The sun draws close to the distant ridge. Pine boughs whisper from above and fire warms our faces. Oak smoke rises into the breeze and disappears into the year’s first buds.Continue reading “Less Screen Time, More Green Time”
For years I have dreamed of camping and ice fishing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Biting cold and slush-laden lake tops have kept me home the last two winters. That was fine; I’m not one to press my luck. But the warmer-than-average weather we’ve enjoyed lately provided an irresistible window of opportunity.
Entry Point 25, with walleyes in Newfound Lake and brook trout in Found Lake, was the perfect setting for my introduction into winter adventuring. Little did I know, however, that introduction would come with a sobering peek into my own psyche.
First Day Surprises
The hike across Moose Lake was relatively easy, thanks to a well-trampled dogsled track. It provided a low-friction surface for my sled full of food, clothing, and equipment. The lonely expanse of Newfound Lake greeted me in no time, it seemed. I set up camp at the first campsite that suited my needs. It was nicely sheltered and situated at the center of all the areas I intended to fish.
That first sundown was spent at the most promising structure depicted on the crude old lake map. Walleyes were the target. With about 10 holes drilled, I had a pretty good handle on the lay of the lake. The mood of the fish, however, was beyond my control.
Red and orange bars would appear slowly on my Vexilar and disappear after a few moments of apparent disinterest. My tip-up flag went up often, but attempted hand-to-fin combat always ended with an empty hook. These scenarios repeated themselves several times. I downsized my jigging spoon and kept skewering minnows, hoping for better results.
Well after dark, a large red mark approached my lure. It followed as I pulled up slowly. One fish appeared to separate into two, with a rippling green signal immediately below. I could not imagine what my sonar was trying to show me. Not until I detected a small bite and set the hook, that is: my rod doubled over and the line barely budged.
I managed to work that fish nearly up to the top before it began fighting back. Then progress was slow. Time and again, powerful runs erased gains made. There was no doubt the fish was large. Since it was already nighttime, I assumed it to be either a burly eelpout or the heftiest walleye I’d ever fooled into biting. When the massive face of a northern pike passed through the beam of my headlamp, I let out an astonished gasp.
On about the third attempt to maneuver that fish’s head into the hole, I finally succeeded. Foot after foot of fish flesh emerged from the 6-inch hole as I lifted. It was miraculously docile once topside. Even more miraculously, the tiny, mangled treble hook was barely lodged in its lip. I took a couple photos and a quick measurement— 38 inches, my biggest ever— before sending it back through the ice. It was a thrill, to be sure.
As stillness closed in again, however, that thrill faded and was soon overbalanced by foreboding as black as the night itself. The cold of night was at hand, which brought a piercing sense of isolation and helplessness. In that moment I wanted to be anywhere but there. Consciously, I knew temperatures would stay reasonable and that I was well prepared. But anxiety of that kind isn’t necessarily logical. I soon headed for the safety of camp.
Once fed and seated by a crackling fire, my rational self again wrested control of my mind. I truly had not anticipated the kind of anxiety that swept over me on the lake, and spent some time sitting and examining it like a raging beast returned to its cage. It was unlike anything that has ever happened to me on my adventures.
I crawled warm, dry, and calm into my sleeping bag and listened to sled dogs barking in the distance.
30-Minute Gold Strike
Overnight temperatures seemed to hold around 20 degrees, as expected. Unzipping the bag and getting dressed at 6 a.m. was surprisingly easy. I was eager to get back to my fishing spot, which I believed to be good despite a somewhat disappointing show the night before.
The walleyes were in much the same mood. Unenthusiastic visitors to my lures continued to frustrate. Still, I kept at it.
My tip-up had five hits without a hookup, so it seemed I needed to change….something. I gave it a different hook type, re-baited, and re-set. In the same spirit, I also swapped my lure for an Al’s Goldfish Living Lure in perch color. That’s when the magic happened.
The next fish to approach my jig came fast and gulped it without hesitation. It was a 16-inch walleye that I happily tossed on the ice next to my sled. Minutes later, the tip-up flag went up again as another red mark approached my lure. The attempted thief turned out to be an 18-inch walleye which apparently had no qualms about swallowing a whole minnow. A little while later, a 10-incher showed similar enthusiasm while other fish made moves on my jigging spoon.
That change in activity was clear and concise, lasting just half an hour or so. Of course, I’d hoped that kind of action would have been the norm rather than the exception. All the same, I felt my goal of finding good walleye fishing in the BWCA had been met.
After a late breakfast feast, I loaded the sled in order to spend the rest of the day out and about. Found Lake was first, which turned up nothing. I then returned to Newfound in order to circle through the main basin, attempting to entice tullibees and/or lake whitefish, then hopefully to locate and fish an underwater point in the last couple hours of the day.
