MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Cheap summer getaways in Minnesota

No money, no problem: Here are 20 great vacations that are easy on the wallet.

A boy fishing in Sibley State Park.

© Beth Gauper

A beach and fishing pier adjoin campsites at Sibley State Park.

In summer, it’s not as hard as you’d think to take a fun trip that doesn't cost much.

Many of the great travel experiences in Minnesota can’t be bought, anyway — hiking amid old-growth white pines, paddling through bluff country, listening to loons in the Boundary Waters.

A family of six can learn to camp and play in Lake Superior waterfalls for $50. Hikers can find a bunk just off the Superior Hiking Trail near Grand Marais for $25, and a couple can stay in a camper cabin for $60, if not at a lake resort . . . wait, they can stay at a lake resort.

Here's our list of best cheap trips, most costing $100 or less per person, in 2018.

Most give you a roof over your head; the trips that require tent camping also include guides, meals and/or fun things to do.

For trips next door, see Cheap summer getaways in Wisconsin.

Camping

An introduction to state parks

Sign up for one of 26 I Can Camp! programs in Minnesota state parks, and the cost is just $60 for up to six people, $85 for two-night programs. Everything is included except food.

They're in state parks that include Gooseberry Falls and Tettegouche on the North Shore and several around the Twin Cities, including Fort Snelling, Afton, Wild River and William O'Brien.

The parks also offer I Can Paddle! programs, $25-$35 per canoe and $20-$45 for kayakers; I Can Climb! programs for $20, $10 for youths 5-18; I Can Mountain Bike!, $25, $15 youths; and I Can Fish! programs that are free.

Camping and a water park

North of Minneapolis in suburban Anoka County, you can camp in Bunker Hills Regional Park in Coon Rapids, which also includes Bunker Beach Water Park and Bunker Park Stable.

You can camp for $20-$32 and play in the water park for $9-$15; it includes six water slides, a lazy river and the state's largest wave pool. Or stay in a camper cabin for $55.

The county also offers camping in Rice Creek Chain of Lakes Regional Park Reserve in Lino Lakes, near Wargo Nature Center and Chomonix Golf Course.

For more, see Camping in the Twin Cities.

A campsite at Baker Park Reserve.

© Three Rivers Parks

At Baker Park Reserve in Maple Plain, a camper is just half an hour from downtown Minneapolis.

Cabin camping in a Minneapolis suburb

At the Baker Park Reserve Near-Wilderness Settlement in Maple Plain, groups of up to eight family or friends can rent one of eight rustic log cabins during special weekends.

They book up six months in advance, so plan ahead.

Family Camp weekend includes canoeing, archery, rock climbing and swimming. Cost is $215 per cabin for two nights and includes one breakfast and some beverages. Grandparent and Grandkids Camps include all meals, $250 per cabin. 

Baker Park Reserve also has five camper cabins, $70, and Elm Creek Park Reserve has two. For more, see Camping near the Twin Cities.

For more about camper cabins and yurts in state parks, see A roof in the woods.

Urban camping at Fort Snelling

Wilderness Inquiry is offering overnight family camping on Picnic Island at Minnesota's most-visited state park, at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers in the Twin Cities.

In 2018, the trips are June 23-24 and Aug. 11-12 and 24-25. Cost is $60, $30 for youths 17 and under. Like all Wilderness Inquiry trips, they're open to people with disabilities.

Outdoor skills

Women in the outdoors

Minnesota's Becoming an Outdoors Woman program offers dozens of day clinics in archery, fishing, paddling and other outdoor sports.

In 2018, it also includes a Sturgeon Fishing Trip to Lake of the Woods Aug. 10-12. Cost is $225, including motel lodgings and two days of guided boat fishing.

Becoming an outdoor family

To combat the rise of nature-deficit disorder, many state DNRs and nature centers are sponsoring Becoming an Outdoor Family weekends, where families can try all kinds of fun things: archery, fishing, shooting, orienteering, hiking, rock climbing and geocaching.

In the scenic bluffs of southeast Minnesota, Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center near Lanesboro is offering a weekend June 15-17 and Aug. 3-5 in 2018. Cost is $90 per person, or $335 for a family of four, and includes meals and lodgings.

For $10 per person, you also can stay Friday night and have Saturday brunch.

A church on the Lake Wobegon Trail.

