Cabins for a crowd
When groups travel, they divide costs and multiply benefits.
© Beth Gauper
Groups who stay in the cabins in Minnesota's Whitewater State Park also get to use a large lodge with a wood-burning fireplace and commercial kitchen.
Contrary to common wisdom, the best deals in travel aren’t too good to be true.
The key is to travel with a group. Gather 20 people, and you can bring costs way, way down. How does $6.50 per night sound?
That's what I paid when I went to Whitewater State Park with my outdoors group, the Minnesota Rovers. It was late October,
but the bluff-country park still was covered by a quilt of color: russet, burgundy, bronze.
Our heated cabins sat in a bowl, surrounded by 200-foot-high cliffs, and when we wanted to hike on 10 miles of trails, we
just walked out the door. We had our own shower house and our own lodge, with a wood-burning fireplace and a big kitchen with
The hiking was spectacular, with climbs to craggy blufftops that gave us panoramic views of fall color. Whitewater is even
more in demand in spring, when fly fishermen line its river and morel-mushroom hunters comb its hillsides, and in summer,
when campers come for relief from mosquitoes.
Stay there, and you're really in the catbird's seat. The trick is to beat out everyone else who wants to stay there.
"You have to get on the horn at 8 in the morning, and usually there are two or three people calling at the same time,'' says park manager Gary Barvels.
If we'd had a few more people, we would have paid only $5 per night. That's the per-person rate, but the minimum was $130 when we were there. In high season, from April 16 to Oct. 14, it's $360.
There are group centers in other Minnesota state parks, too. Sibley State Park, in the lakes country of Kandiyohi County, is
one of the state's most popular parks, with a sand beach on Lake Andrew, an interpretive center with daily programs, a store,
five miles of paved biking trails and an observation tower atop Mount Tom, the highest point in 50 miles.
Its group center has 11 buildings, with its own dining hall, shower building, volleyball court and gathering spot for
campfires. Some people just rent the staff quarters, which has four bedrooms and three baths, says office manager Dede
Johnson, but many spread out.
“We see a lot of family reunions,'' she says. "A lot of families have been doing this for years, and they keep
expanding and growing and growing.
"And last year, we had a wedding, and many family members just stayed. We have a big, beautiful dining area with lots of picnic tables, and they decorated it.''
Like Whitewater, competition is fierce for weekends. But last week, Johnson still had a weekend in early June available:
“I’m surprised,’’ she said.
© Beth Gauper
Two rustic cabins on Lake Michigan in Wisconsin's Point Beach State Forest sleep 14 and 16.
Lodgings in state-parks, hostels and retreat centers aren't luxurious, but they're a bargain. They also solve many of the
problems encountered when planning for a group.
Everyone can afford to stay there, and the single bunk beds suit people who aren’t related to each other. They have large commons areas where people can congregate over coffee or wine.
I'm always on the lookout for good venues. I’ve learned about some of the better places to take a group from the Rovers and the other Twin Cities outdoor club to which I belong, the North Stars Ski Touring Club.
North Star Bob O’Hara of St. Louis Park leads an annual March ski trip to the Sports Dorm at Giants Ridge near Biwabik, which has 55 kilometers of well-groomed cross-country trails as well as excellent downhill skiing.
The two-story Sports Dorm was built as an Olympic training center in 1984 and now is used by high-school and college teams and any one else who wants to rent one or all of its 24 motel-style rooms.
“We were there the second year the place was open, and for years we were the only non-racing group,’’ O’Hara said. “It works perfectly for us.’’
Both the North Stars and the Rovers take groups to the Mississippi Headwaters Hostel in Itasca State Park. The 1923 former
park headquarters has six carpeted bunk rooms, three bathrooms, a modern kitchen and a stone fireplace surrounded by leather
Groups love it because it’s cozy and the cost is so low; the Rovers charge $95 for three nights and seven meals. For more about travel with outdoors groups, see Join the club.
Generally, you need to bring bedding, cots or mattresses, towels, soap, pots, plates, eating utensils, a container in which
to carry water and anything else you need, such as a coffee maker. Guest must clean facilities before they leave. For more,
see What to bring to a rented cabin.
Below are some of the best places I’ve found to take a group.
Minnesota state parks
Whitewater State Park
in southeast bluff country has a group
center with eight heated cabins that sleep up to 132, a central bath facility and modern kitchen and dining hall, $5 per
person or a minimum of $130 from Oct. 15 to April 15 and $360 from April 16 to Oct. 14.
Groups also pay utilities. Call the park at 507-932-3007 a year in advance to reserve.
