If you’re looking for the best national parks in Minnesota, you’re going to be delighted to learn that “The Land of 10,000 Lakes” is blessed with six of the finest National Park Service (NPS) designations in the U.S. Although only one of these sites is an official National Park, the other attractions don’t disappoint.
Whatever you’re looking for, you’re likely to find it at a national park in Minnesota. From bustling urban waterways to pioneer settlements steeped in history, Minnesota’s national parks, recreation areas, and monuments offer fun for the entire family.
All of these sites are managed officially by the NPS. Let’s dive in and learn all about them.
The 6 Best National Parks in Minnesota
Voyageurs National Park
First on our list of the best national parks in Minnesota, is the only real national park in Minnesota, Voyagers National Park.
As the only officially designated national park in the state of Minnesota, Voyageurs National Park covers an area of almost 200,000 acres. Moreover, 40% of the park is water.
Voyageurs National Park is located on the border of Canada about 270 miles north of the Twin Cities.
Most of the park’s interior is only accessible by watercraft and is surrounded by four huge lakes. In the lakes, there are about 500 small islands that create over 650 miles of beautiful shoreline.
Voyageurs National Park was named in honor of the 17th and 18th century French Canadians who trapped minks, otters, and beavers in the area.
Things to Do
Even though the interior is mostly accessible only by boat, there are still lots of things to do if you’re landlocked.
Within the park, there are three visitor centers: Kabetogama Lake, Rainy Lake, and Ash River. These are all located on the southern fringes of the park.
At the centers, you can enjoy exhibits and interpretive programs.
At the visitor centers, you can book boat tours to Ellsworth Rock Gardens and Kettle Falls. Also, you can take a guided canoe trip.
Whether you want a short nature walk or a rigorous hike, you can find it at Voyageurs National Park.
Aurora Borealis and Nightsky Viewing
The scenery at the park is breathtaking during the day, but Voyageurs National Park is also known for its gorgeous night skies. When conditions are ideal, you will even see the famed northern lights, the aurora borealis.
Voyageurs National Park isn’t just great in the summer. For winter travelers, the park offers several different activities. The lakes will freeze over, and you can go sledding, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, skiing, and skating.
Official website: Voyageurs National Park
Grand Portage National Monument
If you need a budget option, you can’t go wrong with the Grand Portage National Monument because this park is fee-free. Located in the upper northeast corner of the state, the monument is about 140 miles from Duluth and overlooks the majestic Lake Superior.
During the heyday of the fur trade in North America, a historic partnership was developed between the North West Company and the Grand Portage Ojibwe. The monument honors that partnership. The monument’s name is derived from the “grand portage,” the 8.5-mile portage trail that connected fur trading depots between the Pigeon River and Lake Superior.
The Ojibwe people have an intimate knowledge of the water, plants, land, and wildlife of this unique area, and this knowledge has allowed them to survive in what is often a very harsh environment.
When other people began to explore the area, it was the technologies and tools of the Ojibwe that helped newcomers to exploit the area’s natural resources.
Things to Do
Below, we’ve listed just some of the fun activities you can enjoy while visiting this historic monument.
The first thing you should do when you visit the Grand Portage National Monument is to stop at the Heritage Center. This center overlooks the reconstructed fur trading post. Also, it houses murals, films, and more interpretive exhibits that honor Ojibwe culture.
Historic Fur Depot
After your time at the Heritage Center, a visit to the historic fur depot is worth your time. While there, you can see the Great Hall and the reconstructed Stockade.
Also available for visiting at the fur depot are an old dock, gardens, and an Ojibwe village.
To catch the best view, head to the Mount Rose Loop Trail, which is a one-mile hike up the mountain via wooden stairs and a dirt path. From there, you can enjoy a stunning view of the brilliant blue waters of Grand Portage Bay.
You can also hike the entire trail, which is 17 miles round trip. If a long hike appeals to you but 17 miles is too much, you can take shorter hikes along the old highway (1.5 miles) or Fort Charlotte (9 miles).
Grand Rendezvous Days and Powwow
In the second week of every August, you can enjoy a special festival sponsored by the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. At Grand Rendezvous Days and Powwow, the whole family can participate in craft demonstrations, dancing, music, and hands-on workshops.
If you enjoy seeing historic places with a formal guide, you can take a daily walk with a park ranger, which provides interpretive programs. On these walks, the ranger gives information about Native American gardening, building canoes, and historic bread baking.
Official website: Grand Portage National Monument
North Country National Scenic Trail
Spanning seven states from North Dakota to New York, the North Country National Scenic Trail (NCT) will be 4,600 miles long once Vermont is added. This officially makes this national trail the country’s longest hiking trail that’s continuous.
When you visit the North Country National Scenic Trail, you can stand on the shores of streams and lakes that were formed by glaciers 10,000 years ago. The clear-flowing water, a winter wonderland of yearly snow, brilliant red and gold colors of autumn, distant horizons, and gorgeous open prairies paint this ancient and beautiful land.
