Camper cabins suspended off the ground like tiny treehouses have fired the imagination of Dakota County commissioners.

They envision them among the pines as an alluring draw for Dakota County's soon-to-be-developed Whitetail Woods Regional Park in Farmington.

But their jaws dropped when the cabin price tags were presented last week: $90,000 each.

"Are you crazy? These are little cabins in the woods without any plumbing!" said Commissioner Kathleen Gaylord of South St. Paul.

The 12-foot-by-16-foot cabins that have been a big hit in state parks cost about $40,000 to build. Why, commissioners wanted to know, were the ones being proposed to them so much more expensive?

The $90,000 cabins would be designed by an architect with space for up to eight people and would include a sitting room with a wood stove, said parks director Steve Sullivan.

"To me, the cost is ridiculously high," said Commissioner Liz Workman of Burnsville. She said she thought the idea was that people would be roughing it.

Reluctant to throw the idea out entirely, commissioners asked for less-expensive options.

Alternatives to be presented in January will range from "what you see in the state parks to those that have a higher service level," carrying price tags of $15,000 to $70,000, said Sullivan.

"We are looking at the popularity of camper cabins across the nation and saying how can Dakota County provide that?" Sullivan said.

Seeking a 'wow factor'

The discussion is the latest in a round of talks about what features the new regional park should have if it's going to draw people to rural Empire Township.

Commissioners have repeatedly said the park should have a "wow factor" and that the little getaways might fill that bill.

"We really like the idea," said Board Chairwoman Nancy Schouweiler. "I think it could be part of the wow factor."

The park land -- 450 acres formerly used for farming and hunting -- now lacks roads, trails, electricity, bathrooms, running water and shelter.

Construction is set to begin next year on $4.7 million in initial improvements that will include a picnic shelter, restrooms, picnic grounds, a sledding hill, eight miles of trails and an overlook at the key feature of the park: pristine Empire Lake.

These amenities are to be in place when the park opens in 2014. Camper cabins would be added later -- if the price is right.

Camper cabins are popular

Filling a niche between tents and RVs, the camper cabins typically have bunks, heat and light but not water or a bathroom.

They appeal to people who don't want to pitch a tent and prefer to have a roof over their heads. But because they have neither kitchens nor bathrooms, the camping challenges of building fires, cooking outside and walking outside to a restroom remain part of the experience.

There are now 84 cabins in state parks -- 74 with heat and electricity, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. This year the rental rate was for $45 for the nonelectric cabins and $50 for those with heat and lights.

The camper cabins are a definite draw for parks, said Courtland Nelson, DNR director of parks and trails.

They are rented so regularly that they pay for themselves in five or six years, he said.

"From about this time of year to some time in mid-spring -- except on weekends -- they don't get a lot of use. Other times of the year they are packed," he said.

The cabins draw three groups of users, Nelson said.

Some are people who have had their fill of sleeping on the ground.

Another group is people new to camping who want to give the cabins a try to see if they like the experience before they buy a lot of gear.

"It's a low-risk way to dip your toe into the overnight activities in the state park."

A third group likes to organize families and friends to rent the cabins and build memories together, Nelson said.

Laurie Blake • 952-746-3287