The BEST time to visit to one of Minnesota’s state parks is always right now.
Minnesota has 75 state parks and recreation areas, with the largest concentration in the scenic Lake Superior North Shore in the northeastern part of the state.
Any time of year is a great time to explore Minnesota’s parks, but spring and fall are particularly pleasant and beautiful.
Minnesota state parks and recreation areas
Afton State Park
Afton State Park is located in the rolling hills above the St. Croix River along the Minnesota/Wisconsin border in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area. Most of the park is oak savanna, although there are also bits of prairie and woodland. The park has easy hiking trails with limited views of the river. Many of the trees in the park are oak, making it one of the later parks to reach full color in the fall and perfect for a late fall hike.
Banning State Park
Banning State Park features easy hiking trails and challenging rapids in a gorgeous setting along the Kettle River near Sandstone. There are also ruins and a waterfall – just to provide a few more options for exploration. The park offers a full range of activities, but it is an easy drive to the northeast of the Twin Cities metro area, making it suitable for a day trip as well.
Bear Head Lake State Park
Bear Head Lake State Park is located at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe area near Ely. It’s a beautiful park in one of the most beautiful areas of the state.
Beaver Creek Valley State Park
Beaver Creek Valley State Park is located in the hills of southeastern Minnesota near Caledonia. It’s apparently noted for its spring wildflowers, so I need to put it on my list for next spring!
Big Bog State Recreation Area
Big Bog State Recreation Area, located in far northern Minnesota, may be the state’s last true wilderness. A mile-long boardwalk allows visitors to enter the little visited world of a peat bog where rare plants, animals, and birds can be found. This park is home to a variety of rare orchids and carnivorous plants, but you need good timing and sharp eyes to spot them.
For those seeking a more traditional park experience, part of the park is focused on outdoor recreation, with camping, hiking, swimming, and fishing available along Upper Red Lake and the Tamarack River.
Big Stone Lake State Park
Big Stone Lake State Park is noted for its fishing and lakeshore apple orchards. The park is located near Ortonville in southwestern Minnesota.
Blue Mounds State Park
Blue Mounds State Park, located in the southwestern corner of the state near Luverne, used to be one of my favorite parks. The park features purple quartzite cliffs that rise above a prairie where a small herd of buffalo may be seen grazing. Changes in the park over the years to accomodate an expanded buffalo herd and address flooding have severely reduced easy access to many of the quartzite features and boulders I loved so much. Be prepared for a hike to enjoy the best of this beautiful park.
Buffalo River State Park
Buffalo River State Park is a prairie and mixed woodland park near Moorhead in northeastern Minnesota. The park includes land on both sides of the Buffalo River (with a few scenic views), but it also has a sandy (man-made) swimming hole for those just looking for a place to cool off on a hot summer day.
Camden State Park
Camden State Park, located along the Redwood River in southern Minnesota, features a mix of woodlands, prairies, and marshes.
Carley State Park
Carley State Park is a woodland park along the Whitewater River near Wabasha in southeastern Minnesota.
Cascade River State Park
Cascade River State Park is now one of my favorite parks along Lake Superior’s North Shore (although there are a lot of great parks up here). It’s a good park for hiking, with maintained trails, plenty of small (and large) waterfalls, and lots of spring flowers (including lady slippers and other native orchids). The picnic area along the road is also worth a stop, as it includes a fabulous bit of shore perfect for a hot day.
I often stay at Cascade Lodge at the edge of the park when visiting the North Shore. While not in the park itself, it’s surrounded by the park and trails connect to the park.
Charles A. Lindbergh State Park
Charles A. Lindbergh State Park, located along the Mississippi and across the street from the childhood home of Charles Lindbergh in Little Falls, has a couple lovely historic buildings in the picnic area. It’s a small park, but with a nice camping area and river access.
The Lindbergh home is managed by the Minnesota State Historical society and is open to the public on a rather limited basis.
