We van camped in two states in one great weekend!

Neither of us could decide so we camped in both Iowa and Minnesota

One of the great things about living where we do, there are plenty of state, city and county parks that offer camping for #RVers, #vanlifers, and tent campers.

Having a long list of camping spots to choose from makes a quick getaway easy without a lot of driving.

A few weekends ago, we decided to take advantage of a calendar free of work obligations to load up our 2019 Ford Transit camper van with the girls Willow and Tia, some food, a few beverages and change of clothes and go camping.

With so many camping options in our region, picking a single spot to stay can be hard, but we have a couple of go-to favorites. We picked Five Island Lake Campground in Emmetsburg, Iowa for our first overnight camping stay.

9th largest natural Iowa Lake

The city-operated campground is located along the shores of Five Island Lake, Iowa’s 9th largest natural lake.

This campground has 21 campsites, each with full hookups including 30-amp and 50-amp electrical plug-ins. There are no reservations for the campground with all spots on a first come basis. The reasonable $25 per night camping fee is collected at the drop box located at the park entrance.

The shower house and bathrooms are a bit out of the way from the main camping area.

Two air conditioned and heated camper cabins are also available. Contact the city for rates and reservations at: www.emmetsburg.com. No pets are allowed in the cabins.

There are a number of “seasonal” campers that put down stabilizers and hook up for the entire summer, so finding available spots can be a challenge at times. We’ve had to turn around and head to another place to camp because of a full campground.

The cooler Spring and Fall months are our favorite times to camp here, mainly because the campground is without any shade trees to help hold back the hot summer sun.

Take a walk along the lake

If you love walking off your dinner, going for an easy bike ride or just strolling along the lake with your pets, Lake Shore Drive is perfect for that.

The low traffic street follows the lake from the campgrounds through a beautiful tree-lined neighborhood to Soper Park, less than a mile’s walk. Kim always loves admiring the homes along this stretch.

The campsites are spacious and pet friendly with lots of grass. Each site features a raised firebox and grill, a large concrete pad, and a picnic table.

We like this pad for hanging outside with our girls, since it keeps them off the grass and away from any bugs.

The raised BBQs are perfect for building a small campfire to grill some hotdogs or make the quintessential camping desert – S’mores!

We got a small fire going to heat some chili and simply used our extending forks to skewer and roast a few hotdogs for a simple, no-fuss dinner.

Sunsets viewed from the campgrounds over Five Island Lake have always been memorable and photo worthy.

A few private boat docks along the bank across from the campgrounds adds to the classic Midwestern lake atmosphere.

There are active railroad tracks that run past the campgrounds. In the numerous times we camped at the Five Island Lake Campground, we have only seen one train (much to the delight of train lover JK!) rolling through.

More is just a short drive away

Downtown Emmetsburg is a short drive, or bike ride, from the campgrounds. There are several local restaurants in town, such as Kirby’s Café, who offer no-frills home cooking for breakfast, lunch, and dinner plus a selection of fresh baked pies. For fast food lovers, try the top-rated A&W Restaurant or Dairy Queen Grill & Chill.

Family favorite Pizza Ranch can deliver right to your campsite. Mama Nellie’s Pizzeria, Pizza Hut, and Casey’s convenience store and fuel station offer pizza whole or by the slice.

Need to restock the pantry or fridge in the RV? Fareway Meat and Grocery, Kwik Trip, and Casey’s, all in Emmetsburg, can help you.

For more adult style entertainment, there are a couple of pubs in town to help quench your thirst. The Wildrose Casino and Hotel Emmetsburg is a short drive away from the campground.

Following a restful night in the van and some pour over coffee, we decided to pack up and head towards home.

We were expecting a delivery that morning, so a short stop over was in order.

On to the next state to camp

While at home, we checked campsite availability at the Sleepy Eye Sportsman’s Park in Sleepy Eye, Minnesota. It’s a park we had never camped at before and booked a night there. Camping fees per night, as of this writing, are $30.

The Sleepy Eye Sportsman’s Park is a city-operated campground consisting of 24 camping sites all with electric and water hookups. A RV dump station is on the property, too. Those that want to sleep in more comfortable accommodations, can rent one of the two air conditioned and heated cabins.

During the winter months up to Christmas, the park is closed for camping but is transformed into a drive-through winter wonderland decorated with thousands of Christmas lights and holiday displays.

