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12 Top-Rated Hiking Trails in Minnesota

Written by Brad Lane
Jun 8, 2020

With landscapes ranging from stunning shorelines to old-growth forests, including exposed bedrock, wide-reaching river valleys, and remnant prairie systems, Minnesota could more accurately be described as the land of 10,000 things to explore.

One of the best ways to see all of Minnesota's natural attractions is by following one of the many hiking trails. From the Boundary Waters up north to the confluence of two rivers in the heart of the Twin Cities, hiking trails in Minnesota offer a beautiful way to explore the state.

Popular things to do on Minnesota's hiking trails include admiring historic lighthouses, climbing high-reaching fire towers, and hiking up to the highest point in the state. Whether you only have an afternoon to check out something like the half-mile Glacial Pothole trail at Interstate State Park, or you have eight months to hike the North Country National Scenic Trail, there is always something unique to explore every step of the way.

Plan your outdoor adventures with our list of the top hiking trails in Minnesota.

Note: Some businesses may be temporarily closed due to recent global health and safety issues.

1. Silver Creek Trail, Jay Cooke State Park

Silver Creek Trail
Silver Creek Trail | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Serving as an origin point for the southern section of the Superior Hiking Trail, Jay Cooke State Park provides many additional trekking opportunities. With the scenic St. Louis River defining much of the landscape, each trail at the state park contains impressive sights. A popular hike among the 50 miles of hiking trails at Jay Cooke State Park is the Silver Creek Trail.

The Silver Creek Trail offers dramatic views of the slanted bedrock landscape exposed by the St. Louis River. The trail begins by crossing the CCC Swinging Bridge over the river. The Silver Creek trail is a 3.5-mile loop, although many hikers end up just doubling back on the segment that follows the river.

To extend your trip on the Silver Creek trail, connections to the Summer Trail and Lost Lake trail are encountered along the way. These trails lead to some of the backcountry camping sites within Jay Cooke State Park. The popular Carlton Trail Trip is also accessible in this region of the park, and provides great views of the St. Louis River.

Address: 780 Minnesota 210, Carlton, Minnesota

2. Wolf Creek Falls Trail, Banning State Park Editor's Choice

Wolf Creek Falls Trail
Wolf Creek Falls Trail | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

The real hiking adventure of Banning State Park begins on the Quarry Nature Trail, which takes users alongside the state-designated Wild and Scenic Kettle River. The route also navigates near the ruins of the historic sandstone quarry that occupied the space in the early 20th century.

It's easy to spend a lot of time admiring the Kettle River, as it exposes the bedrock and provides some of the most challenging boating rapids in the state, but if you continue farther south, you can witness another natural attractions that make Banning one of the best state parks in Minnesota.

Not far from the rushing waters of the Kettle River, Wolf Creek Falls provide a serene moving landscape that will reward your hiking efforts. It's a four-mile loop utilizing the Quarry Nature Trail and Wolf Creek Trail to make it to Wolf Creek Falls and back. A few sections of steep hiking are encountered along the way.

The 34-site campground at Banning State Park is in the middle of the route.

Address: 61101 Banning Park Road Sandstone, Minnesota

3. Aiton Heights Fire Tower, Itasca State Park

The view atop the Aiton Heights Fire Tower just off the Ozawindib Trail
The view atop the Aiton Heights Fire Tower just off the Ozawindib Trail

Located just west of the Chippewa National Forest, Itasca is home to the headwaters of the Mississippi River. This popular state park is also the beginning of many adventures that include pristine lakes surrounded by old-growth forests and a retired fire tower to climb. What ties all the worthwhile attractions of Itasca together is the sprawling 49 miles of trails found throughout the park.

A good introduction to Itasca is found atop the 100-foot-tall Aiton Heights Fire Tower near the center of the park. The fire tower is accessible with a half-mile hike from the designated Fire Tower parking area.

A better approach is to make a three-mile loop starting at the historic Douglas Lodge and utilizing the Ozawindib and Deer Park trails. This three-mile loop is hilly but not too strenuous. The real challenge (and reward) of the hike comes from climbing the steps up the 100-foot fire tower.

Address: 36750 Main Park Drive, Park Rapids, Minnesota

4. Little Two Harbors Trail, Split Rock Lighthouse State Park

Little Two Harbors Trail
Little Two Harbors Trail | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Diverting from the Superior Hiking Trail to get a better view of the Split Rock Lighthouse, the Little Two Harbors shoreline trail highlights many of the features that make the North Shore of Lake Superior so special. Easily accessible from the nearby parking areas, the Little Two Harbors Trail immediately exposes visitors to pebble shorelines, the scenic Ellingsen Island, and the enormity of Lake Superior.

