Winter hike-in cabin camping with children at Tettegouche State Park

Micmac Lake in Tettegouche State Park

Every winter some friends of ours hike into a cabin at Tettegouche State Park, and I’ve always wanted to try it. Their trips sounded so magical — sipping coffee while big snowflakes fall outside, taking long snowshoe or ski outings on the vast network of trails, reading in front of the wood stove. Our seven years at Lake Maria State Park have made us winter-hiking-in-to-a-rustic-cabin veterans, but the hike-ins at Lake Maria are under a mile, and the park is only an hour from Minneapolis. Tettegouche — with a steep 1.7 mile hike in, more remote/beautiful location north of Lake Superior, and 3.5 hour drive to get there — would be a significant increase in difficulty.

Heady with New Year’s Eve suggestibility last year, we decided with our friends to reserve a trip for the following winter. So just after Christmas last week, we packed up the car and headed up north.

The cabin we reserved is part of the historic Tettegouche Camp, a series of four cabins plus outbuildings located in Tettegouche State Park. Like at Lake Maria, you have to hike all your food, bedding, and personal gear in, but unlike Lake Maria, the Tettegouche cabins have kitchens, access to water, and a proper shower building with flush toilets, so once you get there it’s a bit cushier. The Tettegouche cabins are located close to one another and there’s also a lodge you can use, so you don’t feel as if you’re there on your own (in a good way). The cabins are wood stove heated, with baseboard heat backup if the inside temperature dips to 50 degrees.

To prepare for the trip we did a test run at Lake Maria. When Beatrice was two she hiked in nearly a mile by herself; now, neither she (nearly four) or her sister Blythe (nearly two) can be cajoled into walking at all on their own.

Baby hike at Lake Maria

Beatrice hiking in at Lake Maria age 1.75.

Blythe was happy to be carried and still fits in our Beco carrier (strapped on the front so I could wear a backpack), so that worked, and we tested a few options with Bee (riding in a sled) but she pretty much wanted to be carried as well, so that complicated things. We discovered summer camping that life is infinitely better if we bring a pack ‘n play for Blythe, so we hauled one in on a regular kid sled, but that pretty much sucked, with the sled rope digging into our hands and the pulling awkward.

Granite Gear pulk sled

The pulk. I’d given the little potty such a thorough disinfecting before packing it that I felt comfortable tossing in Olaf.

Luckily I work with a seasoned winter camper who owns a Granite Gear pulk sled, and friends, those things are amazing. They are huge, first of all, and have a harness system so they are easy to pull. So for the Tettegouche hike-in I wore a backpack on my back and Bly on my front, and Adam pulled the pulk and carried Bee on his shoulders. We experimented a bit with her walking or riding the sled, but they weren’t working, and with the harness he couldn’t carry her on his back, so the shoulders it was. Luckily he is super strong. We’d already prepped ourselves that we’d probably have to take more than one trip for the gear, but thanks to the pulk we made it just fine in one trip.

Walking in to Tettegouche Camp Cabins

The cabin (we’d reserved Cabin C) was bigger than I expected, with a separate kitchen, living room, and bedroom, and the beds were far nicer than the usual camper cabin bunks, with queen sized mattresses on the bottom and enough room between that and the twin bunk on top to fully sit up.

Tettegouche Cabin C

We arrived mid afternoon and spent that day and the two full days after reading and playing around the cabin, running around outside with the girls, and going on afternoon hikes. The highlights were catching up with our friends and watching the girls have so much fun playing together and making up games and structures with their Magnatiles. We also had beautiful, sunlight morning time playing outside on the frozen Mic Mac Lake — it was so gorgeous up there. The snow so crisp and white, and air so pure, the stars dazzling at night.

Hiking with a toddler at Tettegouche State Park

Blythe snoozing away during our first day hike.

micmac lake

Playing on Mic Mac Lake.

Low points were getting the kids to bed/keeping them asleep (wood stove heat varies, and the cabin was so hot one night that Bee couldn’t sleep). Naptime is tough for 3.75 year-olds on a good day, so the same was true at the cabin. On the last full day Adam and I were tired of her “I want to do this, no, I want to do that, no let’s do this!” not-napping craziness and so wanted to go on a walk ourselves that we bundled up both girls and headed out. Blythe fell asleep easily in the Beco again, but Bee, on Adam’s shoulders, kept fussing — taking her hat off, or mittens, and having to be helped with them on again, etc. About midway through she lost it in a full freak-out – heaving sobs, wailing, etc. We tried snacks and switching things up but nothing helped — she just did not want to be on a hike anymore. So we tried to hustle her back as quickly as we could but it took longer than we thought. I started to get worried that she really was too cold. That Blythe was happy and not complaining helped assure us that Bee was likely bundled up well enough too, but Bee was so upset that I finally couldn’t take it anymore and traded girls with Adam, wedging Bee into the Beco on my back and taking off running down the trail. The last third of the hike was on the wide road we came in on, so I knew that would be easier going, but in all I ran more than a mile with a 40 pound kid on my back.

She calmed down when the cabin was in sight and when we got in I stripped her down and checked her all over for red skin or frostbite, but she seemed OK, and tucked her into bed and brought her cocoa. Within five minutes she was dancing around the cabin in her summer short pajamas (that she’d insisted on bringing), so I knew she was fine — she just had not wanted to be on a hike and lost it because she couldn’t control the situation. And as frustrating as that was for us, it was OK: she’s three, she gets to not want to be on a winter hike. She rolled with everything else so well that we forget sometimes that she’s only three.

Winter cabin camping with young children

The temperature got progressively colder while we were there and by the last night even the fully loaded woodstove wouldn’t heat the cabin really warm (the cabin was warm enough, but we all kept checking the fire, thinking it was dying down, to find it fully stocked and roaring). It was -8 degrees for our hike out so we bundled the girls up tight and fortified Bee with handwarmers but still endured a milder version the previous day’s freakout near the end.

We were glad that we brought:

  • a little potty (so we didn’t have the bundle the girls to go outside for every potty trip)
  • my sleep mask and earplugs
  • pillows (I strap them on to outside of my pack) and down comforters (cozier than sleeping bags without taking up more room)
  • firestarters (recommended by the park ranger)
  • plenty of coffee.

We left our snowshoes and skis in the car (snowshoes weren’t needed given the snow pack, and the trails hadn’t been groomed for skiing). For food we did a mix of premade things (like chili and quinoa salad, transported in Ziplocs) and easy meals (like pasta salad with cheese and veg, or pad thai with tofu and veg). Next time we’d consider bringing a thermal canteen for coffee/cocoa and maybe a group game/art activity. It would have been fun to have brought a big sheet of paper and colored in ideas for things we wanted to do in 2015.

We’d definitely do it again (especially with another family) but will likely wait until one child can reliably walk in by herself. The cabins sleep six so this is the last year we can share with another family. Luckily the MN State Parks are adding more fun cabin and yurt options, so maybe next year we’ll try one of those to mix it up.


Read about our Lake Maria adventures here:

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