Crow Wing State Park
Crow Wing State Park is located near the north central Minnesota city of Brainerd. This park has nice wooded trails, a lovely oak savanna/prairie, and river access. It also has an important historic component as the site of an Indian village and the abandoned pioneer town of Crow Wing. (And a really sad history that shows how different relations between white settlers and the state’s Native American population could have been. While only one building remains from the days when Crow Wing was one of the state’s most important settlements, it’s a beautiful place to contemplate the changes time brings.
The park has a mix of woodland, prairie, and wetlands along the Mississippi River. It also has a modern chapel, picnic area, interpretive center, campground and one very, very basic seasonal camper cabin.
Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area
Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area is a peaceful landscape of reclaimed hills and crystal clear lakes remaining from the days when this area was an active iron mine. This north-central Minnesota park is largely undeveloped.
Father Hennepin State Park
Father Hennepin State Park, located along Lake Mille Lacs in north central Minnesota, features a sandy beach and water access for boaters. Most of the park is wooded and there is a good chance of spotting white-tailed deer (even an albino one) right in the campground.
Flandrau State Park
Flandrau State Park offers visitors a variety of landscapes and a sand-bottom swimming pool along the Big Cottonwood River near New Ulm in south central Minnesota.
Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park
Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park combines wooded hills and a trout stream with a cave (guided tours are available seasonally) and a living history village. The park is located in southeastern Minnesota.
Fort Ridgely State Park
Fort Ridgely State Park in southern Minnesota offers hiking and golfing along with the Fort Ridgely Historic Site. (Open seasonally.)
Fort Snelling State Park
Fort Snelling State Park combines a major historical site with a natural area along the Mississippi River in the heart of the Twin Cities. When not flooded (the lower levels of the park generally flood in spring), hiking trails lace the lowlands in the river. I’ve been there to hike, ski, bird watch, and attend events at the historic fort. Family activities are held most weekends and a herd of white tail deer can be found there any time. It’s a great place to spend a day at any time of year.
- Experiencing the 1860s at Fort Snelling (summer 2008)
Franz Jevne State Park
Franz Jevne State Park is located along the Rainy River if far northern Minnesota. It sits along the Rainy River and looks like a good spot for hiking. It’s pretty enough, but not spectacular. It does look like a good place to fish.
Frontenac State Park
Frontenac State Park is located in the rugged wooded hills above Lake Pepin. The hillsides are laced with trails and the upland prairie provides expansive views. It’s a gorgeous spot, particularly in the fall when the leaves are at their most brilliant, and one of my favorite stops along Highway 61 south.
Garden Island State Recreation Area
George H. Crosby Manitou State Park
George H. Crosby Manitou State Park, located near Silver Bay on Lake Superior’s North Shore, offers a backwoods experience along the Manitou River and Benson Lake.
Glacial Lakes State Park
Glacial Lakes State Park highlights a prairie landscape shaped by the movement of ancient glaciers. With a mix of rolling prairie, wooded hills, and water, this is a lovely place for easy hiking. It’s located near Starbuck in central Minnesota.
Glendalough State Park
Glendalough State Park, located near Battle Lake in central Minnesota, is noted for its heritage fishing opportunities (no motors allowed) and the restored Glendalough Lodge.
Gooseberry Falls State Park
Gooseberry Falls State Park is home to one of Minnesota’s most iconic waterfalls. The park offers a broad range of activities, but the falls (there are two) are the key reasons to visit. Of course, there is plenty more to see, as the heavily forested park is located right along Lake Superior.
This must-stop along Lake Superior’s North Shore is one of Minnesota’s most-loved state parks.
- Gooseberry Falls and Gooseberry’s Upper Falls (spring 2012)
- Spring Thaw at Gooseberry Falls (spring 2010)
- Gooseberry Falls (fall 2007)
Grand Portage State Park
Grand Portage State Park, nestled along the Canadian border just inland from Lake Superior in the Grand Portage Indian Reservation, features the 120 foot High Falls on the Pigeon River. The innovative visitor center focuses on the art and culture of the Grand Portage tribe and hosts special exhibits.
