In the middle of Minnesota you can find Minnesota’s first state forest, Pillsbury State Forest. This beautiful forested area has over 25,000 acres dotted with lakes, ponds, and even rivers in some places. The rolling hills were made by the glacial activity thousands of years ago and many have now filled to become glacial bodies of water that provide much of the Minnesota wildlife with food and water. They also provide us humans with thousands of square feet of water to enjoy.
The forest is bordered by Gull Lake on the east, which is the biggest of the 10 lakes in the Gull Chain of Lakes. This lake as well as Wilson Bay, Sylvan Lake, and the Gull, Crow Wing, and Mississippi Rivers are all a part of the amazing landscape that makes up the Pillsbury State Forest. The forest was named after Governor John Pillsbury, who donated the first 1,000 acres of land in 1900. The state continued to add to the area and today it makes up 25,612 acres of natural wilderness.
There are many parks and recreation areas in the Pillsbury Forest including Rock Lake Campground and Day Use Area, Walter E. Stark Horse Assembly Area and Campground, Shafer Lake Day Use Area, Green Bass Lake, Crow Wing State Park, and Gull Lake Recreation Area (also known as Terry R. Johnson Recreation Area). These parks provide boating, fishing, swimming, camping, and much more. If you are into trails, the forest provides three miles of cross-country skiing and snowmobile trails, 27 miles of equestrian trails, and over 20 miles of hiking and biking trails. Whatever you are into, you can find it at Pillsbury State Forest.
Just an hour north of St. Cloud, two-and-a-half hours northwest of Minneapolis, and three hours east of Duluth, Pillsbury State Forest is an easy highway ride away. Coming from the east, take Highway 210 West to Highway 18 West, from the south take Highway 94 West to Highway 371 North, and if you are coming from the north or west, take Highway 10 East.
No matter which way you come you will end up on some of the curviest roads you have seen, which means you need to be very careful, especially if you are driving a big rig or if you are pulling a trailer or camper. The roads in Minnesota can get slick after a rainfall so drive slowly no matter where you are. It is best to drive slow anyway because the roads are very scenic here. In fact, the road that leads to the park from the east is called Highland Scenic Road. Bring a camera and have your passengers take pictures.
Driving in the forest is never easy when you are driving a large RV and Pillsbury State Forest is no exception. In fact, it may be one of the most rugged areas you have been to. Be aware of wild critters that live along the roads and be mindful of the narrow gravel roads that are the norm here.
Crow Wing Campground has 59 campsites; 12 with electric hookups and 47 without. The pads range from 20 to 45 feet in length, and each site has a picnic table, fire ring with grill, and is less than a mile from the shower house, restrooms, and the Mississippi River. The flush toilets are available seasonally from May until October, but there are vault toilets available all year long. There are also two ADA-accessible campsites, and pets are allowed as long as they are on a leash or otherwise restrained at all times. There is also a group camp along the Mississippi River that accommodates up to 75 people. However, that is for tents only.
Gull Lake Recreation Area Campground 1 (also known as Terry R. Johnson Recreation Area) has 40 campsites; 24 of which are reservable with the remaining 16 sites first-come, first-served. All the sites have electric hookups and there are several restrooms, a shower house, and laundry facilities for your convenience. There are several playgrounds, fishing docks, two fish cleaning stations, and several boat ramps. There's also several trails in the area including one that takes you to the Aboriginal Burial Mounds and a Burial Mounds Exhibit. Volleyball courts are offered in two areas by the lake and there’s plenty of picnic areas around for you and your family to enjoy. Pets are allowed as long as they are on a leash or otherwise restrained at all times.
Walter E. Stark Assembly Area and Horse Campground is along Pillsbury Forest Road. They have 25 campsites with drinking water and four restrooms available. The campsites each have picnic tables, fire pits with grills, and an area to park your RV or camper. They also feature manure bunkers and picket lines. These campsites are all available on a first-come, first-served basis. Campers and RVs are welcome although it does not have any specifications on the pad lengths, but they offer a parking area for trailers, if needed. You can also bring your dog or cat as long as they are kept on a leash or restrained at all times. You will also find 27 miles of trails for you and your horse to explore. The Paul Bunyan State Trail, Great River Road Trail, Fort Ripley Trail, and Mississippi River Trail are all multi-use trails so watch out for hikers and bikers.
