Camping out west
Not far from the Twin Cities, county parks provide easy access to beach life.
© Beth Gauper
On Fridays, the Little Crow Ski Team performs in New London.
In Kandiyohi County, it's thanks to the last Ice Age that life's a beach today.
Near Willmar, a lobe of the last glacier came to a grinding halt 12,000 years ago, dumping massive blocks of ice that made big dents in the ground.
Now, they're lakes, popping up like mirages at the edge of soybean fields, behind screens of ash and cottonwoods. Farther north, they're hidden amid rocky meadows and rolling hillocks full of glacial rubble.
In summer, these lakes draw vacationers to their sandy beaches and fishing piers. On the south shore of Green Lake near
Spicer, young people dive from a raft tower and play volleyball on the broad beach.
On Games Lake near New London, pelicans fly over a long beach as children fly into the water from a red-and-yellow slide and run into the park store for root-beer floats.
County campgrounds along many of these lakes allow families to have an inexpensive beach vacation not far from home.
These county parks don't have the wooded seclusion of most state parks, but they have their advantages: They're easier to get into, they're close to the Twin Cities, and they're not subject to statewide shut-downs.
And some of the lakes are just as nice as those in parks farther north.
(For camping even closer to the metro area, see Camping
in the Twin Cities.)
One Fourth of July weekend, my husband and I headed west to see the Friday-night water-ski show in New London and check out some of the county parks.
Driving along U.S. 12, we stopped in Delano for strawberry shakes at the deliciously retro Peppermint Twist, then cruised through Waverly for a look at the pleasant city beach on the south shore of Waverly Lake.
A few miles southwest of Cokato, we stopped by Collinwood Regional Park and Campground and chatted with manager Louis Schmidt, who spoke of his 300-acre park, cobbled out of three farms, with a salesman's fervor.
"As far as I'm concerned, it's one of the nicest parks around," he said. "We've got five or six miles of trails, and the wildflowers are beautiful out there. A camper came in and said he saw all kinds of game, deer and baby fawns. And it's a nice fishing lake. It gets a little green, but I always say, bring a dressing and make yourself a salad."
On Big Kandiyohi Lake, we checked into County Park 2, which still had tent spaces for the holiday weekend. The primitive sites were in a mosquito-infested nook in the woods, but the beach was nice and roomy, with a water slide and raft.
Then, we headed to New London for a classic Minnesota experience: a performance of the Little Crow Ski Team in Neer Park, on a calm stretch of the Crow River. Since 1979, the troupe of athletic young skiers has put on weekly shows, earning national championships in 1994 and 1998.
© Torsten Muller
There's usually a volleyball game going on Spicer's Saulsbury Beach, also County Park 4.
Between silly skits orchestrated by an emcee, the brightly costumed women performed in swivel and ballet lines, and the men skied barefoot at 43 mph and made helicopter spins and flips off the jump. They combined for pyramids; the grand finale involved five tiers and 6½ tons of skiers, the highest 40 feet above the water.
Then, as the crowd began to leave, the three-man boat crews put on their own show, each gunning their three giant Evinrudes and lifting their boats into near-vertical salutes — nothing athletic, but it required timing, as well as a whole lot of horsepower.
The next day, we drove around Big Kandiyohi Lake to County Park 1, a very well kept park at the edge of a farm field. As at Park 2, recreational vehicles were packed together — but they sat in orderly rows on strips of blacktop.
The bathrooms were clean, the store was welcoming and well stocked, and there was a raft and slide off the narrow beach. For a while, we played with baby rabbits in a big, open pen that must be quite an attraction for little kids.
On our way to Spicer, we spotted Willmar's nice sand beach on the eastern tip of Foot Lake. Hardly anyone was there, unlike
Spicer's big Saulsbury Beach, also County Park 4. It doesn't have camping, but it's always packed in summer.
For a while, we watched the cutthroat competition of a beach-volleyball tournament, with teams mostly from the Twin Cities; for lunch, we walked next door and got juicy cheeseburgers off the patio grill at Melvin's.
Then, we circled Green Lake to County Park 5, a Santee Dakota summer camp until the Dakota had to give it up in 1851. The park's hills make it picturesque but problematic for tent campers, and its beach was a little small, though attractive, with a slide and raft.
Still, it was the nicest we'd seen until we got to County Park 7 on Games Lake, just down the road from Sibley State Park.
Park 7 had a long, broad sand beach lined with a swath of tree-shaded grass and picnic tables; it wasn't as windy as Green
Lake, since Games Lake is smaller.
