Driving up with your camper, setting up a tent or even lounging in a cabin, you can spend the night and day at more than 60 Minnesota State Parks. For Pat Arndt, with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, it was tough to narrow it down, but check out some of the best parks across the state for camping.
Foursquare Favorite: Lake Carlos State Park
Alexandria, MN 56308
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More than 200 camping sites are available at Lake Carlos State Park, which rims the northernmost reaches of Lake Carlos, 10 miles north of Alexandria. It’s one of Minneapolis’s best parks for sporty types, thanks to the abundance of activity options, from paddleboating and canoe rentals to horse trails, hiking trails, and fishing options. For a more secluded camping site, choose the upper campground.
Itasca State Park
36750 Main Park Drive
Park Rapids, MN 56470
Home to the headwaters of the Mississippi River, Itasca State Park is the oldest state park and a must-see, and must-stay, for any camping enthusiast. Even if you don’t own a tent or camper, you can stay at the park’s Itasca Suites that perfectly fit a family of four and have all the amenities of home. While at the park, walk, drive or bike the 17 miles of Wilderness Drive, picnic under the 250-year-old trees, climb the fire tower or even grab a bite to eat at the Douglas Lodge Restaurant that serves Minnesota favorites like wild rice and walleye. Of course, there are also the traditional things to do when camping, like fishing, swimming and canoeing. And for nature enthusiasts young and old, take advantage of the ongoing programs from on-site naturalists who know the park like the back of their hands.
Lake Bemidji State Park
3401 State Park Road Northeast
Bemidji, MN 56601
Located just outside of Bemidji, this state park is ideal if you’re looking to get away but still want to be close to a town. Lake Bemidji State Park is primarily tent camping and offers a list of activities that would make any trip complete, including swimming, boating, fishing, bird watching and hiking. The special feature of this state park is its bog-walk — a boardwalk that takes you over a bog layered with plants and flowers. You can either walk the bog with a naturalist or download a podcast about the bog and listen while you walk.
Bear Head Lake State Park
9301 Bear Head State Park Road
Ely, MN 55731
Last year, this state park was chosen “America’s Favorite Park” through a voting campaign by Coca-Cola. Why was it chosen out of all the national and state parks across the country? Well, you’ll have to visit to experience it for yourself. Bear Head Lake State Park is located right on the edge of the wilderness near Ely. The location means you might see a black bear or nesting eagles and hear wolves or moose in their natural habitat. It’s like going to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area without having to do all the work to get there. If you’re not all about setting up a tent, relax in one of five camper cabins onsite or at the former park manager’s residence that’s been turned into a guest house.
Scenic State Park
56956 Scenic Highway 7
Bigfork, MN 56628
This state park lives up to its name and is truly beautiful. It could be called a mini-Itasca with the same 250-year-old pine trees but less people and less amenities. There are two lakes that are entirely enclosed within the park and there are even canoe-in campsites that allow for greater seclusion in a park already surrounded in wilderness. Keep your ears perked for loons calling across the lake or the howling of wolves. Your visit wouldn’t be complete without a walk on Chase Point. This peninsula of land has you walking on a carpet of pine needles with lakes on either side of you — don’t forget the camera for this picture-perfect, gorgeous walk.
Split Rock Lighthouse State Park
3755 Split Rock Lighthouse Road
Two Harbors, MN 55616
You might be familiar with this historic Minnesota landmark but did you know it’s also an ideal spot for camping on Lake Superior? Don’t bring your camper, you can’t drive up to these camping sites. What you lose in amenities you’ll surely make up for in sights and sounds. Park your vehicle, load up a cart and take it down a path that will bring you to your campsite right to the shores of this Great Lake. This is one of the only public places where you can stay right on the shore of Lake Superior … where you can see the beautiful cliffs and hear the crashing of the waves on the rocks. Don’t forget your bike to try your skills on the hilly Gitchi-Gami State Trail that gives you more gorgeous views on a paved trail from Gooseberry Falls to Beaver Bay.
William O’Brien State Park
16821 O’Brien Trail North
Marine on St. Croix, MN 55047
If you’re looking for an escape not too far from the Twin Cities, make the short drive to William O’Brien State Park, located about one hour from the cities along the St. Croix River. If you love to fish, check out the park’s FIN program on Lake Alice that stocks the lake with fish … not huge trophy fish but fish big enough for any kid to be proud of what they caught. For more experienced anglers, the St. Croix River has northern, walleye, bass and trout. For those looking to just enjoy the water, rent a canoe and take advantage of the park’s shuttle service, so you don’t have to portage back to the park. You can spend the night in your own tent or one of three year-round camper cabins. And if you really can’t completely escape from technology, this state park even offers Wi-Fi.
Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park
21071 County 118
Preston, MN 55965
The name of this state park has cave in it for a reason — the Mystery Cave is the longest cave in Minnesota reaching more than 13 miles underground. Grab your sweater to take a naturalist-led tour because even in the heat of summer, its only 48 degrees down below. But the cave is just one feature of this river valley park that includes a restored 1800s village with a general store that appears to be frozen in time. As for camping, you’ll enjoy a less-buggy experience because there’s not a lot of standing water for mosquitoes to hatch in. But there are an incredible amount of fireflies that light up the night sky particularly in late June. And for avid fishers, take a pole down to the wonderful trout fishing streams.
Afton State Park
6959 Peller Avenue South
Hastings, MN 55033
Want a workout before you even get to your campsite? Throw all your gear on your back and hike through the beautiful prairie to reach your site in the bluffs of the St. Croix River. Camping in Afton State Park is truly “roughing it” with no flush toilets and no showers but for being so close to the Twin Cities (about 45 minutes) you’ll definitely get a sense of wilderness get-away. Hike down the river bluffs to the swimming beach or checkout a GPS unit for free and try the park’s four-stage geo-cache.
Sibley State Park
800 Sibley Park Road Northeast
New London, MN 56273
There’s no shortage of places to camp at Sibley State Park (132 sites plus four camper cabins) and there’s also no shortage of amazing views. Hike to the top of Mount Tom and you’ll be able to see for nearly 50 miles that patchwork of the southern Minnesota landscape — farms, forest, prairies and lakes. The park is quite popular for the swimming beach at Lake Andrew and the amount of campsites that are handicap-accessible. The park offers many naturalist programs from taking nature photography to learning about the park’s snake population. And the Interpretive Center, which is open on the weekends, provides interactive exhibits including a 3D map model and wildlife observation deck.
Lake Shetek State Park
163 State Park Road
Currie, MN 56123
Using funds coming in from the Legacy Amendment, Lake Shetek State Park is in the middle of a rehabilitation that will give visitors two campgrounds to choose from — Oak Woods and Sunrise Campgrounds. The DNR has removed some of the campsites to create more privacy for the remaining sites. If you’ve got an RV, this is the place to be with improved electricity at those areas. There are also four camper cabins you can reserve year-round with heat and electricity. The park also offers a boat launch, swimming beach and a six-mile bicycle trail into the nearby town of Currie. And to enjoy the park itself, check out a kit at the visitor center to teach kids about bird-watching, geo-caching or even fishing.
I Can Camp Program
If one or all of these state parks sound like something you’d love to experience but you don’t really have the camping skills, check out the I Can Camp program from the Minnesota DNR. All you need to bring is a sleeping bag and your own food — they provide the rest. Two trained DNR staff members will help you set up a tent, start and cook over a fire and answer any questions you might have while spending a night in the great outdoors. The program is offered all across the state at various parks from June 4 to Sept. 3. Click here for more information on I Can Camp.