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State parks, forests offer range of camping experiences

Campground and wilderness camping are a popular summer activity in the Park Rapids area.

Trees in fall color surround a body of water in the Paul Bunyan State Forest.
Courtesy of the Minnesota DNR

There are many options to consider when planning a recreational trip to the Heartland Lakes Area. Camping is an option that taps into the region’s natural beauty.

Two camping areas are the popular Itasca State Park, at the headwaters of the Mississippi River, and the newer La Salle Lake State Recreational Area, featuring the deepest natural inland lake in Minnesota, a coldwater stream and a stretch of the Mississippi.

According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), both parks feature forests and woodlands, cabins, campgrounds, fishing spots, research facilities and a unique ecosystem, including Itasca’s unique intersection of the coniferous forest, deciduous forest and prairie biomes.

Make a reservation at reservemn.usedirect.com/MinnesotaWeb/Default.aspx. Purchase a year-round state parks vehicle permit at www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/permit.html.

State forest campgrounds

The surrounding area also boasts several state forests, including the Paul Bunyan, Two Inlets, Mississippi Headwaters, White Earth, Smoky Hills, Badoura, Foot Hills and Huntersville state forests.


There are campgrounds in the Two Inlets, Huntersville and Paul Bunyan state forests.

The Mantrap Valley is viewed from Thorpe Hill in the Paul Bunyan State Forest.
Courtesy of the Minnesota DNR

Located in the heart of Hubbard County, the Paul Bunyan forest encloses the Gulch Lake Campground and Lake 21 Day-Use Area, with nine campsites, one group site and a well, within a game refuge and non-motorized recreation area between Lake 21 and Bass Lake. It provides hiking, water access and picnic sites, plus carry-in boat accesses on both lakes as well as nearby Nelson Lake.

Just outside the Paul Bunyan lies the Mantrap Lake Campground, which has 36 drive-in campsites, two of them handicap accessible; picnic tables, drinking water, toilets and lake access for swimming and fishing. Mantrap is a designated muskie lake with carry-in boat access, a dock and nature trails.

A short hop across the Becker County Line is the Two Inlets State Forest, with carry-in boat access on the west side of Two Inlets Lake. The nearby Hungry Man Campground features campsites, picnic tables, a toilet, drinking water, a drive-in boat ramp and good fishing and swimming opportunities on Hungry Man Lake.

In northern Wadena County’s Huntersville forest, the Shell City Campground is located along the Shell River and features a watercraft campsite with a boat trailer access and a horse campground nearby.

Farther south along the Crow Wing River is the Huntersville Forest Campground, also featuring a watercraft campground and carry-in boat access. Tubing on the Crow Wing River is a popular activity.

One camper’s perspective

Josh Severtson of Park Rapids shared the wisdom of his experience as a camper in the headwaters area.

Severtson and company like to camp by parking their fish house in a nearby state park, where they can enjoy the amenities – air conditioning, oven and stove, microwave, fridge, freezer and a solid roof over their head – while also being able to cook out on the campfire, walk and cycle the trails, and put a fishing boat in the water.


“Easy, non-remote stuff,” said Severtson. “Easier for family.”

His fireside cookery often includes brats and wieners cooked on hot dog roasters, as well as sandwiches and pre-assembled s’mores wrapped in foil and shoved into the coals of the fire.

Severtson often starts fires using small sticks found nearby, but in case of wet weather, they always keep a supply of waterproof fire sticks in the fish house – basically, bundles of kindling coated in wax. For more low-tech, wilderness camping, he advises bringing flints along.

For those sleeping in tents, he said the challenge is keeping your sleeping place warm and dry, despite the weather. This may mean packing your sleeping bags or blankets in dry bags or totes. Also, a pad or air mattress may help make it easier to sleep on the ground.

For those who plan to spend a lot of time hiking in the middle of nowhere, Severtson advises carrying dehydrated food, which is light and easy to carry. “They’re doing all sorts of gourmet meals in the dehydrated packs nowadays,” he said.

Recognizing that parks like Itasca can be quite crowded, he added, “It’s a pretty friendly crowd. Every time we go out, wherever it is, it’s always a park full of enjoyable, happy people.”

Robin Fish is a staff reporter at the Park Rapids Enterprise. Contact him at rfish@parkrapidsenterprise.com or 218-252-3053.
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