Rock Lake Campground has 48 campsites including four that are ADA-accessible. If you are a fan of water sports, you will enjoy that they have 13 lakeside campsites. Most of the sites will fit up to a 30-foot RV or trailer and they all offer fire rings, picnic tables, and there are toilets and a well nearby. Fishing in Rock Lake is popular, and you can catch just about anything here, including bass, catfish, and walleye. With six picnic areas that have BBQ pits, you can also enjoy a get-together with friends or family while you are here. Pets are allowed as long as they are on a leash or otherwise restrained at all times. All of these campsites are first-come, first-served.
Also known as Terry R. Johnson Recreation Area, Campground 2 has 16 first-come, first-served campsites that fill up fast. If you plan to come during the spring or summer, you should get there early to get a spot. All of these sites have modern restrooms, electricity, a shower house, and laundry facilities. You can also find boat ramps, docks that are ADA-accessible, a couple of fish cleaning stations, and playgrounds for the kiddos. There's also several trails in the area including one that takes you to the Aboriginal Burial Mounds and a Burial Mounds Exhibit. Volleyball courts are offered in two areas by the lake and there’s plenty of picnic areas around for you and your family to enjoy. Pets are allowed as long as they are on a leash or otherwise restrained at all times.
With over 20 lakes, dozens of ponds, and three rivers, you can find plenty of areas where you can go swimming so be sure to toss the floaties and beach toys in the camper before heading out. Some of the best swimming spots include Crow Wing State Park, Rock Lake Campground, Gull Lake (also known as Terry R. Johnson Recreation Area), and Shafer Lake Day-Use Area. You can also enjoy the waters of the Mississippi, Crow Wing, and Gull Rivers but be safe and wear a life jacket.
Another popular water sport in Pillsbury State Forest is boating. At many of the lakes and all of the rivers you can enjoy the waters with any type of boats including pontoons, ski boats, and fishing boats. You do have to follow the Minnesota boating rules and regulations and wear a life jacket when out on the water. You may also enjoy kayaking or canoeing, which can be done just about anywhere you see water. Or plan a float trip along one of the rivers; the Gull, Crow Wing, or Mississippi.
Make sure you pack the fishing gear in the RV before heading to the Pillsbury State Forest. With all the bodies of water in the area, you can catch just about any kind of freshwater creatures. Some of the most popular include small and largemouth bass, which hit very often on artificial lures, jigs, and spoons. Crappie and bluegill have been known to hit on worms with a bobber. And you can catch the bottom feeders such as several species of catfish with live or cut bait.
With 27 miles of trails, you know you can find some that are perfect for winter sports like cross country skiing and snowmobiling. Just north of Rock Lake Campground, you can find a 10-mile snowmobiling path that takes you from Long Lake on up past Hardy Lake and out of the forest. And from the southwest section of Gull Lake, you can find another long snowmobile trek. The best ski trails can be found around Walter E. Stark or around Steamboat Bay and Sylvan Lake.
Whether you come to Pillsbury State Forest to fish, swim, or just relax with family, you are sure to see some of the wild critters during your visit. No matter if you stay at one of the designated RV campgrounds or make your own spot in one of the many open camping areas, the critters are all out looking for food during the off-season. While you are not supposed to feed them, you are more than welcome to spy on them and take some fabulous photos to share with your Facebook friends.
The 27 miles of trails in Pillsbury State Forest take you through the heavily forested areas so make sure you pack the bug repellant in the RV to keep the ticks away. One of the most popular hiking trails is the Pillsbury State Forest Lakes Trail, which is just over three miles and is located near Nisswa. The Oak Ridge Trail by Walter E. Stark is also a fun and easy walk that takes you by the Stump Lake and several ponds. Grab your camera or phone and go explore the woods.