The shoreline trail is also well accentuated by the historic Split Rock Lighthouse atop the lakeside cliffs. Measured at only three-quarters of a mile, the little Two Harbors Trail lends quick access to many of the other popular features of Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. Hikers here can also access the adjacent History Center, additional shoreline trails, and a trailhead for the paved Gitchi-Gami State Trail.

Address: 3755 Split Rock Lighthouse Road, Two Harbors, Minnesota

5. Superior Hiking Trail

Superior Hiking Trail
Superior Hiking Trail | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Encompassing the entirety of Lake Superior's North Shore, the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) is Minnesota's crown jewel of hiking trails. No other pathways in the state provide such constant views and breathtaking moments than the vast, open-water landscape of the Superior shoreline. Breathtaking scenes along the trail include pebble beaches, jutting cliffsides, and forested ravines.

Stretching for 260 miles from Duluth to the US/Canadian border, the SHT weaves in and out from the shoreline. The trail explores the rugged landscape formed by the rippling water and elevation beside it, all the while passing through some of the best state parks in Minnesota.

Scenic destinations like Split Rock Lighthouse and Tettegouche State Parks provide stunning views of waterfalls and historic structures. While charming towns like Silver Bay and Lutsen provide fun places to resupply. There are trailheads located along the SHT nearly every 10 miles, and more than 90 free backcountry campsites to pitch a tent, making the SHT accessible for day hikes, weekend backpacking trips, and entire thru-hikes.

Whether you trek the SHT for a day, or thru-hike the entire thing in two to four weeks, the amazing views of Lake Superior will inspire you along the way. The average thru-hike of the Superior Hiking Trail, or hiking the trail from end to end, takes approximately three weeks to accomplish.

Official site: http://shta.org

6. Eagle Mountain Trail, Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

The banks of Brule Lake on the Eagle Mountain Trail
The banks of Brule Lake on the Eagle Mountain Trail | Mr. Moment / photo modified

Eagle Point is the highest point in Minnesota and a popular peak to bag throughout the warmer seasons. The summit is one of the top attractions you can only reach by foot in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Standing at just over 2,300 feet, you won't feel the same altitude-induced head rush as some of the western 14'ers, but the 3.5-mile trail leading up to the top isn't just a walk in the park.

Rocky, rutted, and sometimes steep, the Eagle Mountain trail is a wilderness trail. This means it's not as maintained as others you'd find in the state park system. Hike and sometimes scramble your way through the rugged terrain, however, and waiting for you at the top of Eagle Mountain isn't just a sense of accomplishment but also magnificent views of the surrounding Superior National Forest. On clear days, Lake Superior can also be seen in the distance.

7. Glacial Pothole Trail, Interstate State Park

Glacial Pothole Trail
Glacial Pothole Trail | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

For a great roadside attraction, Minnesota's Interstate State Park provides fun terrain to explore and scramble over. This roadside-adjacent state park also features a great view of the geological history of Minnesota. It's situated next to the banks of the St. Croix River and Highway 8, as well as the adjacent Wisconsin Interstate State Park across the river. Perhaps the most popular attraction on the Minnesota side is the half-mile Glacial Pothole Trail.

Glacial Potholes are smooth rock indentations created thousands of years ago by swirling waters of nearby glacial melts. Minnesota's Interstate State Park has more than 400 of these unique geological attractions found within its boundaries. You can easily tour many of these glacial history markers on the family-friendly Glacial Pothole Trail, including a glimpse into the Bottomless Pit, which is thought to be at least 60 feet deep.

Address: 307 Milltown Road, Taylors Falls, Minnesota

8. Riverview Trail, Gooseberry Falls State Park

Riverview Trail
Riverview Trail

Six miles south of Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, Gooseberry Falls provides even more North Shore attractions in the form of rushing waterfalls. The most popular waterfalls at Gooseberry State Park include the Upper, Middle, and Lower Falls on the Gooseberry River. All three can be seen from the ADA-accessible Riverview Trail.

From the Riverview Trail and Gateway Plaza viewing area, those who are looking to see a little more can venture onto the Fifth Falls trail. This trail leads intrepid hikers to a remote waterfall they can enjoy on their own.

After seeing the waterfalls along the Riverview Trail, hikers can continue along the Superior Hiking Trail for overnight adventures. Cyclists have the option to hop on the Gitchi-Gami State Trail.

Address: 3206 US Hwy 61 E, Two Harbors, Minnesota

9. North River Trail & Prairie Loop, Afton State Park

North River Trail & Prairie Loop
North River Trail & Prairie Loop | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Located less than an hour from St. Paul and Minneapolis, Afton State Park is a popular place for urbanites of the Twin Cities and beyond to step back into nature.

