12 Top-Rated National & State Parks in Minnesota

Nov 8, 2017

Encompassing features like lakes and tallgrass prairies, the 67 different state parks and one national park of Minnesota reflect the wide range of landscapes found throughout the state. Whether you are coming from Rochester, the Twin Cities, or up near Duluth and the North Shore, you can enjoy experiences like climbing a fire tower, hiking to a waterfall, or coming across a herd of buffalo. Throughout the year and with every season, the designated natural spaces of Minnesota offer unique opportunities to explore, as well as different perspectives of the people that came before us. In Voyageurs National Park, you can experience the life of a fur trader as you make your way across the waters, and at the Soudan Underground Mine State Park, you can experience what life underground is like. With so many stories to explore and natural attractions to admire at Minnesota's national and state parks, it's a good idea to pitch a tent and stay a while.

1 Voyageurs National Park

Voyageurs National Park
Voyageurs National Park

Named after the French-Canadian fur traders that once frequented the area, Voyageurs National Park consists of rugged terrain mostly defined by water. Much of the park is created by the confluence of four major lakes on the Canadian/US border. You can reach the visitor centers for Voyageurs by car, but the Kabetogama Peninsula and heart of the park is only accessible by boat, plane, or crossing the frozen water in the winter. Many visitors opt for the city of International Falls to be their launching point, and once they've hitched a ride into the depths of this unique national park, the adventure continues throughout the day and night.

Set against the backdrop of a southern boreal forest, popular activities at Voyageurs include canoeing and fishing the many waterways, visiting historic sites like the Ellsworth Rock Gardens, and exploring the many trails and ecosystems found throughout the park. To get the most out of the park's hard to reach location, it's recommended to spend a few nights at one of the 270 campsites available, which range from watercraft accessible to hike-in only. With a few extra days to explore the many shorelines, inlets, and smaller lakes of Voyageurs, you'll also better your chances of catching one of the most brilliant starscapes you'll ever witness, including the full spectrum of the aurora borealis.

2 Whitewater State Park

The inviting waters of the Whitewater River define Whitewater State Park
The inviting waters of the Whitewater River define Whitewater State Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Located along the banks of the Whitewater River in southern Minnesota, 27,000-acre Whitewater State Park provides many outdoor adventure opportunities just 25 miles east of Rochester. Popular things to do here include casting a line in Trout Run Creek, swimming from the sandy beaches of the Whitewater River, or exploring the many limestone bluff hiking trails found sprawling throughout the park. You won't find as many mosquitos at Whitewater as some of the more northern state parks, and this is one of the reasons it's a popular place to visit. Another reason is the stunning scenery, including the prominent Chimney Rock that avid hikers can scale for a bird's-eye view of the bountiful landscape.

Address: 19041 MN-74, Altura, Minnesota

3 Great River Bluffs State Park

Great River Bluffs State Park
Great River Bluffs State Park

Overlooking the wide banks of the Mississippi River, Great River Bluffs State Park is scenic at almost any time of the year, but come autumn, the many blending colors of fall paint a stunning picture throughout the river valley. The park offers more than six miles of trails to explore, and perhaps the best views come from the King's Bluff Nature Trail, which also includes a self-guided tour that sheds some insight on the surrounding prairie and woodland landscapes. Hikers with binoculars who perch upon the half-dome bluffs and sheer rock cliffs that define the park, have a good chance at glimpsing the active avian wildlife that shares the area, including red-tailed hawks and 100 other species of birds.

Address: 43605 Kipp Dr, Winona, Minnesota

4 Jay Cooke State Park

The St. Louis River at Jay Cooke State Park
The St. Louis River at Jay Cooke State Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Right from the parking lot, visitors to Jay Cooke State Park are treated to great views of one of the park's most dramatic features, the St. Louis River. Serving as a tributary for Lake Superior, which lies only 20 miles to the north, the St. Louis River exposes the bedrock and defines much of the rugged environment found within Jay Cooke State Park. It is quite the sight to see the churning waters of the St. Louis River continue to make their mark on the landscape, and with more than 50 miles of hiking trails throughout the park, you'll find many outlets to explore Jay Cooke beyond the parking lot. Leading to backcountry campsites and more views of the St. Louis River, and connecting with the North Country National Scenic Trail, the hiking trails here are some of the best in Minnesota.

Address: 780 Minnesota 210, Carlton, Minnesota

5 Editor's Choice Split Rock Lighthouse State Park

Split Rock Lighthouse State Park
Split Rock Lighthouse State Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

The North Shore of Lake Superior is one of the most scenic destinations in Minnesota, and the open water beauty of this environment is only enhanced when visiting Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. Named after its key feature, Split Rock proudly displays its historic lighthouse atop a rocky bluff for all visitors to enjoy. The pebble beach shoreline is a great place to admire the lighthouse, and thanks to the adjacent History Center, you can even explore the historic structure from within. As well as admiring the lighthouse, visitors can also enjoy hiking on the Superior Hiking Trail, which provides backpackers and hikers the ability to experience the entire North Shore by foot. If you are looking to spend the night, a few of the cart-in sights offer views of the lighthouse in the distance, making a very scenic place to rest your head.

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

6 Tettegouche State Park

Tettegouche State Park
Tettegouche State Park

Nearly every direction you turn in Tettegouche State Park, you'll come across an image worthy of a postcard. That's because this North Shore natural space embodies everything the Superior shoreline has to offer. With pebble beaches, jutting cliffsides, and more than 20 miles of hiking trails to explore, Tettegouche State Park also has designated sections for rock climbing, a rare attraction in the Minnesota State Park system. A popular excursion at Tettegouche involves hiking up to where the Baptism River falls into Lake Superior, creating the impressive 60-foot High Falls. With plenty of designated spaces to pitch a tent at Tettegouche, you can take as many days as you like exploring all there is to see, and if you want a little more luxury, the Tettegouche Camp Cabins provide rustic accommodation that will satisfy all the campers in your party.

