Camping in state parks
Pay attention to the window if you want to reserve a prime spot at peak times.
© Beth Gauper
Devil's Lake is the most-visited state park in Wisconsin.
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.
In Michigan, you can snag a choice campsite for July in January. But in Minnesota, you have to reserve the previous July, and in Wisconsin, the previous August.
In Illinois, you can reserve 180 days in advance, in Ontario, five months, and in Iowa, three months.
If you're able to arrive at least an extra day before holiday weekends — Memorial Day is the busiest camping weekend of the year — your reservation window opens earlier and you have a much better chance to getting a good spot.
If you're looking for a cabin, yurt, guesthouse or lodge, they can be reserved a year in advance, except in Wisconsin. For more, see A roof in the woods.
Most state parks, with the exception of Minnesota and the most popular Lake Michigan
beach parks in Michigan, also have some first-come, first-served sites.
If you arrive on a bicycle, especially later in the day, nearly every state park will find a place for your tent.
Sites in state and national forests, along riverways and bike trails and in county and city campgrounds also are generally first-come, first served. For more, see How to find the best campsites.
But if you want to plan ahead, here's how to do it.
In Wisconsin, campsites can be reserved 11 months in advance. The most in-demand campsites are in Peninsula and Devil's Lake state parks, which also have the highest campsite and vehicle-permit fees, and the Crystal Lake and Clear Lake campgrounds of Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest near Minocqua.
© Beth Gauper
In Split Rock State Park, campsite 16 has its own bench facing the lighthouse.
Reserve at online or at 888-947-2757. There's a $7.75 reservation fee (waived for same-day reservations). Same-day reservations can be made online or by phone in 15 state parks, including Devil's Lake, Mirror Lake, Peninsula, Big Foot Beach and Potawatomi.
If you're not able to reserve far in advance, two of the most popular camping forests have many non-reservable sites: Northern Highland-American Legion and Kettle Moraine Southern Unit near Whitewater.
All of the sites at Tower Hill State Park near Spring Green and Governor Knowles State Forest near Grantsburg are first-come, first-served, as well as sites along the Elroy-Sparta State Trail.
At most of its state parks, Wisconsin charges vehicle-permit fees of $8 daily and $28 annual for residents, $11 daily and $38 annual for non-residents. In Devil's Lake State Park, the daily fees are $13 and $16; in Peninsula and Willow River state parks, they are $10 and $13.
Campsite reservations in Minnesota state parks can be made a year in advance.
Split Rock Lighthouse, which has a very scenic location on the North Shore but few sites, is the hardest-to-get reservation.
Other popular camping parks include Temperance River, Tettegouche, Gooseberry Falls, Cascade River and Judge C.R. Magney, all on the North Shore; Itasca, around the Mississippi headwaters; Sibley, near New London; McCarthy Beach, near Hibbing; Bear Head Lake, near Ely; and Jay Cooke, near Duluth.
On the very popular North Shore, you'll have the best chance at Crosby Manitou State Park, which is not along the lake and has only carry-in sites.
All campsites in Minnesota
state parks can be reserved, and campers can make same-day reservations.
Reservations can be made online or by phone, starting at 8 a.m. on the first day of
There's a non-refundable reservation fee of $10 by phone, $8.50 online.
Vehicle permits are $5 daily, $25 annual.
In Michigan state parks, campsites can be reserved six months in advance. On the first day of availability, reservations can be made at 8 a.m. weekdays, 9 a.m. weekends.
Reservation fee is $8. Reserve at Michigan DNR Reservations, 800-447-2757.
© Beth Gauper
Many of the campsites in Leelanau State Park, at the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula, have views of Lake Michigan.
campgrounds, particularly at beach parks on the west coast of Lake
Michigan, 100 percent of sites can be reserved, so it's crucial to
Eighteen Michigan state parks line the sandy shores of Lake Michigan between Mackinaw City and the Indiana border. Among the most popular: Traverse City, Orchard Beach, Ludington, Holland and Warren Dunes.
It's much easier to reserve on the Upper Peninsula. J.W. Wells State Park, between the Wisconsin border and Escanaba, has a beautiful beach on Lake Michigan.
For more, see Camping around Lake Michigan.
Michigan residents get an annual vehicle sticker for $11. Non-residents pay $9 daily, $31 annual.
Ontario has a lot of gorgeous provincial parks. Many are along Lake Superior, including Kakabeka Falls, Rainbow Falls, Neys, Lake Superior and Pancake Bay.
© Beth Gauper
Campers can swim and kayak from sites in Marie Louise Lake Campground in Sleeping Giant Provincial Park.
The most spectacular is Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, on the long peninsula that creates Thunder Bay's harbor, one of Canada's most famous natural features. Modern and rustic sites are on the large Marie Louise Lake.
Visitors pay daily vehicle-permit fees of $11.25-$20.
The reservation fee is $4 if made online and $6 if made by phone.
All of the parks have some walk-in sites, and two-thirds have 50 percent non-reservable sites.
The most popular camping parks include Lewis and Clark near the Missouri River; Lake Ahquabi near Indianola; Emerson Bay on West Okoboji Lake; and, in the bluffs of eastern Iowa, Backbone and Maquoketa Caves.
Iowa state parks do not require a vehicle permit.
The most popular camping parks are Chain O' Lakes, Illinois Beach, Kankakee River, Rock Cut, Shabbona Lake and Starved Rock, all in northern Illinois.
Illinois state parks do not require a vehicle permit.
Last updated on April 30, 2019