Sibley State Park near New London has a group center that sleeps 128 people. The staff building has four bedrooms and three baths and sleeps 14, and seven barracks sleeup up to 18 each.
There's a mess hall with stove, dishwasher, refrigerator and walk-in cooler, though guests must bring cooking and eating utensils. There's a shower building with flush toilets, a volleyball court, picnic tables and a grill.
Cost is $5 per person per night, with a minimum charge of $360 per night plus tax. Call 320-354-2055. Reservations can be
made up to a year in advance by phone or in person, starting at 8 a.m. If the call date falls on a weekend, reservations will
be accepted the following Monday.
Lake Carlos State Park
near Alexandria has similar lodgings, the Hidden Lake Group Center. It can sleep 60 and has a dining hall, two bunk houses, a
staff building, showers and toilets and a crafts building. Call 320-852-7200 to reserve.
St. Croix State Park near Hinckley has two large guesthouses. Guesthouse No. 1 has eight bedrooms with 14 beds and a crib. Guesthouse No. 2 has six bedrooms, with 10 beds and a crib. Guests can walk or ski straight from the two modern, split-level guesthouses and onto park trails.
© Beth Gauper
In Minnesota lakes country, Deep Portage Learning Center provides inexpensive lodgings, three meals a day and nature activities.
The living spaces are not particularly cozy, but the kitchens are amazingly well equipped, with all kinds of utensils, pots
and basic supplies left by previous occupants. Bring your own bedding, soap and towels and drinking water (there's running
water, but it tastes terrible).
The park also has two group centers. Norway Point sleeps 215 people, and Head of the Rapids sleeps 125. They're open from May
Minnesota state parks also rents a variety of other lodgings, including the Club House at Itasca State Park, which sleeps up to 21, and the
three-bedroom, two-bath guesthouse at Bear Head State Park near Ely, which sleeps up to 10
(see Ensconced in Ely).
Along with St. Croix's Norway Point guesthouses and smaller modern cabins, they can be reserved a year in advance at 866-857-2757 or www.stayatmnparks.com; reservation fee is $8.50.
In addition, Fort Ridgely State Park rents the upper floor of its chalet, which has central heat, fireplace, stove and fridge but no bunks; restrooms are on the lower level. It accommodates up to 25 people, $50. Call the park at 507-426-7840 to reserve.
Vehicle admission stickers are required at all parks, $5 daily, $25 annual. For more, see Lodgings in Minnesota state parks.
Wisconsin state parks
Wisconsin rents two rustic cabins in Point Beach State Forest, north of Two Rivers on Lake Michigan; one sleeps 14 and the other 16, $60 or $5 per person. Each has a boardwalk to a white-sand beach on Lake Michigan and has a fire pit, pump and latrine but no electricity. There's also a covered pavilion for eating.
Wisconsin also rents modern cabins. Wyalusing State Park at the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers has four buildings that each accommodate 27 people, with indoor bathrooms and a separate kitchen; $4 per person with a $200 minimum, 608-996-2261.
Black River State Forest near Black River Falls rents a two-bedroom cabin that sleeps 12, $3 per person with a $40 minimum, 715-284-4103.
They can be reserved 11 months in advance, 800-372-3607.
For accommodations in other state parks, see A roof in the woods.
Kettle Moraine State Forest-Southern Unit near Eagle, Wis. The Eagle Home Hostel is operated by Hostelling International, but it's right in state forest, three miles west of Eagle and Old World Wisconsin.
The 1890s brick farmhouse has three bedrooms with eight beds, $25 or $22 for members of Hostelling International. Guests can use the large living room, dining room and kitchen. To make a reservation, call 262-495-8794, or 262-442-6360, firstname.lastname@example.org.
It's very well located for outdoor recreation. There's hiking and snowshoeing on the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, which
adjoins the property, and the Emma Carlin mountain-biking trail is a mile away.
In state forest, there's excellent skiing. The Kettle Moraine State
Forest Lapham Peak Unit has 17 miles of trails, three of them lighted daily, and the Southern Unit has more miles on the Nordic, McMiller and Scuppernong
Environmental learning centers
© Beth Gauper
In eastern Minnesota, groups can rent rooms in the Crosby dorm of the Audubon Center of the North Woods.
Deep Portage Conservation Reserve near Hackensack, Minn.: Deep in the heart of the forest, this environmental-learning center calls
itself Minnesota’s largest outdoor classroom.
The 54,000-square-foot lodge has an indoor climbing wall, a 70-ton granite fireplace and nooks for reading and playing board games. The center has 18 kilometers of ski trails on its 6,300 acres, and there are many more within half an hour’s drive.