I found the tullibees immediately in 36 feet of water. Let’s just say they weren’t hungry.
The next hole, which should have been deeper, was actually 32 feet deep. Intrigued, I drilled six holes in a circle surrounding that one. It was clear I’d found a hump that was unmarked on the map. About an hour and a dozen holes later, the hump was explored and the decision was made to concentrate the rest of the day’s efforts there.
At one point a young fellow on skis came off the trail to Found Lake and glided over to chat me up. He urged me to try Found for the morning brook trout bite. I’d already considered it, but the picture he showed me of a recent catch there sealed the deal. He stayed just long enough to witness me catch my only fish on that spot: a “hammer handle” pike on the tip-up.
He was unimpressed, of course, and casually mentioned how that hump was a “big pike” spot before leaving. I wished he had witnessed something closer to the previous night’s catch instead. That nearly came true, as a little while later another fat red mark with rippling green tail approached my little spoon. It bit, made a couple massive head shakes, then the line went slack.
Yep, I lost my Goldfish. You can’t win them all.
The clouds cleared out and let the warmth of the day escape. Frost grew quickly on every surface. I made soup (without tullibee to add, sadly), chawed on some jerky, and stared into the fire a while before calling it a night. It was clearly going to be colder, but I was unconcerned. Perhaps I should have been.
I awoke to drops of condensation splashing my face.
The hood of my sleeping bag had gathered my breath and returned it in a most inconvenient way. I couldn’t help but notice the outside of the bag was damp to the touch. This was concerning because a buildup of moisture could really compromise the insulation. I hoped it would dissipate and continued getting ready.
The pre-dawn air stung my face on the short trip to Found Lake. I estimated the temperature to be somewhere below 10 degrees. My toes had trouble warming my boots, which were also experiencing accumulated moisture. Sunrise couldn’t come fast enough.
I drilled exactly one hole through the ice. It was five feet deep there— right in the bullseye, as far as I was concerned. Waxworm was given last rites and impaled on a nickel-colored Al’s Goldfish. Rod on chair. Wipe hands on pants. Dip hole one last time.
Before I could even get my gloves on, my rod began dancing. I lunged for it. Swing and a miss. I prayed that would not be the only chance of the morning.
It wasn’t. I dangled my lure halfway to the bottom and kept it moving. Fish would come and go quickly, some chancing a nibble. Soon I iced the first brook trout of my life— 12 inches— simply by standing and lifting.
Trout were hot for the shiny Goldfish that day. Three more succumbed to its wiles, all between 11 and 12 inches long. A gentleman from the Duluth area arrived on skis just in time to witness the last one. He set up a short distance away. Just as I decided to call it a morning, he called for my help in getting a fish through the ice. I dashed over and knelt at the hole.
It was giving him a real run for his money. He scrambled to find the right balance for his drag adjustment and at one point the knob fell to the ice. He reinstalled it, and somehow the fish finally came into position. I plunged my hands into the water and birthed a 17.5-inch trout into the dry world. Dan was grateful and exhilarated. I was pleased to have seen such a fish— and a little jealous, truth be told.
That afternoon I soaked up sun and angled for willing tullibees and/or whitefish (unsuccessfully, again), After a while, I found that underwater point. It was smaller than expected, and fairly devoid of life. About the time I decided to abandon ship and head for my best spot, my wife sent updates on an impending snowstorm via text message (marginal reception there).
That storm had been only a wrinkle in the forecast when I left home. But it developed into much more in the meantime and threatened my ability to get home safely the next day. I weighed my options as the sun set, and wondered if my sleeping bag could possibly be dry. Plummeting temperatures and visions of freezing rain revived anxieties that had been laid to rest two nights prior.
After nabbing one more walleye on my tip-up, I made a dash for it. It seemed prudent to forego a morning of trout fishing in the interest of traveling 250 miles on dry roads. I packed up camp in the dark (tent and mummy bag fully frosted) and began the 3-mile walk in the dark.
The sky was excellent for stargazing, and the hour-and-a-half journey was the perfect opportunity to reflect on my trip. My time— though cut a little short— had been fruitful. Much had been learned about winter camping, clothing and gear both old and new, cold weather diet, and fishing. My efforts had yielded a new personal best pike, my first brook trout, and walleyes to bring home for the family. Perhaps best of all, I’d finally managed to do a wilderness winter solo camping trip.
It was a clear success.
The flip side to that success, of course, was the specter of anxiety that seemed to find a foothold in the dark and cold. Somewhat ironically, I normally embrace that dark and cold. I guess that’s what made it so unexpected and foundation-shaking, even if only for short bouts.
