Famously dubbed the Land of 10,000 Lakes, Minnesota is renowned for incredible outdoor spaces. With four different major ecosystems and beautiful water features, Minnesota boasts some of the country’s most gorgeous places. With 75 state parks and recreation areas—not to mention 11,842 lakes—it can be challenging to know which should be high on your list. This is Amazing America’s collection of the best state parks to visit in Minnesota.
Afton State Park
Afton State Park is a gorgeous state park located only a half hour from the Twin Cities (Minneapolis & St. Paul). Located near the St. Croix River, this park offers activities for the whole family. The bluffs are gorgeous, and you will love experiencing the hilly terrain along the river. From hiking and biking to snowshoeing and skiing, you will be able to find an activity you love.
As you explore this state park, you will want to watch for the different ecosystems this park offers. With twenty miles of hiking trails, there are hikes for all experience levels. One of the most popular trails is the North River Trail, which runs along the banks of the St. Croix River. As you follow this out-and-back trail, you’ll want to watch for bald eagles that make their homes along the treetops. For those looking to relax, there are beaches and places to hammock.
Wintertime trails are mostly suitable for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, with twelve miles of each in the park. You’ll find yourself traveling through a snow-covered wonderland. If you do not own snowshoes, you can rent them from the park office, and get hours of enjoyment. Watch for the many white-tail deer that make this park their home in any season. It’s especially fun to spot their distinct two-toed footprints in the snow.
Banning State Park
Banning State Park is located near Sandstone, MN, just under an hour and a half from St. Paul. This park is worth the trek, as Banning is a hot spot for many outdoor enthusiasts. Hiking, whitewater kayaking, wildlife spotting, and history are all at your disposal here.
Hikers will love being able to wander through the woods, spotting tree species that have been regrown to match the pre-colonization era of forests. Scores of wildlife including 184 species of sighted birds, black bears, beavers, and many other species make their home in Banning State Park. As you wander the pine forest, watch for the ruins of the old sandstone quarry and town that once stood on these grounds.
The Kettle River runs along the park, with its rocky shorelines offering a fun place to explore. Adrenaline junkies will love this river as it has some of the most fun rapids in Minnesota. During the springtime, this is especially popular as the water flows faster with the snowmelt. Daring kayakers flock here to traverse Banning State Park’s famous rapids including Blueberry Slide, Mother’s Delight, Dragon’s Tooth, Little Banning, and Hell’s Gate.
Big Bog State Recreation Area
For those looking for adventure, Big Bog State Park is a must. Located four hours north of the Twin Cities, this park is one of a kind. This nature preserve was founded in 2000 to protect the 500-acre peat bog. The largest bog in the lower 48 states, Big Bog is a sight to see. Wildlife enthusiasts, hikers, and those searching for relatively untouched wilderness will especially love visiting this park.
Hikers can enjoy the mile-long boardwalk that leads into the heart of the bog. You’ll get a taste of what a bog ecosystem is like, and you may even get to spot some of the unique carnivorous plants that reside there: pitcher plants. This wild space is incredibly peaceful, and Big Bog State Park one of the few accessible locations in Minnesota where you can truly be away from the noise of civilization.
As you make your way through the bog, you will need to keep your eyes peeled for the elusive moose that reside in the park; if you are lucky, you also may encounter gray wolves or black bears! There are many interesting bird species as well, more than 300 in total. Big Bog is a must-see for outdoor enthusiasts in Minnesota.
Minneopa State Park
Minneopa State Park offers many unique experiences that most Minnesota parks do not offer, including one of the last remaining bison herds in the state. Mixed with beautiful plant life, forests, and Minneopa Falls, this is another park you will want to visit during your time in Minnesota.
Wild bison were estimated to have had population numbers of 60 million before European colonization of the Great Plains. At one point after overhunting, they only numbered around 600. Follow Bison Drive and try and spot the herd—just remember to keep a safe distance from these majestic wild animals.
