12 Top-Rated Hiking Trails in Minnesota

Nov 8, 2017

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. The best way to see all of Minnesota's natural attractions is by following one of the many hiking trails found sprawling throughout the state, from the Boundary Waters up north to the confluence of two rivers in the heart of the Twin Cities. 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.

1 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 throughout the vast, open-water landscape of the Superior shoreline, including 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, exploring 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 never fail to inspire you along the way.

Official site: http://shta.org

2 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, but 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, before heading into the prairie grasslands of North Dakota near Fargo. Put it all together with the North Country Trail in Minnesota, and this National Scenic Trail provides the clearest picture of the state's many inspiring resources.

3 North River Trail & Prairie Loop

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, which parallels the St. Croix River for just over a mile, and then ascends a bluff to gain a new perspective from a scenic overlook. From here, the Prairie and Trout Brook Loops add some significant mileage to the trek and expose hikers to vibrant prairie landscapes and secluded wooded ravines. Afton State Park only offers backcountry campsites, and these scenic tent sites can be found along this route as well, providing a perfect place to set up for a multi-day adventure.

Address: 6959 Peller Ave S, Hastings, Minnesota

4 Glacial Pothole Trail

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 and a great view of the geological history of Minnesota. Situated next to both the banks of the St. Croix River and the pavement of Highway 8, as well as the adjacent Wisconsin Interstate State Park across the river, perhaps the most popular attraction on the Minnesota side of things is the half-mile Glacial Pothole Trail. Glacial Potholes are smooth indentations in the rock created thousands of years ago by the swirling waters of nearby glacial melts, and there are more than 400 of these unique geological attractions found within Interstate State Park. 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 measured to be at least 60 feet deep.

Address: 307 Milltown Road, Taylors Falls, Minnesota

5 Little Two Harbors Trail

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, all accentuated by a historic 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, including the adjacent History Center, more shoreline to discover, and a trailhead for the paved Gitchi-Gami State Trail.

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

6 Sioux-Hustler Trail

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, and despite these 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 amid 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, but with the right equipment and experience, this Boundary Waters hiking trail rewards visitors for their efforts. Passing along numerous beaver dams and plenty of scenic lakes to choose for a campsite, the true thrill of traveling on the Sioux-Hustler trail is the depth of wilderness you step into with each mile, providing a remote and natural sanctuary. The Sioux-Hustler trailhead can be reached within an hour drive from Ely along the Echo Trail, and permits are required to travel and spend the night within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

7 Editor's Choice Wolf Creek Falls Trail

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, as well as 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 further south, you can witness another natural attraction that makes Banning one of the best state parks in Minnesota. Not far from the rushing waters of the Kettle River, Wolf Creek Falls and the corresponding trail to get you there, provide a serene moving landscape that will reward your hiking efforts. It's a great place for a photo, and no visit to Banning State Park would be complete without checking out the ever-moving waters of Wolf Creek Falls.

Address: 61101 Banning Park Rd, Sandstone, Minnesota

8 Silver Creek Trail

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, and with the scenic St. Louis River defining much of the landscape, each trail contains impressive sights. Popular hikes among the 50 miles of hiking trails at Jay Cooke State Park include the Grand Portage Trail and Silver Creek Trail, both of which offer dramatic views of the slanted bedrock landscape exposed by the St. Louis River. The Silver Creek trail itself 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 can lead you to one of Jay Cooke's four backcountry camping sites, all of which can extend your stay among scenic surroundings.

Address: 780 Minnesota 210, Carlton, Minnesota

9 Eagle Mountain Trail

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

Serving as one of the best attractions you can only reach by foot in the Boundary Waters, Eagle Point is the highest point in Minnesota and a popular peak to bag throughout the warmer seasons. 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, which 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 and Lake Superior in the distance.

10 Snelling Lake Trail

Flowers along trail
Flowers along trail

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. Along these trails, users are exposed to floodplain forests of cottonwood and willow trees, as well as open views of the two rivers and Snelling Lake. For an extended visit away from the city, a non-gravel trail leads from the Historic Sibley House and follows the banks of the Minnesota River for six miles.

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

11 Ozawindib Trail

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, and is the beginning to many other 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 45 miles of trails found throughout the park. A recommended section for your next visit to Itasca includes the Ozawindib Trail, which shares some of its scenery with the North Country Trail but also leads to some of the best campsites found in Minnesota. Located only a mile from the Ozawindib Trailhead, the Aiton Heights Fire Tower provides a 100-foot-tall point view of the Lake Itasca watershed and one of the best sunset/sunrise opportunities in the state.

Address: 36750 Main Park Drive, Park Rapids, Minnesota

12 Riverview Trail

Riverview Trail
Riverview Trail

Serving as another detour from the Superior Hiking Trail and located only 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 of the Gooseberry River, which can all 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, which leads intrepid hikers to a remote waterfall they can enjoy on their own. After seeing the waterfalls along the Riverview Trail, hikers can continue on the Superior Hiking Trail, bikers can hop on the Gitchi-Gami State Trail, and everyone else can climb in their vehicles and head for one of the many other scenic and cultural destinations that line the North Shore.

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

More Outdoor Adventures in Minnesota

For a little 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. For other fun things to do in the state, see our top-rated attractions in Minnesota page, and read our articles on Minneapolis, Saint Paul, Duluth, and Rochester.

Discover destinations, find outdoor adventures, follow the journeys of our travel writers around the world, and be inspired.

More on Minnesota