Camping reservations can be made online through the city’s website: www.sleepyeye-mn.com.

It is a two-hour drive (roughly 96 miles) between Emmetsburg, Iowa and Sleepy Eye, Minnesota. Each campground offers its own different camping experience.

The Sportsman’s Park is located on 3rd Ave NW, along the banks of Sleepy Eye Lake and has an abundance of mature trees. This park is geared towards a more active group of visitors.

Lots of activities

Three short fishing docks reach out into the lake for casual casting to catch panfish, bass, walleye, and northern pike, while on-the-water anglers can use the park’s public boat launch. The park also has an enclosed fish cleaning shack for use as well.

Other on the water activities are supported here as well, including swimming, and an on-site trailer offers kayak and paddle boat rentals.

Boats or paddle boards can be reserved up to 3 weeks in advance and secured with a credit card through the city park’s website. Rentals include paddles and life jackets.

A regulation disk golf course winds its way through the trees and the Sleepy Eye Lake Trail access allows walkers, runners, and bicyclists to circle the entire lake.

Didn’t bring a bike? No worries, the Sleepy Eye Medical Center has teamed up with the city Parks Department to offer a Bike Share Program.

The shiny white and blue bikes can be checked out using a credit card and your smartphone. The app on your smartphone will electronically unlock the bike from the bike dock. Super cool!

Our campsite was near the shelter house and the bathroom/shower house and directly across the road from the lake with an observation deck and fishing dock.

We all love a level campsite

We backed the van on the site and were happy to find it level.

As a note for RV campers, the electrical pillar for our campsite was quite far from the camping pad, and we needed two extension cords to reach and plug in.

The water hydrant was also kind of far away, although we didn’t need to use it.

For dinner, JK whipped up a quick chicken, beef, and broccoli stir-fry with Top Ramen noodles using the camp stove and our small wok.

For breakfast he brought out the Coleman camp oven and baked a pan of delicious cinnamon rolls that had been slowly rising in our van’s refrigerator.

Steaming fresh brewed coffee and piping hot cinnamon rolls was just the ticket on this chilly morning.

Well, they wouldn’t have been good the next day!

Sleepy Pop Culture

The city of Sleepy Eye is named after a famed Dakota Chief from the 1800s.

The town gained national headlines in the early 1990s when residents tried to ban the cable television music channel MTV in their town. Sleepy Eye was also a delivery destination for Pa Ingalls’s goods on the old TV series “Little House on the Prairie.”

A landmark that dominates the Sleepy Eye Lake horizon is the 1900s era Gothic Revival St. Mary’s Catholic Church. The lofty 175-foot-tall twin steeples can be seen for miles around towering above the city.

Our camping neighbor told us he was staying at the Sleepy Eye campgrounds while working on interior ceiling restoration and painting of the sanctuary. He urged us to stop by and take a look inside.

We are glad we took him up on the offer.

Must see cathedral

The massive church, better referred to as a cathedral, seems misplaced in a small Midwest town with a current population of only 3,378 people.

Even more amazing is the fact that when church construction was completed in 1902 Sleep Eye was only a small village.

Much of the materials used to build and decorate the structure were sourced locally. Cost to build the church in 1902? Just $68,000 back then! One can only imagine what a building like this would cost to build today!

Inside is a true work of art and awe. The multi-arched ceiling is magnificent and is currently undergoing restoration work.

Massive stained-glass windows punctuate the walls. The altars are carved from butternut wood from Wisconsin. The church seats 975 people.

Groups interested in guided tours should make reservations in advance by contacting the St. Mary’s Rectory: 507-794-4171.

A peaceful retreat

An older couple in their camper van struck up a conversation with us the morning we were leaving the campgrounds. They told us about visiting the “Schoenstatt on The Lake” retreat center. They had passed by the grounds while on a recent bike ride around Sleepy Eye Lake and recommended we stop to see.

The Catholic retreat center is on Country Highway 27 south of town. We drove beneath an arched metal and brick sign and took the long gravel driveway to the retreat grounds.

We love finding and visiting small roadside chapels during our van travels. Happily, we were able to briefly step inside the small modest chapel before heading home.

We hope you will discover, as we have, that getting away to go camping doesn’t have to be expensive or eat up a weeks’ worth of precious vacation time.

A weekend getaway at a nearby state, county or city park or a local campground (or two!) can be the perfect escape from the daily grind that all of us campers need.

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