There are over four miles of hiking trails throughout the park. You’ll be able to enjoy the beautiful forests and wild spaces and feel like you are stepping back into history. Imagine yourself standing, overlooking a wild space with some of the biggest land animals that remain in North America.
The third oldest state park in Minnesota, Minneopa State Park gets its name from the Dakota people, translating roughly to “water falling twice.” As you make your way through the park, watch for the beautiful waterfalls that are found within the park. Once you have found them, enjoy an afternoon snack in one of the picnic areas that are found throughout the park, and you will see why this is one of the best parks in Minnesota.
Frontenac State Park
Located an hour south of the Twin Cities, Frontenac State Park has some of the prettiest river views you can find. The park gets its name from the Old Frontenac, a French township in the area from the late 1600s. Hiking and birdwatching are popular in this area. The bluffs are a huge draw in the fall when the beautiful seas of orange and red leaves dot the landscape.
The park is situated overlooking the Mississippi River, so Frontenac State Park is a birdwatcher’s paradise. Part of the Mississippi River Flyway, the spring and fall migrations are extremely well traveled. Over 260 bird species have been recorded here, making it a birding hotspot that is notable throughout the country.
Hikers will enjoy the elevation found in this park, as one of the signature hikes takes visitors down the bluffs toward the river. As you make your way along the base of the bluff, look at the limestone that makes up this area; they’re remnants of the ancient shallow seas that once were in what is now Minnesota. The hike back up to the top of the bluff is a steep one, but worth the gorgeous views from various lookout points. Frontenac State Park will make you want to visit time and time again.
Nerstrand Big Woods State Park
Located 45 minutes south of the Twin Cities, Nerstrand Big Woods State Park is another wonderful location to visit. This park is extremely popular throughout the summer with hikers, waterfall enthusiasts, birders, and nature lovers. As one of the closer parks with a waterfall, many people make their way here simply to watch the beautiful falls, and to relax near the sound of racing water.
Hikers will enjoy the 11 miles of hiking trails in the park that lead you through beautiful deciduous trees, making this a hotspot for fall colors. This park is known for its beautiful red, orange, and yellow leaves. With the beautiful flowing Prairie Creek leading up to Nerstrand’s Hidden Falls, it is one of the most picturesque areas in Minnesota.
In the spring, over 200 species of wildflowers can be spotted here, including the endangered species the Dwarf Trout Lily. This is the only place you can spot this federally protected species, dawing many photographers to snap pictures of this beautiful flower. Birders will make the journey during early migration to listen for many species of birds including the Cerulean Warbler.
Whatever you love about the outdoors can be found at Nerstrand, and you will want to make it a destination to visit when you are in Minnesota.
Scenic State Park
Scenic State Park is perhaps one of the more aptly named state parks located in Minnesota. With some of the most pristine and untouched wild spaces, everyone will enjoy being here. Backpackers will love the remote campsites accessible only by canoe and the few backpack sites located miles into the park. Those looking for day hikes can also find activities they will love here.
Located four hours north of the Twin Cities, this is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream. Follow the hiking trails that lead you through untouched pines on the extremely popular Chase Point Trail, located between two lakes. As you walk through this historical location, watch for some of the wildlife that makes it home here, including moose and black bears. Birding enthusiasts often find their way here to watch for the elusive spruce goose.
The park has snowmobile trails in the winter, giving you another opportunity to explore the great outdoors in a different capacity. During the summer, visitors can fish and boat around on the three lakes found within the park’s borders. Enjoy the beautiful and pristine lakes, visit the historic lodge, and you’ll quickly find out why this park is often considered a hidden gem amongst Minnesota State Parks.
Located an hour away from the Twin Cities, Interstate Park is located on the St. Croix Scenic Highway and the Minnesota-Wisconsin border. Take the longer route to experience spectacular views along the river, where you’ll almost always spot some bald eagles. This is another park that offers some unique geologic features as well as outdoor recreation.