(There is also a Grand Portage National Monument where a Northwest Company fur trading post once stood. The two sites are completely separate stops along the North Shore.)
Great River Bluffs State Park
Great River Bluffs State Park sits high on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River near Winona. This is a gorgeous part of southeastern Minnesota and the park has great scenic views and wonderful hiking on easy trails. It’s a new favorite of mine — I can’t wait to visit in the fall when the leaves are at full color.
It’s a great stop for anyone traveling through southeastern Minnesota on the Great River Road.
Greenleaf Lake State Recreation Area
Greenleaf Lake State Recreation Area, located near Litchfield in south-central Minnesota, includes a number of lakes and wetlands. It is currently being developed and only limited day-use activities are available.
Hayes Lake State Park
Hayes Lake State Park, located near Roseau in northwestern Minnesota, is a wilderness area that claims to have plenty of wildlife and birds.
Hill Annex Mine State Park
Hill Annex Mine State Park, located in Calumet in northern Minnesota, celebrates the history of Minnesota’s iron mines and the immigrants who worked in them. It is in a lovely location and has a number of historic buildings and offers mine tours, but is only open on a very limited basis.
This park is a treasure that probably won’t be open much longer. Go see it now!
The park closed for the season after Labor Day and will open again for Memorial day weekend and limited hours through the month of June. (Currently tours and the museum are available on Fridays and Saturdays.) Tours use a bus to take visitors through the park while telling the stories of the mine and the people who worked there. The tour is excellent and only costs $10. Check the park website for tour times. However, don’t believe the implication that these tours don’t fill up – get there early to be sure to get a spot. (Bring a snack if you like, since there isn’t a cafe or anything in Calumet.
Hill Annex is located directly on the Mesabi Trail, with trail access and parking by the park.
Interstate State Park
Interstate State Park includes both the Minnesota and Wisconsin shores of the St. Croix River near Taylors Falls just north of the Twin Cities metro area. It has stunning views over the river gorge, but is more famous for its cliffs and glacial potholes. A paddlewheel boat located just outside the park also provides tours through the river gorge and downstream. This is a gem of a park and a perfect day trip from the Twin Cities.
- An end of summer cruise on the Saint Croix
- Pottery and Potholes Along the Saint Croix (spring 2010)
- Interstate Park along the Saint Croix River (spring 2006)
Iron Range OHV State Recreation Area
Iron Range OHV State Recreation Area, located near Gilbert in north-central Minnesota, is the one park I have no interest in visiting, as it was developed to serve off-road vehicles. Not my thing!
Itasca State Park
Itasca State Park is the headwaters of the Mississippi River. It is also Minnesota’s oldest state park and the home of towering old growth forest. This northwestern Minnesota park has a classic north woods lodge, camper cabins, and plenty of space for hiking and biking when you get tired of wading in the shallow waters that become the Mighty Mississippi.
Jay Cooke State Park
Jay Cooke State Park, a beautiful wooded park in northeastern Minnesota is known for its swinging bridge, odd rock formations, spring wildflowers, and fall leaves.This is a geologically unique area with unusual rock outcroppings visible all along the river. There is also a historic cemetery located within the park.
Park infrastructure suffered severe damage from floods in 2012, but most areas have been repaired and reconstruction of the final segment of the washed-out road running through the park is underway. However, until the road is completed, some parts of the park cannot be accessed from the main section.
John A. Latsch State Park
John A. Latsch State Park, a small state park near Winona in southeastern Minnesota, provides a stopping place with views of the Mississippi River.
Judge C.R. Magney State Park
Judge C.R. Magney State Park, located along Lake Superior north of Grand Marais in northeastern Minnesota, is the home of the Devil’s Kettle. This waterfall on the Brule River is unusual in that half of the raging water vanishes into a pothole and no one is exactly sure where it ends up. A mystery worth investigating yourself.
