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Focus On Old Hwy 61: What’s With Campgrounds These Days?

Story and Photos by Gail Gates

“It always rains on tents. Rainstorms will travel thousands of miles, against prevailing winds for the opportunity to rain on a tent.”
― Dave Barry

My camping experiences are, at best, mixed.  It’s not that I’m super high-maintenance, but I do actually like to bathe daily and eat with utensils. My husband, an Eagle Scout from yesteryear, adores shunning modern amenities for the rugged wilderness andits inferred free pass to ignore all socially acceptable grooming, manners, and at times, conversation.

Me: “Honey, I love you!”

Him: “Grunt, grunt.” (Roughly translated: Me no talk. Me wild man. Woman need to be silent.)

Therefore, when we do go camping I tend to grin and bear it, while he just grins.

Recently I’ve been hearing reports about the Millennial’s love of camping or, more specifically, their love of RV life.  Huh!  Although I hate to generalize, I often think of Millennial’s as homebodies rather than having nomadic tendencies. I decided to do a little Old Hwy. 61 sleuthing.

My objective: drive up Old Hwy. 61 and ask several camping location personnel if they’ve noticed a visiting millennial uptick.

My first stop was at the Snake River Campsite outside of Pine City, Minnesota.



Okay, technically it is about 10 or 12 miles east of Old Hwy 61, but I’d never been there before and it gave me an excuse to stop at Pine City’s A & W.  Ice cold root beer…(me making obnoxious guttural happy noises.)

Once fortified with bubbly liquid, I drove County Road 8 east of town and found myself embedded in farmland.  Cows roamed the pastures, farmers were putting up late season hay or straw, and the skies were blue and puffy cloudified.  (Cloudified…that’s a word, right?)

When I reached the campground sign I turned onto a dirt road that is “minimally maintained” by description.  In other words, expect large, car eating, potholes. Here is how the campground is described online:

The campground is considered “primitive,” designed to furnish only the basic needs of the camper. The campsites consist of a cleared area, fire ring, and table. In addition, vault toilets, garbage cans, and drinking water are available.



All sites are on a first-come, first-served basis for a fee.

It seemed to be a pretty location, although I didn’t leave my car to seek out the river. No one appeared to be camping on this post-Labor Day Monday, so I did two loops around the various campsites and decided to move on.



My next stop was at Banning State Park north of Sandstone, MN.

Although I grew up about 20 miles west of Sandstone, I never came to appreciate Banning until the past two years. It’s a gorgeous park with remnants from the quarrying days, a rowdy Kettle River, and a small (12 feet) but lovely Wolf Creek waterfall.

I found the young woman at the park headquarters quite friendly, and willing to answer my questions.  In her view, the park isn’t seeing Millennial’s per se, but they are seeing a sizeable uptick in large RV’s.

“This park was developed in the 1960’s,” she said. “That was back when most visitors used tents. Now we have bigger and bigger RV’s coming in and they have a hard time turning around in the available spaces. We’re trying to accommodate the changes, but it takes time and money.”

When I asked about the age of the park visitors she said she felt more retired people were using the park.

Right after she said this, six silver-haired people came in asking for campsites.  They parked two large RV’s outside the door.  I smiled.

I still had ¾ of a tank of gas, so I decided to head further north on Old Hwy. 61 to Carlton, MN. Along the way I loudly sang to Aerosmith’s Dream On, slurped Diet Coke, and thought about purchasing the best wurst at Mahtowa, MN.

Upon arriving at Carlton, I swung into the Chamber of Commerce office and asked if there were any small campsites nearby.  The nice women said my best bet on Old Hwy. 61 was the KOA just outside of town. Perfect.

I didn’t realize KOA’s still existed, such is my resistance to camping, but I quickly found it.  The Duluth/Cloque



t/Carlton KOA Journey is a happening place.

Bill Higton, a 20-year owner of this KOA, fielded my questions as his wife, Barbara, checked in more guests.  Bill, like the young woman at Banning State Park, was also suspect of the Millennial rise in camping.  However, he did say that during the summer months a lot more young parents with an “average of 2.5 children” visited their campground. After Labor Day it tended to be more retiree’s.  Either way business is booming.

My exhaustive search—aka, three campsites—left the question of a Millennial camper/RV surge open.  Shaken, but not stirred, I decided to head home.

Both Banning State Park and the Cloquet KOA said the fall season is filling fast.  If you don’t have reservations for the colorful weekends ahead you may be out of luck, but during the week camping sites remain somewhat available.

Bill, at the KOA, said they would start taking reservations for 2018 the weekend after Thanksgiving. “Leave a message and we’ll get back to you. Booking early is best,” were his parting words.

As I drove south I stopped at TJ’s in Mahtowa for those brats and wurst. Then, on my way home, I sang loudly and poorly to Don McLean’s Miss America Pie.  It was an almighty fine day for research and hanging on Old Hwy. 61.

 They were singing
Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
Them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die

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