My first camping trip this year was in Afton State Park with Mya. Along the St. Croix River in Hastings, Afton is about 40 minutes southeast of Minneapolis and offers backpack camping, paddling, picnicking, swimming, geocaching, hiking, biking, horseback riding, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, a visitor center with interpretive displays, and more. The state park is adjacent to Afton Alps Ski Area, which offers alpine skiing and snowboarding in the winter and golfing in the summer. A vehicle permit is required, or you can purchase their new license plate, which replaces the vehicle permit and also gives a minimum $50 donation to Minnesota’s State Parks.
In 2016, I attempted my first solo camping trip at Afton. Since the campsites are less than a mile from parking, I did not really worry about weight and packed all 250+ ounces of my water in. What I failed to realize was the campsites are on top of a very steep hill. My pack was so heavy and I was so unconditioned that standing up after picking up Mya’s poop was near impossible (I literally needed the help of a picnic table), let alone hiking up that damn hill. I was not making that mistake again.
Our adventure this year started later than desired (for good reason: Cora went to her forever home!), and we entered the park just before 6:30 PM. The park office was already closed, but a male pheasant was there to greet us. I parked, put on my and Mya’s packs, and off we went. My pack already felt lighter than the previous year’s attempt, and I was able to easily stand on my own after picking up Mya’s poop. That hill was still a bitch, but it was not as painful.
On the way to the campsite, my inner pyromaniac was pleasantly surprised to see a self-serve firewood area: Let there be FIRE! Because, really, what fun is camping without a fire? A short jaunt later and we were at the site, where chores commenced: setting up the tent, using the privy, gathering water and firewood, and lighting my first fire of the season.
I was out of practice, and the fire lived a short life. Some additional kindling was added (OK, all of the additional kindling), and it quickly roared to life again. Stars started shimmering in the dark sky soon thereafter; I can’t remember the last time I saw the stars.
It got chilly fast. The low was around 40°F that first night, but my new sleeping bag and a layer of wool kept me pretty warm. I did not sleep well, though. My new pillow was not comfortable, and I stored my electronics in a pocket of my new sleeping bag, which ended up under my head as I tossed and turned during the night.
In addition, nature called at about 11 PM. The best course of action was popping a squat in the bushes since walking the 0.1 miles, I reasoned, wasn’t worth trying to figure out what to do with Mya (she has eaten a tent screen before). After I picked a spot for my illegal business, I saw a light moving down the main trail, stop just before my site, turn around, and saunter back. I have no idea if it was a ranger, drunk/lost camper, or a ghost, but it freaked me out so I quickly returned to the safety of my tent (clearly something hoping to do me harm was not a threat if I could not see it).
And then at about 3 AM, a coyote started talking. In a half-sleep daze, my mind started wandering: All food was in a bear keg on the picnic table (to keep the raccoons at bay, as Afton is not in bear country), except for the dog treats which were in the tent — what if the coyote sniffed them out and attacked us in our sleep?! An owl hooted in the distance, my paranoia subsiding with the distraction… and then the coyote started yipping again. Mya snored softly next to me, oblivious to the dangers of the night.
I woke up at 7:30 AM to Mya intensely staring at me and sweetly thwap-thwap-thwapping her tail against the tent. She needed to potty. On the way to and from the bathroom so she could do her business and I could do mine, she freaked out at the dog in a site we passed and barked at a little human she thought was a dog from a distance. Starting the day out right, all before coffee. At least the weather was perfect.
I started preparing breakfast and pulled out two fuel canisters, since one felt close to empty. And by close to empty… I mean it WAS empty. I am not an efficient backpacker, considering an empty Benadryl box was also found in my pack the night before.
While eating breakfast, a number of trail runners passed by — I can barely hike the mountainous terrain, let alone run it. I was awestruck and inspired to start trail running. The morning was peaceful: Lots of songbirds were singing and the trees were starting to bud. Mya was also enjoying the fresh air.
The plan for the day was to meet my friend, Sam, and her boyfriend’s son, Ari. She texted me when they were leaving, and Mya and I took a trail to the main parking area that wound through a peaceful ravine.
Sam and Ari arrived, and knowing the stamina (or lack thereof) of a 5 year old, we decided on a short walk to the picnic area by the river. When we got to the water, Mya happily waded in. The water was cool and she looked like she never wanted to leave. The high was only in the mid-60s, but Mya is out of shape with a thick German shepherd coat and overheating was a slight concern.
