I'm going to be visiting some friends in Minneapolis later this month and we want to go camping somewhere. What are the best places to camp in Minnesota that's within a 5 hour drive of Minneapolis? I'm looking for places that have great hiking trails, too.
Oh boy are you in luck, James! Five hours will get you to some awesome places. I'm going to try to keep my enthusiasm in check here, but we'll see how it goes.
Practicalities first: If you want to camp at a state park, particularly along the North ShoreNorth Shore, reservations are a really good idea. And in some cases, they can be hard to come by. I just booked a site at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park for June 2015, and the schedule was already getting tight. There are non-reservable sites, too, but they get snapped up right quick in the busiest months (figure June-September). You can make reservations through the Minnesota DNR's website.
Campsites are also abundant in state forests and Superior National Forest. You can make reservations in SNF through recreation.gov.
On to the suggestions!
Banning State Park — Hike, canoe the Kettle River, rock climb, etc. There's an historic sandstone quarry in the park too.
Jay Cooke State Park — Just a little south of Duluth, Jay Cooke has gorgeous, dramatic rock outcroppings that jut out of the St. Louis River. Great hiking, plus an old pioneer cemetery.
Split Rock Lighthouse State Park — Be aware, this is one of the most popular parks in the state. But there is a good reason for that, and some of the campsites here are spectacular. Hiking is great all along the North Shore, let's just get that established, and Split Rock is no exception. There are also rocky beaches along the lake where you can dig for agates and other pretty rocks. Split Rock has a particularly nice beach with views of Split Rock Lighthouse (which you can also visit).
George Crosby Manitou State Park — A wilder sort of North Shore park. If you camp here, the sites are all hike in, and the hikes are more challenging, so be aware and prepared.
Cascade River State Park Recreation Site — Gorgeous hikes along the Cascade River to be had here, ranging from short and easy to long and moderately difficult.
Crescent Lake Campground — A national forest campground. Sites are relatively close-set, but they sit a wonderful lake that's great for canoeing and kayaking.
Kimball Lake Campground — Kimball is up the Gunflint Trail from Grand Marais, and if you like trout fishing, you can get into it here. Kimball Lake sits right next to Trout Lake and Mink Lake, both of which are pretty and fun to fish (we've pulled out browns and brookies). Hiking trails to boot.
Finland State Forest — There are a few campgrounds around Finland: Eckbeck, Sullivan Lake and Finland itself.
OK, I'll leave the North Shore now. The other big area to set your sights on is Ely (Minnesota) and the surrounding Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. You can really get way out in the wilderness here, or you can car camp. Be aware of the rules and regs if you do plan to go into the BWCA (http://www.ely.org/outfitters/about-the-boundary-waters-canoe-area-wilderness)
Fenske Lake Campground, Birch Lake Campground and South Kawishiwi River Campground all have very nice sites and bodies of water for paddling. Lots of hiking nearby, too. Fall Lake Campground is really swanky, particularly for a National Forest Campground. More developed facilities, etc.
Another iconic Minnesota park is Itasca State Park, where you can see (and cross, on slippery rocks) the headwaters of the Mississippi River. I'll grant you, it can be a bit of a tourist trap right at the mouth, but Itasca is a stunning park, with huge pines and some great hiking trails. Even though you're camping, I'd urge you, if you go here, to pop into historic Douglas Lodge for a malt (blueberry and strawberry are the choicest flavors in my opinion).
I'll give you a couple suggestions in the south of the state, too:
On the western edge, nearing the border of South Dakota, you can get the real prairie experience at Blue Mounds State Park. Think massive open skies, a roaming buffalo herd, outcroppings of dark rock (great for rock climbing!) and, in the early summer, blooming cacti. Hiking the park makes it easy to understand why the flat prairie landscape is so uniquely beautiful. Nearby you can visit Pipestone National Monument, and Jeffers Petroglyphs Historic Site, both of which are amazing historic sites.
On the eastern side of the state, near the Wisconsin border, give Whitewater State Park a look. It's settled in the Driftless area, which is defined by its bluff country scenery (which you can hike to) and trout streams. Whitewater is noted for having very few mosquitoes—a serious distinction in Minnesota—because the water in the park is moving, not still.
This is just a fractional sampling of some of my favorite places—I'm sure you'll get great recommendations from others, too, as the state is loaded with great camping opportunities. I hope you'll visit and fall in love with Minnesota!
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When we lived in Minnesota, we loved Judge C.R. Magney State Park in Cook County just above Grand Marais on the shores of Lake Superior in Hovland(close to Canadian border). If that's too far, try Jay Cooke State Park south of Duluth, nice riverside location. Both have secluded campsites available, and after Labor Day should be great availability.
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