke, just south of Duluth, is also up there.) To illustrate, Temperance had a nearly 87 percent occupancy rate from mid-June to mid-August last year, Tettegouche just more than 86 percent.
The next most-popular locations are parks within about a 2 ½-hour drive of the metro area, Arndt said. “If you’re in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, and you’re willing to drive a little bit, there are some real gems out there that don’t fill up so quickly,” she said. The least-occupied parks in the state are Schoolcraft, Franz Jevne, Kilen Woods, Fort Ridgely and Upper Sioux.
A willingness to camp a distance from your vehicle (carrying your gear to your site by hand) also opens up more possibilities. For example, George H. Crosby Manitou is one of the seven state parks on the North Shore but has few reservations for the summer because its sites are for backpacking only. (As of this writing, just four of its 22 sites are booked for the Fourth of July weekend.) In exchange for a little work and maybe inconvenience, you can experience one of the most beautiful and quiet parks in the state.
Although a number of other parks offer a handful of backpacking sites, Lake Maria and Afton are the only state parks besides Crosby Manitou that have camp sites that require backpacking in (although they also have lodging facilities), but their proximity to the Twin Cities make them popular. A few parks provide carts to use for hauling gear to remote camp sites. They include Split Rock Lighthouse, which is almost always full during the summer, and Glendalough (near Battle Lake), which is less busy.
Showing up unannounced
Up to a one-third of state park camp sites are held back for campers who show up announced, but that system is changing. The DNR announced plans Friday to make sites at state parks and recreation areas 100 percent reservable online. The changes to the system will be phased in beginning in early May, said Erika Rivers, parks and trails division director. Too, the DNR is tweaking same-day reservations. Previously, the cut-off for making reservations was midnight the night before arrival. Walk-ins will be able to reserve a site online or reserve at the park the same day.
In addition, state parks are not the only camping option in Minnesota. If you head out at the last minute and can’t find a spot in a state park, there are about 49 state forest campgrounds, including several on the North Shore. Some of them are a stone’s throw from Tettegouche. They are considered rustic. Campers will find a cleared area with a fire ring and table but no amenities such as showers or flush toilets. These campgrounds don’t take reservations, but rather rent on a first-come, first-served basis. Many of them are rarely full.
Private campgrounds also are an option. Find a list through the DNR. Each state park’s home page has a “places to stay” tab that shows private campgrounds in the area.
And a final tip? If the sites you want are booked at a state park, it can pay to check back periodically to see if a spot has opened. In 2010, someone scored the camp site closest to Split Rock Lighthouse on an epic night, when the beacon was lighted to commemorate its 100th anniversary. The site was booked the day before the event — because someone canceled at the last minute.
Jeff Moravec is a Minneapolis writer and photographer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.