By Trent Jonas
Minnesota is a wilderness lover’s paradise, but not all of the state’s most beautiful areas are ideal for families who want to camp. Fortunately, there are plenty of family-friendly campgrounds that will keep the kids interested and the adults happy. Here are some favorites!
Only half an hour from the Twin Cities—which hastens the answer to the “Are we there yet?”s from the backseat—Lake Auburn Campground feels like a world away. It’s a rustic campground, so there is no electricity, which makes for an authentic-feeling camping experience. Moreover, this lakeside campground has a swimming beach, play equipment, and offers canoe and kayak rentals for those who want to explore the lake by paddle, looking for loons, trumpeter swans, or ospreys.
As part of the Three Rivers Park District’s Carver Park Reserve, Lake Auburn Campground is connected by paved trails—which make for easy biking or walking—to the Lowry Nature Center, Grimm Farm Historic Site, or the King Waterbird Sanctuary. The trails meander through gorgeous wooded terrain and skirt the edges of interconnected lakes and marshes. Keep your eyes peeled for white tail deer or barred owls.
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Straddling the St. Croix River, Interstate State Park is cooperatively managed by Minnesota and Wisconsin, and the Minnesota side is, itself, divided into two units. The lower campground is more open and exposed. For those who like to be among the trees and with a wilder view of the river, head for the campground closer to Taylors Falls.
From here, campers can enjoy any of several spots overlooking the river where it moves through basalt gorges known as “dalles.” For climbing families, there are plenty of marked climbing and bouldering routes in the park. The awesome climbing is due to the unique geology of Interstate, which derives a from more than 10 ancient lava flows and two discrete glacial depositis. Not into climbing? Grab a fishing rod and try to land a monster bass or sturgeon. Families can also rent a canoe from the upper unit and spend an afternoon paddling to the lower unit, across from Osceola, Wisconsin, then grab a shuttle bus back to camp.
Itasca State Park is the oldest park in the state system. At 32,000 acres, the park includes more that 100 lakes, but its namesake is particularly significant: it’s where the Mississippi River begins its journey of more than 2,500 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. The park has several campgrounds, as well as camper cabins and the state park system’s only guest lodge, offering families numerous choices of accommodation.
Kids will love wading into the tiny stream that pours from one end of Lake Itasca and becomes the Mississippi River. Hike through the Wilderness Sanctuary to see some of Minnesota’s tallest old-growth trees or climb a fire tower for spectacular views of the park and lakes. Pontoon, canoe, and kayak rentals let you explore the park at lake level. Explore the area’s history by visiting one of Itasca’s Native American sites or historic cabins. There is so much to do at this park that a weekend may not prove to be enough time.
Gooseberry Falls is one of Minnesota’s most popular state parks—and for good reason. It has miles of relatively easy hiking and biking trails (some paved), as well as the gorgeous series of cascades carved out by the Gooseberry River as it steps down to Lake Superior. The rocky, yet smooth, Lake Superior shoreline makes for an leisurely lakeside walks or scrambles over boulders.
The campground at Gooseberry is near the mouth of the river, tucked into the woods near the shoreline. This affords some privacy from the rest of the park, as well as Lake Superior vistas and gorgeous night skies for stargazing or simply watching the moon rise over the lake. The park offers interactive interpretive programs in the campground, but campers can also pop in to the park’s updated visitor center for films, slideshows, or talks about the ecosystem, geology, and history of Gooseberry Falls State Park. Feel like exploring? Check out a GPS unit and do some geocaching. Because of the park’s popularity, it’s always a good idea to reserve a spot well in advance, but if you’re feeling lucky, state parks usually hold back a few sites for walk-up campers.
Forestville Mystery Cave State Park highlights the rugged beauty of Southeast Minnesota’s Bluff Country, part of the geological “Driftless Region” that was missed by glaciers, leaving limestone bluffs, and deep, forested river valleys. In addition to hiking the bluffline and riverside trails, visitors to this park can fish in three of Minnesota’s premier trout streams for native brook or brown trout.
Kids will also love going back in time—both geologically and historically. Mystery Cave is the state’s longest cave, and tours are offered on a regular basis during peak seasons. Explore the geological makeup of this part of Minnesota and see the amazing artistry water can produce over eons. After emerging from beneath the surface, head over to Forestville. A once-ghost town that’s been restored by the Minnesota Historical Society to a re-enacted 1800s village. Visit the general store for a treat or visit one of the farm buildings to help out with chores. Because of its location in the far south of the state, this park makes for excellent spring and fall camping.