With 75 state parks and recreation areas throughout the state, you don't need to travel far to explore Minnesota's great outdoors. As you mask up and begin to venture out for day trips again, check out some of these 21 incredible, close-to-home state parks.
Maplewood State Park
Near Pelican Rapids, Maplewood State Park lies in a transition zone between forests and prairies, which makes for a uniquely beautiful landscape. The hilly central Minnesota park is home to over 25 miles of magnificent hiking trails, providing incredible wildlife viewing opportunities and hilltop vistas of the region's distinctive terrain. The park is also home to some fantastic fishing, with eight major lakes and a variety of species from walleyes to bass and even muskies.
Father Hennepin State Park
Located on the southern shore of Lake Mille Lacs, Father Hennepin State Park is the gateway to Minnesota's third-largest lake and a must-visit for anyone making the scenic drive along its shoreline. This small, 320-acre park is notable for its gorgeous hardwood forests, access to the water, and a natural sand beach—one of the few swimming beaches on Lake Mille Lacs.
Crow Wing State Park
Just south of Brainerd, where the Crow Wing River meets the Mississippi, the area currently known as Crow Wing State Park was home to one of the most important villages for Minnesota's early settlers and traders. Although much of the original settlement is long gone, the park's recreation Old Crow Wing Village provides ample insights into history. Walk the historic Red River Ox Cart Trail, past the Beaulieu House and more as you bask in the natural beauty and well-preserved history of this Minnesota state park.
Minneapolis-St. Paul Area
Interstate State Park
Located on the rushing St. Croix River about an hour's drive northeast of downtown Minneapolis, Interstate State Park is a popular spot for canoers, kayakers, hikers, campers, rock climbers and geologists alike. The park's scenic cliffs and rushing riverway were carved by retreating glaciers more than 10,000 years ago, and the area now boasts distinctive rock formations and glacial potholes found in few other places on earth. As one of eight waterways originally designated as a "National Wild and Scenic River," the canoeing and kayaking at Interstate is widely considered some of the best in the nation.
Lake Maria State Park
Up by Monticello near St. Cloud, visit Lake Maria State Park to bask among one of the state's few remaining stands of "Big Woods"—the maple, oak and basswood forest that once covered much of south-central Minnesota. In its heyday, the Big Woods covered 3,030 square miles with trees so thick sunlight could barely touch the forest floor. Today, Lake Maria State Park is one of the few places it still occupies. The park's dense forest and rolling hills make Lake Maria a popular destination for hikers, horseback riders and cross-country skiers.
Just south of Duluth, Jay Cooke State Park is a visually stunning hub of outdoor adventures along the St. Louis River. Dense forests and the ever-dramatic river gorge make this park a popular spot for hiking and cross-country skiing. One absolute must-do at this park is to walk across the iconic swinging bridge above the river and peer over the side to view the rocky river gorge below. The park is also a big draw for bicyclists, as the 70-mile Willard Munger State Trail passes through here on its way from Hinckley to Duluth.
Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park
Minnesota's newest state park, Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine, is also—and isn't it ironic—one of its most history-focused. The park's biggest draw is its guided, 1.5-hour tour of the Soudan Underground Mine, which lets you follow in the footsteps of the miners who scoured the area in search of iron ore from 1892 to 1962. In addition to exploring the mine, you can also go boating or fishing on Lake Vermilion, hike through dense old growth pine forest, or take a bike ride on the Mesabi Trail.
Itasca State Park
Established in 1891, Itasca State Park is the oldest Minnesota State Park and home to the Mississippi Headwaters, where America's most legendary river begins its 2,552-mile journey south. Visiting the birthplace of the Mississippi River is undoubtedly the main attraction at Itasca, but it's far from the only thing to do at this incredible, 32,000-acre state park. Some other popular activities include narrated history/wildlife boat tours of Lake Itasca, exploring the park's 49 miles of incredible hiking trails, boating or fishing on one of the park's 100 lakes, and climbing the Aiton Heights observation tower for an eagle's-eye view of the hardwood forest.
Zippel Bay State Park
Up in the far northwestern reaches of Minnesota, Zippel Bay State Park is defined by its location on Lake of the Woods—one of the world's largest lakes, and second in size only to Lake Superior here in Minnesota. Known as "the walleye capital of the world," Lake of the Woods is legendary among anglers seeking Minnesota's state fish. A long wooden fishing pier extends far into Zippel Bay and offers plenty of space to cast your line, or take a boat on the water to seek out walleye, northern pike, perch and bullhead. For sunbathers and swimmers, Zippel Bay also has more than 2 miles of sandy beach along the shore of Lake of the Woods.
Buffalo River State Park
Minnesota's native tallgrass prairies are few and far between these days, but at Buffalo River State Park you can still catch a glimpse of what the state looked like prior to colonization. Situated about 15 miles east of Fargo-Moorhead, you can hike the park's 12 miles of winding trails through one of Minnesota's largest remaining prairies. The park is especially popular among birders, who flock here to see bobolinks, prairie chickens, marbled godwits and upland sandpipers among other, more common species.
Blue Mounds State Park
Near the soaring, 100-foot-high Sioux quartzite cliff at Blue Mounds State Park, one of the world's last remaining herds of purebred bison roams and grazes in the park's vast tallgrass prairie. Found just north of Luverne, the park ranks among the most iconic landscapes and experiences in southwestern Minnesota. Lace up your hiking boots and traverse 13 miles of moderate trails through the rich prairie, filled with hundreds of wildflower varieties, prickly pear cacti and bluestem grasses up to 7 feet tall. Blue Mounds is also a popular spot for camping, with more than 70 drive-in sites, 14 walk-in sites and three highly sought-after teepees.
Great River Bluffs State Park
The Mississippi River is one of Minnesota's most beloved and impressive natural wonders, and its most awe-inspiring stretch is best viewed from the 500-foot-tall bluffs at the appropriately named Great River Bluffs State Park near Winona. The park has four trail overlooks—North, South, East and King's Bluff—offering panoramic vistas of the river and valley. Rolling trails for hiking and cross-country skiing wind through the park's oak-hickory woods, pine plantations and goat prairies, providing ample opportunities for forest bathing, birding and wildlife viewing.
Minneopa State Park
About 5 miles west of Mankato, you'll find southern Minnesota’s largest waterfall at Minneopa State Park. When you get to the falls, follow the trail down the nearby limestone stairway to view the falls from the valley, then make your way up the opposite staircase for an incredible, panoramic view of the whole area. Like Blue Mounds on the other side of the region, Minneopa is also home to a herd of bison. The herd ranges across 331 acres of unbroken prairie, and is viewable from inside your vehicle via Bison Drive Road.
Brian Fanelli is a writer and editor for Explore Minnesota. When he isn't writing about life in The North, you'll find him browsing the sci-fi shelves in a local bookstore, biking one of Minnesota's spectacular trails or walking his Chihuahua around Minneapolis.
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