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A comfy spot in the woods

Leave peak at Smokey Hills Wilderness Park. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)1 / 2
Dale and Cheryl Refsland manage the park for an investors group. (Sarah Smith/ Enterprise)2 / 2

BY Sarah smith

Tucked into a tranquil spot in the Smokey Hills, a wilderness park opens its doors for a serene experience.

Newly christened Smokey Hills Wilderness Park, now under the helm of managers Cheryl and Dale Refsland, is perfectly positioned for fall visitors.

The park, nine miles west of Park Rapids, can sleep 100 guests among its various cabins. The conference center also can accommodate 100 and the restaurant holds 60.

Eventual plans are to open the restaurant to the public, possibly in 2014.

The Refslands are in their fourth season of managing the park. Officially an investor group took ownership Aug. 23.

“It’s like walking back in time,” Cheryl Refsland said of the quaint surroundings arranged in a large circular design.

Two family cabins hold 12-15 guests; 13 one-room cabins sleep four and three two-room cabins can accommodate up to six guests comfortably. A two-story cabin has its own kitchen. One cabin is handicapped accessible.

The park also offers a spa with hot tub and sauna, conference center, coffee shop, theater that holds 20 guests and the all-important Wi Fi connections.

The couple lives on the premises, in what Cheryl calls a “two-and-a-half-bedroom apartment.”

That half bedroom, a room without windows, is now a pantry.

“We treat it as our home,” Dale Refsland said of the park.

Each cabin has its own wilderness theme, designated by a corresponding sign on the door.

Four ponds on the grounds used to hold fish, but Dale said they’ve been transformed into frog ponds, which are more attractive to the younger crowds.

He said the family friendly resort is just that.

“We get compliments from parents who say their kids can wander the grounds safely and only be a short distance away,” he said.

Kids can wade in the frog ponds and capture the hopping creatures to their hearts’ delight.

Dale, originally from Danube, spent his earlier years as a sub-contractor so he can fix just about everything. Those skills are mandatory at a resort.

Cheryl spent 23 years as a Licensed Practical Nurse. Her First Aid skills may be needed someday, but she hopes not.

The center courtyard is natural and has been left undisturbed since its founding 30 years ago as a craft village.

There are two campfire circles and the walkway around the retreat offers access for handicapped guests.

A kids train shuttles little campers around the grounds, if they can pry themselves loose from the frog ponds.

The Itasca conference center features a sound system and caters to corporate gatherings.

The movie theater also has a puppet room. Outside is the game room, which is always open.

The retreat has hosted scrapbooking weekends, which are popular with crafters.

Nature trails in and around the 68-acre park offer hiking and biking. The park also offers horseshoes, a band shell and a volleyball court.

It offers meal packages or access to the kitchen. The genial couple also cooks for guests.

The Friday night fish boils are a scrumptious must-attend. Spoiler alert: they start with boiled veggies and then fish is added at the end.

It’s the leaves that are the showstoppers in the fall.

Bright reds and yellows are interspersed in the pine surroundings.

“We have just enough hardwoods in among the pines,” Dale noted.

And cabins are for rent even if a large group books the conference center.

If there’s room, everybody’s welcome. The wooded grounds ensure privacy.

The park will close over the winter and re-opens as weather allows in the spring.

It has a Facebook and Web pages. You can contact it via smokeyhillswp@ or call 218-573-2999.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

(218) 732-3364