As you walk along the trail, you will encounter historic sites that tell the complicated story of how the United States settled and grew as a country.
Typically, the North Country National Scenic Trail is open during all seasons. Occasionally, there may be temporary closures at the discretion of managers or local landowners. To make sure the parts of the trail you want to visit are open, be sure to contact the North Country Trail Association and local managers.
Note that in most areas of the trail, the North Country Trail Association and the National Park Service have prohibited bicycling except in areas where the trail is designed specifically for wheeled vehicles.
Approximately 800 miles of the trail runs through the state of Minnesota, so hikers have countless opportunities to hike and explore, whether it’s lakes, lush mixed forests, or wetlands.
Things to Do
The NCT is all about the outdoors, and it does not disappoint.
While you can hike the entire trail, only the most skilled backcountry hikers will take on this challenge. For the average hiker, there are several shorter trails and day hikes. Backpacking trips are also hugely popular at the NCT.
One popular hike is a 3.1-mile trek on the Kekekabic Trail that goes to the Bingshick Lake Campsite. This is located close to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
If you prefer to visit trails via horseback, you can do that at the North Country National Scenic Trail. However, every part of the trail is managed by local managers, so be sure to ask in advance before you plan on using portions of the trail for something other than hiking or walking.
Wildlife and Birdwatching
East of Fargo, you can visit the Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge and watch for birds and other animals. The hike through the refuge is an easy hike of less than a mile through a tamarack and black spruce bog.
Historic Mine Ruins
Along your hike, you can visit various ruins of historic mines.
In addition to hiking and walking, the trail is great for winter activities like snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
Official website: North Country National Scenic Trail
Mississippi National River and Recreation Area
If the idea of visiting an outdoor oasis right in the middle of an urban environment appeals to you, then you must add a visit to the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area to your national parks to-do list.
The Mississippi NRRA is 72 miles long and highlights the mighty Mississippi River and its impact on human history. The site also serves to connect visitors to the city, as well as locals, with the natural beauty of this area.
Within the area, there are more than 60 sites of natural, historical, scenic, and cultural interest.
One of the most popular sites is Coldwater Spring, which was added to the Mississippi NRRA in January 2010. The ultimate goal is to restore this area’s landscape to a prairie/oak savanna complex. The project involved removing 12 buildings and restoring and seeding 12 acres of prairie and one wetland acre.
At the Mississippi Gateway Regional Park, you can enjoy wildlife viewing and spectacular scenery. If you want to see the Mightly Mississippi River up close, this is the best spot to do it. Also, this park offers some of the Mississippi NRRA’s best birdwatching. To get even more involved in nature, you can rent a kayak.
Things to Do
The Mississippi NRRA is huge and there are more activities than most people can do in a lifetime. Because of this, be sure to plan well before you go.
Mississippi River Visitor Center
To get started, visit the Mississippi River Visitor Center, which is located in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota. At the visitor center, you and your family can participate in interactive exhibits and become acquainted with everything the park and its regions have to offer.
Helpful rangers will assist children in earning their much-coveted junior ranger badges, and those same rangers will help direct you to whatever you’re interested in learning more about.
There are countless trails and parks within the Mississippi NRRA. From long rugged trails like Pine Bend Bluffs to shorter trails like Stone Arch Bridge and Mill Ruins Park, there is a trail for almost everyone.
If you want to hop on a bicycle, you can explore the Fort Snelling State Park and Coon Rapids Dam. For a bigger cycling adventure, check out a portion of the Mississippi River Trail, which is 3000 miles long.
Canoeing or Kayaking
To take kayak or canoe trips, use the Mississippi River Companion to find the best routes. Between Coon Rapids Dam and Crow River, the scenery is spectacular.
Birds and Wildlife
There are 10 nature areas where people can enjoy the birds and wildlife that live in the area. Some of the more popular spots are Scharr’s Bluff, Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, and Hidden Falls Regional Park.
Within the park, you can enjoy a number of different activities, both indoors and outdoors. There are cultural locations and museums you can visit, and you can even try your hand at fishing or geocaching.
Official website: Mississippi National River and Recreation Area
St. Croix National Scenic Riverway
Formed by the St. Croix and Namekagon rivers, the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway serves to create much of the border that Minnesota shares with Wisconsin. To get the most out of your visit to this area, it’s a good idea to plan to spend more than one day here.
The busiest landing for canoes and kayaks on the St. Croix River is Osceola Landing. For a popular day trip through the Dalles, this is your best starting point. You can also find access for paddling and motorized boats at the landing.
However, if you’re not planning on boating or paddling, you can still enjoy this area. It’s one of the best places on the Riverway to enjoy the beauty of the river. Plan a full day of fishing, picnicking, and walking in nature.
For fishing, you can expect to catch abundant trout, smallmouth bass, and muskies, just to name a few of the species that bring fishermen from all over the country.
If you want to enjoy the scenery at one of the least developed country in the U.S.’s Midwest, you can do that at St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.
For visitors who prefer guide-led tours, you can see the river in a kayak or boat with park rangers. These tours are interactive and engaging programs for visitors of all ages.