Kilen Woods State Park
Kilen Woods State Park features a few miles of hiking trails along the Des Moines River near Lakefield in southern Minnesota.
La Salle Lake State Recreation Area
La Salle Lake State Recreation Area, located near Itasca State Park in northwestern Minnesota, is the state’s newest state recreation area. It features pine forests and the state’s deepest lake.
Lac qui Parle State Park
Lac qui Parle State Park was named for the “lake that speaks” and the park largely focuses on the lake and the fish and wildlife that make this area home. There is also a swimming beach here. The park is located in far western Minnesota.
Lake Bemidji State Park
Lake Bemidji State Park, near Bemidji in north-central Minnesota, is a popular spot for outdoor activities both on land and on the water. It also home to a tamarack and spruce bog with a variety of rare and unusual plants. I’ve only visited the developed area around the beach, so need to get back to check out the orchids and insect-eating plants!
Lake Bronson State Park
Lake Bronson State Park, located in northwestern Minnesota, is located where the prairie meets the woods. Lake Bronson provides a wide range of water activities.
Lake Carlos State Park
Lake Carlos State Park is located on the Alexandria chain of lakes, a popular area for boating, fishing, and other activities on the water. The park has a variety of landscapes, including rolling hills, lakes, marshes, and a tamarack bog.
Lake Louise State Park
Lake Louise State Park centers on a mill pond at the edge of the tall grass prairie in southern Minnesota.
Lake Maria State Park
Lake Maria State Park offers pleasant hiking trails through a maple and basswood forest just outside the Minneapolis/Saint Paul Metro area.
Lake Shetek State Park
Lake Shetek State Park, located in the southwestern corner of the state, features its namesake lake (perfect for swimming, boating, or fishing) and a pioneer cabin that tells a bit of the complicated story of early settlers in this area.
Lake Vermilion/Soudan Underground Mine State Park
Lake Vermilion/Soudan Underground Mine State Park is home to Minnesota’s oldest underground iron mine and a bit of shoreline along one of Minnesota’s iconic northern lakes.
The Soudan Underground Mine section of the park allows visitors to go down into the former mine (the state’s deepest) as part of a tour. The park preserves a variety of mining facilities, but also has hiking trails.
Lake Vermilion connects to the Boundary Waters and this new section of the park provides visitors with access to one of Minnesota’s most beautiful lakes. The park is still being developed, but a large modern campground (NOT along the shore) is open. There is also a picnic area with views of the lake and shoreline picnic area with docks for boat access.
Maplewood State Park
Maplewood State Park is located near Pelican Rapids in west-central Minnesota. This large park has eight major lakes nestled between forested hills.
McCarthy Beach State Park
McCarthy Beach State Park is described as a lake-filled wonderland near Hibbing in northeastern Minnesota. It is perfect for water sports, but also includes trails for hiking, biking, horseback riding, skiing, and snowmobiling. The park has two sections with campgrounds: The main park has gorgeous sites along or near the water and beautiful beachside day use facilities. The rustic camping area has few facilities, but is absolutely lovely and peaceful.
Mille Lacs Kathio State Park
Mille Lacs Kathio State Park is a National Historic Landmark due to its 9,000 years of human history and archeological significance. While the park offers opportunities to learn about this rich past, it’s also a great place simply enjoy nature near Lake Mille Lacs. It’s particularly splendid in fall when the leaves are turning brilliant red, orange, and yellow — all of which can be viewed by climbing the lookout tower. Besides hiking trails, the park has a popular network of trails for horseback riding.
Note that park facilities are not located along the shore of lake Mille Lacs, although it is easy enough to access the lake from other areas.
Minneopa State Park
Minneopa State Park, located just outside Mankato in southern Minnesota, features a two-tier waterfall on the Minneopa River, a herd of bison, and the remains of a mill.
The park is split into two segments, with the visitor center and waterfall in one and the campgrounds and bison in the other. The small but growing herd of bison are in a large fenced area that visitors are allowed to drive through. (Just stay in your car!)
