Exploring Minnesota State Parks

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Minnesota has 76 state parks (67) and recreation areas (9), with the largest concentration in the scenic northeastern part of the state. However, parks can be found throughout the state.

And remember, the BEST time to visit to one of Minnesota’s state parks is always right now.

two small park boats on shore by a lake at sunset

State parks and recreation areas are distributed throughout the state. Although Minnesota’s state parks are usually thought of as recreational areas that also preserve scenic sites and natural resources like game and fish, the parks originally fulfilled a historic preservation function as well. For that reason, many parks contain historic sites or structures.

And, while any time of year is a great time to explore Minnesota’s parks, spring and fall tend to be particularly pleasant and beautiful in most parks.

map of Minnesota with parks and rec areas marked

Minnesota state parks and recreation areas

Minnesota state parks by region

The following guide will help you determine what parks you might want to fit into a road trip, based on the part of Minnesota you are in or visiting. (Note that a few parks are included in more than one region.)

Minneapolis-Saint Paul Twin Cities metro area state parks

While there are few state parks right in the Twin Cities metro area, several others are an easy day trip.

tree with prairie and red sumac

In the metro area

Afton State Park

red tree in Afton State Park Afton State Park is located in the rolling hills above the St. Croix River along the Minnesota/Wisconsin border at the eastern edge of the Minneapolis-Saint 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.

Fort Snelling State Park

Fort Snellling State ParkFort 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. (The fort is operated by the Minnesota Historical Society and is separate from the wooded state park below it.) 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.

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.

Southeastern Minnesota state parks

This part of the state includes a lot of parks with dramatic limestone formations and woodlands. It’s a good part of the state to look for spring flowers and fall color. The Mississippi River Valley is particularly dramatic in the fall.

Fall in Minnesota's Frontenac State Park - www.ExplorationVacation.net

Southwest Minnesota state parks

Originally much of this area was prairie or oak savanna, but park visitors will find a variety of landscapes. A couple of parks have buffalo and many include historic sites related to Native American history and/or conflict between Native people and white settlers.

Central Minnesota state parks

Many parks in central Minnesota preserve prairie landscapes or lake areas.

Northwest Minnesota parks

Parks in northwestern Minnesota usually feature a mix of prairie and woodlands around a lake or river.

Northern woodland parks

Minnesota’s northern woodlands are the home of some of the state’s most iconic lake and forest scenery. While the original forest was largely pine and birch, today’s woodlands include a mix of trees for spectacular fall color.  And, of course, Itasca State Park is famous as the head of the Mississippi River.

pine tree and lake

Discover more things to see and do in the Northwoods at Exploring Minnesota Lake Country and the Range.

North Shore parks

Minnesota’s favorite escape, the parks along Lake Superior’s north shore feature spectacular cliffs, rocky beaches, a wealth of waterfalls, and a mixed hardwood and pine forest that dazzles visitors with its fall colors.

For more information on what to see and do on the North Shore, check Exploring Minnesota’s North Shore.

Parks along the Saint Croix River and up to Duluth

With plenty of rocks, trees, spring flowers, and rushing water, the parks between the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metro area and Duluth offer wonderful hiking opportunities.

Parks in the southern half of this area are located right along the Saint Croix River.

river with limestone cliffs

Plan your visit to one of 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.

Park facilities

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.

Resources and more information

Roy Meyer’s 1991 book Everyone’s Country Estate: A History of Minnesota’s State Parks is a little opinionated and a bit dated. However, it’s an invaluable resource for anyone interested in learning the history behind Minnesota’s state parks. The Minnesota Historical Society claims to have a few new copies available, while both new and used copies are available on Amazon.

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