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The long, long RV trip, Week 18: Three Minnesota Army Corps of Engineers Campgrounds

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This week’s stops: Minnesota Army Corps of Engineers Campgrounds

  • Winnibigoshish Lake Recreation Area, Grand Rapids, MN
  • Pokegama Dam Recreation Area, Grand Rapids, MN
  • Gull Lake Recreation Area, Brainerd, MN

When I left St. Paul last week, I headed north in Minnesota. Those who have been following the long, long RV trip know that I have become a big fan of Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) Campgrounds. And Minnesota Army Corps of Engineer Campgrounds are plentiful. Especially ones offering electrical and/or full hookups.

I love ACE campgrounds because:

  • They are always centered around ACE projects like lakes, rivers, and dams.
  • They frequently offer all the amenities of commercial campgrounds: electrical, dump stations, water hookups, showers, laundries, and playgrounds.
  • They are exceptionally well managed.
  • Even without the half-price National Parks Pass discount, the price is always a bargain compared to commercial campgrounds.
Minnesota Army Corps of Engineers Campgrounds, Lake Winnibogoshish Dam
Lake Winnibigoshish Dam

I got on the Recreation.gov website and booked several nights at each of the three above-listed campgrounds. Overall, the ACE maintains nine different campgrounds in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Dakota as part of the “St. Paul District.”

The Army Corps of Engineers St. Paul District traces its roots back to 1866, when Congress authorized it to establish a 4-foot low-water navigation channel on the notoriously unreliable Upper Mississippi River. The then-new program surveyed and mapped the main stem of the Mississippi and its tributaries.

Between 1880 and 1907, Congress authorized the Corps of Engineers to construct six dams in the headwaters. These controlled floodwaters, provided power for mills (especially the flour mills in St. Anthony), and kept the river navigable.

According to the ACE website, Congress initially balked at the then-experimental dam for Lake Winnibigoshish, but its construction was authorized in 1880:

“The Headwaters project provided for construction of the Winnibigoshish Dam (1883-1884) and the completion of dams at Leech Lake (1884), Pokegama Falls (1884), Pine River (1886), Sandy Lake (1895) and Gull Lake (1912). In its 1895 annual report, the Corps of Engineers reported that releasing the water from the Headwaters reservoirs had successfully raised the water level in the Twin Cities by 12 to 18 inches, helping navigation interests and the millers. By 1895, the St. Paul District had built more than 100 miles of wing dams and 94 miles of shore.”

Nonetheless, by 1918, virtually no traffic moved between St. Paul and St. Louis. Fearing that the Midwest would suffer economically without a vibrant and diverse transportation system, business interests initiated another movement to revive river transportation.

In 1930 Congress authorized the construction of 23 locks and dams on the Upper Mississippi River. These were completed in 1940. The Corps built additional locks and dams at Lower and Upper St. Anthony Falls in 1956 and 1963, respectively, bringing the total in the St. Paul District to 13. With a consistently deep and reliable channel, commerce returned to the Upper Mississippi River.

You can camp at these important points and places in Wisconsin, North Dakota, and especially Minnesota Army Corps of Engineers campgrounds.

A visit with Officer Friendly at Knife Lake wayside rest area

knife lake, MN, no camping sign

I had a day between when I left St. Paul and my reservation at Lake Winnibigoshish began, but I saw a few rest areas on the way and figured I would spend a quick night at one of these.

As many of Minnesota’s main roads in these areas are two-lane highways, they offer what are called “wayside rest areas.” Some of them are amazing.

At about 6 p.m. I rolled into Knife Lake and a picture postcard beautiful wayside rest area with lush trees and a crystal blue lake view from the RV’s door. Sweet!

I had not been there even five minutes when Officer Friendly drives up.

He was pleasant enough and was chit-chatting about what I planned to make for dinner, where I was from, yada yada yada. He then informed me that I couldn’t spend the night there.

I informed him that the sign said I could.

He said, “I don’t think so,” and went to look.

I was right. He apologized, then left me alone. And I had no further visitors the rest of the night.

In his defense, the sign, pictured above, was a bit confusing. But I would think the local sheriff would have been up on what was and was not allowed. Maybe he was just fishing.

But, nice or not, any uninvited encounters with police, or any strangers for that matter, always leave me feeling a little freaked out when I am in the middle of nowhere on my own.

I am not always on my own. But I was that night and I did not sleep well. But Knife Lake was a gorgeous place to park. And there were several campgrounds on it.

Lake Winnibigoshish Army Corps of Engineers Campground

lake winnie dam fishing

As soon as I got near Lake Winnibigoshish I realized it was familiar because I had RVing friends who used to spend every summer at the nearby Little Winnie Resort, a good option if you want to stay longer than the 14-day limit federal campgrounds impose.

I found my campsite tucked among trees. Others were nearby, but there was plenty of space between campers at all three of the ACE campgrounds I stayed at this week.

You can walk or drive over the dam here. Fishermen seemed to prize the area right below and kept pushing ever closer to and sometimes over the signs prohibiting fishing close to the dam.