Minnesota Valley State Recreation Area
Minnesota Valley State Recreation Area, located in the southern part of the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area, includes the Minnesota Valley State Trail along the Minnesota River. (If you’ve ever flown into MSP, you’ve probably seen the MVSRA, as it covers much of the bottomlands along the river in either direction from the airport.) It’s a great spot for bird watching.
Monson Lake State Park
Monson Lake State Park, located in central Minnesota near Willmar, was created as a memorial to settlers killed in the US-Dakota War of 1862. The park is very small and fishing and bird watching are the main activities available. There is a short hiking trail and a gorgeous historic campground within the park.
Moose Lake State Park
Moose Lake State Park, located near Moose Lake in northeastern Minnesota, has wooded hills and lakes that offer opportunities for hiking and a variety of water sports. The Agate and Geological Interpretive Center provides information on the rocks, minerals, and geology of Minnesota – but is only open on a limited schedule.
In winter the park has a number of trails open for winter activities.
The park also has a very attractive-looking historic camper cabin.
Myre – Big Island State Park
Myre – Big Island State Park consists of oak savanna, grasslands, lakeshore, and marshes near Albert Lea in southeastern Minnesota. The park’s namesake island is a maple/basswood forest.
Nerstrand Big Woods State Park
Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, located near the tiny town of Nerstrand in southeastern Minnesota, preserves a rare remnant of the “Big Woods” that once blanketed the land here. This park is noted for its vegetation: carpets of spring wildflowers and brilliant fall leaves, but it also has a lovely little waterfall.
Old Mill State Park
Old Mill State Park preserves a bit of the past at the edge of the prairie in northwestern Minnesota. The park includes an old flour mill, log cabin, swimming beach, and trails.
Red River State Recreation Area
Red River State Recreation Area, located in East Grand Forks in northwest Minnesota, was created after the 1997 floods that destroyed portions of the city. This is land that once supported a neighborhood, the bare outlines of which can still be seen. It’s a peaceful spot along the – usually calm – Red River.
Rice Lake State Park
Rice Lake State Park is located along a shallow lake where American Indians once harvested wild rice near Owatonna in southern Minnesota.
The park is heavily wooded and would be lovely any time of year, but, for me, the best time to visit is spring when the woodland floor becomes a vast field of wildflowers.
Saint Croix State Park
Saint Croix State Park, located near Hinckley in northeastern Minnesota, is the state’s largest state park. Park activities focus on the St. Croix and Kettle Rivers with scenic trails for hiking, horseback riding, biking, and snowmobiling and great options for water sports. Despite a major timber blow-down in 2011, the park is largely heavily wooded — it’s absolutely lovely in fall.
The park is a bit out-of-the way, so plan to grab a spot in the campground or one of the many seasonal camper cabins.
Sakatah Lake State Park
Savanna Portage State Park
Savanna Portage State Park, located in north-central Minnesota, preserves a landscape that would be familiar to the voyageurs and American Indians who traveled the historic Savanna Portage Trail. There is also a trail along the continental divide, where water flows to Lake Superior on one side and the Mississippi River on the other.
Scenic State Park
Scenic State Park, located in northern Minnesota, shows why the state’s lake-studded northern woods are so popular. The park completely lives up to its name, with towering trees, gorgeous lakes, and rocky escarpments. A wide variety of hiking trails, including some easy ones, provide an eyeful of scenery.
In addition, Scenic State Park’s collection of historic park buildings is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The park has a full range of camping options, including a historic camper cabin and several canoe campsites. Non-motorized boat rentals are also available.
Schoolcraft State Park
Schoolcraft State Park was named for Henry Schoolcraft, the first European to visit the headwaters of the Mississippi. This small park features a rare forest of virgin white pine (some of which are huge) along the quiet waters of the Mississippi River.
Sibley State Park
Sibley State Park, located near Willmar in central Minnesota, has five lakes, sweeping prairies, and offers a wide range of activities. There are good fall colors here, both in the wooded areas and the prairies.