Lifeguards watched swimmers from two platforms and from a wakeboard and platform in the water, which had a slide and two rafts.
There was a volleyball net in the sand and another on a field at the edge of forest, next to a baseball diamond. In the store, attendants scooped ice cream and took orders for doughnuts and rolls for the next day's breakfast.
The campground was crowded, of course; still, it had the look and feel of a resort.
On the border of Stearns and Meeker counties, we finally found some great tent sites at Lake Koronis Regional Park, near Paynesville.
They were tucked into wooded nooks on the main campground, which, unfortunately, was across the highway from the small and weed-washed beach. Other tent sites sit just above the beach, though they're more open.
© Beth Gauper
County Park 7, near New London, has a large beach on Games Lake.
Continuing on Minnesota 55 into Wright County, we came to Annandale, just an hour from the Twin Cities. Not only does it have a nice beach on the north shore of Pleasant Lake, but there's also a resortlike camping park just to the east on Cedar Lake.
Schroeder Regional Park's beach was nearly as nice as Kandiyohi's Park 7, with two volleyball nets, horseshoes, a playground and an open pavilion. A few pines ringed the beach's grassy fringe, and as we left we spotted a loon on the water.
Sometimes, out west looks a lot like up north.
Trip Tips: Camping out west
Getting there: Annandale is an hour from the Twin Cities, depending on traffic; Kandiyohi County is a little more than two hours.
Water-ski show: The Little Crow Ski Team puts on shows in New London’s Neer Park on most Friday evenings through Labor Day. Admission is $5, $7 for reserved seats. From downtown New London, turn north on 1st Avenue, then east on Birch Street. Park on the street and walk to the park; 320-354-5684.
For more about the area, see Little Crow
Camping in Kandiyohi County parks: Just
west of New London, Kandiyohi County Park 7 has a very nice campground and beach on Games Lake, 320-354-4453. Rate is $28.05
per night with electricity.
Like all Kandiyohi county parks, it takes reservations only for stays of seven days or more, starting Jan. 1 for
seasonal campers from the previous season, Jan. 15 for others. Walk-ups are accepted if there's availability. July
is busiest; call before coming.
© Beth Gauper
County Park 1 on Big Kandiyohi Lake is especially well-kept.
Kandiyohi County Park 5 on the north shore of Green Lake is well-located, between New London’s Neer Park and the festive atmosphere on the south shore. With Games Lake, it’s least likely to suffer from algae, and it has a hilltop picnic house that would be good for family reunions. Rate is $31.80. 320-796-5564.
On Big Kandiyohi Lake, Kandiyohi County Park 1 has a pleasant, low-key atmosphere and a nice beach; however, it may be
affected by farm run-off. Rate is $28.05. 320-995-6599.
South of Willmar, Kandiyohi County Park 2 has a nice beach and store. However, its campsites are buggy and its bathrooms unpleasant. Rate is $22.40. 320-664-4707.
Camping in Sibley State Park: In this park near New London, Lakeview Campground is near Lake Andrew, which has a sand beach lined by shaded picnic tables and a little stone store.
In summer, it fills up every weekend; 320-354-2055. Reserve up to a year in advance; 866-857-2757 or at www.stayatmnparks.com.
Camping in other counties: Just northeast of Annandale, Schroeder Regional Park and Campground on Cedar Lake
in Wright County is very popular. Many sites are taken when reservations open April 15, and sites that can be
reserved are taken for all remaining summer weekends.
However, 20 percent of sites are first-come, first served; for weekends, try to arrive by Thursday. 320-274-8870, .
Near Paynesville, Lake Koronis Regional Park in Stearns County has nice sites for tents as well as RVs. Campers could stay there and spend the day on the beach at Kandiyohi County Park 7, about 25 miles to the west. 320-276-8843.
Southwest of Cokato off U.S. 12, Collinwood Regional Park in Wright County has pleasant sites along a lake flecked with algae, $14-$16, 320-286-2801.
Even closer to the Twin Cities, off U.S. 12 near Maple Plain, Baker Park Reserve in Three Rivers Park District has campsites near the beach on Lake Independence. 763-694-7662.
For more, see Camping in the Twin Cities.
Information: For a copy of the Minnesota Resort & Campground Association’s guide to campgrounds and RV parks, which includes some county campgrounds, call 651-296-5029, 800-657-3700.
The Minnesota DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer, available in bookstores, outdoors stores and big-box retailers, shows campgrounds and beaches as well as the routes to reach them.
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