How to find the best campsites
Great campsites await those who know how to look for them.
© Beth Gauper
From the city-run campground in Decorah, Iowa, campers can fish for trout, paddle the river or ride a bicycle trail.
At its best, camping is like going to a resort, except cheaper.
You've got everything you need to have fun, except a roof. In Grand Marais, the municipal campground is right on
Lake Superior and next to the city's indoor pool and hot tub.
In Lanesboro, the campsites of Sylvan Park are right off the Root River State Trail, and campers can buy morning
pastries across the pond at the Saturday farmers' market.
North of Brainerd, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operates a resort-like campground on prestigious Gull Lake,
where governors build vacation homes.
People who need roofs pay a lot more for locations like these.
If you can rough it a little, you'll have a great time for very little money. All you have to do is decide where to camp.
Many people think of state parks when they think of camping. Those campgrounds are great, but they're also the hardest to get into, especially on summer and fall weekends.
Yet there are many other public campgrounds where sites may go begging, in town parks, county parks and state and national forests, recreation areas and riverways.
The question is, how can you find out about them? Here's how to get started.
It's hardest to get reservations during prime time in state parks, many of which are like little resorts in the summer, with
naturalist activities, stores and, sometimes, golf courses and concerts.
Minnesota state-park campsites can be reserved a year in advance. Campsites in Wisconsin can be reserved 11 months in advance.
In Michigan, it's six months in advance, and in Iowa, three months.
© Beth Gauper
In Minnesota, campsites in Split Rock State Park, especially those overlooking Lake Superior, are hardest to get.
Most state parks, with the exception of the most popular Lake Michigan beach parks in Michigan, have some first-come,
For details, see Camping in state parks.
State forests and recreation areas
Campgrounds in state forests generally are more rustic than those in state parks, and there are fewer amenities. But they're generally quieter, and many are on beautiful lakes and rivers.
For camping in Michigan, check a map for state forests.
Wisconsin has fewer state forests, and campsites at some of them,
particularly Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest near Minocqua, are among the most coveted in the state.
National forests and riverways
For more about camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, see Minnesota's Boundary Waters.
In northern Wisconsin, there are many rustic campgrounds in
Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. Chequamegon National Forest includes the
Hayward-Cable-Mellen area, and Nicolet National Forest is in northeast Wisconsin, including the Eagle River-Lakewood
Paddlers can camp along the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway between Minnesota and Wisconsin. It's free, but a permit is required to camp in the busy stretch between St. Croix Falls, Wis., and Stillwater, Minn.
The riverway includes the Namekagon River, which joins the St. Croix north of Danbury, Wis. It's lined with many lovely
first-come, first-served campsites.
County and regional parks
These can be just as in-demand as state parks. In Kandiyohi County west of the Twin Cities, campsites rent by the week, just as at resorts. For more, see Camping out west).
In the Twin Cities, the Three Rivers Park District and Washington, Dakota and Anoka counties offer camping on lakes and rivers. For more, see Camping in the Twin Cities.
© Three Rivers Parks
At Baker Park Reserve in Maple Plain, a camper is just half an hour from downtown Minneapolis.
But many campgrounds at county parks are low-key. In Minnesota, check by park, at www.co.(countyname).mn.us.
In Wisconsin, the DNR lists county parks and forests.
Iowa calls its county park system the finest in the nation, and it may be. Many of the parks offer cabins as well as campgrounds.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
These campgrounds often are like little resorts, with playgrounds, ball courts, marinas, beaches and fishing piers.
North of Brainerd, the Corps operates the Gull Lake Recreation Area, near some of the state's most expensive resorts, and Crosslake Campground, walking distance from the shops and restaurants of Crosslake.
It also operates the Leech Lake Recreation Area near Walker, plus campgrounds on the Mississippi at Pokegama, Big Sandy and Winnibigoshish lakes.
In Wisconsin, the Corps operates Blackhawk Park near De Soto on the Mississippi River, Grant River near Potosi and Highland Ridge near Spring Valley.
In Iowa, the Corps operates Lake Red Rock near Pella, Saylorville Lake near Des Moines, Coralville Lake near Iowa City,
Rathbun Lake near Centerville and Clarks Ferry on the Mississippi near Muscatine.
Reserve through Recreation.Gov.
These campgrounds can be the best deals in camping. If you don't want to cook, it's a short walk to restaurants.
In the southeast Minnesota village of Lanesboro, tent campers pay $10 to stay right in town, where there are hot showers in the adjoining community center.
In Grand Marais, the municipal campground is on Lake Superior, next to the North House Folk School and two of the town's best restaurants. There's an indoor pool, hot tub and sauna.
© Beth Gauper
At the municipal campground in Grand Marais, Minn., campers face the Lake Superior harbor.
The eastern Minnesota city of Moose Lake, on the Munger State Trail just 40
minutes south of Duluth, has a pleasant city park with lakeside campsites, a sand beach, two playgrounds, tennis courts and
Call each city or check its web site. Sites almost always are first-come, first-served.
Privately owned campgrounds are much like resorts, and many rent camper cabins and/or cottages. They're listed on tourism web
They're also very popular, so reserve early — in tourism areas, up to a year in advance.
Because they have accommodations at many price ranges, with such amenities as pools and stores, many people use them as sites for family reunions.
© Beth Gauper
A campsite on the Namekagon River, part of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, is primitive but beautiful.
They're all subtitled "A Guide for Car Campers Who Hate RVs, Concrete Slabs and Loud Portable Radios."
Each book discusses 50 campgrounds in detail, rating their beauty, privacy, spaciousness, quiet, security and
Many are in well-known state parks, but others are lesser-known gems, such as Hok-Si-La Campground on Lake Pepin near Lake
City, Minn., and the St. Croix Campground in Governor Knowles State Forest in northwest Wisconsin.
The Wisconsin book has a nice mixture of site description with information on recreation, but the author of the Minnesota
book devotes most of his space to the privacy and spaciousness of individual campsites.
Both are a little short on the kinds of things many people care about — whether there's a camp store; which beaches are
shallow and covered with algae; which campgrounds are plagued by mosquitoes and which aren't.
Most campers would have been pleased to know, for example, that Beaver Creek Valley and Whitewater, both listed in the
Minnesota book, are among the bluff-country state parks known for their lack of mosquitoes (for more, see Where to find mosquito-free camping).
And neither book tells how far in advance sites can be reserved — an important thing to know for summer weekends.
But both authors obviously are knowledgeable and did their legwork. And there's a solution to the omissions: Call campgrounds and ask, which always is a good idea, anyway. Phone numbers are listed, as well as many websites.
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