Experience the Unique Campsites of Northwest Minnesota
By Cinnamon Janzer
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Northwest Minnesota is where the iconic Great Plains prairie meets the uniquely Upper Midwestern north woods. When the daily grind becomes too much, slip away to northwest Minnesota’s idyllic lakes, the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi and towering hardwood forests.
If a little R&R is what you’re after, camping in this region is just what the doctor ordered. From private campgrounds to state parks, there are tons of options for every type of camper. All you have to do is pack up your car (or your RV) and go!
Lake Bronson State Park
The furthest northwest state park in Minnesota, Lake Bronson has a little something for everyone. Visit the park office to rent a boat (paddle or electric-powered) and spend time on its namesake lake, or climb the park's Works Progress Administration-built observation tower for spectacular views of the region's prairie-meets-forest landscape. The park is a major hub for geocaching; visitors who want to try their hand at this modern-day treasure hunt can check out a GPS unit for free from the park office. Lake Bronson is also a haven for birders, while lucky guests who find themselves camping at just the right time might even spot a moose.
Each of the 150+ drive-in campsites at Lake Bronson State Park has its own picnic table and fire ring for s’mores and chili galore, and most of them are well shaded from the summer sun. For visitors who prefer more protection from the elements than a tent can provide, the park allows RVs up to 50 feet long to transform camping into glamping.
Itasca State Park
Home to the famous headwaters of the Mississippi River, Itasca State Park offers visitors a chance to tiptoe across the legendary river’s first gentle rushes of water—an experience that draws more than half a million people to the park each year. Commemorating the beginning of its long journey south, a massive tree stump inscribed with bright yellow letters marks the official beginning of the river and makes finding the spot where Lake Itasca filters into it a breeze.
Established in 1891, Itasca is Minnesota’s oldest state park and remains one of the largest, clocking in at 32,000 acres. Narrated boat excursions on Lake Itasca provide fascinating history lessons and potential wildlife sightings, while the Mary Gibbs Visitor Center highlights the history and significance of the mighty Mississippi in Minnesota. When it comes to spending the night, there are over 200 campsites to choose from, plus other accommodation options including a hostel and several log cabins.
Chippewa National Forest
This national forest is smattered with hardwood trees and is located right where the prairie meets the boreal forest. Of the 1.6 million acres that compose Chippewa National Forest, over 400,000 acres are wetlands thanks to its location at the headwaters of both the Mississippi River and Hudson Bay. The forest is also home to Minnesota's infamous Lost Forty, a 40-acre site composed old-growth red pine, white spruce and balsam fir that remains standing today thanks mainly to a mapping error in 1882 that mistakenly plotted the area as wetlands instead of forest. The Lost Forty is one of the Chippewa National Forest's most popular day hikes.
Most overnight guests will prefer the forest’s 21 developed campsites—some rustic and others with modern amenities—but as a national forest, there are also several hundred simply maintained backcountry sites. Additionally, there’s always the option of dispersed camping outside of any established campsite.
Look toward the sky during the day and you're likely to see a bald eagle or two while you’re there—the forest contains the largest breeding population of these majestic predators in the lower 48. After the sun goes down, keep your gaze pointed up and you may even catch glimpses of the magically luminous northern lights as you sleep under the stars.
Stompin’ Grounds ATV Lodge and Campgrounds
For a uniquely Minnesotan camping experience, spend a few nights at Stompin’ Grounds in the Paul Bunyan State Forest near Akeley. Stompin’ Grounds has miles and miles of trails developed specifically for motorized vehicles from snowmobiles in the winter to ATVs and dirt bikes in the summer, making it the perfect outdoorsy getaway for adventure sports enthusiasts of all stripes. For some non-motorized fun, there are horseback riding trails, too. The venue also boasts a restaurant and bar of the same name that covers breakfast, happy hour, dinner and everything in between.
Long Lake Park and Campground
The slogan of this 91-site campground nestled in Clearwater County near Bagley is, “the door to a paradise of camping and outdoor experience,” and it truly lives up to the catchphrase. From mid-May through mid-September, visitors can partake in a variety of outdoor activities at Long Lake Park, from fishing for rainbow trout to hiking well-worn nature trails to swimming and even scuba diving.
Long Lake’s campsites are vast, grassy spots surrounded by pine trees, with amenities ranging from electric and water hookups to back-to-the-basics primitive sites. Handicap and group campsites are also available. Stay on a weekend for a special treat: Ice cream socials are held every Saturday night.
Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis who writes broadly about culture, business and travel. Her words have been published in National Geographic, New York magazine, The Washington Post, Fast Company, Eater and USA Today.
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