Let me start by explaining that I don’t really consider myself high maintenance. I’m fine going without makeup on the weekend, but I do like my air conditioner. I’m also not a big fan of bugs. I also didn’t grow up camping. It was when I began dating a raised-on-a-farm, outdoorsy, campfire-building Minnesotan who would eventually become my husband that I was introduced to camping.
Our first camping experience pre-marriage and pre-kids was to Ely, MN near the Boundary Waters. We packed up a tent, sleeping bags, and snacks and headed north. What could go wrong? Upon arrival at the campground, we were informed bears had been sighted in the campground area and we should be careful to securely conceal our food. Bears? I asked a couple of general questions about bear behavior and human/bear interaction. My boyfriend assured me we’d be fine.
We settled into our campsite, had some dinner at our picnic table, set up our tent, and checked out the lake. This was a beautiful area! As darkness settled (and boy did it get dark far away from city lights!) we prepared to call it a night. As I lay in my sleeping bag trying to fall asleep in the tent, every outside sound was magnified. The crunching of leaves. Wind rustling in the trees. The sound of small [I hoped] creatures creeping. Our food was packed away inside our vehicle. Could bears open doors!?
It was just the two of us in a tent with the peacefulness of nature all around…when wolves started howling! Hearing a wolf howl on TV is one thing. Hearing multiple wolves howling live, in the wild, seemingly very nearby, with only a tent between them and me was an entirely different story! I was terrified. My imagination took over and I just knew I heard a bear or two outside the tent looking for food.
A couple of hours later with my imagination running wild, my fear finally overpowered my embarrassment. There was absolutely no way I was going to be able to fall asleep any time soon. So I woke up my boyfriend and announced I was so scared I was going to go sleep in the car. No amount of reassurance from him could convince me to sleep in that tent. So that night became my first and last attempt at tent camping. I slept in the driver seat and my boyfriend slept in the passenger seat of my car (seats reclined as far as they would go). It was at this point that I briefly contemplated if this relationship with a camper was going to work out!
Fast forward about 15 years, add two kids and a pop-up camper. We’ve found a happy medium when it comes to family camping that gives us some of the comforts of home and a slightly better sense of protection from the wildlife. Each summer, we pick a couple of Minnesota State Parks to explore. We’ve found nearly all Minnesota State Parks have great bathroom and shower facilities, informative visitor centers, and nice camping spots.
We have been camping since the kids were about 4 and 6 years old. Our criteria for campgrounds involve the following:
- Swimming – The kids love swimming so we look for a lake or swimming area if possible.
- Electricity and water hookups
- Activity – Relaxing and enjoying nature is nice, but we like to have some type of activity to do such as hiking, history, sightseeing, or the free naturalist events many parks offer.
- Location – Reasonable driving distance from home and a chance to see an interesting or unique part of the state such as grassland, prairie, or forest.
Helpful camping tips I’ve learned along the way:
- Book early. We book campgrounds for summer in the prior January or February. Even then, we sometimes can’t get our first choice of spots or dates in the popular parks. The annual state park vehicle permit, as well as the nightly camping fees, is very reasonably priced. The Minnesota DNR website is easy to use and informational.
- Be prepared. For mosquitoes, rain, heat, cold, anything. Bring plenty of snacks, wet wipes, paper towels, flashlights, indoor activities for bad weather, a first aid kit, and extra trash bags. Make sure your kids understand that by state ‘park’ you don’t necessarily mean a playground. I’ll never forget one of the first times we went camping, my younger daughter was disappointed because she thought we had driven for hours to get to a playground! Don’t forget your flip flops for showering or the s’mores supplies for the campfire.
- Embrace family time. Sometimes packing up the entire house, driving to the campsite, setting up the pop-up camper, taking the camper down, driving home, and then unpacking everything when we get home feels like more work than it’s worth. Throw in some rain while camping and you may be dealing with a muddy mess and low family morale. But on the positive side, we all get a break from technology and have some outdoor time in nature with the kids seeing some beautiful areas of Minnesota. The kids love exploring and we make some great memories. It also gets easier as the kids get older!
- Plan for 3-4 day camping trips. Depending on how far the drive is, we’ve found a long weekend is usually the right amount of time. It’s hard to squeeze a trip into just a weekend with setup, takedown, and driving.
- Bring bikes. If you have the space and the ability to transport, bring your own and/or the kids’ bikes and helmets. My kids love zooming around the dirt roads in the campgrounds near our campsite in our downtime.
Some Minnesota State Parks we’ve explored so far and what we liked about each:
- Jay Cooke State Park – Located north of the metro towards Duluth, I thought this was a beautiful state park. It had some really nice hiking trails and a cool swinging bridge over the St. Louis River. We didn’t find a good kids swimming area, but the scenery and geology more than made up for it. We also watched people kayaking through rapids and sampled some honey at a park naturalist event.
- Split Rock Creek State Park and Blue Mounds State Park – Located in far southwestern Minnesota, we ended up just doing a day trip to these two parks from the grandparents’ house instead of camping overnight. Split Rock Creek had a fantastic swimming beach and a generous fellow camper let our kids try out their kid-sized kayaks. There was also a playground. At Blue Mounds State Park nearby, we watched a bison herd in the field and saw a variety of wildflowers. We were surprised to learn prickly pear cactus grows here.
- Itasca State Park – Located in north/northwestern Minnesota, I thought this park was also beautiful. There were gorgeous old pine trees, a swimming beach, a playground, and we walked through the headwaters of the Mississippi River. We also walked along the river and read about wild rice harvesting.
- Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park – Also located in southeastern Minnesota, we enjoyed touring the old town of Forestville and a country store and we did a tour of Mystery Cave, where we saw some interesting cave formations. We also enjoyed a naturalist program that had us singing pioneer songs and doing a line dance. I took a favorite picture of a lovely historic looking barn in this area.
- Nerstrand Big Woods State Park – At another southeastern Minnesota state park, we hiked a bit in an oak savanna prairie and saw the Hidden Falls waterfall. We didn’t find a swimming opportunity, but the kids enjoyed a little bird watching using a birding chart and binoculars as they listened for and tried to identify different bird species. We also attended a live eagle presentation from a park naturalist.
- Mille Lacs Kathio State Park – Located in central Minnesota, at this park we climbed to the top of the 100-foot observation tower that overlooks the park and Lake Mille Lacs. This park also had a swimming beach, a playground, and a lot of history. The kids also enjoyed trying out archery at a naturalist event.
This summer we are scheduled to check out two state parks: Lake Vermillion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park and William O’Brien State Park. After a never-ending winter, we’re more than ready to get the pop-up camper out of storage, make sure no mice have made a home in it and set off for some summer adventures. Here’s hoping we don’t have any close run-ins with wildlife. If we do, the kids will probably be braver than me.
June 8, 2019 is National Get Outdoors Day! Minnesota’s 75 state parks and recreation areas are all offering free admission this day, and many of them have planned special activities to introduce you to the fun of geocaching, kayaking, camping, and other family-friendly activities.