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18 of the Best State Parks in Minnesota for Exploring the Great Outdoors

Minnesota is well-known for its abundance of gorgeous outdoor scenery, and not just in summer! Winters can be pretty magical here, too. One of the best ways to see it for yourself is to visit one of Minnesota’s 75 state parks. No matter where you are in the state, there are multiple parks nearby to visit. Here is just a small sampling of the best state parks in Minnesota to add to your bucket list.

Split Rock Creek Lake Dam and Bridge at one of the best state parks in Minnesota
Split Rock Creek Lake Dam and Bridge

Southwest

Split Rock Creek – Located in Jasper, Split Rock Creek State Park is a great spot for swimming, fishing, and boating. From Memorial Day through Labor Day, take advantage of the items for rent, including rowboats, canoes, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, and approved firewood for keeping away tree-killing insects while you enjoy some tasty s’mores.

Dine al fresco at the picnic tables and shelter with fire rings and grills. Let the kids burn some energy on the playground, or pick up some equipment from the park office and get a team together for volleyball or horseshoes.

Minneopa – There’s plenty to see and do in Mankato, but don’t miss a trip to Minneopa State Park. This is Minnesota’s third state park, being established in 1905. Here, you can drive through 331 acres of land to find the bison that roam the property. You may also be able to spot wild turkeys, pheasant, deer, coyotes, snakes, beavers, and waterfowl during your visit.

The main attraction here is the double waterfall where the park gets its name. Coming from the Dakota language, it is interpreted to mean “water falling twice”. The upper falls is the smaller of the two, with a drop of 10 feet. The lower falls is more dramatic with a drop of 39 feet. This area also has steps leading down to the gorge and is the perfect spot for a picnic lunch and catching some sun.

Southeast

Whitewater – In Altura, Whitewater State Park can be enjoyed year-round. In the spring, watch as the wildflowers bloom after their winter slumber. Summer is great for hiking the trails to take in the views. Fall is the most gorgeous time of year to visit thanks to the changing colors of the leaves. Even the cold of winter won’t stop you from enjoying the trout fishing in the river!

Bring the family for a day of swimming at the beach, or try your hand at fishing off the pier. Pack the binoculars and try to spot the 50 types of mammals and 250 types of birds that inhabit the land. There’s plenty of room to go camping, whether you bring an RV, tent, or reserve one of the available cabins.

Great River Bluffs – While you’re enjoying all the awesome things to do in Winona, don’t forget to add Great River Bluffs State Park to your itinerary. This land is home to 35 species of mammals, 17 species of reptiles and amphibians, and over 100 species of birds. You’ll be surrounded by oak-hickory and maple-basswood forests, pine plantations, fields, and goat prairies for a wide variety of wildlife.

This park is also the site of two Scientific and Natural Areas (SNAs). Hike the King’s Bluff trail for sweeping views of the Mississippi River Valley. Along the way, you may see waterfowl, eagles, hawks, ruffed grouse, wild turkeys, and coyotes. Next to King’s Bluff is Queen’s Bluff, which is another easy walk that will make you feel like you’re on top of the world when you reach the end.

The Mendota Bridge Reflecting in the Low Waters of the Minnesota River in the fall
The Mendota Bridge Reflecting in the Low Waters of the Minnesota River

Metro Area

Fort Snelling – There is no shortage of fun to be had at this St. Paul state park. Start your experience at the Thomas C. Savage Visitor Center to explore the exhibits. Then, step outside onto the patio to view the Mendota Bridge, enjoy a picnic lunch, and plan your route through the park. Start your hike on the trail under the Mendota Bridge and you might see white-tailed deer, fox, woodchucks, and turkeys.

Other notable sites include the swimming beach, Pike Island Point, Picnic Island, Gun Club Lake, overlook, fishing pier, and the historic steamboat landing. When you’re ready to head out onto the water, use the Snelling Lake boat ramp, or River boat ramp under the Mendota Bridge. During winter, don’t miss the camping event, cross-country skiing, or snowshoeing.

Minnesota Valley – Not far south of the Cities, in the city of Jordan, you’ll find the Minnesota Valley State Recreation Area. This was an important location in the US-Dakota War of 1862, which you can learn more about at the Minnesota History Center in St Paul. You can also see the S. B. Strait house, which is the last remaining building of the town of St. Lawrence, a town that was planned on paper but never fully built.

No matter how you like to get active, there’s plenty of room to do so at this park. There are 47 miles of hiking trails available, 9.5 miles of paved biking and 35 for mountain biking, as well as 30 miles for snowmobiling in the winter. If horses are more your thing, you’ll absolutely love the equestrian facilities which include parking space, campground, and 30 miles of trails.

Central

Big Stone Lake – Where Minnesota meets South Dakota, you’ll find Big Stone Lake State Park. The northern section of this 26 mile long lake is the Bonanza area. Here, you can start your fishing trip using the boat launch or simply cast off the wooden dock. Learn more about the area’s natural and cultural history through interpretive displays at the Educational Center. Hike the trail through the oak basswood forest between these two locations.

On the southern end of the park is the Meadowbrook area. Another boat ramp is located here which was rebuilt in 2012. Set up camp at one of the 37 campsites near a modern showerhouse and bathroom. Take a dip in the sandy swimming beach to cool off during summer.