We made our way back to the visitor center to eat lunch (or snacks in my case), finding stages along the way for a multi-stage geocache. After eating, we attempted the final stage, but Ari was exhausted so we turned around and they departed for home.
Mya and I returned to the picnic area and took a break so I could eat some more snacks and read, and Mya could lay on the cool pavement under the shelter. The view of the river provided a scenic backdrop.
Back at the campsite (we tackled that horrendous hill again), Mya and I took a glorious 40-minute nap, and I read some more. My feet hurt, and I was kicking myself (pun intended) for not packing a tennis ball to massage them with.
I prepared dinner, enjoyed some dessert, and built a HUGE campfire.
After burning through all of the firewood, it was time for bed. Mya and I were walking to the bathroom when she began dancing around on the end of her leash. I turned on my headlamp and saw two sets of eyes reflecting back. Deer? Coyote? Raccoon? I did not want to find out, so I hurried into the bathroom, hoping they would leave. We exited… two sets of eyes were still reflecting back, and Mya was still dancing on the end of her leash, determined that she could take on whatever it was. I picked up the pace and saw ANOTHER set of eyes a little further down. These were connected to a deer, which bounded off into the woods.
Considering the excitement right before bed, I slept soundly. I attribute this to a couple of reasons: Electronics were removed from my sleeping bag and my backpacking pack was placed at my feet (the tent was on slope; my sleeping bag slid downhill, and the pack slowed this slide).
One could get used to an alarm of the sun and songbirds.
I felt hung over, even though I didn’t have a sip of alcohol, so I chugged some water. I made breakfast and decided to drink my instant coffee cold today, which left it clumpy and not so instant but it had caffeine so I choked it down. A number of runners were on the mountainous trails again… before 8 AM. Inspiration.
Before packing up, Mya and I trekked to the Trout Brook loop. There are two trails down to this loop; we took the shorter, 0.3-mile trail and was I ever glad we descended that portion instead of climbing it. It’s shorter but a hefty elevation change (with a bench halfway — the state parks are pretty thoughtful in that respect).
As the bottom of the hill neared, a family with smaller children disappeared up ahead. They went counterclockwise, so we went clockwise, hoping the kids would tire before we encountered them (they must have… we did not see them again).
We crossed paths with a number of trail runners, but other than that, this loop offered seclusion and quiet (with the exception of a short section near a road).
We took the longer trail route out of the creek valley. It was only about 0.2 miles further, but the elevation gain was much more gradual so both Mya and I did not want to die at the end of it.
At the campsite, I packed up the final things that still needed to be packed up. Mostly, the tent — why is it that tents never return to their original packed size? It was a battle trying to get that sucker to fit back in its bag, but I eventually won.
Once the tent was affixed to my pack, it was time to head back to the car, via a longer route back to the parking area. We were about 0.1 miles into the hike when I realized the tent was lopsided and falling off. Fortunately, there was a bench about halfway down the hill we were descending (so nice of the state parks!), and I stopped quickly to adjust. It was leaning to my left because shoving it into its bag did not leave the weight evenly distributed, so I pushed it off-center to the right slightly.
Two women and a child turned the bend as I reloaded my pack onto my back. When I knew they did not have a dog, Mya and I continued on our way. The trio caught up to us and warned about my tent leaning to the right. I decided smiling, nodding, and thanking them was easier than trying to explain that it was on purpose. Prompted by Mya’s presence, they then talked among themselves about the two dogs they had in the past. I smiled, unsure if they were trying to start a conversation with me and how to even respond. The trail intersected with two options that ran parallel and led to the same general area. I took the shorter route, and we went our separate ways.
The people we encountered were unnervingly nice. Three other people either tried having a conversation about Mya or made a comment about her, which is probably why it was so unsettling — people usually keep their distance when she’s with me, but I guess the miniature German shepherd is losing her intimidation factor.
Overall, I love Afton. It’s close to the Twin Cities and provides ample opportunities for outside exploration. Other visits have included hikes along the river trail (which spans a couple of miles) and geocaching. People were loud until the wee morning hours during my 2016 camping trip (and some mistakenly walked down my campsite path), but this time was much different. If you’re contemplating giving backpacking a try, this campground is great for beginners — the hike in is not too far (although you’ve been warned about that damn hill), there is no need to filter water or scavenge for firewood, and the bathroom is fully sheltered (no running water, but there are four walls, a roof and hand sanitizer!). I cannot wait to go back, even if only for a day visit.