The good news is that I managed to work past those bouts efficiently, rather than folding under them. The next logical step will be to address any gear-related issues, not only to boost confidence, but also because wilderness requires best preparations. I may not always venture as far from home and civilization, but I can’t rule it out.
There’s just way too much wilderness out there to ignore, and never enough summer.
Camping on our public lands is not limited to state park campgrounds. Far from it. And that’s a good thing, because those campgrounds can get a lot of traffic. Trying to find information on camping opportunities across all the state and federal lands can be real work. Below are links to online resources I’ve found…so far. The more I look, the more I find. This is good news to those who wish to utilize our public lands to the fullest. But as always, wise and ethical use is crucial for ensuring these opportunities exist for years to come. Now get outside!
State Agency Resources
Minnesota State Parks offer an incredible diversity of camping experiences, including drive-in sites, backpacking sites, cabins, lodges, yurts, tipis, and more.
–MN state statute 6100.1250, Subparts 1 and 3
State Forests have developed campgrounds, and also allow dispersed camping for those who know the rules.
–MN state statute 6100.1250, Subparts 2 and 3
Wildlife Management Area camping is not allowed in most cases, but some primitive sites are available on large, more remote WMA lands. Call area wildlife management offices to determine availability and location.
-MN state statute 6230.0250, Subpart 7: “A person may not camp on or remain in a vehicle overnight in any wildlife management area, except by permit or where posted for this use…”
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area is under federal supervision within the Superior National Forest, but the State of Minnesota has, interestingly, passed laws pertaining thereto.
Federal Agency Resources
Chippewa National Forest has developed campgrounds, backcountry sites, and dispersed camping.
Superior National Forest has cabins, campgrounds (developed and rustic), backcountry, wilderness, and dispersed camping.
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a unique wilderness experience, open mostly to canoeing and backpacking. Permits are required, and necessary to maintain the wilderness for all visitors.
National Wildlife Refuges don’t generally allow camping.
–Upper Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge allows what is essentially dispersed camping, with some restrictions.
Everybody’s gotta eat. Even when they’re on the road. There are the hidden gems, and there are the inevitable sore disappointments. On my adventures, I’ve found my share of each. In the interest of rewarding the proprietors of first-rate eateries, I would like to share some of my favorites with you. Hopefully this will also serve to help you avoid some of the duds lurking out there. The map below is interactive, so click on the icons to obtain addresses, phone numbers, and websites. Have at it, and let me know what you think!
When you think of camping, do you think of campgrounds? I’m sure most people do. When I’m going somewhere and plan on camping, I usually look to see where the nearest campgrounds are and how close they are to my planned activities. The thing is, if there is state or federal forest land available, you can probably take advantage of a kind of freestyle camping, which offers much more flexibility and is free of charge. It’s called “dispersed” camping, and most people don’t even know about it.
Dispersed camping, in a nutshell, is camping anywhere you like, so long as you observe a few reasonable rules. I have been taking advantage of this allowance in the last few years, and it has added much value and convenience to my hunting and fishing excursions.
Now, dispersed camping usually doesn’t get much more than a mention in the lists of rules for users of state and national forests. Unless you dig around a bit, you may not know what is allowed and what is not. Fortunately, there isn’t much to know. The following is a summary of what I believe are the most important considerations; follow links to find information that is most location-specific and most complete.
Dispersed Camping in Minnesota’s State Forests
Let’s begin with Minnesota’s state forests, because rules and terminology are uniform across the state system. “Dispersed Camping” is defined as “camping overnight outside of established campgrounds or designated campsites.” The following is my summary of the rules. In the interest of being thorough, read the full state statute and consult the rules for each state forest unit to check for special conditions.
The first and most important rule is probably that dispersed camping is not allowed “within one mile of a fee campground,” nor is it allowed where “posted or designated to prohibit camping.” This is not usually a problem, because state forest campgrounds are typically few and far between. Also forbidden while dispersed camping are digging, constructing “permanent camping structures,” and placing “wood, nails, screws, or other fasteners in a living tree at a campsite.” Also, human waste must be buried “at least 150 feet from a water body, in a manner that does not endanger a water supply.”
What is allowed includes gathering firewood, as long as it is dead and on the ground, and used while camping in that location. Campers may also stay in one location for up to 14 days “from the first Saturday in May to the second Sunday in September,” and 21 days during the rest of the year. When you leave, however, you must move to a new location “at least 15 miles from the previous camp.”
Dispersed Camping in Minnesota’s National Forests
When it comes to gathering and assessing information from the Forest Service’s website(s), terminology can stand in the way of the user. Minnesota has two National Forests: Chippewa and Superior. Their uses of the term “dispersed camping” and others differ, however, dispersed camping is still available.