Featuring a varied landscape that intertwines remnant and restored prairie valleys with wide-reaching river banks, Afton State Park provides more than 20 miles of trail to explore it all. A recommended place to start at Afton State Park is the North River Trail.

The North River Trail parallels the St. Croix River for just over a mile with an even grade, before ascending a bluff to gain a new perspective from a scenic overlook. Other trails in the park can be accessed from the North River Trail, including the Prairie and Trout Brook Loops, which add some extra miles to a trek. These two loops traverse over rolling and steep terrain and expose hikers to vibrant prairie landscapes and secluded wooded ravines.

Afton State Park only offers backcountry campsites to spend the night. All campsites require at least a mile hike to reach. This includes watercraft campsites along the North River Trail.

Address: 6959 Peller Ave S, Hastings, Minnesota

10. Snelling Lake Trail, Fort Snelling State Park

Flowers along a trail in Fort Snelling State Park
Flowers along a trail in Fort Snelling State Park

Located only two miles east of the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport, Fort Snelling State Park offers a quick natural respite amid the urban landscape. Set against the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi River, Fort Snelling comprises a riverine environment with plenty of trails to explore.

Both the Snelling Lake Trail and Pike Island Trail feature gravel walkways and two- to three-mile loops perfect for an extended lunch break or quick visit after work. The Snelling Lake Trail is a flat, gravel loop that circles its namesake body of water. Excellent views of floodplain forest and Lake Snelling are found along the trail, as well as the access point to the aptly named Picnic Island.

The Pike Island Trail navigates a larger island in the park, and visitors can make a variable-distance loop while exploring. The entire island is fairly flat, and the trails have very minimal elevation gain.

Address: 101 Snelling Lake Road, St. Paul, Minnesota

11. Sioux-Hustler Trail, Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

Young fox
Young fox

Located within the northern part of the Superior National Forest in northeastern Minnesota, the Boundary Waters consist of one million acres of designated wilderness containing thousands of lakes, streams, and islands to explore.

This uniquely rugged landscape borders the neighboring Quetico Provincial Park in Canada to the north and Voyageurs National Park to the east. Despite the world-renowned attractions surrounding it, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness draws thousands of visitors a year to its remote location.

With more than 1,200 miles of canoe routes to paddle, boating is the main form of transportation in the Boundary Waters. But this water-infused landscape also contains some of the best wilderness hiking trails you'll find in the state. In the western region of the Boundary Waters, the Sioux-Hustler trail provides backpackers the chance to trek through and spend a few nights in the inspiring landscape.

Measuring out to be a 32-mile loop, the Sioux-Hustler trail contains rugged terrain to contend with and a non-maintained route to navigate. With the right equipment and experience, however, this Boundary Waters hiking trail rewards visitors for their efforts.

Passing along numerous beaver dams and plenty of scenic lakes, the true thrill of traveling on the Sioux-Hustler trail is the depth of wilderness you step into with each mile. The Sioux-Hustler trailhead can be reached within an hour drive from Ely along the Echo Trail. Permits are required to travel and spend the night within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

12. The North Country National Scenic Trail

The North Country National Scenic Trail
The North Country National Scenic Trail

Stretching from New York to North Dakota, the North Country National Scenic Trail (NCT) is a cross-country footpath that connects hikers to significant points of interest across seven different states, exposing rich environments ranging from the Green Mountains to the Great Plains.

Passing through 10 different national forests, hundreds of state-designated natural spaces, and countless picturesque backcountry camping sites, the NCT comes in at a staggering 4,600 miles, making it the longest National Scenic Trail in the country.

A few ambitious hikers have attempted to thru-hike the NCT, which requires roughly eight months to complete. With many access points along the way, most people enjoy the NCT by either day hiking or backpacking sections at a time. For more information on the entire route, or how you can volunteer to help progress the NCT, the North Country Trail Association is the first place to go.

Heading west, the North Country Trail enters Minnesota near Jay Cooke State Park and Duluth, and connects with the Superior Hiking Trail as it winds its way up the North Shore and to the US/Canadian border. Veering west at the border, the NCT joins the Border Route Trail and enters the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, where the backcountry travel can challenge even the most experienced backpackers.

After making it through the Boundary Waters and Superior National Forest, the NCT heads southeast passing through Grand Rapids, the Chippewa National Forest, and Itasca State Park. The NCT passes through the state by heading into the prairie grasslands of North Dakota near Fargo.

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imageMore Outdoor Adventures in Minnesota: For a quicker pace on your next trail travels, Minnesota is also home to an impressive collection of mountain biking trails. The state also has an extensive state park system, with one of the most water-fed national parks in the country. Within all the best national and state parks in Minnesota, camping options abound. Check out our best campgrounds in Minnesota article for details.

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