Just ahead of the Memorial Day holiday weekend that often feels like the start of summer for lovers of Minnesota’s outdoors, two of the state’s premier camping destinations are once again allowing overnight visitors.
The U.S. Forest Service announced Friday that the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) and Voyageurs National Park will allow overnight trips starting Monday. The move follows an order from Gov. Tim Walz that, among other recreational activity, allows single households to camp at remote and dispersed sites.
A Forest Service spokeswoman said the agency’s policy toward camping arrangements in the BWCA “aligns” with the governor’s single-household directive. “[Campers] should refer to the governor’s orders,” Suzanne Hirsch said.
In his executive order Wednesday, Walz also extended the closure of state park and recreation area campgrounds across Minnesota through May 31. Dispersed camping, however, is allowed in state forests.
Superior and Chippewa national forests also are permitting overnight camping at spread-out sites, though Forest Service campgrounds and bathrooms will remain closed until further notice.
“We are happy to be fully allowing visitors into the BWCA,” Connie Cummins, Superior National Forest supervisor, said in a release. “We ask that visitors please continue to follow local, state and federal guidelines on staying safe and practice good hygiene and social distancing wherever they choose to visit.”
The BWCA and Voyageurs closed at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and reopened for day use earlier this month. Voyageurs will also open its houseboat mooring sites.
Walz’s “Stay Safe Minnesota” measure issued Wednesday does not allow residents to return to developed campgrounds, nor does it allow folks to camp with friends in other dwellings.
“If we were to open and see activities that present a management issue that puts safety in jeopardy, we would consider our operational stance and implement closures to mitigate for that risk,” said Bob DeGross, Voyageurs’ superintendent.
Those with overnight camping reservations ahead of Monday at either park will receive full refunds.
Though it’s still early in the camping season, the pandemic has already taken a toll on businesses that rely on tourism in Minnesota’s northern wilderness. John O’Kane, owner of Voyageur North Outfitters in Ely for 39 years, said about 70 of his 500 summer reservations have been canceled.
“And we only have about four months to make money,” he said.
Walz’s new order has given O’Kane some relief — he has been able to shift some reservations from early May to Memorial Day weekend. He’s sanitizing even more than usual and installed plexiglass around the cash register.
“I go down to the town of Virginia to pick up something, and there’s 500 people in Menards, but I can’t have one person out in the woods. It’s been kind of weird,” O’Kane said. “But we’re open now, and it’s a good thing.”