Superior National Forest’s website is informative and well-organized when it comes to camping information, stating, “Types of camping include Campground Camping, Dispersed Camping, RV camping, and Wilderness Camping.” Each type is given a separate web page, and information is laid out logically. They also offer a “Camping Recreational Opportunity Guide,” a 4-page document that displays camping opportunities with helpful maps and charts. At the bottom of the document is the section on dispersed camping.
It defines Dispersed Camping as “camping outside of designated sites,” which is the simplest and most widely accepted definition of dispersed camping. The relatively few rules pertaining to dispersed camping are also spelled out plainly: be aware of fire restrictions, do not park in a way that will impede traffic or damage vegetation or soil, no digging or cutting live trees, and generally follow the Leave No Trace principles.
Chippewa National Forest’s website, on the other hand, can leave you guessing with regard to terminology. This is puzzling to me, because in my experience national forests and grasslands have all used camping terms in ways that align with Superior N.F. Why “the Chip” should be any different is still unknown to me. I have made the following table to compare terms.
What Superior calls “Fee Campgrounds,” Chippewa calls “Developed Campgrounds.” No big deal, really. But what Superior calls “Backcountry Campsites,” (single designated sites without facility beyond fire ring and pit toilet), Chippewa seems to call “Backcountry,” “Dispersed,” and even “Primitive” campsites. Yes, it seems all three terms are used interchangeably. Not only does it use “dispersed” for some designated sites— which in itself is a departure from the accepted meaning of the term— it doesn’t seem to even acknowledge the possibility of camping apart from designated areas.
I called Ken at the Forest Service office in Blackduck for some clarification. I explained the problems with terminology on Chippewa’s website, and its failure to even mention camping outside designated sites (with any term attached). He assured me that “…any place you decide to camp that’s not in a designated campground” is allowed, except in any location where posted signs prohibit. That is the rule basically anywhere else, so it was good to hear even though finding it in print/digital is presently difficult to impossible. When he added, “You can camp anywhere on this forest,” I was satisfied.
Dispersed camping is a useful recreational tool that every outdoor-oriented person should be aware of. As I’ve stated before, it can add convenience and cost savings to outings, especially when pursuits take us far from cities or campgrounds. With millions and millions of acres of state and federal lands available in Minnesota for hunting, fishing, foraging, camping, trail riding, and more, the opportunities for dispersed camping can influence and improve the way we plan our outdoor adventures.
Minnesota State Forests and our two National Forest Service entities allow dispersed camping with relatively few restrictions. As always, the onus is on the user to find and understand information and applicable rules, whether they be system wide, location specific, or temporary. Dispersed camping may be an under-utilized resource, but it is conceivable that misuse, especially by large numbers of users, could decrease or eliminate dispersed camping on our public lands.
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.
Way up north, in the far reaches of Cook County, hundreds of deep cold lakes lie hidden in the hills and shaggy conifer forests. This is the stronghold of Minnesota’s lake trout population, with dozens of lakes hosting populations of one degree or another.
There is a special place in my heart for lake trout, and an honored place on my table for any of the salmonid family. Since our trip to Crystal Lake last spring in the BWCA, I had been looking for my next opportunity to go after more of these delectable fatty fish. Also since last year, I had developed a deep burning desire to take a solo trip, which I had never done before. A permit for one person for Entry Point 44- with lake trout in Ram Lake and Little Trout Lake- seemed the perfect way to scratch both itches. Continue reading “BWCA Entry Point 44: Ice-Out Lake Trout”
Chengwatana State Forest is one of the closest sizeable state forest parcels to the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. As a result, it gets its share of traffic, especially considering the fact that much of the forest is swamp land and difficult to access. To its east lies the St. Croix River. At its northeast is St. Croix State Park and the confluence of the Kettle and St. Croix rivers. At the south end of the main part of the forest is the confluence of the Snake and St. Croix rivers. Few roads offer access to its 29,000 acres, so there is potential for getting far from human presence, if desired.
The Snake River Campground lies 9 miles or so east of Pine City, on the south bank of the Snake River. When I visited there in the spring, the sound of the rushing river was a pleasant backdrop as I wandered through the campground loops, and a few of the campsites are a healthy stone’s throw from it. The campground is on the edge of a small pine grove, and most of the sites get good shade from the pines, oaks, and aspens. There are two vault toilets- two aging vault toilets in the first loop, and a new one in the second loop. Water is available by hand pump. There is also a picnic area next to the river. The first time I visited this campground was in midsummer, and the daytime mosquitoes were fairly aggressive; due to topography and dense forest, there is little hope that the wind will keep them at bay. I also noticed a bit of poison ivy along the camp road and bordering some sites, FYI.
