Minnesota is the 12th largest state in a nation of really big states, so it’s not surprising that there are a lot of outdoorsy things to do here. But this nation of really big states is also well known for its lack of mass transit options, so again I wasn’t surprised when I started looking for camping facilities that were accessible by bus or train, and didn’t find too many.
To begin with I looked at camp sites managed by the DNR, basically because their website is pretty good and is the single biggest source of info on camping that I’m aware of. Also, I’ve camped in a lot of State Parks and generally been impressed with their facilities. If you’re aware of any other good campgrounds/sites that aren’t managed by the DNR, please let me know in the comments. Unfortunately I couldn’t find an editable map of their parks (wikipedia has all their Geo coordinates, which would have made this task super easy if I’d found it beforehand) so I made my own map on google earth.
I don’t have Jefferson Lines’ network structure memorized, but luckily the esteemed Mike Hicks has already mapped it. He also has a map of the Rochester City Bus commuter network, probably the network with the largest coverage area next to Jefferson (Rochester appears to serve a larger area than Metro Transit & the opt-outs, although obviously with many fewer routes and stops). I then filled in a few spots, for example the Mankato Land-to-Air Express stop and the Amtrak stops.
The resulting map looks promising at the state level – lots of campgrounds look like they’re close to bus stops. But at the full scale of the 12th largest state, distances are misleading. I’m willing to walk up to 8 miles to the camp site, but the park office can be pretty far from the camp site, so in most cases the bus stop needs to be within 5 miles of the park. Basically, the camp symbol needs to be right on top of the bus stop symbol to work. Here is the list of the walkable ones, with remote campsites first and car campgrounds second (because if you have to walk 5 miles to the park, you deserve a better quality camp site).
Remote Camp Sites
- Charles A. Lindbergh State Park, Little Falls – bus stop: McDonald’s east of town – distance from stop to park office: 3.3 mi – camping: 2 cart-in, 38 “wooded and private” drive-in. The hike to the park involves walking down Little Falls’ Main Street – a bonus in my book – but a good half of it is on the sidewalkless, possibly stroady Lindbergh Drive. The park itself covers the southwestern flank of the town and, despite appealingly rolling terrain, is a bit small and doesn’t appear to connect to other natural areas. The bus times are pretty good on this one, the mid-afternoon arrival allowing time to get to the park and set up camp, and the mid-afternoon departure means the hike back doesn’t have to be a scramble.
- Moose Lake State Park, eponymous – bus stop: Little Store south of town? – distance from stop to park office: less than a mile, probably – camping: 2 walk-in, 33 “partially shaded” drive-in. Part of the fun of bus travel is that you never know exactly where you’re going (passionately fought in the Battles of Permanence and Legibility in the Great Rail/Bus War). Jefferson itself places the stop west of town, Mike put it a bit south of town, but using Streetview and assuming they’d put the bus stop as close to the freeway as possible, I think it’s probably this gas station just off I-35. That’s a bummer if you’re going to Moose Lake, but it’s great if you’re going to Moose Lake State Park, which has some nice North Woods landscapes and appears to be near some other natural areas, although the camping doesn’t look that great. Nice mid-afternoon arrival and departure times give plenty of time for hiking to and fro, although the stop looks close enough that the timing isn’t all that important for once.
- Blue Mounds State Park, Luverne – bus stop: Expressway gas station south of town – distance from stop to park office: 6-7 mi – camping: 14 cart-in, 73 drive-in. This is on the cusp of what I’d consider too far, but since the camp sites are close to the park office, I think it’s doable. The walk looks pretty nice – much of it is through town with sidewalks or else on a trail through the park, and the third of the trip along a county road has the rare Southern Minnesota trail paralleling it. Blue Mounds looks like a cool park – a bison herd and prickly pear cactus – although I’m not too excited about prairie camping. Jefferson helps out as best it can, with a noontime arrival and a choice of two departures, one of which is at a leisurely 3:30 pm.
- Jay Cooke State Park, Carlton – bus stop: New Duluth or Fond du Lac – distance from stop to park office: 5-8 mi – camping: 4 backpack, 3 walk-in, 79 drive-in. This one’s a stretch. The park is actually closest to the bus station in Duluth, from which you take a city bus 7 miles southwest to New Duluth, then hike 8 miles down windy MN-210 to the park office. If you’re a fast hiker or have more faith in the punctuality of Jefferson than I, you can catch one of the two runs per afternoon that go three miles beyond New Duluth to Fond du Lac, but they arrive at 4:38 or 5:58. But Jay Cooke appears to be worth it – beautiful terrain, dense forest, and real backpacking sites! Jefferson’s three runs a day give you plenty of options, although the park’s distance means you should probably leave early.
