Less popular Minnesota parks worth a visit

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Forestville State Park near Lanesboro, Minn.

Photo: Chris Welsch, Star Tribune file

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Minnesotans are turning into a bunch of happy campers, it seems. Campsites and cabins at state parks are booking up fast for the summer. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources expects more visitors this year than last, said Amy Barrett, a DNR public information officer. "We anticipate that because of the economy, people are more likely to look for more affordable things like camping in a state park."

That means competition for campsites at the most popular parks may be fierce. The DNR reports that only 15 percent of electrical campsites and only 5 percent of camper cabins remain available for the Memorial Day weekend. That's no need for worry, though. Half of the state parks' campsites are still available for the holiday weekend, and most parks hold 30 percent of their sites open for walk-up reservations (though savvy campers snap up the best spots on Thursdays for the weekend). Fortunately, Minnesota has 72 state parks. Choose one of these less-popular of the gems, and you'll get in easily -- and have a great time.

Afton

One canoe campsite, 28 backpacking campsites and 20 miles of hiking trails make this a nature lover's dream. So does the varied landscape, which includes remnant and restored prairies, deep ravines, grassy ridge tops and bluffs overlooking the scenic St. Croix River and a sandy beach that requires a short hike to reach. New this year will be four camper cabins (not yet available for reserving, but should be by Memorial Day) and an orienteering course, which launches May 2.

Details: Between Afton and Hastings, east of St. Paul; 651-436-5391.

Bear Head Lake

"It's like going to the Boundary Waters without the portages," Barrett says of this far northern park. Trout and walleye thrive in the pristine 674-acre lake and deer, moose and bear wander the surrounding forest. There are hiking trails, and canoes, kayaks and fish boats for rent, but the best place to watch an eagle soar overhead and otherwise catch the scenery may be the beautiful sandy beach.

Details: Southwest of Ely; 1-218-365-7229.

Forestville/Mystery Cave

This park boasts unique destinations: an equestrian campground, the ghost town of Forestville and Minnesota's longest cave complex, which underlies the bluffs. Family-pleasing one-hour cave tours offer visions of stalactites, stalagmites and underground pools; two- and four-hour versions require more stamina (costs ranges from $6 for the one-hour tour for ages 5 to 12 to $55 for the four-hour adventure; contact the park for tour times). The handful of buildings in Forestville, a rural trading center that dates to the mid-1800s, includes a store filled with historic merchandise.

Details: West of Preston; main park, 1-507-352-5111; Mystery Cave 1-507-937-3251.

Lac qui Parle

The name means "lake that speaks," a reference to the bird songs that ring in the air there. The park on Lac qui Parle, a lake formed by a broadening of the Minnesota River, lies on a major migration path for a variety of birds -- most notably, Canada geese -- that wing and honk through the park in spring and autumn. Walleye and northerns populate the lake, a boon to anglers. A sandy beach draws swimmers of the human variety. Good to know: The upper campground is on a hill sloping toward the east side of the lake, which makes views of the sunset spectacular.

Details: In Watson, northwest of Montevideo; 1-320-734-4450.

A favorite with no camping: Hill Annex Mine

At this park, visitors can dig for fossilized shark's teeth, clam shells and other signs of marine life. And, yes, it is in Minnesota. Geologists believe the remains come from a sea that covered the area 86 million years ago. Fossil hunters get to keep what they find. On 90-minute bus tours of the mine, visitors hear about the history as they pass large-scale machines that were used when the mines were active. Fossil tours take place Wednesdays through Saturdays from 10 to 11:30 a.m. May 20 through Sept. 5. Mine tours take place those same days at 12:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. The fee for each is $10 for adults, $6 for ages 5 to 12, free for ages 4 and under.

Details: In Calumet, between Grand Rapids and Hibbing; 1-218-247-7215.

Kerri Westenberg • 612-673-4282

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  • Lac qui Parle

  • STAYING AT A STATE PARK

    Camping fees vary by park and range from $12 per night for a rustic campsite to $50 for a camper cabin with electricity. The DNR added 25 camper cabins last year throughout the system; eight more are coming this year. Reservations are accepted 365 days in advance; last summer, you could reserve only 90 days in advance. To book, call 1-866-857-2757 or go to www.stayatmnparks.com. Annual passes to Minnesota state parks and recreation areas cost $25 and are valid for one year from the month of purchase. Visitors can also pay $5 per day. (A Friday to Sunday stay would cost $10 because the daily pass covers a 24-hour period.) Annual permits can be purchased at state parks, the DNR License Center at 500 Lafayette Rd. in St. Paul, REI metro locations or by calling the DNR at 1-888-646-6367. For more information on all the parks, go to www.mnstateparks.info.

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