By Trent Jonas
Hiking in to a campsite with everything you need on your back is a great way to take a break from everyday life and make a primal connection with nature. Often, you won’t even have easy access to potable water, meaning you need to come prepared to boil, filter, or otherwise treat it. Such self-sufficiency can be liberating. And when combined with stunning landscape and sprawling vistas, it can be downright euphoric. Here are a handful of places where you can feel this way in the North Star State.
Located within the state’s first true wilderness park, this site is worth the hike in. Setting up camp at site 10 brings you to a bend in the Manitou River. Park at the trailhead in George H. Crosby Manitou State Park, then take the Yellow Birch Trail southeast (right) for half a mile. When your path meets up with the Cedar Ridge Trail, keep left and descend for half a mile, keeping an easterly track into the Manitou River Valley. When you reach the river, turn right onto the Manitou River Trail. Follow the river downstream, passing sites eight and nine, for just over half a mile to site 10, where a tight bend in the river creates a point on which you can pitch your tent. Then kick back and enjoy deeply-forested vistas of the Sawtooth Mountains while you listen to the rushing Manitou River and wait for the stars to come out.
Another of the state’s designated wilderness parks, Lake Maria State Park offers only hike-in (or ride-in, if you’re an equestrian) camping in a remnant of the Big Woods, a deciduous hardwood forest that once covered most of Southern Minnesota. Site B5 lets you enjoy the splendor of these woods with a small lake that you won’t have to share with anyone but resident fish and visiting birds. Park at the trailhead and follow the Bjorhlund Trail west for about half a mile to its intersection with the main Big Woods Trail. Turn right, and head north for a mile or so. For a short segment, the trail will follow a small access road. Then it will continue straight as the road curves to the west. When you cross back over the road, a small lake will appear in front of you. The trail will curve to your left and head uphill. Look for a marker for site B5 and a small path heading downhill to the left. Follow the path to your lake shore site. Be sure to get there before the sun sets so you can watch the colors burst from the horizon, tinting the trees, and reflecting off the lake.
Site BP5 is not technically in Cascade River State Park. It’s on the Superior Hiking Trail in the Superior National Forest. However, you can reserve the site via the state park, and should park at the trailhead in the park. The other thing you should know is that you will work to get to the site. But it’s totally worth it. Park at the trailhead and take the trail to the Cascades. After 1,000 feet or so, you’ll cross the Cascade River at a walk bridge over these gorgeous cataracts. Stop and enjoy the level terrain of the bridge. Because you’re about to go uphill. Stay with the trail, heading west for another 1,000 feet, skirting the bluff. Then the trail will start to head even more steeply upward. Another thousand feet and the trail will come to a “T” at the Superior Hiking Trail. Take a left and continue climbing for another half mile. The site is at the summit of Lookout Mountain, less than two miles but almost 600 vertical feet (most of it in the last mile) from the trailhead. From your site, you’ll have an expansive view of the Cascade River valley to the north and east, Lake Superior to the south, and the Sawtooth Mountains to the west. You won’t want to come down.
Most dispersed camping sites on the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, a federally-designated Wild and Scenic River can only be reached by boat. The riverfront Spring Creek site offers all the gorgeous scenery of the St. Croix River but with the nearby amenities (e.g., drinking water that you don’t have to boil) of a developed state park. The forested Upper St. Croix valley is in a transition zone that exhibits characteristics of prairie, eastern hardwood forest, and northern boreal forest. Near the river, you’ll see mostly the deciduous trees of the hardwood forest, with an occasional conifer to remind you that the North Woods are not far away. To get to the Spring Creek site, start southward on the Mitigwaki Loop. Follow this paved trail for six tenths of a mile, to where the Windfall Trail branches off to the right. Follow the Windfal Trail down into the river valley, crossing the Old Logging Trail, until it meets up with the River Trail at a scenic overlook. Follow the River Trail down to the St. Croix, then head upstream (north) for another half mile. The Spring Creek site will be on the left side of the trail, about half a mile from the overlook. You’ll have a gorgeous view of the Wisconsin bluffs and vistas up and down the river valley.
At 88 acres, Franz Jevne State Park is small when compared to most other units in the system. But its remote Rainy River beauty will make you feel like you’re as far from civilization as possible. As a bonus, the hike to the northernmost walk-in site is relatively short and not too rugged as it meanders through a mixed forest of white pine, birch, and jack pine. To get to the site, park in the designated parking area near the picnic area above the rapids. Take the short trail north, past the vault toilet toward the river. When you reach the river side trail and turn left. Follow the trail west, and then north as it curves upriver. You’ll pass a handful of campsites on your left. After a little over half a mile, just as the trail turns back toward the rest, you’ll come upon a short path that leads toward the river on your right. At the end of the path, you’ll find the Rainy River, your campsite, and plenty of peace and solitude—along with beautiful views of Canada and awesome fishing.