A roof in the woods
In state parks, visitors love their camper cabins.
© Beth Gauper
Camper cabins in South Dakota's Fort Sisseton State Park, near the Minnesota border, share a dining cabin/kitchen.
For people who love the outdoors, luxury is in the eye of the beholder.
Is it a Jacuzzi or a latrine? A four-course breakfast or a fire ring?
The answer is not so obvious. If the choice also includes starry skies, silence and snow-laden pines, many folks would take a camper cabin over a fancy inn, even if they have to use vault toilets and cook over a fire.
Minnesota's 83 camper cabins in 26 state parks are so popular many people reserve them as soon as reservations open, a year in advance.
The 12- by 16-foot log cabins have bunk beds, a table and chairs, and many have screened porches, electricity and heat. There's always water, and in summer, guests can use campground shower facilities.
In winter, campers have to stay a little grubbier, but miles of skiing and snowshoeing trails outside their doors make up for it.
One January, my husband and I stayed in the most popular camper cabin of all. The cabins themselves are equally cute, but
some parks are more scenic than others.
Of those, Jay Cooke, straddling the St. Louis River near Duluth, has to be near the top of the heap.
Long ago, underground heat and pressure fused mud and sand into rock and heaved it into the park, creating a Cubist landscape of tilted slabs, house-sized boulders and sharp ledges that make the root-beer-tinted river froth and bubble through a series of Class V rapids.
When we were there, new snow had coated every branch and flocked every bough in the park, creating a classic winter
The park staff had left a bundle of wood on our porch, and we built a fire and stared into it for hours, watching sparks jump high into the sky to meet the stray flakes drifting down.
Carefully stacking our slabs, we were as entertained as children playing with Legos, until our toys ran out. Then, we climbed into our sleeping bags and read as trains whistled from the rail line that still follows the park's borders.
In the morning, we hiked along the river on the Carlton Trail, under snowy canopies of aspen and up hills where birch popped out against blue sky. Human tracks disappeared at the Summer Trail junction, but deer kept us on the right track, at one point keeping us from plunging into a snow-covered creek.
When we got back, the stone visitors center had reopened for day visitors, so we stopped to pay for our wood and a new
We asked the office administrator if it was too late to reserve the cabin for summer, when we hoped to return and bicycle on
the Willard Munger State Trail into Duluth, but she said the cabin is booked nearly solid, even on winter weekdays if there's
snow. However, Jay Cooke now has five camper cabins.
© Beth Gauper
In Wisconsin's Point Beach State Forest, the Ketchbaw Cabin has no water or electricity, but it does have its own boardwalk to the Lake Michigan beach.
The cabins help fill in for the modest mom-and-pop resorts to which vacationing Minnesota families used to return year after
A cherished part of state history, they've disappeared by the thousands; often, an entire resort is replaced by just one vacation home, whose owners may use it for only a few weeks a year.
Nothing will replace the old resorts. But for Annika Fjelstad and her family, the camper cabins come close. Since her sons were born, they've stayed at the Wild River State Park cabins up to three times a year, often renting an adjoining cabin for use as a guesthouse.
"It was part of our commitment to the kids, to let them know and love at least one place where they know they really belong," says Fjelstad, who once worked as a wilderness guide. "It gives them a sense of stability; it's kind of like going home to the woods.
"People who own a cabin have that experience, too, but this is more affordable and convenient," she says. "And we like sharing our cabin with the state of Minnesota when we're not using it."
Trip Tips: Camper cabins in state parks and forests
To rent a private cabin, cottage or guesthouse, see Cabins & Cottages stories.
For information about yurts in state parks, see Yippee for
Minnesota state parks: Minnesota
has 83 camper cabins at 26 state parks;
handicapped-accessible cabins sleep five, and others sleep six. Most of the cabins are in campgrounds, accessible by car, but
some, as in Lake Maria, are along trails. Each cabin has bunks with mattresses and a table with benches.
Each has a picnic table and fire ring, and a vault toilet and water source is nearby. In summer, guests can use campground showers.Guests must bring their own bedding. It's also a good idea to bring a container for water, biodegradable soap for washing and a reading lamp. Candles are not allowed.
Cabins with electricity have many outlets, but guests are not supposed to use coffeemakers or crockpots. Pets are not allowed inside cabins. Campers are expected to sweep the floor and wipe off the table and mattresses before they leave.
