The Nicest Camper Cabins in All of Minnesota Win Architecture Award

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A quick drive from Minneapolis, the camper cabins at Whitetail Woods Regional Park are more akin to modernist treehouses than standard, log cabin-esque overnight accommodations. . (Photo: Paul Crosby)

“Beautiful simplicity.”

“The light footprint is lovely and the low impact on the environment is wonderful.”

“Colors, materials and textures reinforce the undisturbed natural habitat.”

It’s not every day that you see this sort of praise heaped upon a trio of primitive camper cabins hidden away in a dense stand of pines within a somewhat obscure regional park in the Midwest.

Yet the rentable cabins of Whitetail Woods Regional Park in Dakota County, Minnesota, are legitimately nice — and never mind that “nice” can be a loaded word in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

Interior of AIA Housing Award-winning camper cabins at Whitewood Woods Regional Park, Dakota County, Minnesota
Inside a modernist Minnesota bunkhouse that can be rented for $70 per night. Just don't expect linens or an on-site toilet. (Photo: Paul Crosby)

As evidenced in the glowing statements above, the jury of the 2016 American Institute of Architects (AIA) Housing Awards was so smitten with the 227-square-foot cabins that they were singled out as being the crème de la crème in an annual awards program established “to promote the importance of good housing as a necessity of life.”

Alongside a facility that provides transitional housing to homeless veterans in Los Angeles and a new dormitory community at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, the Whitetail Woods Camper Cabins were honored in the Housing Awards' Specialized Housing category.

Located just outside of Minneapolis in the suburb of Farmington, Whitetail Woods Regional Park is only a couple of years old — it’s the first new regional park to open in Dakota County in nearly 30 years — and still relatively under the radar.

Exterior ofAIA Housing Award-winning camper cabins at Whitewood Woods Regional Park, Dakota County, Minnesota
Even in the depths of winter, the award-winning camper cabins at Whitetail Woods Regional Park offer an escape from the grind. (Photo: Pete VondeLinde)

Bordering Empire Lake, the 456-acre property boasts over 50 miles of hiking trails, sheltered picnic sites and a “nature play” for kids. The park remains open and active in the winter with snowshoeing, sledding and cross-country skiing all being popular draws. Yet thanks to this week's big AIA win along with previous architectural accolades, the main event — or the “hallmark feature,” per the AIA — of Whitetail Woods is a man-made one.

Designed by architect Steven Dwyer of venerable Minneapolis firm HGA and constructed by a dedicated team of local (supervised) high school carpenters enrolled in a vocational training program, the three cabins — open for reservations year-round, by the way — are the first of a planned 20 rentable retreats for the park.

Geared to create “extended patron experiences within the park,” the cedar-clad cabins aren’t technically treehouses but their unique positioning, perched 15 feet above a thickly forested hillside as if they are almost floating amongst the pines, is the next best thing.

Interior of AIA Housing Award-winning camper cabins at Whitewood Woods Regional Park, Dakota County, Minnesota
A cozy place to hunker down following an invigorating hike, floor-to-ceiling glass doors in each cabin frame the surrounding forest. (Photo: Paul Crosby)

That said, treehouses aren’t generally accessible to all. But the overnight accommodations at Whitetail Woods are indeed accessible, with one cabin being fully ADA compliant. And while real-deal treehouses inherently tread lightly on the natural environment due to their non-existent footprint, so do the cabins as they’re lifted from the ground atop concrete piers.

“We talked about tree houses and actually explored that idea quite seriously,” Dwyer told AIA Minnesota magazine. “But the trees wouldn’t have been strong enough, and accessibility was an issue. So instead we focused on the experience. If we couldn’t do a tree house then we would do a house in the trees.”

Given that these are, after all, camper cabins, the three modernist structures, while thoughtfully and beautifully executed, are unfussy, rustic, a step up from tents. Semi-roughing it, you might say. Most importantly, while distinctive and offering a departure from the standard log cabin aesthetic, the cabins don't overwhelm the surrounding landscape.

“Free of modern intrusions — no television, video games or radio — just peace and quiet among the rustling pines,” the cabins aren’t off-grid but they’re close enough. Each is equipped with electricity but are without running water. Ceiling fans help to keep things tolerable during the summer months but it’s the shading forest canopy that really keep the cabins’ interiors cool. In the winter, campers can crank up the mechanical heat yet the structures are so well insulated that they stay nice and toasty on their own. And with no running water, the cabins lack kitchens and bathrooms; the latter can be found at a nearby shower-equipped restroom pavilion.

Exterior of AIA Housing Award-winning camper cabins at Whitewood Woods Regional Park, Dakota County, Minnesota
In designing the cabins, Minneapolis-based HGA aimed for an elevated treehouse-esque effect but with improved (read: no ladders) accessibility. (Photo: Paul Crosby)

Spacious enough to accommodate six campers, sleeping arrangements are as follows: full-size bunk beds and/or two sleeper sofas. This is a bring-your-own-linens type of arrangement. And while there’s certainly enough room to move around inside the cabins in case the weather takes a turn for the worse (Charades time!), the idea is that overnight guests will spend a majority of their time frolicking in the great outdoors or lazing on a 84-square-foot deck that comes complete with a pair of Adirondack chairs.

So how much does it cost to stay in bathroom-free, architecturally lauded trappings, you ask?

The cabins go for $70 per night, not including tax and a non-refundable $8 reservation fee.

While this is the first camper cabin project located within a regional park to win an AIA Housing Award (or that I'm aware of, at least), the cabins at Whitetail Woods Regional Park are part of a larger nationwide movement to render primitive sleeping shelters found at state- and county-owned parks just a wee bit less primitive — read: modernist in design and more Millennial-friendly — without detracting too much from the overall camping experience.

In addition to being honored with a 2016 AIA Housing Award, the cabins were one of several recipients of the 2016 WoodWorks Wood Design Awards.