The main geologic attraction of this park is the glacial potholes that are found within the park. These amazing features were formed when glaciers started to melt at the end of the last Ice Age. The water would seep into the rocks, and sometimes the flow created by this would cause whirlpools of water and sand, which resulted in the carving of enormous caverns. Visitors can take steps down into these to see how deep they go and to see the amazing natural wonders up close.
Interstate Park is a huge draw for rock climbers. You’ll need to bring your equipment or find a group that is going to be hosting an event there, but, with the proper gear, you can rock climb right along the St. Croix River.
You can also enjoy views of the St. Croix River from atop the bluffs, where wildlife enthusiasts can spot eagles and other birds. If you are lucky, you may also get to see prairie skinks, which are a native type of lizard to Minnesota. The younger ones have bright blue tails and are a common sight along the rocky edges of the bluffs.
Itasca State Park
The oldest state park in Minnesota, Itasca State Park is an extremely special one because it hosts the start of an expansive waterway. Lake Itasca is the beginning of the Mississippi River, which eventually flows to the Gulf of Mexico. The mighty Mississippi is only inches deep here, making it a popular place to visit for people of all ages. There are hikes available for those looking to explore past the river, winter activities for those looking to go adventure through the snow, and copious wildlife for you to try and see.
With almost 50 miles of hiking trails, there’s no shortage of grounds to explore on foot in Itasca State Park. Trails range from half a mile up to 10-mile hikes, and there are paths for all experience levels. You’ll enjoy the pine forest that engulfs the park, not to mention nearly 100 lakes that are included in this park’s borders. You can snowshoe many of these trails in the winter as well.
When the snow starts to pile up and visitors are looking for a different way to experience the state park, they can try some of the 31 miles of snowmobiling trails located within park boundaries. The park also grooms 13 miles of cross-country ski trails for winter sports enthusiasts.
Wildflowers and wildlife inhabit this park thanks to its dense vegetation. Home to countless bird species and mammals, visitors to Itasca State Park can expect to encounter wildlife. The park hosts a population of wolves, bears, porcupines, and many smaller mammals. Don’t miss the wilderness drive, a 10-mile loop that offer outstanding views of most of the expansive park, including the 2,000-acre wilderness sanctuary. You’ll see why this was the first protected area in Minnesota, and why it is still valued so highly to this day.
Zippel Bay State Park
Zippel Bay State Park is one of the most northern points in Minnesota and is located right on the Lake of the Woods. It is one of the most beautiful state parks in in Minnesota and hosts a variety of activities to do in the winter and summer. Situated on the Canadian border, this park is especially remote for most, but is entirely worth the trip.
Summertime is Northern Minnesota’s busiest time of year, as many who travel there like to avoid the coldest time of year. Beachgoers will love the white sand beaches, as does the various wildlife that inhabits the park. For those spending the night, listen for the calls of timberwolves and owls, and during the day keep your eyes peeled to spot black bears or the occasional moose that wanders through. Lake access in the summer is at a premium, as scores of visitors enjoy fishing and swimming in the beautiful Lake of the Woods.
Wintertime at Zippel Bay State Park is an ice fisherman’s paradise. With snowmobile access to the lake, anglers can venture out onto the lake, driving through the sporadic ice houses that make up ice fishing villages. There are also cross-country ski trails set up for those who want to get out and explore the nearby pine forests.
Whatever season you visit, you’ll be amazed by the enormity of the lake, and the vastness of the open space. Given its remote location, Zippel Bay is a state park that few make the journey to see. If you have the opportunity, you won’t regret the effort as this park is worth the trek.
What are you waiting for?
Minnesota offers many opportunities to get out and explore the beautiful outdoor areas it has for its residents and visitors. The North Star State’s parks are hard to beat, and the beauty contained within them will make visitors envious of those who reside near them. From summertime hiking and biking to wintertime skiing or adventuring, there is no shortage of ways to explore the outdoors. Take some time to plan out a trip to Minnesota and get out there to visit our beautiful wild spaces!