© Beth Gauper

The Lake Wobegon Trail passes many small-town churches.

Bike trips

An organized bicycle tour is a great way to see the countryside and make a lot of friends, too. Many of the best are fund-raising rides, and if you raise the minimum, you pay only the registration fee.

For a complete list, see Tours on two wheels and Sightseeing by bicycle.

Cross-state on the Ride Across Minnesota

The well-organized, family-friendly Ride Across Minnesota, formerly known as TRAM, is July 15-20 in 2018 and benefits the Minnesota chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society.

This year, the route goes through southern Minnesota, starting and ending in St. Peter on the Minnesota River. Overnight stops are in Northfield, Owatonna, Waseca and Mankato. 

Registration is $50, and riders must raise at least $300. Riders are treated to bountiful food at official rest stops, about every 10 miles, and can buy food from various civic groups at the evening stop, usually a city park or fairground. There's also evening entertainment.

Paddling

From the Root to the Mississippi

Every year, members of the non-profit Midwest River Expeditions, based in Dubuque, Iowa, choose a different river for their Great River Rumble

In 2018, it's on the Des Moines River from Keosauqua in southeast Iowa, to the Mississippi, with take-out in Hannibal, Mo., July 28-Aug. 4.

Cost of $150 includes camping with showers, baggage shuttle, power-boat escort, entertainment and farewell party. Shuttle from the end point to starting point is $25 apiece for people and boats.

Relaxing on the Root River

In Minnesota's bluff country, Lanesboro is known for paddling as well as bicycling.

Rent a tube or boat from Root River Outfitters, which provides shuttles. For more, see By river and trail in Lanesboro.

Anyone can camp in Sylvan Park, right in the middle of everything, or in the Riverview campground, above the dam.

There are showers in the Community Center, and on Saturday mornings, there's a farmers market where you can buy Amish pastries for breakfast. Camping is first-come, first-served, $20 for tent sites, and $30 for RVs.

The beach at Ruttger's resort in Bemidji.

© Beth Gauper

At Ruttger's, inexpensive lodge rooms face the resort's long sand beach on Lake Bemidji.

Lake resorts

A classic in Bemidji

In the northern Minnesota town of Bemidji, there's only one cottage resort left on the shores of Lake Bemidji.

It's Ruttger's Birchmont Lodge, run by the Ruttger family since 1937. The small rooms in its 1921 lodge overlook the lake and beach and are the region's best lake deal on weekdays, often $75 or less. The best deals come at the last minute.

Rates include a large breakfast buffet and use of the facilities, which include an indoor pool. Lake Bemidji State Park and the Paul Bunyan State Trail are just around the corner.

For more, see Lake break in Bemidji and Bicycling around Lake Bemidji.

Fun in town

Hike and bike from West Duluth

In Duluth, Canal Park gets all the tourist love, but there’s actually more to do in West Duluth – paddling the St. Louis River, bicycling the Willard Munger State Trail, walking and birding on the Western Waterfront Trail and hiking the Duluth sections of the Superior Hiking Trail.

Inline skater on trail in Winona

© Beth Gauper

Near Winona's Sugarloaf, a five-mile trail circles Lake Winona.

You can avoid the high rates of Canal Park hotels by staying at the Willard Munger Inn, where guests get shuttles to trailheads in Duluth, free use of canoes and bicycles and a free pass to the Lake Superior Zoo, across the street.

It's not hard to get a room for less than $100. To save even more, camp at the nearby Indian Point Campground.

For more, see Duluth's other waterfront.

Playing on Lake Winona

In the southeast Minnesota town of Winona, you can check out kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddleboards from Lake Lodge Recreation Center on the east end of Lake Winona. You just need a $16 yearly membership.

In summer, it's open noon to 8 p.m. daily.

You can camp up in Great River Bluffs State Park, which has breathtaking views of the river valley.

For more, see Afloat in Winona.

Skaters and bicyclists use the Munger State Trail.

© Beth Gauper

The Willard Munger State Trail starts in West Duluth.

Hostels and bunkhouses

A renovated barn near Grand Marais

In summer and fall, Grand Marais is packed with tourists, and it can be hard to find a room at any price. One new option: the Hungry Hippie Farm hostel in a refurbished barn.

It's 10 miles east of town and up County Road 14, just a mile off the Superior Hiking Trail. Rates are $25 for a single bunk and $59 for a private room, including linens, towels and morning coffee. In one room, pets are allowed for an extra $20.