Heated cabins are $50 with electricity and $45 without. There's also an $8.50 reservation fee, so it doesn't really pay to stay just one night.
Most heated cabins are year-round, but some are seasonal. Cabins with heat are at Afton, Bear Head Lake, Beaver Creek Valley,
Big Bog, Flandrau, Glacial Lakes, Glendalough, Jay Cooke, Lac Qui Parle, Lake Bemidji, Lake Carlos, Lake Maria, Lake Shetek,
Mille Lacs Kathio, Minneopa, Myre-Big Island, Sakatah Lake, Savanna Portage, Sibley, Whitewater, Wild River and William
The camper cabins in Afton State Park, just east of St. Paul, are right on the ski trail.
Many of the most-popular parks have multiple cabins: Wild River (6), William O'Brien (3), Lake Maria (3) and Afton (4), all within an hour of the Twin Cities; Glacial Lakes (6), Sibley (4) and Lake Carlos (4), all about two hours west of the Twin Cities; Jay Cooke (5) near Duluth; Mille Lacs-Kathio (5); and Bear Head Lake near Ely (5).
Seasonal cabins without heat are at Banning, Crow Wing, Glacial Lakes, Hayes Lake, Maplewood, William O'Brien and
At Upper Sioux Agency State Park, two unheated tepees rent for $25.
Some cabins are wheelchair-accessible.
Reservations can be made a year in advance online or at 866-857-2757, toll-free in the United States and Canada; reservation fee is $8.50, and reservations can be made starting at 8 a.m. (after the first day of availability, online reservations can be made 24 hours a day).
Overnight guests also pay a vehicle fee of $5 daily or $25 for an annual pass. For more information, call 651-296-6157 or 888-646-6367 from outstate Minnesota.
Many guesthouses, cabins and lodges also are available; for more, see Lodgings in Minnesota state parks.
Three Rivers Park District: This big parks district in the western suburbs of Minneapolis rents four seasonal camper cabins in the campground of Baker Park Reserve in Maple Plain, near the beach on Lake Independence.
The cabins have screened porches; three sleep six and one is accessible and sleeps five. They’re $50.
Reservations open for the season at 8 a.m. March 15. They're phone-only; call 763-559-6700.
For more, see Camping in the Twin Cities.
Michigan has perhaps the best deals and best cabins, many in beach parks along Lake Michigan.
The state rents more than 60 mini-cabins in 37 state parks that sleep four and have refrigerators and microwaves but not bathrooms, $45-$65.
Fifteen state parks rent camper cabins that have covered front porches and
sleep six on bunk beds and a futon sofa, $80 from May through September and $60 from October through April.
They include refrigerators, microwaves and coffeemakers.
Eighteen state parks include a wide variety of heated rustic cabins that accommodate groups from two to
24, $50-$80. They don't have electricity, but some have such amenities as a propane stove.
© David Kenyon/DNR
A rustic cabin in J.W. Wells State Park, on Lake Michigan near the Wisconsin border, is one of many in Michigan state parks.
Among the most popular rustic cabins are the 19 wood-heated cabins in Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park on the Upper
Peninsula; cabins on Mirror Lake, Lily Pond and Lake of the Clouds include boats.
The park also has three year-round yurts, $60. For more, see Afoot in the Porkies.
Reserve a year in advance at Michigan DNR Reservations, 800-447-2757.
Baraga, Cheboygan, Interlochen and Wilson state parks rent tepees, $30. Reserve up to six months in advance at Michigan DNR Reservations, 800-447-2757.
Iowa state parks: Eight Iowa parks offer camper cabins, including McIntosh Woods near Clear Lake, which has two yurts (for more, see Yippee for yurts). They sleep four and have dorm-size fridges and microwaves. There's a minimum stay of two nights.
Pleasant Creek, northwest of Cedar Rapids, has four camper cabins, and Wilson Island, north of Council Bluffs, has one,
The others are $35: Dolliver, south of Fort Dodge, two; Green Valley in southwest Iowa, two; Honey Creek in southeast Iowa, four; Lake Darling, southwest of Iowa City, five; and Stone near Sioux City, two.
They can be reserved up to a year in advance, online or at 877-427-2757. For park information, call 515-281-5918.
Iowa parks also rent studio, family and deluxe cabins with bathrooms and cooking facilities. Between Memorial Day
and Labor Day, they're rented only by the week, from Friday to Friday.
