Give early-season camping a try
SUPERIOR, Wis. -- It was a dark and quiet night.
A really quiet night.
A little travel trailer and one small tent were the only camping units occupying any of the 62 campsites at Pattison State Park south of Superior on a recent night. The next night was just as lonely.
Most people do not experience such quietness in state park campgrounds. Campers tend to wait for the warmest three months of the year to pitch their tents, pull in their trailers or park their massive motor homes in campgrounds. Then, campgrounds often are packed with people of all ages and the noises that accompany them.
So early-season camping may be the answer to Upper Midwest residents looking for peace and quiet.
Of course, that is not everyone's camping style, given the fact that it can be a little strange being nearly the only person is a 1,436-acre park. And it can be chilly, or downright cold.
For many people, the chance to camp early in the season does not come around often. Or at least they do not think of camping this early.
"People do use the parks and camp in them year around," said Amy Arndt of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources parks and trails division, but this time of year is pretty slow.
"Early-spring camping really is a nice thing to do if you have time to do that," she said. "The bugs are not out yet."
In southern parts of Minnesota and nearby states, a few flowers already are blooming, but otherwise parks are a bit barren.
At Pattison, home to Wisconsin's highest waterfall, a few piles of snow still were melting a few days ago, leaving puddles and soft ground in many places. But there and in Minnesota's Gooseberry Falls State Park, on Lake Superior's north shore, trails were in good shape and uncrowded.
At Gooseberry, summer can be crowded in the falls area, so crowded that photographers seeking pictures of the falls often cannot get one without people in it as they scamper around the rocks and water. But early-season visits make for good falls photos as well as hikes without bumping into others.
As for camping this time of year, it is not the same as in the summer.
For one thing, campers should not expect flush toilets and showers.
"Our facilities are not winterized," said Kimberly Currie of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
Northern states' parks do not turn on water until the threat of a freeze passes. However, Dave Benish, Wisconsin DNR's camping manager, said water is available from many park offices when they are open.
Some parks do not open campgrounds until later in the season, but many are open year around. At Pattison, for instance, workers keep one campsite plowed all winter for those who like braving snow. The same is true at many state parks, but others remain closed until water is available and snow is gone.
Before Memorial Day, it is best to visit park Web sites or, better yet, call a park to check on conditions. Not all Web sites are kept up to date.
Warmer temperatures brought out more campers in March. In Wisconsin, for instance, 571 campsites were used that month, compared to 178 in February. When all campgrounds are fully open, Wisconsin state parks offer more than 4,000 sites.
Beyond the spring, it appears camping may be more popular this year. In Minnesota, reservations for the state's 3,000 campsites this season are up 17 percent from a year ago and in February and March sales of park admission stickers were way up over the past several years.
Benish said the camping season may stretch in coming years.
"We are going to learn more in the next few years with global warming," he said. "Our camping seasons may start earlier and last longer."
Arndt said that early-season campers can take some measures to stay comfortable on what can be cool days.
"Make sure you have a warm sleeping bag," she said.
Importantly, she added, tent campers should use a pad and not use an air mattress under the bags because an air mattress tends to wick away heat.
Also, she suggested, people in parks this time of year need to dress in layers so they can remove outer layers as the day warms. Having a fanny pack, back pack or some way to stow clothes after they are shed is important for hikers.
A hot drink is a good way to combat cold, she said.
In a small trailer, a little electric or indoors gas heater generally can knock off the chill. And as snow melt has left the ground soft, boots are important.
Area state parks' camping information:
North Dakota: www.parkrec.nd.gov/parks
South Dakota: www.sdgfp.info/Parks