Minnesota's Must-See State Parks
aptly named High Falls at Grand Portage State Park.
waterfalls and whirlpools offer many vantage points.
of cliffs and prairies make it a must see.
comes alive with costumed townspeople portraying
life as it once was over 100 years ago.
Best Park to See Waterfalls: Grand Portage State Park
At 120-feet, the High Falls of the Pigeon River are the tallest in the state and are reminiscent of an exotic adventure. Only rustic campsites are available at this park, but with so many parks, lodges and resorts on the North Shore, you won’t be left without a place to stay. Just a few miles south, be sure to visit Grand Portage National Monument, marking the site fur traders established in the 17th century and a center of trade with the Ojibwa. The site is also the starting point for Alexander Mackenzie, who became the first person to cross the continent and reach the Pacific Ocean in 1793 – 12 years before Lewis and Clark made the trip.
Other State Park Waterfalls:
Gooseberry Falls is known for its waterfalls but its highly accessible falls can get crowded during the summer months. Hike up to Gooseberry’s Fifth Falls, or head further north to Tettegouche’s four waterfalls. Also along the North Shore, Cascade River State Park’s beautiful falls are surrounded by two hiking paths along the river.
For a more unique view, Minnepoa (a Dakota word meaning “water falling twice”) State Park’s two waterfalls and scenic grasslands offer a peaceful view. Hike a bit further to Seppmann Mill, a 32-foot high, German-style stone mill constructed in 1864 that is now part of the park.
Most Unique Scenes: Blue Mounds State Park
Cactus, buffalo and beautiful prairie grasses and wildflowers make Blue Mounds State Park a must-see park. The park’s mysterious 1,250 foot long stone ledge at the southern end may be an ancient calendar, its history and development as mysterious as Stonehenge. On the first day of spring and fall, the sunrise and sunset aligns perfectly with the stones. Visit in the spring when the grasses are low for the best views. Also be sure to see the historic reddish Sioux quartzite quarry, a sport where Native Americans hunted buffalo, likely by chasing them off the cliff.
Other Unique Scenes to see:
Frontenac and Great River Bluffs State Parks offer some of the best vistas in the state, which are especially beautiful in the fall. Frontenac is also an excellent spot to watch birds migrating.
In Southern Minnesota, Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park offers a unique look underground. The park’s Mystery Cave is open for tours seasonally. Above ground, visit Historic Forestville, a 1800s town that has been preserved exactly as it was more than 100 years ago. Operated by the Minnesota Historic Society, costumed interpreters portray townspeople as they go about their daily activities. As a historic site additional fees apply.
Best Classic Park Feel: Itasca State Park
Minnesota’s first state park, and one of the largest, will make you feel like you’re visiting one of our nation’s historic national parks. The historic Douglas Lodge offers classic lodge room rentals year round and a large common area fireplace and restaurant for visitors. The most popular spot in the park is the Mississippi Headwaters, the place where the river leaves Lake Itasca to begin its 2,552 journey to the Gulf of Mexico.
Other Classic Parks to see:
Crow Wing State Park’s historic Chippewa Lookout could be a postcard for Minnesota – and it probably has been. The calm waters are especially beautiful by canoe in the fall. Canoes can be rented from the park’s main office.
Jay Cooke offers a classic park feel year round, with camping and camper cabin sites and numerous recreation opportunities. The park offers hiking trails, kayaking, trout fishing, a scenic swinging bridge and miles of snowmobile, cross country ski and snowshoe trails.
Most Unique Place to Stay: Upper Sioux Agency State Park’s Tipis
Stay the night as Native Americans did. Upper Sioux Agency State Park rents two 18-foot diameter tipis in its Yellow Medicine campground seasonally. Tipi sites include a fire pit and offer the most unique state park stay.
Other Unique Places to Stay:
At Fort Ridgely State Park, stay the night in a renovated farmhouse, available for rent April through October (note that the house does not have restroom facilities).