© Beth Gauper
Michigan camper cabins, such as this one at Orchard Beach State Park, have two small bedrooms, fridge, microwave and living area with sofa.
In northeast Iowa, south of Strawberry Point, Backbone has eight family cabins, $50; four two-bedroom family cabins, $85; and
four two-story, two-bedroom deluxe family cabins, $100.
For more, see A cabin in Iowa.
South of Storm Lake in northwest Iowa, Black Hawk has one stone four-bedroom family cabin, $100.
In southeast Iowa, Lacey-Keosauqua has six studio cabins, $50. In southwest Iowa, east of Clarinda, Lake of Three Fires has
six studio cabins, $50. Lake Wapello, southwest of Ottumwa, has 14 family cabins, $60-$85, and the park has a restaurant,
Palisades-Kepler, east of Cedar Rapids, has four family cabins, $50. Pine Lake, west of Waterloo, has two studio cabins, $65, and two family cabins, $75; they're built of stone and timber by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Iowa county parks: Twenty Iowa
county parks and recreation areas rent cabins, some with kitchens, bathrooms, TV and Internet access.
Illinois state parks: In Illinois, 17
state parks have 37 two-bedroom heated camper
cabins, each with two bunk beds and a full bed that sleep six. Rates vary from $50 in winter to $65 on holiday
For more, see Marvels of Starved
© Beth Gauper
In Iowa's Palisades-Kepler State Park, four family cabins have their own corner of the park.
Cabins sleep six at four parks, $47, including Fort Sisseton, where guests at the three cabins share a fourth cabin that has
a stove, refrigerator, sink, microwave and dining table.
Custer State Park has 50 camping cabins, $47. Reservations can be made 90 days in advance at 800-710-2267.
Vehicle permits are $6 daily, $28 annually. For more information, call 605-773-3391.
Wisconsin state parks: Wisconsin parks are prohibited by
statute from having camper cabins, thanks to the resort and hotel industry.
However, it rents two rustic group cabins in Point Beach State Forest, north of Two Rivers on Lake Michigan; one sleeps 14, and the other 16, $5 per person with a $60 minimum, 920-794-7480.
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.
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.
In Big Bay State Park on Madeline Island, closer to Big Bay Town Park, there's a large rustic cabin known as an indoor group camp, with a stone fireplace, loft, full-size fridge and stove.
© Beth Gauper
The camper cabins in Minnesota's Jay Cooke State Park are popular year-round.
It's available only to nonprofit groups, $3 person with a $40 minimum, but they no longer can sleep indoors; they have to pitch tents on the grounds because of a Department of Health ruling. 715-747-6425.
The cabins are open from May to the second weekend in October. Reservation fee is $4, and guests also must pay for a vehicle admission sticker, $7 daily/$25 annually for residents, $10/$35 for nonresidents. Reserve up to a year in advance.
Wisconsin's state parks do have nine cabins for people with
disabilities, $30 per night plus a $4 reservation fee. They’re very popular and can be reserved a year in
Modern cabins are in Buckhorn, High Cliff, Mirror Lake, Kohler-Andrae and Potawatomi state parks and at Ottawa Lake in the Southern Unit of Kettle Moraine State Forest and in Richard Bong Recreation Area. Rustic cabins are at Copper Falls and Blue Mounds state parks.
Nugget Lake County Park near Plum City: This park in western Wisconsin, just up the bluffs from Lake Pepin, has three air-conditioned cabins, $60, plus $5 reservation fee and $5 entrance fee. There are canoe and kayak rentals, fishing, naturalist programs and nature movies in an amphitheater.
Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest: In the waterfall country of northeast Wisconsin, an hour east of Eagle River and 20 minutes west of Florence, the forest service rents eight Lost Lake Cabins at Lost Lake Campground.
The cabins sleep six in three bunk beds, and bathrooms and showers are in two central buildings. They rent for $40 weekdays, $45 weekends, and they're open from mid-May to mid-October. Reserve at Recreation.Gov.
Ontario provincial parks: Ten parks, including
Quetico along the Minnesota border and Pancake Bay on the east side of Lake Superior, rent 56 heated yurts that
have bunks for six, tables and chairs. They're $85 Canadian.
Four parks rent rustic cabins, including Sleeping Giant near Thunder Bay, $54-$125; call 888-668-7275. Daily vehicle permits are $8.90-$16.80.
For more about Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, see In the shadow of the Giant.
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