by LAURA HAYES
Diane Harrison has been camping at Whitewater State Park since she was eight years old. It’s changed over the years, Diane said. Back in the day, they would run extension cords to their non-electric campsites. She and her family used to camp in a tent, and now, she and her husband, Steve, camp in their large RV.
Fans of hiking at Whitewater, after they retired, Steve and Diane became campground hosts. This past weekend, Steve and Diane were some of the first campers to break in Whitewater’s new Minneiska Campground.
According to Park Manager Brent Anderson, the infamous 2007 flood partially motivated park staff to build a new campground. In August 2007, floodwaters rocked Southeast Minnesota. Around 17 inches of rain fell in some areas, and seven people lost their lives. At Whitewater State Park, Gooseberry Glen Campground was completely underwater and some of the water spread into lower Cedar Hill Campground.
The park was shut down for eight months, and caused millions of dollars in damage in the region. “It totally devastated the park. We were fortunate to get everyone out and evacuated,” Anderson said. Flash-flooding is still an issue, though, and Anderson has evacuated parts of the park twice this year.
Back in 2007, the area where Minneiska Campground is located — across Highway 74 from the Visitor Center — never flooded. It provides us peace of mind, Anderson said. Anderson, who has worked with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for 22 years, was excited to open the gate to the new campground. “How often do you have the opportunity to do something like this?” he asked.
Opening Minneiska Campground is phase one of a three-phase renovation plan. In total, there are 40 electric campsites, four non-electric campsites, three group campsites, and four camper cabins in Minneiska. Planning for the new campground began around three years ago, and Minneiska Campground has been under construction for the past six months. Initially, staff hoped the campground would be ready earlier this summer, but the project was delayed.
The first campers — including the Harrisons and Sue Tangen — moved into Minneiska last Thursday. Like the Harrisons, Tangen has been coming to Whitewater for years. While she loves hiking the trails, she also enjoys relaxing and taking in the quiet. The new campground, she said, is perfect for bigger RVs like hers. “I’m so excited to camp here,” Tangen said.
While Anderson still sees tents and popup campers in Whitewater, camping has evolved over the years and large RVs have become more popular. Anderson said that staff strove to maximize the quality in the new campsites — spacing the sites far enough away from each other to provide privacy, building the sites large enough to house the RVs rolling through Whitewater, making the grounds more handicap-accessible, and providing overflow parking for campers with multiple vehicles.
As part of the projects, staff renovated the three group camping sites and built large picnic shelters in the center of each, which Anderson said is perfect for family meals. Currently, there is only one camper cabin available in the summer at Whitewater, and Anderson said the cabin is filled around 93 percent of the season. The four new camper cabins will be open year round. “Folks like to have those four walls,” Anderson said. “We opened them up and they started to get filled right away.”
Currently, Whitewater State Park has four campgrounds — upper and lower Cedar Hill, Gooseberry Glen, and now Minneiska. However, in the future and as part of phase two and three, Anderson and his staff have renovation plans for upper and lower Cedar Hill and Gooseberry Glen. According to Anderson, they plan to including remodel the restrooms, perform maintenance on the campsites, reevaluate the traffic flow, and make some of the sites larger at upper and lower Cedar Hill. Anderson estimates that the renovations may take a season, but campers would still have access to Minneiska and Gooseberry Glen. After those renovations, Anderson and his staff plan to convert Gooseberry Glen from a campground into a day picnic area complete with space for weddings, handicap-accessible fishing piers, and a place for children to play.
At the end of all the renovations — which Anderson said may take several years — there will be around four additional campsites. But we’re updating the campgrounds to fit camping in 2018, Anderson added.