Most campgrounds way up in Minnesota’s northwoods offer a forest camping experience; it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that there will be plenty of trees, shade, and mosquitoes. Conversely, there are few opportunities to camp in places that offer meadow views or plants and birds that flourish in forest openings. Now, I’m not saying there aren’t any mosquitoes, but I will tell you that if sunny open spaces are your cup of tea, Harriet Lake Rustic Campground (R.C.) should be on your list of destinations. What’s more, it’s one of several campgrounds in the Superior National Forest that are free of charge.
Harriet Lake R.C. is on the site of a former farm. Some remnants of its farming era can still be seen, including what looks like the foundation for a barn. While many such farms in the area have long since grown over and been absorbed by the boreal forest, this one has been maintained as a forest opening for decades now, for the benefit of campers and wildlife alike. When I visited in the spring of 2019, it had recently been blessed by a controlled burn.
Somewhat anecdotally, I was told at the boat landing by someone who identified himself as a Lake County employee that the campground is a well-known place to pick blueberries. I also noticed there were plenty of raspberry and blackberry canes growing on the fringes of the campground.
To the uninitiated, it might be hard to find where to camp at Harriet Lake R.C. There are, according to my count, only about 11 campsites (The official Superior N.F. brochure says 6), identifiable by fire ring and picnic table, and only 2 have typical parking spurs off the road. They are mostly approached via a dusty 2-track trail off the main campground drive; exercise caution, as they may be muddy or otherwise hazardous to ordinary passenger cars. Aside from the few near the toilet facility (in the boat ramp area), they are fairly spread out and inconspicuous if unoccupied.
You may spot the first couple on your left as you drive in off County Road 7. The next cluster will be at the northern end of the opening, on your left as the road curves to the right. One- which has a spectacular view of the lake- is more easily found, but is completely exposed to the sun, wind, and rain. Beyond it to the north are 2 more sites, 1 of which offers much privacy and shade in the small group of trees. You will soon pass another campsite on the left, which, I’m told, has its own carry-in access down to Harriet Lake (it was occupied during my visit).
The last 5 campsites are in the southeastern end of the campground, closest to the vault toilet. The 2 nearest the boat ramp area have the parking spurs, and may receive some shade early and late in the day. My wife and I set up camp not far away, in what is probably the most shaded and spacious of all the sites in the campground. A short distance across the field from us was another site with some late-day tree cover. The last site I found was to the southwest, tucked back in the woods; it was private and well-shaded, and would probably be the recipient of the least wind and most mosquitoes of all the campsites.
What You Need to Know
The campground at Harriet Lake is designated as a “rustic” campground because it does not offer electricity or water. This means you need to bring your own water or be prepared to collect and filter it from the lake. On the upside, there is still a toilet facility (not too shabby), and camping is free of charge. It was moderately busy in the middle of the week in May; I believe that was due in part to being a free campground. As a result, I imagine it would fill up on the weekends throughout the summer. Since it is a developed area, dispersed camping is not allowed, so you must camp where there is a site with fire ring.
There are several good fishing lakes in the area, especially for walleyes. Some of them have great boat ramps, including the one at Harriet Lake, which is right in the campground. Another good lake just up the road is Silver Island Lake, where another rustic campground with 8 sites might offer a place to stay if Harriet Lake R.C. is full.
This part of Minnesota can be a foraging paradise throughout the season. The entire region is productive for berries, mushrooms, and more, and most land is either owned by the state or the feds, so access is easy. With millions of acres in Superior N.F. alone, nobody can say there isn’t enough room to roam. All you need to do is drive another half an hour to leave the crowds behind you.
To read more firsthand descriptions of other state and national forest campgrounds in Minnesota, visit the Minnesota Public Land Camping page.