MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest


Camping in state parks

Pay attention to the window if you want to reserve a prime spot at peak times.

So this year, you got a great campsite in your favorite state park. Or maybe you didn't.

A lot of people vie for places in the most popular parks — Peninsula and Devil's Lake in Wisconsin, Split Rock and Itasca in Minnesota, all of the beach parks in Michigan.

The people who get them know how to work the angles. Mainly, that means knowing when to reserve.

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In the shadow of the Giant

In a provincial park wrapped by Lake Superior, campers exult in beauty.

On the northwest corner of Lake Superior, a 1,000-foot-high sleeping giant stretches across the horizon.

It’s mesmerized onlookers for millennia. In 2007, Canadian Broadcasting Corp. listeners voted it No. 1 of Seven Wonders of Canada, far outpolling Niagara Falls.

From Hillcrest Park in Thunder Bay, it looks exactly like a cigar-store Indian, with a square jaw and arms folded over a powerful chest.

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Camping without roughing it

Here are 15 state parks close to all the comforts: restaurants, shops, golf courses, even nightlife.

Even if you camp, you don't have to rough it.

A lot of state parks have plenty of woods, water and wildlife, but they're also just a short bike ride or walk away from the finer things in life — say, a pizza parlor or ice-cream stand.

Nearby restaurants make packing easy because you can leave the pots, dishes, soap and firewood home. Even if you like cooking over a fire, it's still nice to go out for a treat.

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30 great campsites

These spots have what campers want: location, location, location.

There's nothing like finding the perfect campsite.

I look for them wherever I go, and when I was at Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest, one of the most popular campgrounds in Wisconsin, I found it: Campsite 435.

It's framed but not enclosed by trees, has a lovely view of Crystal Lake and is on the edge of its sand beach. It's near the shower house and not too close to latrines, easy to reach but not heavily trafficked and off a paved bicycle trail to nearby towns.

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A roof in the woods

In state and county parks and forests, visitors love their camper cabins.

For people who love the outdoors, luxury is in the eye of the beholder.

Is it a Jacuzzi or a latrine? A four-course breakfast or a fire ring?

The answer is not so obvious. If the choice also includes starry skies, silence and snow-laden pines, many folks would take a camper cabin over a fancy inn, even if they have to use vault toilets and cook over a fire.

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Camping around Lake Michigan

For a beach vacation on a budget, stay at cabins and campgrounds in state parks.

No summer vacation is more fun than a Circle Tour of one of the Great Lakes — and nothing is more of a pain than planning one.

Fans of sand and sun love Lake Michigan, which is lined by state and city parks with gorgeous stretches of sand and dunes. You can’t buy a better beach vacation at any price, but you have to plan ahead.

Planning is tricky because you pass through four states, 30 state parks and two big metropolitan areas, each of which floods beaches with hordes of sun-worshippers on weekends.

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Camping in the Twin Cities

For many, a lake vacation is a hop, skip and jump from home.

Not all of the beach camping in the Upper Midwest is in a state park or even in the countryside.

In the suburbs around the Twin Cities,  county park systems and park reserves offer wooded campsites and camper cabins. Many are near lakes or rivers, and others are close to bicycle trails or golf courses.

They’re a great deal for visitors and also for locals who want to save gas money and travel time.

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A yen for yurts

Cozy camping huts have come to the Midwest from Mongolia, with love.

Yurts have popped up all over the Midwest, from Michigan to Iowa and now, to Minnesota state parks.

Seven new yurts have joined 88 camper cabins in Minnesota parks and recreation areas. Two are in Afton State Park on the St. Croix River, near St. Paul.

Two are at Glendalough State Park in west-central lakes country, near Battle Lake. And three are in Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area, the mountain-biking destination between Brainerd and Mille Lacs.

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How to find the best campsites

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

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.

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Getting away from mosquitoes

In the bluffs of southeast Minnesota, breathe a sigh of relief.

Had it with mosquitoes? Head for southeast Minnesota.

That's karst country, where porous limestone lies just under the surface and rain sinks into fast-moving underground streams that are chilled to 48 degrees when they run through the many cave systems.

Trout like it, but mosquitoes don't. There's no standing water, so there's nowhere for them to breed.

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A yurt on an Iowa lake

In Clear Lake, a weekend stay is so simple, it's hardly camping.

One June, I was a very lazy camper.

I threw a sleeping bag and pillow into the car and drove two hours down Interstate 35 to Clear Lake, Iowa. I didn’t bother to solicit company; in early June, most people where I live want to go north, not south.

It was their loss. McIntosh Woods State Park is on one of Iowa’s most popular lakes, a big expanse of sparkling water that was scoured out by glaciers and sits above the surrounding countryside, catching breezes on hot days.

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Camping in Kandiyohi

West of the Twin Cities, county parks provide easy access to beach life.

In Kandiyohi County, it's thanks to the last Ice Age that life's a beach today.

Near Willmar, a lobe of the last glacier came to a grinding halt 12,000 years ago, dumping massive blocks of ice that made big dents in the ground.

Now, they're lakes, popping up like mirages at the edge of soybean fields, behind screens of ash and cottonwoods. Farther north, they're hidden amid rocky meadows and rolling hillocks full of glacial rubble.

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What to bring on a camping trip

Here's how to keep your packing list short but still have what you need.

Tent camping is the best deal in travel. You can go at the last minute, you get the most scenic locations and you pay a pittance.

It's too bad about all that stuff you have to bring along.

Some super-organized people love to pack gear and have most of it ready to go after the last camping trip. But most of us aren't that kind of person.

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