- Early Fall in Sibley State Park (fall 2014)
Split Rock Creek State Park
Split Rock Creek State Park in southwestern Minnesota features the largest lake in Pipestone County and a stone bridge built by the WPA in 1937. This is a small park that mostly serves local residents..
Split Rock Lighthouse State Park
Split Rock Lighthouse State Park features one of Minnesota’s most iconic sites, the historic Split Rock Lighthouse. The lighthouse is open for tours seasonally, as are the small but fascinating museum and visitor’s center with a large gift shop with many Minnesota-made items. Inside the lighthouse and lighthouse keeper’s home you may meet some the characters who once lived and worked here. There are also hiking trails and rocky Lake Superior beaches.
This is Minnesota’s most popular historic site, so be prepared for lots of company when you visit.
- Split Rock Lighthouse in Minnesota (summer 2013)
- Split Rock Lighthouse From Our Usual Vantage Point (spring 2012)
- Highway 61 (Split Rock at Sunset) (spring 2011)
Temperance River State Park
Temperance River State Park is located along Highway 61 on Lake Superior’s North Shore, with the a waterfall just feet from the parking area. But that’s just the most dramatic of a series of waterfalls along the Temperance River as it tumbles through the park to the lakeshore. There is also a lovely beach where the river empties into Lake Superior.
Be careful all along the Temperance River and stay out of the water above the falls. This is a wild section of the river and it can be deadly.
Tettegouche State Park
Tettegouche State Park, also located along Highway 61 on Lake Superior’s North Shore, is a favorite of mine. It includes a spectacular landscape along the lake and inland, including windswept Shovel Point and the High Falls on the Baptism River. It’s a gorgeous place for a leisurely stroll along the shore or a strenuous hike to one of the waterfalls or inland lakes. A beautiful new visitor’s center makes the park even more accessible.
Don’t forget to check out the other side the park while you are there. Illgen Falls, a guest house, and lots of trails await on the hillsides across Highway 61.
- Above Illgen Falls (spring 2015)
- Shovel Point from the Beach (spring 2012)
- Shovel Point (summer 2008)
Upper Sioux Agency State Park
Upper Sioux Agency State Park preserves the remains and story of the Upper Sioux or Yellow Medicine Agency near Granite Falls in southwestern Minnesota. Located at the edge of the prairie, the park’s diverse landscape can be experienced along a network of trails.
Whitewater State Park
Whitewater State Park, located in the bluff country of southeastern Minnesota, features a sometimes dramatic karst landscape and streams with rainbow trout.
Wild River State Park
Wild River State Park, located along the St Croix River north of the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area near Center City, is a wonderful place to explore the river and surrounding woodlands. While the park is lovely year-round, it is a great place to take in the spring wildflowers and fall colors.
William O’Brien State Park
William O’Brien State Park is also located along the St. Croix River, at the northern edge of the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area. This wooded park is perfect for hiking, fishing, or exploring the river.
Zippel Bay State Park
Zippel Bay State Park, located on the shores of Lake of the Woods in Minnesota’s far north, features a white sand beach on Minnesota’s largest lake.
Visiting Minnesota’s state parks
Minnesota’s state parks are open throughout the year, although some sites and structures may be closed or subject to more limited hours once the summer’s peak tourist season ends. And summer isn’t always the best time to visit, as many parks are at their best when flowers bloom in spring and the leaves turn color in the fall. Individual park websites include up-to-date information on spring flowers and fall colors.
All parks have hiking/ski trails and picnic areas, and most have campgrounds. Some have horse and snowmobile trails, docks, cabins, and interpretive centers. A full list of activities and facilities available at each park can be found on the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website and the park links included above.
Most parks require visitors to purchase a permit in order to use the park. Day permits use permits are $5 per vehicle. Annual permits are $25 per vehicle, but note that they can only be used with one vehicle – you can’t move it from one car to another. There are additional charges for camping. A license is needed to fish on any public water in Minnesota, including those in state parks.
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