New Split Rock Lighthouse campground shines on the North Shore

A new public camping facility in Minnesota is not an everyday occurrence — which is why I treated snagging an opening-day spot at the new Shipwreck Creek Campground at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park like getting primo seats for a Rolling Stones concert.

When reservations became available in April for the June 1 opening, I was in place in front of my computer, credit card ready. The system went live at 8 am, but burped and then went down for 20 minutes, acting too much like an overloaded Stones sale. Fortunately, when it came back up, I was able to score a site for the first two nights, and then watched while all but a few random single nights were quickly scooped up for the rest of the summer.

After 30 years and some 500 nights camping in Minnesota, I’ve grown to be somewhat particular about my campsites. But without the ability to scope out Shipwreck Creek in advance, I had to choose one of the 46 drive-in sites at random and hope for the best. As it turned out, there was no need to worry; While I was happy that my site (329) seemed to be one of the best in the park, a few tours through the campground revealed plenty of attractive alternatives.

At the same time, camps familiar with other North Shore campgrounds, such as the one at Tettegouche State Park, might be surprised to see how open the landscape is at Shipwreck Creek. However, those who have visited Vermilion Ridge at Lake Vermilion-Sudan Underground Mine State Park — the last state campground to open before this one — will recognize and hopefully appreciate the topography.

This is not a campground where the sites are nestled under thick canopies. It’s open and airy, with site design incorporating both native bedrock and birch trees. Privacy comes from placing the sites farther apart than in many parks, although most are open to the road. Given that this campground is designed for recreational vehicles, (all sites have electricity, some are pull-through) that’s not as much of an issue as it might be for tent campers (who are welcome). One advantage of the open sites? On a clear night, the starry sky is spectacular and easily seen.

What else stands out? Experiences may vary, but the nights I camped (in a tent) with my wife, Shipwreck Creek was the quietest campground I remember visiting. By early evening, most campers had arrived and set up, without the late Twin Cities arrivals (and the noise of their slamming car doors) that can spoil an evening around the campfire. In addition, perhaps because of the prevalence of RVs, I don’t think a single vehicle drove by our site after we crawled into our sleeping bags; traffic noise from Highway 61 was there but minimal. I would expect more activity in the evenings with school out, but for those looking for a quiet camping experience, it’s a good start.

A small quibble is that the park might benefit from adding more vault toilets. There are six for 46 sites, and some RVers use their own bathrooms. But I did notice a few lines in the morning at some of the facilities. A modern, state-of-the-art shower building stands at the campground’s northwestern edge; It’s a bit of a hike from most of the campsites.

In terms of recreation, the Shipwreck campground — on the north side of the highway away from the rest of the park — is connected by spur trails with the bicycling paths that cut through Split Rock and connect up with the Gitchi-Gami State Trail. You can take the trail south to Gooseberry Falls State Park or north to Beaver Bay. There is also a parking lot on the west side of the park that connects to Lake County mountain biking trails.

Drive-in sites with electricity are the most popular in the state park system, a reflection of the increasing popularity of recreational vehicles. These days, RVs are not just for folks who no longer want to rough it by sleeping on the ground — many young families skip the phase tenting altogether and go straight to RVs. With the opening of Shipwreck Creek, Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources admirably shows that it is keeping up with the trends. (On the other hand, Shipwreck Creek would benefit from adding wi-fi, as Vermilion Ridge has.)

It was risky messing with the facilities at a park many Minnesotans consider to be a jewel of the system. But until now, camps at Split Rock had to use the cart-in campground or the scattered backpack sites.

With the addition of Shipwreck Creek Campground and its invitation to pass a night or two — or more — along Minnesota’s uniquely scenic North Shore, the destination is complete.

Jeff Moravec is a Minneapolis freelance writer and author of “Minnesota Adventure Weekends,” published by Menasha Ridge Press.

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