There’s food service for groups of 20 or more; smaller groups may be able to piggyback on larger ones. Guests stay in 27 dorm-style rooms, some disabled-accessible, that sleep six to 10 and each have a full bathroom. Bedding, pillows and towels are not provided.
Regular rate for a two-night, three-day weekend is $115 per person, including six buffet-style meals. Refrigerators are available for guests' use. The lodge will open for a non-scheduled weekend if it's reserved by a group of 20 or more.
For Family Winter Weekends, cost of $100, $90 for children 5-17 and $325 for four in one room, includes lodging, meals and gear for snowshoeing, skiing and ice-fishing. 218-682-2325. For more, see Playground in the woods.
Audubon Center of the North Woods near Sandstone, Minn.: This environmental-learning center in eastern Minnesota, three miles from
the 75-mile Willard Munger State Trail, rents its historic Schwyzer Lodge on Grindstone Lake, surrounded by old-growth red
and white pines.
The 535-acre campus has seven miles of hiking trails, canoes and ski gear and is known for bird-watching.
© Beth Gauper
The Mississippi Headwaters hostel is right on ski and bike trails in Minnesota's Itasca State Park.
The lodge sleeps 16 in four bedrooms and a back room and has three bathrooms, a modern kitchen, a fireplace and a screened-in porch. Cost is $225 weekends, $200 weekdays for four people, $15 extra for each additional person and $5 for children 6-12.
Bring bedding and towels or rent them for $5 per person. Meals can be prepared by the group or purchased for $6.50 breakfast, $8.75 lunch and $11 dinner.
Groups or individuals also can rent rooms in the newer Crosby Lodge, where rooms sleep eight and have private bathrooms, $40, or in Lowry Lodge, where baths are shared. Neither lodge has a kitchen. 888-404-7743.
Mackenzie Environmental Learning Center near Poynette, Wis. This center between Wisconsin Dells and Madison is operated by the Wisconsin
Wildlife Federation in partnership with the Wisconsin DNR and Friends of the Mackenzie Center.
It has five nature trails, an arboretum, an observation tower, a logging exhibit with sawmill, a maple-sugar shack and three
environmental museums. Public events, such as Haunted Hay Rides in late October, are held frequently.
Groups can stay in two dorms, which sleep 80, and use the lodge with commercial kitchen. Cost is $15 per person, with a minimum of $200 per night, plus a $20 reservation fee. 608-635-8100.
Hunt Hill Audubon Sanctuary near Spooner, Wis. This northwest Wisconsin wildlife preserve and learning center is just north of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail and includes glacial lakes, bogs and old-growth forest.
Its 1930s Log Cabin sleeps four to six and can be
rented year-round. The 1917 Andrews Cabin sleeps five to seven and is open May through September. There are two dorms, one
with 17 rooms in four wings and one with six beds and a central living space.
Guests bring their own bedding and use a shower house. In summer, groups of 12 or more can request meals for a base rate of $22 per person per day. The whole place sleeps 85 and rents for $700 per night. 715-635-6543.
Other non-profit centers
Mississippi Headwaters Hostel in Itasca State Park: This comfortable northern Minnesota hostel occupies the former park headquarters just off Lake Itasca, across from the canoe landing and sports rental.
In winter, skiers can ski from the hostel right onto a groomed trail, and ice fishermen can walk to the lake. It has six bedrooms with 31 beds, five common rooms and a large, well-designed kitchen.
© Beth Gauper
The guesthouse in Bear Head Lake State Park near Ely is a modern split-level.
Rental of the entire hostel is $630, $600 for non-profit groups. The 18-bed South Wing is $380-$350. Four-bed rooms are $80, the five-bed room is $100 and six-bed rooms are $130.
It's open weekends only from fall to spring. Bring bedding and towels. Call 218-266-3415. For more, see Itasca in winter.
Center in Sturgeon Lake, Minn. This large center on Sturgeon Lake, 45 miles south
of Duluth, is part of the Duluth Area Family YMCA's Camp Miller.
Established in 1898, it includes 340 acres of forest and lakeshore and sleeps 200 in four lodges and eight cabins, some with
stone fireplaces. Meals are provided.
there's also a yurt and canvas tents. The center has seven miles of groomed cross-country ski trails, an ice rink, ice houses
for rent, sails for skate sailing and a sauna. There's a climbing tower and high ropes course.
Camp Onomia Retreat Center near Onamia, Minn.: Family groups on a budget hardly could do better than a weekend at Camp Onomia, a retreat center with an indoor pool and two saunas that's four miles south of Mille Lacs-Kathio State Park.
It caters to groups but often has rooms available for individuals on weekends; each of 28 rooms has six beds and a private bath. Call 320-532-3767.
