3 Last-Minute Camping Options

Plan a camping trip on the fly—Minnesota’s good for it

Photo by Rick Obst/Flickr

Sunday: Your Facebook friend gloat-posts about camping in Gooseberry Falls. You decide it was a mistake not to plan a camping trip this summer.

Monday: You decide to plan a camping trip this summer.

Those enviable North Shore destinations are all booked. But this is Minnesota. There are ways to get out camping by Monday evening—or, if you need time to, you know, get ready and stuff, later in the week works, too.

Here are some tips for last-minute camping endeavors:

1. Forget “first-come, first-served” campsites. Try same-day reservation.

No one wants to arrive, bags packed, to find another family in their spot. Thus, no more “first-come, first-served” sites in state parks, said the Department of Natural Resources in 2016. Too unpredictable. Those locations—up to 30 percent of campsites in the state—are now open to reserve online, including on the day you get there. (Midnight the night before is no longer the cut-off.) Book before you leave, though, as internet and cell phone reception might become spotty.

You can also use the Campnab app to scan sold-out campgrounds for cancellations. It shoots you a text message as soon as one opens up. (The developers just recently added Minnesota’s state parks.)

Get your vehicle permit online, too—required for state parks. Permits are just $7 for one day or $35 for year-round access to all state parks. Pretty good, right? (Thank the Legacy Amendment.)

Example: There are plenty, many just a few hours from the Twin Cities. Take Banning State Park (about an hour and 20 minutes northeast). You might have trouble same-day reserving a camper cabin. But if you already have a tent or trailer and sleeping bags, nab a spot on the campgrounds. During the day, explore the Quarry Loop Trail and see beautiful ruins: quarry buildings and sandstone rock formations, overgrown with greenery. Then swing by Wolf Creek Falls. There’s drive-in and carry-in boat access, plus showers so you can wash off before bed.

2. Skip the state parks and adventure into forests and backcountry campsites.

True-blue Minnesotan campers know this already: State parks are only part of the story. The more secluded, more roughin’-it option? Our many state and national forests.

You’re roughin’ it ’cause there’s probably no running water, no flush toilets, no garbage pick-up. But also no fee. Generally, these spots are “first-come, first-served.” Without strict allotments, you can pretty much pitch a tent wherever on the campgrounds.

You’ll also enjoy greater privacy. Most campers flock to the state parks. And if you get a backcountry spot, that means it’s isolated—rather than another link in a chain of sites. Backcountry locations require boating or hiking to reach, with space for a tent, a campfire ring, often a picnic table, and some kind of open-pit latrine. They make great canoeing destinations, if the thrust of your trip is to get a paddle wet.

Example: Along the Kettle River near Hinckley, you can drag your canoe up to 21 different campsites on wooded outskirts, close to hiking trails, great for birdwatching, fishing, and quiet.

3. Check out private renters on Hipcamp or Airbnb.

In days before the internet, people didn’t know what their campsites would look like. They just arrived. To an extent, this is still true. You’ll drift up to a backcountry spot prepped with just an online description. The age of Airbnb has upped expectations, and Hipcamp is camping’s answer.

Privately owned sites are good for uniqueness and “glamping.” Leave it to Minnesotans to get creative with outdoor amenities.

Examples: On Stone Creek Farm near Taylors Falls, there’s a yurt-style tent, $35 per night, as well as a clear, igloo-like dome for stargazing, $89 per night.

Near Winona, there’s a llama and alpaca farm with camping space in a forested area, $20 per night, as well as a creek-side ranch retreat in the Mississippi River Valley, $20 per night.

Near Fergus Falls, there’s a secluded site near a pond and a small apple orchard, $10 per night, as well as a wooded spot minutes from Maplewood State Park, Detroit Lakes, and Fergus Falls, $25 per night.

No dice? Just get a daily permit for the state parks.

You don’t have to spend the night. Get your vehicle permit online or at any station before a park. You can spend a full day hiking, biking, paddling, or geocaching and then roll back by evening.

If this doesn’t sate your appetite, look into booking a North Shore retreat for next summer right now—and don’t be shy to reserve even two years in advance for some of the sparkliest options. (Split Rock Lighthouse, here you come.)

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