- Myre – Big Island State Park, Albert Lea – bus stop: Ole’s East Side Shell – distance from stop to park office: 3 mi – camping: 4 backpack, 93 drive-in. Despite the drop-off at the side of an awful highway strip, most of the short hike to the park follows the brilliantly-named Blazing Star State Trail. This small, freeway-scarred park doesn’t look too promising, but the backpack campsites look nice, especially for fishing. Albert Lea – the gateway to Iowa – offers an astonishing four or five bus trips a day in each direction.
- Upper Sioux Agency State Park, Granite Falls – bus stop: Cenex on the south edge of town – distance from stop to park office: 8 mi – camping: 3 walk-in, 34 drive-in. The 8 mile hike down a bleak 2-lane country road is potentially lethal, but there looks to be a treasure trove of hiking here at the confluence of two prairie-draining rivers with the Minnesota. And if not, there’s a casino. Granite Falls has a nice little downtown, besides, but it’s probably not worth the 1:30 am bus you have to catch out of Minneapolis.
- Sand Dunes State Forest, Big Lake – train stop: Big Lake Northstar – distance from stop to park office: 7 mi – camping: 6 walk-in, 30 drive-in. Probably the easiest – and certainly the cheapest – camping to access from Minneapolis, this one probably works for an overnight. I’m not exactly enamored with the landscape, though, and the hike to the park is through 7 miles of beige exurb.
Car camping only
- Minneopa State Park, Mankato – bus stop: Land-to-Air Depot – distance from stop to park office: 4.5 mi. Mankato is surprisingly rich in multiuse trails, but unfortunately the one to Minneopa is basically in the ditch of 4-lane 169. This gorgeous park is worth it though, and Land-to-Air Express offers a convenient range of daily runs.
- Crow Wing State Park, Brainerd – bus stop: some motel south of town – distance from stop to park office: 8 mi. Another lengthy highway ditch walk to this one, but the park looks nice.
- Carley State Park, Plainview – bus stop: Wedgewood/Southwest Park – distance from stop to park office: 4 mi. I’m a little dubious about using Rochester City Lines, especially because it requires a lengthy layover in Rochester and only runs on weekends. I’m not sure tiny little Carley State Park is worth it, but technically it can be done…
- Lake Bemidji State Park, Bemidji – bus stop: Paul Bunyan Transit or BSU – distance from stop to park office: ~7 mi. Jefferson has two stops in Bemidji, the one from Paul Bunyan Transit looks to be around a half-mile longer but follows the Blue Ox trail the whole way. If you get off at the college, you’re stuck on a sprawlsy 2-lane. I know which one I’d choose, if I ever feel it’s worth it to take the 1:30 am red-eye out of Minneapolis.
- Mississippi Headwaters State Forest, Wilton – bus stop: Wilton – distance from stop to park office: 6 mi. Mike had this one mapped but Jefferson doesn’t list it anymore – maybe it’s a flag stop? I hope so because the wilderness area here is enormous.
- Red River State Recreation Area, East Grand Forks – bus stop: Grand Forks Transit Center – distance from stop to park office: .7 mi. The campground is so close to the bus stop that it’s more a stroll than a hike, but the downside is that the campground is right in the middle of town. Personally I prefer noisy, bright camping to come with a side of music festival or not at all. I would like to see the Red River SRA – created to manage the regular savage flooding of the titular stream – but maybe I’ll just get a motel room.
13 transit-accessible campgrounds isn’t too bad for our too-big-for-transit state, although that probably drops to 7 or 8 when you subtract the ones that probably don’t work or are clearly unpleasant. On top of that, intercity bus travel, which is often viewed as an economy option, is actually really expensive – round trip tickets seem to range between $40 (Albert Lea) and $100 (Luverne). But I remain dedicated to the pointless cause, and will report back here as I learn which parks are amazing and which aren’t worth the walk. In the meantime, please let me know in the comments if I missed any campgrounds and feel free to report any bus- or train-to-camping experiences you’ve had (in North America, that is – I already know it’s easy to do in Europe).