Site 1 is a gorgeous campsite, set back from the road with a great tent pad area suitable for a large tent, and well shaded by white pines. Angle of approach may prohibit long trailers, although there is enough room to accommodate one.
Site 2, while small and difficult to back trailers into, is shady and close to the loop’s vault toilet.
Site 3 also benefits from the shade of the pine plantation and seems very desirable overall.
Site 4 is shaded by the campground’s oaks and pines. There is plenty of room for tents, if set up on the driving surface; this site lacks good tent areas otherwise. It is flush with grass and pine needles.
Site 5 is the first site that is good for backing trailers into. Spacious and shaded by pines, it is fairly level as well, and easily one of the better overall campsites.
Site 7 is shady and level, with lots of good choices for tent placement.
Site 8 is a bit more open and sunny than most sites here, would be good to back a trailer into, and has lots of area for parking.
Grassy site 9 gets some midday sun, is long, and sits at a good angle for backing in a trailer. It seems well-screened from other sites.
Site 10 would be a bit sunny, with little overhead tree cover. It has a good approach angle for trailers, good tent areas, and is close to the latrine.
Site 11 is right next to the toilets, but does not have much room for parking. There is space at the back of the site which is nice and grassy, but appears lumpy.
Site 12 does not have much grass. It would probably be best to use with a camping trailer as a result.
Site 13 would perhaps be difficult to back long trailers into, but is shady, and fairly level and grassy.
Site 14 is probably the most open and sunny campsite in the campground. Since it is fairly level with good grass, it would probably be good for a couple of tents, if desired. Otherwise, it has room for a vehicle and maybe a shorter trailer.
Site 15 enjoys good shade among the pines, and is level with lots of room for tents.
Site 16 is fairly shady and grassy, and is right next to the water pump.
Site 17 also has good shade courtesy of the pines, and is nicely level and secluded.
Site 18 has little overhead tree cover and is close to the site behind it (6). It is, however, one of the better sites to back a trailer into, with plenty of length.
Site 19 is a basic site near the river. It does not have much level ground and would probably be difficult to level a large trailer in. It is, however, fairly close to the river and therefore has no campsites behind it.
Site 20 is shady and secluded, and near the toilet in this loop. It is fairly large with lots of room for tents.
Site 21 has an uphill approach with limited room at the back of the site to set up tents. It would not be good for a larger tent, and maybe hard to level a long trailer, but it has a good angle for backing one in. This moderately shaded site is also one of those closest to the river. It may be one of the most desirable campsites in the whole campground.
Site 22 is near the vault toilet, and is a fairly secluded site. It has plenty of room and a good angle for backing into.
Site 23 is fairly well shaded by pines and aspen, with some midday sun. It does not have a kind angle for backing long trailers in, but it does have a fairly long driving/parking surface. It may be good for multiple tents, but really does not have grassy surfaces to use. Also sits along the river.
Site 24 is best suited for trailer camping, with lots of room for parking but not much grass. There is some room at the back for tents, but not much level ground. It is one of the more private campsites.
Site 25 is the last of the campsites along the river. Well shaded and spacious at the back, it could host multiple tents. It is, however, mostly dirt/mud and other sites offer much better tenting surfaces (especially true for the first loop). There is a trail that leads from the back of the site down toward the river and the walking trail through the woods.
Site 26 has a longer parking surface, and is one of the better sites to back into. This shady site is fairly level with limited grass, but could fit multiple tents.
~Click on or hover over slideshow photos to see campsite numbers~
Boulder Campground, although in a fairly hilly location, finds itself surrounded by low ground and saturated soils. That was the case in April when I visited, anyway. At any rate, there is a lake on one side, a permanent swamp on another, and the remainder of the border abuts a blowdown area from a windstorm in July of 2011. Few campsites here are very large, and fewer still offer genuine privacy. Like many state forest campgrounds, it is probably best suited to fall camping for hunters who want to take advantage of the thousands of acres of the surrounding St. Croix State Forest.
It’s quite a long way to drive through the state forest to get to this campground, but getting one of the lakeside campsites would probably make it worth it. Sites that qualify even remotely as “lakeside” are limited to sites 7 and 17. The access to Rock Lake is right in the campground, and there is a short dock which would seem to offer a little bit of fishing opportunity.
While there are lots of ATV and OHV trails in the state forest, they are not allowed in this campground. They will need to be trailered and left at the trailhead parking lot which is at the far end of the campground loop (still basically in the campground); this is indicated by a sign at the campground entrance.
Site 1 is nicely laid out, with plenty of room to the side of the driving surface for tents. It is near the swamp, with some grassy surfaces, and lots of shade.
