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Go camping at Afton State Park

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I guess you could consider me a camping snob.

While car camping is better than getting a sharp stick poked into my eye, I'm not a big fan.

It is to camping like turkey bacon is to the bacon at Little Oscar's.

It's better than nothing, but it just makes you yearn for the real thing.

So over the years, when I've wanted to camp, I've gone to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota. The BWCA, though, isn't real friendly for little kids and I've reached the point in my life where if I can't take my son or my family, I probably don't want to go.

Car camping, you see, isn't exactly the best thing to do with the family. It's inevitable that you end up next to some rowdy softball team that is up until midnight rehashing the day's home runs.

So what are you left to do?

The answer to that question is summed up in three words: Afton State Park.

I'm ashamed to admit I had never been to the park until Saturday. I will, though, be making up for lost time. Within hours of returning home Sunday, I had already booked my next trip there.

One night early last week, I got to poking around on the internet, looking at campgrounds in our area. I studied up on Afton State Park and learned about what makes its campground unique.

You drive in, park the car and then have a strenuous one-mile hike to the campground. Certainly, I figured, there'd be no softball teams willing to make a one-mile hike with their gear. I was right.

At just after 3 p.m. Saturday, my son Gabe and I drove to the park, an easy 15-minute trip from Hastings up St. Croix Trail.

By 3:45 p.m., we had unloaded the car and began the walk to the campground. The majority of the way there, the trail was paved and relatively flat. We passed by a nice beach, caught a nice view of the St. Croix River, then reached the trail to the campground. It was uphill and we both broke a sweat as we climbed the big hill. We finally reached the top and got out of the forest to discover a beautiful natural grassland. We found our site, No. 7, and were blown away at what the site held. A nice mowed path led right to the site, which was big enough for two large tents. It had a picnic table and a fire ring and was located where the woods and the prairie met.

We had a great view, and spent the first five minutes patting ourselves on the back for picking the site and deciding to make the quick trip.

We set up camp and then headed to round up firewood. At Afton State Park, you pay for wood when you check in. The wood is available near the campsites. You simply take what you want and saw it yourselves. Adjacent to the wood is a drinking water station that is solar-powered.

We came back to the site, got the fire going and made pizzas using a nifty reflector oven I purchased for my trips to the BWCA.

We later roasted marshmallows, talked, watched a beautiful sunset, talked some more and finally went to bed.

Bugs were not a problem. The weather was perfect. It was a great night of quality boys' time.

Sunday morning we were visited at the campsite by a deer, then later by a stunning sunrise. We packed up, made the easy hike back to the car and were home by 8:30 a.m., after a quick stop at Emily's for a donut.

We had plans Sunday morning with friends and needed to come home early.

On our next trip, we plan to stay longer and to bring some fishing gear so we can try our luck along the St. Croix.

Prices: Reservations are $16 per night at the park. There's an $8.50 reservation fee that you pay. Unlimited firewood is available for $4.

You need a vehicle permit to enter (daily permits are $5 and annual permits are $25).

If you want to stay one night with wood and have a vehicle sticker, the cost is $28.50.