It’s hard to pick an absolute favorite of Minnesota’s 66 state parks, filled with seemingly untouched waterways and a wealth of quiet woodlands.
Known for their love of the outdoors, Minnesotans are fiercely proud – and protective – of the state’s wilderness. You’ll encounter locals and visitors alike enjoying the outdoors year-round, even when temperatures fall below freezing in winter.
Because most travelers bypass the Midwest and opt for places on the coast, Minnesota’s state parks remain fairly uncrowded, even at the height of summer. When you’re in need of nature, don’t miss out on some of the best state parks in Minnesota.
Tettegouche State Park
Best state park for dramatic views of Lake Superior
Sitting pretty way up on the north shore of Lake Superior, Tettegouche State Park somehow feels more like coastal Maine than Minnesota, though it retains every bit of its Midwest charm. Craggy rock cliffs ascend 300ft over the sprawling lake, which looks far more like a sea, creating dramatic viewpoints – the two most popular being Shovel Point and Palisade Head.
Beyond the jaw-dropping shoreline, Tettegouche is also home to the Cascades Waterfall, a sprawling tumble of water shrouded by towering pine trees. Plan to get your steps in; this state park has more than 23 miles of hiking trails.
Grand Portage State Park
Best state park for waving hello to Canada
Grand Portage State Park is so close to Canada that you can practically taste the maple syrup. Precisely two minutes from the US-Canada border, the park is located in the northeastern corner of Minnesota, and the wilderness is pristine, with whitewaters of the Pigeon River cutting through near-black rock formations.
An easy 1-mile round-trip hike through the park reveals three different platforms for viewing High Falls, an aptly named waterfall that holds the title as Minnesota’s tallest at 120ft. The trail is paved and wheelchair accessible. For something a bit more rugged, the 3.5-mile trail to Middle Falls brings cliffside views of Lake Superior and the Canadian landscape to the north.
Gooseberry Falls State Park
Best state park for chasing waterfalls
Less than an hour north of the small-yet-frequently-touristed city of Duluth lies Gooseberry Falls State Park, a landscape replete with thunderous waterfalls plummeting down into a rocky gorge below. The Upper, Middle and Lower falls are easily accessed on foot, and while their point-blank names may be fairly uninspiring, the surrounding views certainly aren’t.
Shrouded by evergreens with a rocky base formed from ancient lava flows, it’s an idyllic scene. Beyond the woodsy riverway, the park’s iconic views of Lake Superior are perfectly in keeping with the high standard of beauty that Minnesota’s North Shore maintains all the way up to the Canadian border. Expect a lot of visitors on nice days.
Banning State Park
Best state park for whitewater sports
Indulging the whitewater-sport fantasies of thrill seekers, Banning State Park is bordered by the Kettle River, where some of the state’s most challenging rapids range from Class I to IV. Bring your own kayak or canoe, or join a tour with an outfitter such as Hard Water Sports.
If catapulting over churning rapids in a kayak isn’t your thing, this state park still has plenty of non-jostling fun to be had. The easygoing 1.8-mile Quarry Loop Trail leads hikers past historic ruins from a former quarry, crumbling and reclaimed by the bright greenery of the forest. With river scenes appearing along various points of the trail, it’s one of the best natural places for a stroll in central Minnesota.
Blue Mounds State Park
Best state park for viewing bison in the wild
Unlike its water-centric counterparts on this list, Blue Mounds State Park has a different selling point: bison, and lots of them. This tallgrass prairie area is home to a large herd of American bison, milling about in their natural habitat. A wide-open space backed by rocky cliffs and an old quarry area, it’s what you’d expect from an experience in the Dakotas or Wyoming – and seeing as it’s just a 40-minute drive from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, it makes sense that the landscape contrasts many of Minnesota's other state parks.
Come for the bison and prairie wildflowers, stay to try your hand at rock climbing. The quartzite rock cliffs ascend some 100ft above the ground, and the climbs are appropriate for various skill levels.
Afton State Park
Best state park for swimming in summer and skiing in winter
On the Minnesota side of the St Croix River lies Afton State Park, a surprisingly short 35-minute drive from downtown Minneapolis, though it feels more remote.
A river-beach destination by summer and a ski haven by winter, the park is vastly different depending on the season. During the warm months, delicate prairie flowers decorate the landscape next to river bluffs and sunshine-seeking lake swimmers in the summer. By winter, under a powdery blanket of snow, skiers and snowboarders dominate the scene at Afton Alps, the park’s onsite ski resort. Year-round, 300ft-tall ravines around the shore create an excellent viewpoint of the St. Croix River Valley below.
Interstate State Park
Best state park for unique geological formations
Straddling the Minnesota-Wisconsin border, Interstate State Park is a point of pride for both states, as along the St Croix River, cliffside views from the rocky bluffs reveal a rich geological history. Glacial potholes – strikingly large chasms formed from swirling sand and water – date back thousands of years, making for a unique present-day experience.
Valley views and plenty of ample space to climb have made it a popular destination with rock climbers, though you’ll find every type of Minnesotan and Wisconsinite enjoying the natural beauty of the area too. While postcard-like in every season, it’s a crowd favorite in fall, when the leaves transform into a vibrant canvas of rusty orange and crimson red.
Lake Maria State Park
Best state park to relax far away from any crowds
Lesser-visited and tranquil as can be, Lake Maria State Park isn’t as regionally famous as other state parks, but it holds much of the same well-loved Minnesotan wilderness. Part of one of the few remaining old-growth forests in the state, towering trees – oak, maple and basswood – generously shade the banks of lakes and ponds throughout the landscape. Alongside trails on rolling terrain, a boardwalk cuts through a marsh, where you can spot more than 200 species of birds, including hawks, swans and loons.
Glacial Lakes State Park
Best state park for seeing Minnesota’s prairie landscape
Sprawling glacial hills and wide-spanning prairie grasses make Glacial Lakes State Park a formidable place to catch your breath. A welcome respite from modern civilization out in western Minnesota, just over two hours from Minneapolis, it’s close enough for a quick getaway but far enough from the city to make you feel like you’ve gone on a proper trip.
Signalness Lake, with plenty of room for swimmers and boaters to coexist in harmony, is the largest of the bunch. Nearby Baby and Kettle Lakes are surrounded by wetland areas, where wildlife, including deer, ducks, beavers and the occasional coyote, mingle with visitors to the park.
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