Published June 28, 2009, 12:00 AM

Northland’s hidden gems offer great camping

Among northern Minnesota’s glorious state parks, you have your stars. And then you have your hidden gems, the unsung, out-of-the-way but still amazing places in the Northeastern Minnesota landscape.

By: Sam Cook, Duluth News Tribune

Among northern Minnesota’s glorious state parks, you have your stars. Gooseberry Falls. Split Rock Lighthouse. Tettegouche. Itasca.

And then you have your hidden gems, the unsung, out-of-the-way but still amazing places in the Northeastern Minnesota landscape. These are places where you can hike remote trails, ride bicycles, catch fish, marvel at moving water and contemplate ancient pines.

We’ve chosen five for you to try. Check them out. Each has something unique among Minnesota’s parks. And you’ll probably find getting a campsite here is easier than at the higher-profile parks.

Scenic State Park

Nearest town: Bigfork

Annual visits: 48,774

Size: 3,360 acres

Contact: (218) 743-3362

Camping: Drive-in sites, 93; pull-through sites, 20; backpack, 2; boat-in/canoe-in sites, 5; handicap-accessible, 2. Electric sites: 20

Highlights: Scenic State Park protects the virgin-pine shorelines of Coon and Sandwick Lakes plus parts of four others. Don’t miss the Chase Point Trail on an esker (a raised gravel ridge about 75 feet above lake level) between Coon and Sandwick lakes.

“For people who want to get more adventurous, we have five boat-in campsites, most on Sandwick Lake,” said park manager Steve Railson. “They’re just gorgeous and very secluded.”

Scenic also offers a sandy swimming beach, boat and canoe rentals, and fishing for walleyes, northern pike and panfish. Several of the park’s buildings, still in good shape, were built during the Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Visitor Alert: Visitors now may check out free birding kits from the park office. The kits include binoculars, two bird field guides and the Scenic State Park bird checklist.

George H. Crosby Manitou State Park

Nearest town: Finland

Annual visits: 26,463

Size: 6,682 acres

Contact: (218) 226-6365 (Tettegouche State Park)

Camping: 21 backpacking sites ranging from 1/2 to 4½ miles from parking area.

Several sites along Manitou River and four near Benson Lake.

Highlights: Crosby Manitou is a rugged, wilderness-like park. The Manitou River flows through it, cascading to Lake Superior, and five miles of the Superior Hiking Trail pass through the park, too.

“What’s interesting about Crosby Manitou is they’ve developed it purposely as a backpacking park,” said Duluth’s Andrew Slade, who is writing a book called “Hiking the North Shore” due out next spring. “Other parks have visitor centers and whatnot, but they’ve purposely left it not that way. You get out there, and it’s a much more wild experience.”

Hikers will find 24 miles of trail in the park, through old-growth forests and leading to scenic waterfalls.

Visitor Alert: Areas of the park may still show signs from the March 25 ice storm, when freezing rain coated trees in the area causing many branches to fall.

Judge C.R. Magney State Park

Nearest town: Grand Marais

Annual visits: 66,334 (5,599 overnight)

Size: 4,642 acres

Contact: (218) 387-3039

Camping: Drive-in sites, 27 (RV length limit 45 feet)

Electric sites: None

Highlights: This is a quiet park far from the crowds along Minnesota’s North Shore. The Brule River — some call it the Arrowhead — flows down through the park. Visitors can hike a trail to the Devil’s Kettle, where the river splits around a mass of volcanic rock. One half of the river plunges in to a pool, while the other half disappears into a giant pothole.

The park has nine miles of hiking trails, and brook trout can be caught in Gauthier Creek, a tributary of the Brule.

“I like the park as a base camp,” Duluth’s Andrew Slade said. “You can camp in relative luxury — hot showers — and go hiking up the Arrowhead Trail or near Grand Portage.”

Big Bog State Recreation Area

Nearest town: Waskish

Annual visits: 55,198 (4,878 overnight)

Size: 9,459 acres

Contact: (218) 647-8592

Camping: Drive-in sites, 31; pull-through sites, 1; (RV length limit 60 feet)Electric sites: 26

Lodging: Camper cabins, 5, with electricity and heat, no indoor plumbing

Highlights: Yes, this park sits alongside a big peat bog — the largest in the lower 48 states. A mile-long boardwalk enables visitors to take a firsthand look at plant life that includes orchids and carnivorous plants.

The southern unit of this two-part park lies between the Tamarac River and Upper Red Lake, home of some of the best walleye fishing in Minnesota as well as trophy northern pike. The camper cabins are perfect for visiting anglers.

Jay Cooke State Park

Nearest town: Duluth

Annual visits: 253,825

Size: 8,818 acres

Contact: (218) 384-4610

Camping: Drive-in sites, 79; pull-through sites, 1; handicap-accessible, 3; backpack sites, 4; walk-in sites, 3. (RV length limit, 60 feet)

Electric sites: 21

Lodging: Camper cabins, 5

Highlights: The St. Louis River flows over beds of slate and greywacke that look like the armor on a stegosaurus, right through the heart of Jay Cooke. The river is the largest tributary on Lake Superior. Rugged terrain on both sides of the river make for great hiking, good overlooks and excellent biking (both mountain biking and road riding). Kids love to bounce on the Swinging Bridge over the river. Check out the historic pioneer cemetery and the gorge at Thomson Dam.

Visitors also can catch the Superior Hiking Trail at the edge of the park and hike the overlooks of West Duluth. The paved Munger State Trail runs adjacent to the park, and a paved spur provides access from the park. Lots of park visitors use the Munger Trail, said Karen Whaley, a clerk at Jay Cooke.

The five camper cabins are new this year and “very popular,” Whaley said. Four are reserved for most of the summer, but openings remain for the fifth, she said.

Although this park is near Duluth, it’s a world away.

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