A Backcountry Car Camper's Guide to the Tallgrass Aspen Parkland
I would categorize camping on the Caribou or Skull Lake wildlife management areas as rustic backcountry car camping—mixing the solitude of backpacking with the conveniences of camping near your vehicle.
Camping on these WMAs is restricted to designated campsites, which are drive-in sites. But they are isolated—sites are several miles apart. The sites themselves offer little more than a patch of mowed grass with a circle of rocks for a fire pit, so the experience is very different from weekend car camping at a state park. It feels more like backpacking along the Superior Hiking Trail or canoe-camping in the Boundary Waters.
Caribou and Skull Lake WMA campsites require no permits or reservations, but the local DNR office in Karlstad would appreciate a phone call (218/436-2427) to let them know who's camping in the WMAs—especially during spring and fall, when prescribed burns are conducted and wildfires are possible.
Some tips to keep in mind if you try backcountry car camping in the Caribou or Skull Lake WMAs:
- Bring your own water: There are no water facilities or amenities of any kind on these WMAs or anywhere nearby. Luckily, you can haul everything you need to your campsite in your vehicle.
- Prepare for rough roads: The gravel roads in and around the WMAs can be rutted and peppered with large rocks. Be sure your vehicle is up to the challenge. A 4X4 truck should have no problem. I drove a compact all-wheel-drive sedan on my camping trip and fared just fine, though I had to be careful maneuvering around jagged rocks hidden beneath the grass in the campsite area.
- There is only one gravel road into Caribou WMA and it's in decent shape. A campsite is located right on this road. In Skull Lake WMA, the roads are extremely rough and only traversable by a 4X4 vehicle; only highway-licensed vehicles are allowed on these roads. If the road is wet, gates will be closed and driving will be prohibited to protect the area from erosion—so you'll have to hike by foot from the gate to explore the area.
- Off-highway vehicles, such as ATVs, are not allowed anywhere on the Caribou or Skull Lake WMAs, except during the firearms deer hunting season. See the Hunting Rules and Regulations Booklet for more details.
- Bring a compass/GPS and know how to use it: There are a few trails—mostly paths for DNR trucks—that hikers can follow on the WMAs. But the real fun to is head off into the wilds on your own and do some trailless exploring. Chances are you can't get too lost; if you keep wandering in any direction, you'll either run into a county road or the Canadian border. But it's still a good idea to bring along a compass and map to keep track of your whereabouts. If you bring a GPS, use the waypoints on this map to find the places mentioned in the article.
State Park Camping Alternative
If you prefer the relatively more comfortable accommodations of a state park campground, visit nearby Lake Bronson State Park. From there you can drive to the Caribou and Skull Lake WMAs in about 15 to 20 minutes. There are also patches of tallgrass aspen parkland within the state park.
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