Site 2, like site 1, is down by the swamp with good tree cover. There is lots of room, but no grass to put a tent on. In fact, it could be downright muddy on a wet weekend.
Site 3 is also well shaded, but not very roomy. It is, however, very grassy.
Site 4 is surrounded by low wet areas, but remains high and dry. This site is fairly spacious, but has no grassy surfaces to speak of. Expect some midday sun in this campsite that would be easy to back a trailer into.
Site 5 is a fairly level site at the back, with a long driving surface. However, it would be difficult to impossible to back a trailer into. This is another shady site.
Site 6 is nice and open at the back, with some grass to put a tent on- or maybe two. This site lacks overhead tree cover, allowing the sun in for most of the day. In the spring, the ground seemed rather lumpy, which may resolve itself before summer; tenters beware.
Site 7 is right across the camp road from the boat landing, water pump, and picnic area. Along with site 6, it would benefit from the wind blowing across the lake (or suffer, in the case of a storm). It is also close to the latrine, which is in the middle of the loop behind the campsite. Easily one of the most desirable sites in the campground.
Site 8 is another fairly long campsite with some grass in the back, although it may be a struggle to find a good spot to put a tent down. It would likely receive a bit of wind off the lake in a West or even North wind.
Site 10 is a fairly short site with the road wrapping around it. It appears the trees offer little shade throughout the day, but it seems to have absorbed the table from site 9, which appears no longer in use.
Site 11 is also fairly close to the road, and is basically an all-gravel site.
If you like the sun, site 12 is your pick. This site is on the edge of the swamp and blowdown area. The sun seems to have fostered some ground-level vegetation, which sets it apart from site 11.
Site 13 sits well off the road in the middle of the campground loop. It is very open and spacious, and a rather sunny campsite. The camp’s vault toilet is practically inside this campsite, which may be desirable for some, but obviously detracts from its privacy.
Site 14, like 12, is very much in the sun on the edge of the blowdown area. On my spring visit, there was some standing water on the driving surface. There is, however, a lot of grass on the site and is one of the more secluded sites in the campground.
Site 15 is another short site on the inside of the loop, but has good tree cover. It is a fairly level campsite on the whole.
Site 16 is a fairly short and sunny site, but is fairly well screened from the road and other sites. It is fairly average in most other respects.
Site 17 is a carry-in lakeside campsite, which is easily the closest to the lake. It is well shaded, with a gravel tent area. Along with site 7, it is easily one of the premier sites in this campground.
~Click on or hover over slideshow photos to see campsite numbers~
The Willow River Campground in General C.C. Andrews State Forest is a well-maintained state forest campground, typified by gently used campsites in a wooded setting set well apart from each other. From fully shaded campsites in the woods to fairly open sites overlooking the reservoir (river bottom) area, to a couple of carry-in sites and a nicely-kept group camp, there is probably something here to suits anybody’s needs. At 38 individual campsites, this campground is on the larger side for state forest campgrounds.
Parking for all sites is back-in; none are pull-through. Sites 1-9 and 33-38 have shorter driveways and steep angles, which might not be good for backing trailers- especially large ones- but most of the rest have longer driveways and gentler angles of approach for parking tow-behind rigs or boats. There are also several auxiliary parking areas scattered throughout the campground, perhaps to allow campers with a trailer in the short sites to park their vehicles elsewhere.
The self-registration station is in the middle of the large camp loop on the left side, near site 20. Water is available by hand pump. There are ample vault toilets and water pumps available: between sites 5 and 34 (also close to 6 and 33) and near site 20 (also close to 21 and 30). There is also another pair of vault toilets tucked out of sight near site 38 (also close to 12 and 13).
To get to the campground, you have to find your way through Willow River to the frontage road along the west side of Interstate 35 going north. There is one sign pointing the way from Highway 61, but it was not very reflective in the dark and I almost missed it. At any rate, if you get to Doe Street heading east, you will find the way.
At less than 8,000 acres, General C.C. Andrews State Forest is certainly not one of the larger state forests in Minnesota. Hunters looking to roam will not find much contiguous forest land there that has not been fragmented by roadways or OHV trails. If, however, you are looking for a recreation area friendly to ATVs and off-highway motorcycles with easy access to an interstate highway, this is an obvious destination. Additionally, I know CC Andrews to be a first-rate destination for summer berry picking and camping, and a convenient distance from the Twin Cities area.
A note about the river (former lake): Willow River Campground is surrounded on three sides, more or less, by the former Stanton Lake. The nearby Willow River dam washed out in the summer of 2016, leaving behind just the river and old river channels. There is a boat ramp in the campground, but it currently just goes down into a large dense area of cattails.
