It's a common dilemma: Summer's almost over. Vacation hasn't happened. The budget's tight.
Time to cue a campground and get into the great outdoors.
It's easy to load the van and head north, but as we've found out the hard way (more than once), finding a campsite along the perennially popular North Shore isn't always easy. Even with eight state parks, you can get skunked on campsites. Our silver lining: We discovered the wealth of National Forest campgrounds.
That's traditionally how most people find favorite campsites: stumbling onto them in person, seeing firsthand how they're tucked into a woods, whether it's private and cozy or what the view might be.
Minnesota State Parks have been taking some of the mystery out of the campsite selection process since last year, when a new online reservation system was launched. It allows you to see photos of most campsites and a window of when they might be available (1-866-857-2757; dnr.state.mn.us).
You have to decide on trade-offs: how close you want to be to a restroom, drinking water, a lake or woods. At Upper Sioux Agency State Park, for example, the newer painted tepee sits beneath an oak tree, which keeps it cooler. The two others in an open area get hotter, but have fewer bugs at night.
If you don't own a tent, you also can try the new canvas tent on a wooden platform at Myre-Big Island State Park, near Albert Lea. Like the tepees, it rents for $30-$35 per night. Rustic camper cabins throughout the state run about $50 per night.
If you have a tent or trailer and are more willing to rough it — meaning no flush toilets or showers — you can generally score more remote, spacious campsites. Consider cart-in, walk-in or boat-in sites, too, for more seclusion and often less competition for a spot.
In general, you'll find more openings by traveling during weekdays or making reservations at least two weeks in advance. If you can only go last-minute, look for parks that reserve a selection of first-come, first-served sites and plan to hit the road early.
Here are some other tips for finding great campsites.
Be willing to wing it, rough it: When we were shut out of campsites along the North Shore, we found a good map and headed inland to Superior National Forest campgrounds. We chose a serene, roomy campsite overlooking Ninemile Lake. While we were happy to get into Judge C.R. Magney State Park within two days — welcome timing for showers and flush toilets — we missed the setting of the forestry campground (1-218-663-8060; fs.usda.gov).
Keep driving north: Chippewa National Forest runs three campgrounds along the Cass Lake shore at Norway Beach Recreation Area. The forest feels similar to Itasca State Park (47 miles southwest of Cass Lake) with towering, fragrant pines, but it has roomier sites and some choice spots near the water. Other amenities: a vintage log lodge as headquarters, summertime naturalist programs, a huge beach and picnic area, bike trails that lead to town and modern restrooms and showers.
Watch for bald eagles, and head to shore each night for spectacular sunsets. If you have a boat, you can reach one of the state's rarities — a lake within a lake. Lake Windigo sits in the middle of Cass Lake's Star Island (1-218-335-8600; fs.usda.gov).
Check for private campgrounds: If you crave the recreation of a big resort but can't afford the room rates, private campgrounds can be a budget-friendly alternative. Old Barn Resort has more than 170 campsites nestled into a tiered valley of southeastern Minnesota. It's ideal for staying put, with an 18-hole on-site golf course, pool, restaurant, access to the Root River State Trail for biking five miles into Lanesboro or Preston, and kayak, tube and canoe rentals for getting on the river (1-507-467-2512; www.barnresort.com).
A bonus: It's only 20 miles from Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park, where you can see living history characters in a Minnesota ghost town and escape hot days with cool underground tours.
Another unique campground is northern Minnesota's Camper's Paradise by Nevis. The 80 sites are spread across a 55-acre island (reachable by a one-way causeway) with a beach and lake toys, playground, ball field, games and fishing (1-612-799-6329; campersparadise-mn.com).
Don't forget neighboring states: We tend to tune into our own state more, and may miss gems right across the border. Case in point: South Dakota's Palisades State Park, 22 miles from Luverne, Minn, and 28 miles from Pipestone National Monument.
You can rent camper cabins with decks overlooking Split Rock Creek and its pink quartzite walls or grab a campsite nearby. It's a surprisingly scenic hike along either side of the water to Chimney Rock or the towering King and Queen Rocks, which beg to be climbed (1-605-594-3824; www.campsd.com).