For nearly five years, the stars of Whitetail Woods Regional Park in Dakota County have been three sleek camper cabins that offer treehouse-like views of the woods. The structures have been highly popular with park visitors and took home two prestigious architectural awards in 2016.

When Dakota County officials began discussing plans for phase two of Whitetail Woods, they wanted to build more of the cedar-clad cabins, but several commissioners balked at the $185,000 price tag to replicate one of them, electing to look at more affordable options.

"Our challenge was to build as good of camper cabins, but to build them for less," said Steve Sullivan, Dakota County parks director.

On March 19, the County Board approved the schematic design for a second round of improvements at Whitetail Woods. The $4.2 million plan boasts a warming house, additions to a kids' natural play area and more than 5 new miles of trails, including a boardwalk crossing Empire Lake. It also calls for two new prairie-style cabins that Sullivan said he believes will be as popular the earlier models.

The low-slung, architecturally designed structures are less costly at $105,000 each and better suited to their location than the other style would have been, Sullivan said.

The about-face shows that "our board's interest is always watching the public nickel," he said. "These two are going to be sitting on top of a ridgeline overlooking a prairie and the Vermillion River Valley."

The 227-square-foot, treehouse-style cabins were costly because of their high-end materials and expensive foundations. The County Board lowered the price by hiring a consultant to explore construction methods typically used for affordable housing, such as modular design and prefabrication, Sullivan said.

Instead of the clear tongue-and-groove pine used in the other cabins, for instance, these quarters will use surfaced plywood, he said. But they will still sleep six people and feature walls of glass and outdoor porches. Their interiors are 53 square feet larger.

Officials considered building four cabins but decided two were sufficient, said Dakota County Commissioner Tom Egan. "This [option] was spacious … and we felt it would fit in well with the other cabins."

A boardwalk and 'bird's nest'

The County Board approved phase one of Whitetail Woods' master plan in 2012. The 456-acre park north of Farmington debuted in fall 2014 as the county's first new regional park in nearly 30 years.

A second phase of development was planned from the start. This phase will cost about $4.2 million, with $1.1 million coming from Parks and Trails Legacy Funds, $1.3 million from Metropolitan Council regional park bonding and $1.9 million from Dakota County.

Parks are built in stages, Sullivan said, for economic reasons and so they can meet the public's recreational needs as they change over time.

The expanded trail network will be a highlight, Sullivan said, giving Minnesotans a chance to walk around the lakes year-round. The new mileage includes extensions to hiking, snowshoeing, skiing and walking trails.

Egan said he's excited for the 800-foot boardwalk, parts of which span Empire Lake. And the additions to Fawn Crossing nature play area are important, he said.

Fawn Crossing upgrades include a group swing, a handicapped-accessible fort-building area and a birds' nest — a raised wooden platform with netting so kids feel like they're up in the canopy. The playground lets kids get immersed in the outdoors, Sullivan said.

A simple warming house with garage doors on each end will provide heated shelter in the winter and an escape from sun or rain in the summer, Sullivan said.

Egan noted that some changes will likely be made to plans in the coming months. The improvements are slated for completion in June 2020.

"We want to make sure that this park is one of the gems in the Dakota County Regional Park system," Egan said.