Sites 1, 2, 3, and 4 are situated in a white pine plantation. Well-shaded and fairly flat, they are shorter sites (more typical of state forest campgrounds) that will probably present difficulty when it comes to backing in long trailers.
Sites 5, 6, 9, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37 are set in an aging spruce plantation, which appears to have been selectively logged in recent years. As such, they will receive a fair amount of sun through the course of the day; some will be shaded only at the very beginning and end of the day. As small-to-average sites, they are probably best suited to hosting a single tent.
Sites 7 and 8 are the carry-in sites, just a short walk from the parking area along the camp road. Both are considerably more secluded than the rest of the campsites, with a nice view of the river bottom, and plenty of room. To access site 8, you have to basically walk through site 7, which does not lend itself well to privacy. Getting both these sites would be ideal for a group too large for one campsite alone.
Sites 10, 12, 13, 15, 17, 18, and 19 border the Willow River and lowlands, with good views. These sites would receive good breezes, especially when the wind is out of the West or North. This could be an advantage in hot weather or when the mosquitoes are especially fierce.
Sites 20, 21, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, and 30 also border the river, but differ in configuration and generally have much less overhead tree cover. Instead of narrow and set off the road, these sites tend to sprawl right alongside the road, and do not offer much privacy from either the road or each other. Encircling the south end of the loop, they would be best cooled by southeast, south, or southwest winds.
Site 22 is the accessible campsite in this campground. It is fairly spacious, and the parking surface and areas around the picnic table and fire ring appear very level. Tree cover over this site indicates it would receive a few hours of midday sun.
Sites 31 and 32 are gorgeous level sites in the heart of the red pine plantation. There is not much undergrowth among the shady pines, which gives the appearance of lots of room in these deep-set campsites; unfortunately, this also means they are not the most private. With plentiful pine needles on the forest floor, they would probably not be very muddy in rainy weather.
11, 14, 16, 29, and 38 are the left-hand sites as you drive through the campground loop. They tend to be smaller campsites with good tree cover. They also tend to be closer to the camp toilets, which may in itself be appealing for some campers.
When I came across the word “quinzee” several times within a short span this winter, it got my attention. I first had to do an internet search to determine exactly what it was, but knew right away I not only wanted to learn how to build a quinzee, I also needed to try sleeping in it. This seemed fun, but carried out in my own yard at home, it was an easy way to try something I might like to use in lieu of a tent on a future wilderness trip.
Continue reading “Do Something New: Build a Quinzee”
Unlike the other two campgrounds in Finland State Forest, Eckbeck and Finland, Sullivan Lake Campground does not fill up as quickly on the weekends, and may be a good alternative for those who want to camp “up north.” This is especially true if they wish to stay away from the hordes at state parks and all over the North Shore. When I stayed there in July of 2018, it was sparsely populated and quiet. The camping fee is the rate for state forest campgrounds; in 2018 it was $14.
Sullivan Lake is in a great location for those seeking outdoor recreation in Finland State Forest and southern Superior National Forest. Thousands of acres of county, state, and national lands are right on the doorstep of this campground for the use of fishermen, grouse hunters, deer hunters, foragers, hikers, and others. The historic settlement of Toimi is nearby, as is a Forest Service interpretive facility, for those interested in the logging history and early settlement of the area.
Most of these campsites have good shade provided by ample trees, if that’s your pleasure. Campsites 3-6 appear to have access to the lake; I couldn’t verify due to some sites being occupied when I was there. 3-7 can probably expect a breeze off the lake when the wind is out of the west. There are two vault toilets, one of which appears to be rather new. Water is from a hand pump, which is quaint; kids usually enjoy filling up with it…the first time.
Site 1/Site 2
Sites 1 and 2 are close to each other and similar in makeup. Both grassy and expansive, they are great sites to set tents in, and could easily accommodate more than one each. Both sites are back-in parking.
This campsite is easily one of the more desirable sites. It features a generous tent area well off the road and screened by trees. Furthermore, it has one of the better lakeside areas in the campground. Parking is pull-through near the road, but carrying gear down to the lake is a small price to pay for this gem of a site.
Site 4 is another very desirable campsite with its developed lakeshore area and secluded tent pad. In fact, its private lake access and (small) swimming area make it the envy of the other campsites. The tent pad is good-sized, but is a gravel surface. Parking is pull-through, and this site could be the one with most sun exposure.
Parking in site 5 is pull-though, and would be a good choice for a camp trailer. The tent area is gravel.
Site 6 is another pull-through site, and would be a good choice for a towed camping rig.
There are decent-looking spots to put tents, however, they are next to the camp road. Ample shade and back-in parking.
This campsite is well-shaded and, compared to most of the rest, fairly secluded. The tent pad is gravel and looks marginally comfortable. It is at the end of the loop; parking is back-in.