For more about the area, see Four seasons of Grand Marais.

A hostel in Itasca State Park

In the middle of one of Minnesota's favorite state parks, the Mississippi Headwaters Hostel provides a comfortable place to stay.

It's just off Lake Itasca, across from the canoe landing and sports rental, and it has 31 beds in six bedrooms, common rooms and a large, well-designed kitchen.

For members of Hostelling International, the cost is $26 per person ($18 for youths up to 14) in a six-bed room, or $88 for a private room for four people. Non-members pay $3 more. The cost includes linen and towels. Reserve as early as possible at 218-266-3415.

BWCA from a bunkhouse

Two resorts on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area allow guests to stay for $22-$25 per person in bunkhouses while taking day trips into the wilderness or just relaxing on a lake.

At the end of the Gunflint Trail, Tuscarora Lodge on Round Lake rents nine bunkhouses in the woods, each sleeping four to nine people, that share a shower house. Cost is $22 per person, plus $7 for a shower with towel. Each bunkhouse is rented to only one party at a time, 800-544-3843.

Twenty-two miles east of Ely, Kawishiwi Lodge and Outfitters is on Lake One, an entry point into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The resort has two bunkhouses, each with full kitchen and bath and one with screened porch, where beds go for $35 per person, with a $140 minimum.

One bunkhouse sleeps nine and one sleeps eight, and each is rented to only one party at a time. 218-365-5487.

For more, see Minnesota's Boundary Waters and Adventure on the Gunflint Trail.

Work and stay

Many north-woods lodges and retreat centers offer a free stay in return for work, though they're most common in spring and late fall.

The municipal campground in Grand Marais.

© Beth Gauper

Pitch in at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais and get a free campsite on Lake Superior.

Learning in Grand Marais

On the harbor, North House Folk School offers course credit and a free campsite in return for help with daily chores, such as sweeping, mopping and recycling.

The campground is next-door at the Grand Marais Recreation Area Campground.

For more, see Four seasons of Grand Marais.

Trail maintenance

Also in Grand Marais, the Superior Hiking Trail Association often offers free camping and meals in return for trail work.

Music festivals

Camping at a music festival is a time-honored way to have fun on a budget, although some of the bigger fests can get pretty rowdy. Here are some lower-key fests that are especially family-friendly.

For more, check our list of 2018 music festivals.

Camping on the Crow

The family-friendly RiverSong Music Festival on the Crow River features folk, blues, jazz and other grassroots music on three stages, including one for children.

In 2018, it's July 13-14 in Hutchinson, west of the Twin Cities. 

Bluegrass and string-band music

Twenty miles west of St. Cloud, the family-friendly Minnesota Bluegrass & Old-time Music Festival includes music on five stages and workshops at El Rancho Mañana Campground.

It's Aug. 9-12 in 2018, the 39th year it's been held.

Bicyclists in Whitewater State Park.

© Beth Gauper

At the group center in Whitewater State Park, the Minnesota Rovers get ready for bicycling.

Going with a group

Traveling with an outdoors club is one of the best deals you can get. You need to be a member to go on overnight trips, but you don’t need to live in the town where the club is based; you can meet the group at the destination.

Outdoors clubs

One club known for its penny-pinching ways is the Minnesota Rovers Outdoors Club, based in the Twin Cities. It offers camping trips to Minnesota’s North Shore for as little as $15; you bring your own food, but you can borrow gear from the club if you're a member.

Membership is $25, $10 for those who live outside the Twin Cities metro area.

It also offers beginner’s trips to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for  $85-$100. A few spots on trips often are saved for new members, but watch the trip list and sign up ASAP.

For more about traveling with outdoors clubs around the region, see Join the club.

Lodges in state parks

Six state parks — Whitewater near Rochester, Sibley near New London, Lake Carlos near Alexandria, St. Croix near Hinckley, Flandrau near New Ulm and Lake Shetek near Walnut Grove — rent large group centers where indoor lodgings can cost as little as $5 per person per night.

They're very popular for summer weekends, so be ready when reservations open.

Many environmental centers also rent to groups. For more, see Cabins for a crowd.

Many other state parks rent lodgings for smaller groups. For more, see Lodgings in Minnesota state parks.


Last updated on March 20, 2018