The Lake Winnie Dam has been rebuilt a few times since its first incarnation, and old remnants remain on the nature trail adjacent to the campground where I frequently went hiking.

There are a number of resorts, fishing guides, sports outfitters, and restaurants in the area.

big fish supper club, bena, MN
Big Fish Supper Club, Bena, MN

As a fan of roadside Americana kitsch, I loved the look of the Big Fish Supper Club in nearby Bena. I went in and had a drink. Between the uninspired-looking menu and the aloofness toward a stranger exhibited by the bartender and the late afternoon crowd of regulars, I decided to eat elsewhere.

A friendlier local I spoke with later confirmed I made the right choice by opting for dinner at Lake Winnie’s Gosh Dam Place.

The food was far better than expected and the crowd and staff were generally more welcoming.

I had an excellent Walleye dinner. (I couldn’t leave Minnesota without having some Walleye.) And the duck wontons were a delicious appetizer. Additionally, the bartender mixes a mean Moscow Mule.

Lake Winnie's Gosh Dam Place

Pokegama Dam Recreation Area

While I could have stayed longer at Lake Winnie, I wanted to check out more ACE campgrounds, so next went to Pokegama Dam, even though it was less than an hour away.

This was my favorite of the three camps because I like to hike and this camp offers miles of wooded hiking trails. All you need to do to access them is walk over the dam from the campground and into the woods.

Minnesota Army Corps of Engineers Campgrounds - Pokegama Dam

Like all three Minnesota Army Corps of Engineers campgrounds, Pokegama (accent on the second syllable) offers large wooded campsites. I was able to pick up strong, reliable Wi-Fi signals via my Verizon Hotspot at all three, as well.

Watersports and fishing are also the stars at all these campgrounds.

But for me, my favorite part was meditating while watching the rapidly flowing river that I could see from outside, but also from my RV windows. Below the dam, the river is wide.  While its pace lacks wildness, there are no rapids, you can definitely see the current moving, and moving quickly. It was hypnotic and I found myself getting lost in it like you can when watching fish swimming in a tank.

Mississippi River below Pokegama Dam
Mississippi River below Pokegama Dam

Book gives the inside scoop on camping with the Corps of Engineers
Many RVers consider Corps of Engineers campgrounds to be the best in the country. This guide is just for RVers — boat-in and tent-only sites are not included. Of all the public lands, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has some of the best parks and campgrounds available. In fact, it’s the largest federal provider of outdoor recreation in the nation. Learn more or order.


Gull Lake Recreation Area

If you prefer lakes to rivers, then head to Gull Lake, situated on the Gull River at the outlet of Minnesota’s famous Gull Lake Chain of Lakes.

This campground also offers a dam, although a much smaller one. Likewise, there is fishing and water access near the camp and a short interpretive nature hiking trail in the park.

Gull Lake itself is HUGE and a big attraction in this area. Likewise, there are resorts, restaurants, shopping, golf, and even amusement parks nearby.

minnesota army corps of engineers campgrounds, gull lake
Gull Lake campsite

It is Minnesota and things are seasonal, so after Labor Day some summer activities were shutting down or had already closed. Winter sports are also big here, though, if that’s more your thing.

At all the local bars or restaurants I went to I could overhear fishing guides gearing up for the upcoming ice fishing season.

About 20 years or so ago I went ice fishing in the middle of winter in Northern Minnesota while on a dog sledding trip. It was fun and fascinating and has provided me with unforgettable memories. But I think I prefer Minnesota in the summer.

fishing near Gull Lake
Fishing near Gull Lake

NEXT WEEK:
Playing tourist in South Dakota: The Badlands, Mt. Rushmore, Deadwood, and more.

Previously in Cheri’s long, long RV trip:

##RVT1073

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Uncle Swags
1 month ago

I recently discovered the COE campgrounds and agree with your list and wanted to top it with “they are designed and built by engineers” – every spot is level and because they usually have a lot of land to play with, they design well laid out campgrounds as well.

Dennis Johnson
1 month ago

Just stayed five nights at Winnie Dam COE. Awesome fall colors. Drove the forest road on the north side of Winnie and found it smoother than the highway to get there. A must stop in the area is the Sportman Cafe in Deer River. The Ultimate Stuffed Hashbrowns breakfast will give you enough for breakfast the next day!
Now at Gull Lake COE for three more nights on our way home….

DW/ND
1 month ago

You are spot on with your descriptions of these USACOE campgrounds. We have been to all three and Pokegema Dam twice. Unfortunately, the 2nd time the mosquitos were so bad on the hiking trail we couldn’t do it! The Corps does an outstanding job of maintenance and I think campers using the grounds and facilities respect that – keeping their “stuff” properly.

Minnesota has a great deal more to offer in state and federal lands – mostly in heavily treed areas with lakes and fishing abundant – even fishing docks now!

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the excellent Corps. and state facilities in ND. Of course the drawback is like Minn. a seasonal thing – except fishing, snowmobiling, hiking and winter survival training! Pass thru the upper midwest – you’ll love it!

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