Mille Lacs Kathio – This park is also a National Historic Landmark thanks to its 9,000 years of human history and archaeological significance, which you can learn more about at the Interpretive Center when you visit. What makes this one of the best state parks in Minnesota is the 100 foot tall observation tower. Climb your way to the top for spectacular views of the area. Visit every season to watch the landscape change with the weather.

For families with kids, there’s a man-made swimming lake that’s just 6 feet deep. It’s located in the picnic area near the playground and Interpretive Center. During the winter, take a ride down the sledding hill or try cross-country skiing. Warm back up in the Trail Center near the hill.

Northwest

Itasca – Just north of Park Rapids, Minnesota, is Itasca State Park, which may be one of the best state parks in Minnesota because it’s the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Stop by the Mary Gibbs Mississippi Headwaters Center to learn about the natural and cultural history of this national landmark. Then, take a short walk to go see it for yourself! You can find more information about the area in the Jacob V. Brower Visitor Center including educational exhibits and interactive play areas for kids. Grab a nice Minnesota-grown meal or spend a cozy night at the historic Douglas Lodge.

Stop by Itasca Sports to rent boats, pontoons, kayaks, bikes and more before heading to the boat dock or swimming beach for a day of fun on the water or riding the 16 miles of paved trails. Take a narrated tour of Lake Itasca from the two-story Chester Charles II excursion boat and catch 360 degree views of its beauty.

Lake Bronson – You can’t get much farther north than Lake Bronson! Here you can find the largest observation/water tower within the Minnesota State Parks system. The views from the top are especially breathtaking during fall when all the lush trees are changing colors. There are plenty of spaces for a variety of activities at this park. Use the boat launch to head out on the water. Spend a day playing and sunbathing at the beach. Cast your line off the fishing pier and see if you can catch any largemouth bass, panfish, northern pike, or walleye. You also have access to two campgrounds, a visitor center with interpretive exhibits, a group camp and shelter, and a WPA picnic shelter.

Upper Gooseberry Falls in the fall with colorful leaf foliage
Enjoy Upper Gooseberry Falls in Autumn at one of the best state parks in Minnesota

Northeast Road Trip – Gooseberry Falls to Grand Portage

To fully explore the best state parks in Minnesota, plan a road trip to visit some or all of the 8 state parks and recreation areas along the coast of Lake Superior.

Starting at Gooseberry Falls in Two Harbors, you can take in multiple views of the waterfalls and the shoreline of Lake Superior. The Catwalk Bridge is part of the Falls Loop Trail which connects you to the Gateway Plaza, visitor center, Gitchi-Gami State Trail, and Fifth Falls. The expansive visitor center is your number one source for information about the area, including the CCC Lakeview Shelter, Lady Slipper Lodge, and Campground Shelter.

Your next stop is Split Rock Lighthouse, also in Two Harbors. This area offers plentiful camping opportunities along with a picnic area, scenic views, and gorgeous waterfalls. Of course, the main attraction is the historic lighthouse which makes for a great Instagram post. Learn more about this site at the history center.

Keep heading north towards Silver Bay and you’ll reach Tettegouche State Park. Take a hike to Shovel Point to go rock climbing and look out at Lake Superior. You can also find a gravel beach where Baptism River and Lake Superior meet. If you take the Cascade Trail which follows the Baptism River, you’ll end up at the Cascades Waterfall.

Spend a little more time in Silver Bay to check out George Crosby Manitou State Park. Take in the iconic Minnesota scenery along the Benson Lake Boardwalk and stop for a bite to eat at the picnic area. Put your kayak or canoe in the water and paddle away or try some fishing. If you’re willing to take a hike through some rugged landscape, you’ll be rewarded with views of the Cascades at Manitou River.

Your last stop in Silver Bay is Temperance River State Park. Hike along the trails to find a scenic overlook, take a break at the beach, enjoy lunch with a view at the picnic grounds, or try rock climbing or fishing. Spend the night at the campground and take in all the stunning views along the river and lake.

Your next stop is Cascade River State Park in Lutsen. On just a half mile hike you can see a series of five small waterfalls that make up the Cascades. The Lake Superior Shoreline Trails offers over a mile of shoreline views. During summer, enjoy a picnic under the cedar trees. In winter, you’ll find 17 miles of cross-country skiing trails.

When you’ve reached Judge C.R. Magney State Park in Grand Marais, you’ll be excited to hang a hammock at your campsite and prepare for trout fishing, watching the local wildlife, heading out on a hike, setting up a picnic or checking out the nearby waterfalls. There are 9 miles of trails with several overlooks.

To finish off this road trip of the best state parks in Minnesota, visit Grand Portage State Park. At Minnesota’s tallest waterfall there are three different viewing decks to give you a variety of vantage points. Learn more about the culture and traditions of the Grand Portage Ojibwe people through interpretive displays and four life-sized murals depicting their seasonal movement and subsistence lifestyle.

Wood and metal trail through the Grand Portage Indian Reservation
Grand Portage Indian Reservation

There’s no shortage of beautiful sights and fun activities at the best state parks in Minnesota. Comment below and tell us what you love most about these 18 parks! You can also subscribe to our newsletters so you never miss out on the best things to do all over The North Star State.

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