January–February 2023

Bucket List

Winter Camp at George Crosby Manitou State Park

They're cold and tired but there is no place on the planet they'd rather be.

Chris Clayton

On a cold, clear morning a year ago I pulled into George Crosby Manitou State Park, known for its pristine North Shore setting and hike-in campsites that, come winter, offer Boundary Waters–like solitude. With me were my friends Thom and Adam, good-natured guys who tend to go with the flow in the outdoors. Flexibility is an especially valuable trait to have when winter camping, which was what we’d be doing for the next couple days at the snow-covered park located near the town of Finland, a few miles west of the big lake.

Sleeping and playing in freezing temperatures pose obvious physical challenges, but mental hurdles can creep in as well, often in the middle of the night. Am I having fun? is a common question cold-weather campers ask themselves while shivering in their sleeping bags, fantasizing about sleep numbers and forced-air heat.

But if you’re well prepared and halfway tough—or, like me, maybe one-eighth tough—winter camping is a uniquely enjoyable way to vibe with nature. Thom, Adam, and I were nothing if not prepared. We’d brought a comical amount of gear, including snowshoes, personal packs, food packs, a manual ice auger, a canvas expedition tent, a wood-burning stove to heat the tent and our meals, and three sturdy plastic sleds to haul it all in.

After parking near the registration kiosk, we lashed our stuff to the sleds and snowshoed in about half a mile to a cedar-ringed campsite on the east side of Benson Lake. We spent the next two days exploring the park’s Chutes and Ladders–like topography, including a river gorge adorned with waterfalls and steep, powdery trails that we bombed down on snowshoes, whooping like little kids as we went.

We also spent a good amount of time huddling around the stove in our canvas tent, sheltered from the single-digit temps and brutal winds. At night we boiled lake water to heat vacuum-sealed servings of stew and curry.

After a late dinner on the first evening, we hiked down the small hill from our site to the frozen lake and peered up at an astonishing number of stars, made visible by the clear, black sky and lack of light pollution. Orion—not just his belt but the full deal—struck his warrior pose in high resolution. Shooting stars darted about. The celestial haze of the Milky Way shimmered in the inky darkness. My friends and I were cold and tired, but there was no place on the planet we’d rather be.

Plan Your Trip

  • George Crosby Manitou State Park is at 7616 County Highway 7, Finland. There is no office, but you’ll find a registration kiosk near the park entrance. Reserve a site online at reservemn.usedirect.com/MinnesotaWeb.
  • The 3,320-acre park has a distinctly rustic, backcountry feel compared to other state parks on the North Shore. The primitive campsites are hike-in only, boat access is carry-in only, and there’s no running water or flush toilets. Visitors must pack out their trash.
  • Trails can be rugged and challenging, so plan accordingly. Park highlights include the Manitou River gorge, stands of old-growth yellow birch, and multiple lookouts offering peek-a-boo views of Lake Superior.
  • For a winter camping primer visit mndnr.gov/MCVwintercampingstory.