YMCA Camp du Nord near Ely, Minn.: It's a family camp in summer, but in other seasons, the YMCA rents out its cabins. There are 27 cabins in three villages, sleeping up to 187. Many of the cabins have been built since 2000; 21 cabins, sleeping 157, are heated, and some have gas fireplaces.
The camp offers special weekends just for women, couples and families, with programs and meal service, and groups also can come then. The camp also offers meal service when groups of 20 or more reserve. Call 612-465-0490.
College residence halls: In summer, many universities and colleges offer budget lodgings in apartments and
townhouses. And Madison and Chicago have hostels where groups can stay and cook inexpensively.
For more, see Cheap stays.
Cooper Living & Learning Center near Platteville, Wis. This retreat center on the University of Wisconsin-Platteville's Pioneer
Farm can sleep 40 in six suites, each with two bedrooms and a bath. Eight of the bedrooms sleep four in bunk beds and four
have two single beds. Linens are provided.
There's a large furnished kitchen in which guests can prepare meals and areas for volleyball and campfires. Linens are
provided. A group of 20 or more can request meals. Call 608-342-1296.
It's seven miles east of Platteville. This is an excellent location for visiting Mineral Point, 15 minutes to the northeast, or Galena, half an hour south.Camp Sturtevant in Wausau, Wis.: This Woodson YMCA camp can be rented by groups year-round. It's especially popular in winter because it's so close to alpine skiing at Granite Peak and cross-country skiing at Nine Mile Forest.
Its Riverside Lodge has bunk-bed accommodations for 60 in two wings separated by a fireplace room. A shower house is just
outside the door.
Groups in Riverside Lodge can use the kitchen and heated bathrooms in the Family Lodge. It also can be rented for overnight use, but accommodations are on the floor. Reserve a year in advance for ski season and early summer at 715-849-2267.
William M. Black dredge boat in Dubuque, Iowa: At the National Mississippi River Museum in Dubuque, Iowa, the 1934 steam-powered boat has 55 bunks with shared bathrooms; the four-bunk Itasca State Room has a private bath.
Rates include admission to the museum and breakfast in its Depot Cafe. It's open April through October. 800-226-3369, Ext.
Ruttger’s Birchmont Lodge cabins, Bemidji, Minn.: This resort on Lake Bemidji is a good and inexpensive place for groups in
winter. Along the lake, comfortable four-bedroom cabins have seven beds and kitchens; guests can use the very nice pool,
sauna and whirlpool complex.
Downtown Bemidji is nearby and has nightlife and good restaurants; Lake Bemidji State Park is just around the lake and has ski trails. There’s also excellent cross-country skiing at Three Island County Park, Movil Maze and Hobson Memorial Forest, and downhill skiing at Buena Vista Ski Area.
Two-, three-and four-bedroom villas at Ruttger’s are $163-$209 on weekends, and the manager gives 10 percent discounts to previous guests and AAA members. Call 888-788-8437.
Giants Ridge Sports Dorm, Biwabik, Minn.: Near the bottom of the ski hill, next to the lodge and cross-country trails, the Sports Dorm has 24 motel rooms, each with two bunk beds and a private bath; linens and towels are provided. There’s a meeting room and lobby, each with TV, and a common kitchen.
Cost is $65 for up to four people, and guests get $2 off the $12 trail fee. However, most groups rebook from year to year, so it can be hard to find space.
In summer and fall, there's golfing right at Giants Ridge and bicycling on the Mesabi Trail. Lake Vermillion and Ely are nearby. Then, the cost of a room is $55.
Heartwood Conference Center & Resort
(formerly the Schwan Center), Minong, Wis.: This attractive conference center, about
40 minutes west of Hayward, rents rooms to individuals as well as groups in hotel rooms, cottages and duplexes.
Ten Pine Village duplexes sleep up to 14 each and have kitchens and fireplaces. Meals are available for groups, and guests
can ski out their door on 20 kilometers of trails.
Kawishiwi Bunkhouse near Ely, Minn.: Kawishiwi Lodge and Outfitters is 22 miles east of Ely on Lake One, an entry point into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
In addition to housekeeping cabins that are rented by the week in summer, the resort has two bunkhouses, each with full kitchen and bath and one with screened porch, where beds go for $20 per person, with a $60 minimum.
One bunkhouse sleeps nine and one sleeps eight, and each is rented to only one party at a time. 218-365-5487.
Many local and regional web sites list rental cabins and cottages that can sleep groups of 10 to 12, and there are many nationwide house rental companies, including Vacation Rentals by Owner, CyberRentals and HomeAway.
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