Things to Do
The star of the show at St. Croix is the scenery and the riverway was designated by the U.S. government in 1968.
The St. Croix and Namekagon rivers flow through some of the most scenic and least developed countryside in the upper Midwest of the U.S. The scenic portion begins at St. Croix State Park and runs to the Mississippi River near Hastings.
Croix Dalles Gorge
The historic gorge was formed where the river flows through a deep valley of volcanic blasts. In times past, the area was used for logging and steamboat building.
When you visit the gorge, you can see some of the deepest glacial potholes in the world. To best visit this area, hop aboard a boat tour, which runs daily. Be sure to make note of the fabled Old Man of the Dalles, which is a legendary rock formation.
Canoeing and Kayaking
You can enjoy some of the region’s best kayaking and canoeing at St. Croix, and the scenery will take your breath away. The best part is that the river offers fun for both novices and experienced users.
For the more seasoned kayaker, there are options that include Class I and II whitewater near Nelsons Landing and Soderbeck Landing.
Like the rest of our parks and sites, there are several hiking opportunities at St. Croix. One thing you can do is enjoy a strenuous hike on the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.
Fishing and Birdwatching
If you love wildlife, there are numerous opportunities for viewing wildlife, fishing, and birdwatching. Be sure to check out the Crex Meadows Wildlife Area near Grantsburg, Wisconsin if this is something you enjoy.
Official website: St. Croix National Scenic Riverway
Pipestone National Monument
Last but not least on our list of the best national parks in Minnesota is Pipestone National Monument.
Located in Minnesota’s southwest corner, the Pipestone National Monument is not just an active quarrying site. The monument is also a sacred ground for numerous Native American tribal peoples.
For hundreds of years, tribal people have visited the site to get the red pipestone that is found in the area. They use this pipestone to carve prayer pipes and believe that the smoke from the pipes serves to carry their prayers to their Great Spirit.
If you’re visiting the Pipestone National Monument with children, you will enjoy all of the fun activities the park has to offer. Your young visitors can become a Junior Ranger and even get help on school projects and papers.
If you venture past Leaping Rock, you can see the famous Nicollet Marker. On a rock, there is a carving from 1838 by a French scientist named Joseph Nicollet. Nicollet led the first government-sponsored quarry expedition. This expedition gave us the first accurate map of this area of the Missouri river basin and the upper Mississippi River.
Things to Do
Below, we’ve outlined some of the things you can enjoy when visiting the Pipestone National Monument.
Like some of the other sites, the Pipestone National Monument has a robust visitor center. While you’re there, you can watch “Pipestone: An Unbroken Legacy,” which is an award-winning documentary.
At the visitor center, you also may meet Native American crafters who demonstrate how they make their pipes and other objects from the pipestone that they get at the quarry.
To tour the Pipestone National Monument’s grounds, you can take the Circle Trail, which is a paved trail that’s less than a mile long.
The trail wanders through some of the more interesting features of the park, including the beautiful scenery at Winnewissa Falls, the pipestone quarries, and a prairie with native tallgrass.
To hike the Circle Trail, pick up a guide at the visitor center so that you can identify the historical markers you encounter along the way.
Official website: Pipestone National Monument
Below, we’ve pulled together some of the most commonly asked questions about national parks in Minnesota.
How many national parks are in Minnesota?
Minnesota has one officially designated national park and five other national points of interest that are maintained by the National Park Service.
What is the best year to travel with kids?
Children of all ages can enjoy activities at national parks, and the best thing you can do is plan your trip with the ages of your children in mind.
The National Park Foundation sponsors a program for fourth graders called the Every Kid in a Park Initiative. Through this program, every child in the fourth grade and their family can access national parks for free.
Can you see the Northern Lights in Minnesota?
Yes, you can. When conditions are ideal, you can view the Northern Lights from Voyageurs National Park.
What is the largest park in Minnesota?
Minnesota’s largest park is the St. Croix State Park.
Wrapping Up The Best National Parks in Minnesota
Are you ready to plan your trip to one of the national parks in Minnesota? If so, this list will give you a good starting point. If you follow our suggestion and visit one of these Minnesota national parks, comment below and tell us all about it.
Love spending time outside? Then discover the Minnesota Outdoors to continue learning new ways to reconnect with nature!
Ready for more Minnesota advice, info, and guides? Whether you’re a local or a passerby, discover the best of Minnesota that our great state has to offer!
- About the Author
- Latest Posts
Born in Madelia, MN, to a now 5-generation Minnesota family, Ryan’s MN roots go deep.
A painter by day, Ryan founded Life in Minnesota in 2013 with his wife Kelly to chronicle their musings on everything Minnesota. Ryan and Kelly are raising their 7 kiddos in Maple Grove, MN.
When he’s not shuttling his kids around to hockey practice, you might find him in the shop working on his leatherwork. Undoubtedly, there will be a family trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area every summer, and of course weekends at Grandpa’s cabin up north in the summer.