How to find the best campsites

Great campsites await those who know how to look for them.

Campsite in Decorah.
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 in northeast Minnesota, the municipal campground is right on the Lake Superior harbor and next to a folk school.

In Lanesboro in southeast Minnesota, 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 in central Minnesota, 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.

For more, see 30 great campsites. For camper cabins, see A roof in the woods.

State parks

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 120 days 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.

A group campsite on the Namekagon River.
A campsite on the Namekagon River, part of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, is primitive but beautiful.

Most state parks, with the exception of those in Minnesota and the most popular Lake Michigan beach parks in Michigan, have some first-come, first-served sites.

For details, see Camping in state parks.

For camping in parks with great access to restaurants, shops and even nightlife, see Camping without roughing it.

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.

There's camping in many Minnesota state forests.

For camping in Michigan, check state-forest campgrounds.

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

In northern Minnesota, there are many campgrounds in Superior National Forest and Chippewa National Forest.

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, some with cabins. Chequamegon National Forest includes the Hayward-Cable-Mellen area, and Nicolet National Forest is in northeast Wisconsin, including the Eagle River-Lakewood area.

Paddlers can camp along the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway between Minnesota and Wisconsin. It's free, but visitors must use only designated campsites.

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.

In Michigan, there's camping in Ottawa National Forest in the western Upper Peninsula and Hiawatha National Forest in the eastern Upper Peninsula.

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 in Kandiyohi.

A campsite at Split Rock State Park.
In Minnesota, campsites in Split Rock State Park, especially those overlooking Lake Superior, are hardest to get.

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.

But many campgrounds at county parks are low-key. In Minnesota, check by park, at

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 $25 to stay right in town, where there are hot showers in the adjoining community center.

In Duluth, Indian Point Campground is right on the St. Louis River and rents canoes, kayaks, pontoon boats and bikes.

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.

The municipal campground in Grand Marais.
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 showers.

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 sites.

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.

In popular areas, they're a good option on weekends when all the hotels fill up.

Last updated on September 4, 2020

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