In the far northern reaches of the state, McCarthy Beach State Park stands out as one of Minnesota’s most lovely and enjoyable state parks. Set on the banks of the Sturgeon Lake chain—five lakes that are interconnected, McCarthy Beach boasts stunning scenery. Loons sing at dawn and dusk, and in the winter, the Northern Lights put on a magical show.
Often regarded as Minnesota’s best beach, McCarthy Beach State Park offers a long soft-sand beach lined with regal red pine opening up onto crystal clear warm water, which is perfect for swimming and boating. Clean and modern changing rooms and bathrooms are conveniently set right next to the beach, and a boat ramp allows easy access to the water without interfering with swimmers. Highly accessible, the beach has gentle ramps leading into the water, making it perfect for visitors with all ranges of abilities.
If Side Lake doesn’t suit you, easily hop over to Little Sturgeon or one of the other five lakes set within the park. The park offers 86 campsites at two different campgrounds, of which 21 have electric hookups and updated facilities. There are also a group campground and equestrian campground available. No matter what you are into, you can probably find it at McCarthy Beach State Park.
McCarthy Beach State Park, located in far-northern Minnesota, is approximately two hours from both Bemidji to the west and Duluth to the southeast. The biggest nearby town is Hibbing, which is about 30 minutes away, at the end of a stretch of 15 miles on a county road. The park is located in the George Washington State Forest. It is surrounded by winding roads, so driving slowly and enjoying the scenery is the best idea no matter which direction you are coming.
Within the park, the navigational difficulty will depend on which of the camping loops you stay in. The Beatrice Lake Campground has straight roads and easy-to-maneuver spots; however, this campground has no hookups. Side Lake Campground has electric hookups, but the turns are notoriously sharp and tricky. If you are certain you want to utilize the electric options, be sure to download the McCarthy Beach Site information sheet, which breaks down ideal RV lengths and the challenges of each of the 59 spots in the campground to make sure that the spot you reserve will work with your rig.
Side Lake Campground has 59 pet-friendly, wooded campsites with plenty of shade, electric hookups (no water or sewer, although there is a dump station), modern restrooms, and shower facilities. Each site has its own picnic table, campfire ring with a cooking grill, and space to have fun. The spots at Side Lake tend to be rather small and have minimal privacy, allowing for the chance to get to make friends with your neighbors—the good vibes here are famous. You will have easy access to the beach, boat ramps, and fishing areas, as well.
If you have doubts about your rig’s ability to navigate the tight roads (especially on the way to spots 46-59) and small spaces of Side Lake, check the website, which should answer your questions. Also, in recent years, there have been frequent problems with sink water contamination. There is always potable water available from spigots, but you might want to call ahead and check the condition of the sink water.
Beatrice Lake Campground has 30 rugged and primitive spots that can only be obtained on a first-come, first-served basis and do not usually fill up as fast as the Side Lake Campground. In this rustic campground, the spots are more spacious than the spaces at Side Lake, allowing for bigger rigs to settle in comfortably. Keep in mind that there are no hookups or modern bathroom facilities here; there are, however, vault toilets and potable water spigots available.
At each site, you will find a large picnic table under shady trees to keep you cool between swims. The park also provides each spot with a campfire ring and grill to sit around and tell campfire stories while you cook dinner. Sites 18 – 20 are walk-in sites on the peninsula, but the rest are all drive-ins with space for RVs up to 40 feet. You can bring your furbaby as long as you keep them restrained and supervise them while you are here.
Stony Brook Horse Campground is a primitive area with only the most basic facilities. You won’t find any showers or electricity here. What you will find is a gorgeous and secluded area to camp in peace with your horse in the middle of the forest. Each of the 17 campsites provides a picnic table, campfire ring with a grill for cooking, and a large cleared space for hanging out around the fire. A vault toilet, garbage dumpsters, and hand water spigots are available as well.
Some of these campsites are pull-throughs and can accommodate larger RVs while others are not as big. Manure bunkers, a loading ramp, and picket lines are available for your equestrian needs. You’ll also have plenty of space for portable corrals or an electric fence, which are welcome as long as you don’t encircle the trees. Well-behaved dogs are welcome, too. These sites are first-come, first-served, so arrive early if you want a spot.
Although it’s impossible to accurately predict sightings, early spring tends to be a favorable time for catching a glimpse of the natural phenomenon, the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis. One of the most important factors is lack of light pollution, and at remote McCarthy Beach State Park, that is one thing you can count on. Sightings can take place from late March through early August, but if you are only visiting for the beach, the ideal water temperature and Northern Lights probably do not line up.
Out of the many miles of trails in the park, 16 of these miles are dedicated to horseback riding and are shared with mountain bikers. You’ll likely see plenty of wild critters along the way, so make sure you bring your camera. If you want to combine a couple of days of tent camping along with your RV camping, McCarthy Beach State Park also manages the nearby Stony Brook Horse Camp, which has rustic spots and equestrian setups available. Explore the peaceful forest in the most iconic way—by horse.
Swimming in the summer brought McCarthy Beach its fame, but now that the park is on your radar, go for the trails! The park has 18 miles of hiking trails to enjoy during your visit, so make sure you pack those hiking shoes in the RV. One of the most popular of these trails is the 3.4-mile Pickerel Lake Loop, which begins (and ends) on Pickerel Lake Road on the southwestern side of the lake. From there, the path meanders along the northern side of the lake, over the Ski Trail Road, and then back to the lake.
You can also enjoy the trails at McCarthy Beach State Park from atop a snowmobile. The Taconite State Trail and Tim Corey Trail are groomed explicitly for snowmobilers, and both trails have shelters along the way. However, these shelters are not heated, so make sure you dress warmly for an entire day outside. With 165 miles to explore, you can take off on your snowmobile and spend the day marking up the trails before heading back to your RV campsite to warm up.
McCarthy Beach couldn’t make it any easier for you to catch tonight’s dinner. Side Lake has a designated fishing pier where visitors congregate. If you didn’t come prepared, the park offers free fishing gear loans (rod, reel, and stocked tackle box) so you can try to capture walleye, bass, pike, and panfish. For a more challenging experience, head to the dock at Pickerel Lake and try to catch a clever trout! Be sure to check ahead of time that you have the correct licenses and specific fish stamps.
The Sturgeon Lake chain is made up of five interconnected lakes, and what better way to explore this beautiful oasis than on the water? Canoes, kayaks, and even stand-up paddleboards (or SUP boards) are available for rent at the park office for reasonable fees if you don’t have your own boats. Explore all the nooks and crannies of the lakes on your own steam—you just might find a hidden rope swing or perfect picnic spot to spend the day.
The main draw to McCarthy Beach State Park is the phenomenal swimming beach. Soft fluffy sand stretches for half a mile with shady trees lining the water. With accessibility ramps into the water, it’s a great option for those with disabilities. The water is shallow and deepens gradually, making it warm and ideal for casually floating around or letting children have a little more freedom since they have such a large area where they can still safely touch the ground. If you yearn for more adventure than the main beach at Side Lake, swim, drive, or paddle yourself to one of the other five lakes within the park.
Why not bring your mountain bike so you can take advantage of the park’s 16 miles of mountain biking trails? The Taconite State Trail, which is a 165-mile trail that goes from Ely to Grand Rapids, passes right through the park. Many bikers join the Taconite State Trail with the Link Lake Trail, Ski Trail, and Stingy Lake Trail to make a longer and more challenging route. This trail system takes you around Beatrice Lake, past Sturgeon Lake and Little Sturgeon Lake, and then in between Side Lake and Pickerel Lake.