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Published July 17, 2010, 12:58 AM

Camping at its best

Consider a local vacation. ‘Are we there yet?’ can hold off for another summer.

By: By Jenna Hanson, West Central Tribune

Consider a local vacation.

‘Are we there yet?’

can hold off for another summer.The sun has nearly set on the first half of summer, yet the calendar is still missing something: a family vacation.

Good intentions to plan a camping trip to Yellowstone National Park or the Grand Canyon may have taken a backseat to the summer camps and swimming lessons that tend to fill June and July.

Families can still get away from it all with barely having to get away — at a campsite in the area’s state or county park system. Nearly all parks offer reasonable nightly rates on sites with room for last-minute campers. Families short on time or cash may be pleasantly surprised by what awaits them at area parks and campgrounds.

And they can be there without having to hear a single “Are we there yet?” from the backseat.

Nearly all six Kandiyohi county parks offer electric campsites, water hookup sites, boat rentals, playgrounds, gas and a camp store. The area also boasts four larger state parks with an even wider range of activities available for campers, a few even offering camper cabins.

Close to home

Families choosing to camp close to home are an increasing trend park managers have observed over the last few years. Managers of both the state and county parks said a significant percentage of these visitors travel from within a 50-mile radius.

“People are exploring locally what they haven’t seen before,” said Tim Bailey, manager of County Park 2 on Big Kandiyohi Lake near Lake Lillian. “A lot of people never would have chosen a county park before because they were always going somewhere else.”

Nearly all park managers agree the economy has increased traffic in regional parks in recent years.

Rita Olson, who manages County Park 7 along with her husband, Gary, agrees with Bailey. She says people who would have taken larger family vacations are choosing to stay closer to come.

Even smaller, lesser-known state parks in the area are seeing the positive impact a depressed economy has on the park system: camping numbers are up 29 percent from last year at Monson Lake State Park, according to park manager Paul Otto.

Park selection

Choosing the right park in which to pitch a tent may seem overwhelming with five county parks and a handful of state parks nearby. At a glance, parks boast similar amenities and offerings. Upon closer inspection, campers will find each park — state or county — has its own personality.

“A person really needs to try them all,” said Bailey, of the county’s park system.

Families can narrow their options by first determining the camping experience they are seeking: centered in a hub of activity or isolated in quiet and solitude?

If the former is preferred, families may appreciate the constant buzz of activity found at most parks in the county park system.

“There is a nonstop basketball game going on at our basketball court all weekend long,” said Terry Clark, manager of County Park 5 on the northeast shore of Green Lake.

Clark said the lake is the park’s main draw, though he also credits the park’s high number of campers to the park’s proximity to Spicer and the Glacial Ridge Trail.

Many of Clark’s sites are seasonal, as is the case with many campsites in the county park system. County Park 7, situated on east shore of Games Lake near New London, is the only park that does not allow seasonal campsites.

“We can be more accessible to more people without seasonal camping,” Olson said. “We want people to be able to come and go.”

The park certainly does stay busy: Olson nearly always sells out of her homemade caramel rolls and doughnuts at the park restaurant by 8:30 a.m. each weekend morning.

Between returning seasonal campers and last-minute walk-ins, Kandiyohi county parks have little problem filling campsites on summer weekends.

State parks

Glacial Lakes State Park and Sibley State Park also experience a high influx of visitors, filling campgrounds to capacity most weekends.

According to park manager Paul Otto, Sibley State Park is one of the 10 busiest parks in the state’s park system.

“We are one of the busiest, yet also one of the smallest,” Otto said.

Visitors to Sibley State Park can take advantage of Lake Andrew, the park’s main focal point. The park also features an interpretive program staffed with a full-time naturalist.

Just north of Sibley lies another busy state park: Glacial Lakes State Park. According to park manager Matt Feigum, the park offers some of the best glacial features in the state.

Feigum also credits the park’s popularity to the park’s mix of prairie and woodlands. The addition of camper cabins last July has also brought in more visitors to the park.

Families looking for a more rustic experience may want to consider the lesser-known Monson Lake State Park, Lac qui Parle State Park or Upper Sioux Agency State Park.

“Monson State Park is the polar opposite of Sibley State Park,” said Otto, who manages Monson Lake State Park in addition to Sibley State Park. “It’s definitely a more remote experience.”

Fishing and bird-watching are popular pastimes at Monson Lake, where Otto said campers can literally sit in their campsite and watch for birds.

Lac qui Parle State Park, located one-half mile north of Watson, is another park that moves at a slower pace than its popular counterparts at Sibley and Glacial Lakes.

Betty Tverberg, an employee at Lac qui Parle State Park, said the park doesn’t have the budget for interpretive programs, stores or paved trails.

“People that come to Lac qui Parle like the fact that there aren’t all of those things,” Tverberg said.

Upper Sioux Agency State Park, on the Minnesota River near Granite Falls, is a popular horse-riding camp, according to manager Terry Dinesen.

In addition to a horse camp and electrical sites, the park offers something no other state park can: tipi rentals.

Though the park’s two tipis book up months in advance, Dinesen said very few weekends is the park sold out.

“We’re busier than Lake Monson but not a zoo like Sibley,” said Dinesen.

Reserve your spot

Getting there is no problem: reserving a campsite — especially those sites offering amenities such as electricity and water hookups — may not be as easy, depending on the park.

Both state and county park sites can be reserved well in advance, which means fewer sites to go around for those who didn’t plan ahead.

Families wanting to reserve spots at a county park need to contact the individual park. Those making reservations in advance must book a minimum of seven days. Families without reservations can take a chance and call the day before, though they are not guaranteed a site.

State Park reservations can be made online at www.stayatmnparks.com, or by calling 1-866-85PARKS.

Park locations:

Lake Monson State Park

Access is off State Highway 9, just west of Sunburg, via County Road 95.

Glacial Lakes State Park

From the town of Starbuck, go 3 miles south on Highway 29, then 2 miles south on County Road 41.

Sibley State Park

From St. Cloud, take State Hwy 23 to New London, then State Hwy 9 west to County Rd. 40. Then go west on County Rd. 40. Go one mile north on 71 to park entrance.

From Willmar, take US Hwy 71 north, 15 miles to the park entrance.

Upper Sioux Agency State Park

From the town of Granite Falls at the intersection of State Hwy 212 and 23, go south on St. Hwy 23, about one block to State Hwy 67. Turn left on 67 and go eight miles to park entrances. The first of the park’s three entrances will take you to the horse rider campground. The second entrance takes you to the main park entrance. The last entrance takes you to the campground.

Monson Lake

Access is off State Highway 9, just west of Sunburg, via County Road 95.

Lac Qui Parle State Park

Approximately 1/2 mile north of Watson on U.S. Highway 59 and State Highway 7, then west on Chippewa County Road 13.

— Courtesy of Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

County Park 1, west shore of Big Kandiyohi Lake: 320-995-6599

County Park 2, northeast shore of Big Kandiyohi Lake: 320-664-4707

County Park 3, west shore of Diamond Lake: 320-974-8520

County Park 5, north shore Green Lake: 320-796-5440

County Park 7, southeast shore of Games Lake: 320-354-4453

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