Site 9 is the handicap accessible site in the campground. It is one of the more spacious sites, with the most level ground. There is lots of room for tents; the back-in driveway is long and would accommodate a large camping vehicle/rig.
This is another grassy campsite. May be best suited for tents; backing into it with a pull-behind trailer would be difficult due to the angle of approach.
Another grassy, spacious campsite. Back-in parking.
Silver Island Lake is a beautiful sprawling 1,200 acre lake close to the BWCA, known locally as a good fishing lake. Black crappies and northern pike are present in average numbers, and walleyes are historically abundant; sizes for game fish tend to be small to average in this fairly bog-stained lake. The boat ramp is a nicely protected concrete ramp of moderate steepness, however, boaters should use extreme caution in this lake due to the many rock hazards scattered throughout the lake. In other words, you could get a heavy fishing boat into Silver Island, but it would be unwise to cruise around with abandon.
The boat ramp is in the middle of this no-fee campground, which features three (out of eight) lakeside campsites. Two of those (#3 and #5) feature lake accesses with short docks, which could offer boat mooring possibilities. There is no swimming beach, but one could take a quick swim in the vicinity of the boat ramp if desired.
Most campsites here will be best for a tent or small-to-medium size campers like a pop-up or shorter travel trailer. Longer trailers, fifth wheels, and motorhomes will be hard pressed to find enough level ground to set up on, with the exception of perhaps site #5, and even then it may be difficult to impossible. The Forest Service indicates on its website that all eight sites have “a parking spur of more than 21 ft. suitable for RV or trailer.” I would disagree, but my recommendations are based on the amount of level ground available, and not based on what’s within the realm of possible.
The restroom is a two-hole (men/women) vault toilet building which is modern and clean, and each site has a fire ring and picnic table. The bad news is there is neither electricity nor a potable water source in this campground. Therefore, one must bring water and/or a generator if desired. The good news is it’s probably less busy than other campgrounds that offer such amenities (and remember- it’s FREE!).
There is little privacy available in this fairly wide-open campsite without much overhead tree cover, but is high and dry compared to most of the rest. It is probably one of the easier sites to back a trailer into, but is probably best for tents or a smaller pull-behind trailer. Users will probably incur headlights as cars enter and exit the campground, unless protected by artful tent placement and car parking.
Site number 2 is an attractive site with a bit of an uphill approach, allowing for good drainage. It is a bit more private than Site 1, with the fire ring tucked into the back. There is room for a small to medium trailer, or a tent or maybe even two. This site is probably the one whose entrance is closest to the restroom.
This campsite is probably the premier campsite in this campground, with nice tree cover, one of two fishing docks, and lots of level ground. The majority of this level ground is not available for parking a trailer, as it is apart from the driving/parking surfaces, and would be suitable for a small to medium trailer. The good news is, it could accommodate two or more tents as well as a dining canopy.
Site number 4 offers the least privacy of all the campsites in this campground, and is situated right next to the boat landing. That could be good news for anyone who would be utilizing the boat landing, as it would only be about a 50-foot distance to carry any gear. This site offers room for a tent or small pull-behind trailer. Since it is a lakeside campsite, it may receive a fair amount of wind from the lake when the wind is right; the fire ring is nicely sheltered from such a wind by a well-placed boulder.
Along with Site 3, this campsite may share the title for the most desirable spot in this campground. With a longer driveway and a significant portion screened by trees, it is probably the most private site available. The fact that it features the second short dock and good overhead tree cover only adds to its appeal. Two tents could easily be placed at the back of this site, and it could also accommodate many sizes of camper trailers. Its only drawback- if it has one- is its proximity to site #6.
Site 6/Site 7
Sites 6 and 7 are the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of Silver Island Lake campground, nearly identical in specifications, and without much separation. If camping in a party that required two sites, these two would offer the best inter-site connection. They are probably good for a tent apiece, or a small to medium trailer.
This campsite is more secluded, but also seems to get much less traffic than the others with its downhill approach, small tent area, limited level ground, and proximity to the swamp. It is probably not suitable for anything but a tent. But in the event that one would desire to use a trailer, it would probably have to be a small one and it would probably need to be parked up near the road instead of at the rear of the site.
Click on site pictures below to see larger versions, and toggle between photo and site description (please note there are 2 photos for site 3).
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Public Land Camping Resources
State and National Forest Campground Reviews
Boulder Campground, St. Croix State Forest
Harriet Lake Rustic Campground, Superior National Forest
Silver Island Lake Campground, Superior National Forest
Snake River Campground, Chengwatana State Forest
Sullivan Lake Campground, Finland State Forest
Willow River Campground, C.C. Andrews State Forest