DULUTH -- Memorial Day weekend is nearly here, the unofficial kickoff of the summer camping season, and you are ready to load the family wagon and pitch a tent, or maybe crank open the old pop-up camper.
So where do you want to go?
Jay Cooke State Park? Sorry, campground full. Split Rock? Tettegouche? Gooseberry Falls? Lake Vermilion? Bear Head Lake? Full. Full. Full. Full. Full.
In fact, almost all of Minnesota’s most popular state park campgrounds are booked, and have been since late January, 120 days before Memorial Day weekend. That’s the most time you can reserve a Minnesota State Park campground in advance.
So now is a good time to book for late September.
Judging by how many campsites already are booked most of the summer, it appears the 2020 pandemic-fueled push to get outdoors is continuing big-time in 2021. But there are other options — private campgrounds, RV parks, national forests, municipal campgrounds and more. And if you're willing to drive a little and maybe try some new locations, there are still available campsites in the state park system for the upcoming long weekend. You’ll have to head south into farm country to find a park that still has openings for this weekend — places like Upper Sioux Agency, Camden and Lac qui Parle state parks all had some Memorial Day weekend sites as of earlier this week.
How about the Fourth of July weekend? Pretty much the same issue; the hotspot destinations were reserved back in March. But a few state parks still had openings as of earlier this week, including Crow Wing State Park on the Mississippi River near Brainerd (better hurry, those will go fast) and Mille Lacs Kathio.
Savanna Portage State Park near McGregor — with hiking trails, a swimming beach and fishing — had about a dozen drive-in sites available earlier this week for the July 4 weekend. Like the southern state parks, you may not have heard of it. But trying new camping options can be fun, too.
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Savanna Portage has nearly 16,800 acres of old-growth hardwoods, tamaracks, trails and glacial lakes. The water at the Continental Divide here flows west into the Mississippi River and east into Lake Superior. Anglers enjoy the four fishing lakes’ panfish, trout, and bass. Hiking trails into the woods often provide glimpses of wildlife, the lakes are home to loons and waterfowl, and the bogs attract small animals and songbirds.
There are openings as most state park campgrounds at times this summer if you are willing and able to be flexible with your dates. Maybe go camping Wednesday through Friday, or Sunday through Tuesday, if your schedule allows.
More on Minnesota state park camping
All campsites at Minnesota state parks must be reserved in advance — there are no first- come, first-served sites available.
To check for Minnesota state park campground availability and to make reservations, go to dnr.state.mn.us and click on "state parks," then "make a reservation." You can plug in a specific park to check availability or plug in the dates you want to go camping and see which campgrounds have openings.
You can make a reservation — up to 120 days before your first camping date — on the website or call 866-857-2757. There is a $7 fee to make a reservation online and $10 to make a reservation by phone. There is no fee to make a same-day reservation.
A $35 year-round state park vehicle permit is required and provides unlimited visits to all 75 Minnesota state parks and recreation areas for a full year from the month of purchase.
Overnight camping fees, in addition to the vehicle permit, range from $20 to $25 per night, depending on amenities like flush toilets and showers. Add $10 per night for electric hookup where available and $8 per night for water and sewer hookup where available. Group campsites, for up to 30 people and six vehicles, range from $50 to $300 nightly. Tipis and wall tents are $35-$40 per night, while yurts are $65-$70 per night.
The state park website also has useful lists for first-time campers and information on the "I Can" series of field classes for beginners in camping, paddling, mountain biking, fishing and other activities.
Other camping options
Private campgrounds/RV Parks
There are hundreds of such campgrounds across the region. You can go to exploreminnesota.com/places-to-stay/campgrounds and click on private campgrounds by region. (Plug in Northeastern Minnesota and 110 private campground options pop up. But you have to contact the actual site to find out availability.)
Campgroundreviews.com lists an astonishing 515 campgrounds and RV parks in Minnesota with reviews and information on most of them, but again no way to check on date availability.
Another option, Campspot.com can help you find them. Plug in Spooner, Wisconsin, (or wherever) and the dates you want to go and sites will pop up that are available, listed by how far they are from your point of search.
We first told you about the glamping website hipcamp.com back in 2019. It’s a place where you can reserve furnished yurts and clear plastic bubbles to watch the stars and tiny houses (even a former chicken coop in Duluth!) to stay in. Hipcamp encourages and recruits private landowners to open up space — in their backyard, along their lake, river, farm or ranch — for campers to rent. It then lists and promotes those sites, along with most public campgrounds, to prospective campers. But they also have many campsites and campgrounds listed. Just go to hipcamp.com and type in an area where you want to go anywhere in the country. It’s cool.
