Designer camper cabins offer chic overnights among the trees

MINNEAPOLIS — When the morning sun peeked into our camper cabin at Whitetail Woods Regional Park, I almost thought I’d awoken as a bird. My nest was, in fact, a boxy, mod bunkhouse, cantilevered into a stand of evergreens. I looked through the cabin’s glassy back wall and watched the thin, towering trunks sway in the barest breeze. I never would have noticed their invisible rhythm if not for my uncommon perch.

In late 2014, Dakota County opened the park, located between Rosemount and Farmington, and began taking reservations for its three treehouse-style camper cabins. Within 30 minutes, there were more than 200 requests for overnights. They’ve been booked nearly solid ever since.

The uniqueness of the cabins, designed by Minneapolis-based HGA architects, initially drew me to Whitetail Woods. But once I arrived, I discovered the park’s location and amenities were ideal for a quick, nature-intensive getaway. My family could hike and bike through the park’s 450-some acres of woods, wetlands and prairie. Then, after communing around the campfire, we’d sleep on mattresses, with a roof overhead. The exurban spot was close enough to have pizza delivered, but felt far more secluded.

The DNR operates about 100 camper cabins across Minnesota’s state park system — rustic, one-room structures positioned somewhere between a tent and motel room. They’re sparsely furnished with bunk beds (BYO bedding) and a dining table. Most are outfitted with electric heat and power, though a few basic models supply only a wood stove. They’re meant to be utilitarian, and that’s how they feel.

Though Dakota County’s Whitetail cabins are nearly as spartan, their design makes the overnight experience more special. The ones I’ve visited, dubbed the Pine Forest cabins, were built on a slope, with the backs on stilts. From afar, they resemble angular telescopes, trained on the trees. The trio is placed close enough to one another that a marshmallow roasting stick could practically reach the neighbors’ fire pit. But being tucked back in the trees creates a sense of privacy.

Inside, the 250-square-foot wood-lined boxes feel snug as a sauna. Each contains double-wide bunk beds, a foldout couch and a dining table. The sleek lines of tongue-and-groove pine and the roof’s upward slope draw the eye to the focal point: sliding glass doors leading to the cabin’s deck, jutting into the boughs. And oh, that view. It’s easy to see why the cabins won awards from the national and state chapters of the American Institute of Architects.

The first time my family stayed in a Whitetail camper cabin, in August 2020, we could hardly pry my preschoolers off the beds, enamored as they were of bouncing on the upper bunk.

But once we coaxed them outside, there was more than enough to explore between the 100-plus miles of trails and the scenic overlooks of Empire Lake. Whitetail Woods was created from scratch, all at once, on land purchased from a family that had formerly used it for hunting and farming. Wildlife management areas on two sides of the park insulate it from encroaching development.

We soaked up the sounds of cicadas and crickets and woodpeckers. We followed a fluttering monarch through the prairie. Thistles grew taller than our heads. But we also appreciated having flush toilets and showers close to our cabin, whose shady site remained surprisingly cool despite the heat.

Upon our return, I logged onto the Dakota County website at 6 a.m. and reserved the remaining two cabins for the next Saturday available, a year away.

This summer, friends joined us in the adjacent cabin. The park’s renovated Fawn Crossing Nature Play Area had reopened, delighting the kids with its climbable stumps, water pump and giant, fort-building sticks.

Rain began to fall just as we were roasting our hot dogs. But with the help of a few umbrellas, we finished cooking and retreated to our cabin.

We ate at the dining table and watched the storm from the couch. When thunderbolts cracked and water poured, I was relieved to have something sturdier than tent fabric protecting me from the elements.

A year ago, Whitetail Woods opened two Prairie View cabins, located just a short walk away from the Pine Forest trio. The newcomers have been nearly 100% occupied, too.

The Prairie cabins share the Pines’ clean, contemporary aesthetic, but they’re sited at the top of a hill. Contrasting the forest cabins’ “portrait”-style framing of the pine plantation, the new cabins’ “landscape” orientation displays a sweeping vista of the Vermillion River Valley. The footprint and interiors are similar, save for the prairie-style wraparound porches, larger bottom bunks and air conditioning units.

Planners envisioned the chic little cabins as a signature amenity that could be a regional draw. “Something just beyond what you might expect,” explained Katie Pata, operations supervisor with Dakota County Parks. “With a wow factor.”

The cabins’ cool design had, indeed, lured my family to a park we wouldn’t have otherwise visited. It feels a little far from our Minneapolis home for a day trip. But the drive is relatively short for an overnight destination, and yet far enough from the Cities for a refreshing change of scenery.

“There’s something about staying in a space for 24 hours,” Pata said. “You feel the pulse of the park. … It appeals to the senses in a different way.”

Now that Whitetail has shortened its booking window from a year in advance to 120 days, reservations are more accessible to those deterred by planning so far ahead. Spontaneous visitors can watch Dakota County Parks’ Facebook page for cancellations.

My family is already planning a third overnight at Whitetail Woods — this time to check out the Prairie Cabins and the cross-country ski trails.

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The Pine Forest camper cabins are a signature amenity of Whitetail Woods Regional Park. Pine Forest camper cabins are a signature amenity of Whitetail Woods Regional Park. Rachel Hutton/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS

Large windows bring plenty of light into the Pine Forest camper cabins’ sleeping and dining areas. windows bring plenty of light into the Pine Forest camper cabins’ sleeping and dining areas. Rachel Hutton/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS

By Rachel Hutton

Star Tribune