At Tettegouche State Park, the Illgen Falls Cabin is situation near the 45-foot Illgen Falls of the Baptism River. The cabin includes a full kitchen with cookware, gas fireplace and large deck to enjoy the scenery. Guests must bring their own bedding and linens.
Best Lesser-Known: John A. Latsch
For a quieter stay, the lesser visited John A. Latsch State Park offers scenic bluff views of the Mississippi River Valley. Climbing the nearly 600 stairs to the top of the bluff is well worth the trip. Stay awhile to watch the trains pass by.
Other Less-Traveled Parks to See:
Franz Jevne State Park, one of the state’s smallest, offers excellent fishing and views of Canada across the river. Carley State Park is a great spot to see colorful wildflowers, and George Crosby-Manitou State Park offers a quieter North Shore experience. Hayes Lake State Park is one of the quietest in the state – according to the Minnesota DNR, some days it may just be you and the wildlife! While visiting the park, you may see a moose, or enjoy the peaceful swimming beach.
Best Park for an Adventure
… for All Skill Levels: St. Croix State Park
This popular park has two rivers for canoeing and kayaking, with rentals available through the park office. It also offers 80 miles of snowmobile trails, 11 miles of ski trails and camping sites in the winter, as well as horse trails, a swimming beach, bike trails and miles of hiking trails of varying levels of difficulty.
… for Climbers: Tettegouche State Park
Tettegouche’s Palisade Head offers expansive views and challenging climbing for experienced and advanced climbers. Shovel Point has climbs available for beginners. Other great climbing spots include Blue Mounds State Park in the southwest and Interstate State Park along the St. Croix River.
… for Scuba Diving: Split Rock Lighthouse State Park
Between 20 and 110 feet below the surface, the 1905 wreck of the Madeira, a 436 foot steel hull ship, is now a popular diving site. Access and parking is just north of the park’s main entrance. Other great scuba diving spots include the 352-foot-deep Portsmouth Mine Pit in Cuyuna Country State Park, a very clear dive that’s an excellent spot for new divers. Visit Gooseberry Falls State Park for an underwater view of logging debris from the early 1900s.
… for Kayaking: Banning State Park
This park’s Kettle River rapids offers a turbulent adventure for experienced kayakers in five segments: Blueberry Slide, Mother’s Delight, Dragon’s Tooth, Little Banning and Hell’s Gate.
Jay Cooke State Park’s St. Louis River offers excellent rafting and kayaking with waters that vary in intensity depending on the time of year. Services such as Superior Whitewater offer guided rafting tours of the river for $40/person.
Most Iconic Minnesota State Park: Split Rock Lighthouse State Park
It’s hard to find a Minnesota guidebook that doesn’t feature a photo of this well-known lighthouse. Walk to the tramway stairway platform for one of the best photography spots, as well as the shoreline to the south of the lighthouse. Plan to visit November 10, the one time of the year the beacon is lighted in honor of the ill-fated Edmond Fitzgerald, a ship carrying taconite that sunk during a Lake Superior storm on Nov. 10, 1975.
Just don’t forget that iconic also means the park is usually busy, and built up with paved paths and too few parking spaces. Though you’ll likely encounter crowds, if you haven’t been to Split Rock it’s a must-stop destination as you travel Highway 61. Remember that the park is managed through the Minnesota DNR and requires a State Park pass, while the Lighthouse is managed as a historic site and additional fees apply if you’d like a tour.
Other Iconic Parks to See:
Also along Highway 61, if you can find a parking spot be sure to see Gooseberry Falls State Park, one of the most popular state parks in the state. And you can’t tour Minnesota without walking across the Mississippi River. If you’ve never been, be sure to visit Itasca State Park. For a more unique view, visit both of these parks in the less-busy winter, where you’ll see beautiful frozen vistas. Itasca offers fireplace cabin rentals year round, and is an excellent snowshoe and ski destination.
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