Minnesota State Forest campsites
There are 46 state forest campgrounds in Minnesota state forests (most of them in Northeastern Minnesota) and all the sites are on a first-come, first-served basis with no reservations, so you will have to stop by to see if space is available. They tend to be a bit more primitive than state park campgrounds and do not have resident managers, organized nature programs or modern facilities such as showers and flush toilets. They do have cleared tent or campers areas, vault (pit) toilets, garbage cans, drinking water, fire rings and picnic tables. To see where the state forest campgrounds are located, go to dnr.state.mn.us/state_forests/camping.html. Registration is required via envelopes provided at each campground. Nightly camping is $17; $50 for a group site.
Wisconsin state parks
Go to dnr.wisconsin.gov/topic/Parks. Camping reservations are required and can be made for the same day of your arrival or up to 11 months in advance of your planned date of occupancy. Campers must make a reservation before setting up on any site. Reserve a campsite online at wisconsin.goingtocamp.com or by calling 1-888-947-2757. In addition to nightly camping fees a vehicle permit is required. It’s $28 for Wisconsin resident vehicles ($13 for resident seniors) and $38 for out of state vehicles.
Superior National Forest
The home of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is also home to 27 drive-to campgrounds. But like state parks, they fill up fast for popular weekends. Most are on a lake, a few are on rivers, all are in wooded areas with fairly well-spaced campsites. You’ll find drinking water and vault toilets at most, along with boat landings, some fishing docks and hiking trails. Go to recreation.gov and search Superior National Forest. You can book up to six months in advance.
Chippewa National Forest
The forest has 21 drive-to campgrounds (and 100 backcountry camping sites) many of which are on or near some of Minnesota’s best fishing lakes. Also part of the federal reservation system at recreation.gov.
Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest
The northern Wisconsin forest has 25 drive-to campgrounds. Recreation.gov.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sites
Drive-to campgrounds located at Lake Winnibigoshish Dam, Leech Lake Dam and Pokegama Lake Dam that are hugely popular with fishing families. Go to recreation.gov.
Voyageurs National Park
You’ll need a boat, canoe or kayak to camp here, but it won’t be next weekend. Out of 147 water-access campsites in the park, only three were available as of early this week. But if you could start your trip on Memorial Day we found nearly 50 open campsites for a three-night or longer trip. Same goes for July Fourth weekend if you can start on the following Monday. Voyageurs' 147 campsites are spread out across more than a dozen lakes with another 14 that require a backpack hike in. Permits are $12 to $35 per night. Most sites are on the big lakes of Rainy, Namakan, Kabetogama and Sand Point. All have pit toilets, picnic tables and fire pits. Some have docks or sand beaches to land your boat. Go to recreation.gov and search Voyageurs National Park.
Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
As of early this week there were still a very few permits left for the BWCAW for Memorial Day weekend for a handful of less-popular entry points or unusual permits, like being able only to canoe on Lac La Croix. Go to recreation.gov and search for BWCAW and click on “Explore Available Permits.”
But contrary to popular belief that all BWCAW permits are gobbled up in January, earlier this week we found more than 50 available overnight paddle permits if you are willing and able to start your trip on Memorial Day rather than end it then. Be flexible and you can find open dates.
A word of caution here, the BWCAW is not a resort or RV park. You must be entirely self-sufficient, including finding your way in and out. You need the proper equipment — including a lightweight canoe and lightweight camping gear — and you need to follow the rules. If you have not made a BWCAW trip before, please find someone who knows the ropes to go with you, hire a guide or set up your trip through an outfitter.
Isle Royale National Park
The island park on Lake Superior has 36 campgrounds located across the island. Campsites are accessible only by foot (backpack hiking/camping only) or watercraft. All campgrounds offer tent sites, a source of water and outhouses. Some campgrounds on Lake Superior offer shelters and picnic tables. For boaters and parties of six or fewer, overnight permits are free. Backpackers hike from one campground to another, usually traveling 6-8 miles per day. Isle Royale National Park requires an overnight permit from all who stay in the campgrounds, at dock, or who anchor out in a boat. The permits are used to monitor campground use, deliver emergency messages to hiking parties, find lost campers, and serve as a tool to measure backcountry use. There is no fee for the permit, but there is a required entry fee for all park visitors. Camping fees are $7 per person, per night. Typically, extensive planning is required for an Isle Royale trip since you can only get there by plane or ferry, which can be booked well in advance. The campsites are not reservable at recreation.gov. For more information call (906) 482-0984 or go to nps.gov/isro/planyourvisit/camping.htm.
For information on passenger ferry service to the island, go to nps.gov/isro/planyourvisit/ferry-transportation-services.htm.
Only parties of seven people or more can reserve campgrounds. If you plan to camp alone or with only a few other people, you need to find a campsite early each day. The summer season is busy and popular campgrounds will fill quickly. Most campgrounds are designed for small camping parties and have only a handful of sites. If you arrive at a campsite and it is already claimed, the National Park Service suggests you ask the current campers if they mind if you camp there, too. Most campsites will be large enough to accommodate both groups.