Address: 5702 MN-61, Silver Bay, Minnesota

7 Grand Portage State Park

Grand Portage State Park
Grand Portage State Park

Home to the highest waterfall in the state of Minnesota, Grand Portage State Park sits on the US/Canadian border and is the only Minnesota state park not owned by the state itself. Instead, use of this natural space is through cooperative efforts and a lease agreement between the Grand Portage Band of Chippewa Indians and the Department of Natural Resources. Grand Portage State Park is designated as day-use only, and upon your visit, it's almost required to travel the half-mile, wheelchair-accessible boardwalk that leads to the viewing platform for the stunning 120-foot High Falls created by the Pigeon River. If you have a little extra time on your hands, the more remote Middle Falls is a five-mile round-trip and provides more stunning waterfalls to view, plus a glimpse at the shimmering waters of nearby Lake Superior.

Address: 9393 MN-61, Grand Portage, Minnesota

8 Banning State Park

The Kettle River makes its way through Banning State Park
The Kettle River makes its way through Banning State Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Once home to a thriving 19th-century sandstone quarry, Banning State Park is now a fascinating historical space that offers educational opportunities alongside stunning scenery. Located roughly an hour south of Duluth, along the state-designated Wild and Scenic Kettle River, Banning State Park allows visitors to paddle in the rapids, rock climb the sandstone cliffs, and hike the sprawling trails all in a day's visit. Popular hiking routes begin with the Quarry Loop Trail, which takes hikers past interpretive signs and sandstone quarry ruins adjacent to the rugged banks of the Kettle River. From here, a recommended attraction is Wolf Creek Falls, which provides the perfect spot for lunch or a photo, if not simply just a place to enjoy the natural beauty of a moving landscape.

Address: 61101 Banning Park Road, Sandstone, Minnesota

9 Itasca State Park

A boat dock basking in dusk at Itasca State Park
A boat dock basking in dusk at Itasca State Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Home to the headwaters of the Mississippi River, Itasca State Park provides many outlets for adventure and a worthwhile glimpse of why Minnesota is known as the land of 10,000 lakes. As Minnesota's oldest state park, Itasca has been exposing state residents and visitors to a stunning landscape for more than a century, but the environment surrounding this park has been evolving for much longer. The park encompasses old growth forests, unspoiled lakes, and some of the best campsites in Minnesota. Visitors to Itasca can climb to the top of a spiraling fire tower, take a scenic wilderness drive, or stay at the historic Douglas Lodge. About 49 miles of trails thread throughout Itasca, exposing hikers to a variety of environments, and the Jacob V. Brower Visitors Center provides educational and cultural opportunities.

Address: 36750 Main Park Drive, Park Rapids, Minnesota

10 Minneopa State Park

Minneopa State Park
Minneopa State Park

In the southern portion of the state, Minneopa State Park may be one of the smaller state parks of Minnesota, but with a two-tiered waterfall and a reintroduced American bison herd, it is well worth an afternoon of exploring. Minneopa State Park has some of the most unique natural sights to see in all of Minnesota. The half-mile trail that leads to Minneopa Falls is evenly graded and easily accessible, allowing every member of the family to enjoy the view of this stunning double waterfall. After checking out the falls, you can't leave without taking a quick trip along Bison Drive, where you might see the resident bison herd that roams over 300 acres of the park. It's important to stay in your car along Bison Drive, and if you're lucky, you might catch a glimpse of these big animals alongside the cascading Minneopa Falls.

Address: 54497 Gadwall Rd, Mankato, Minnesota

11 Blue Mounds State Park

Blue Mounds State Park
Blue Mounds State Park

Blue Mounds State Park is home to one of Minnesota's largest prairie remnants. But what really sticks out are the Sioux quartzite rock outcroppings that punctuate the space. These stunning rock formations are pink in color, but when settlers first came upon the area they thought they saw blue from the distance, giving this state park a name that still sticks more than 150 years later. These days, Blue Mounds State Park is popular with hikers exploring the 15 miles of trails, rock climbers ascending the various quartzite cliffs, and a small herd of American bison that were reintroduced here. Camping is available at Blue Mounds, and the combination of tallgrass prairie and quartzite cliffs add up to plenty of adventure.

Address: 1410 161st St, Luverne, Minnesota

12 Soudan Underground Mine State Park

Soudan Underground Mine State Park
Soudan Underground Mine State Park Roy Luck / photo modified

Located at what was once Minnesota's first iron mine, Soudan Underground Mine State Park goes deep into northern Minnesota history, giving visitors a look into a world located a half-mile beneath their feet. The biggest draw of the Soudan Underground Mine is the mine tours, which are offered daily from Memorial Day to September and include guided exploration of the deepest area of the mine that was created in 1962. For those a little uncomfortable with tight spaces, self-guided surface audio tours are available as well. Surrounded by old-growth forest and with the recent addition of Lake Vermillion, Soudan Underground Mine State Park also provides plenty of recreation above ground. A few of the popular activities to do outside of the mine include hiking to the unique banded iron formation, completing a challenging multi-stage geocache, and enjoying the water and shoreline of Lake Vermillion.

Address: 1302 McKinley Park Rd, Soudan, Minnesota

More Outdoor Experiences in Minnesota

To extend your Minnesota adventure, you'll find all kinds of great hiking trails throughout the state, as well as mountain bike trails to get you moving a little faster. With all the outdoor activities available, you might want to find a place to pitch a tent. See our Best Campgrounds in Minnesota article for details. For more fun things to do in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, our write-up on the top attractions in Minnesota will point you in the right direction.

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