Much of the Minnesota landscape is studded with natural beauty – around 227,000 acres of parks and recreation areas to be exact. MN state parks include sites on the prairie, vast rolling hills, and towering cliffs of Lake Superior.
These untamed spaces offer glimpses of Minnesotan history and culture while presenting unique opportunities to explore.
State parks are dear to the state of Minnesota. Millions of visitors and residents flock to these areas to rest, recreate, and commune with nature. For the uninitiated, finding the best parks to visit can be a real ordeal.
Just how many MN state parks are there, you ask? Minnesota has 66 state parks and nine recreation areas.
For traveling completists, that’s a lot of surface area to cover, but for those looking to plant their feet on only the best of the best, we rounded up the ten most popular Minnesota state parks for you to explore so you can better plan your itinerary.
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Map of Top Minnesota State Parks
Here is a hand created map of the best state parks in Minnesota, so you can plan out your visit based on location.
1. Banning State Park
Just a couple of minutes off I-35 is Banning State Park, seventeen miles of wild hiking trails that wind along the Kettle River and majestic sandstone rock formations that lead to the ruins of Banning Sandstone Quarry.
In the Spring, the intrepid kayakers and canoeists flock to the area to dare the turbulent rapids of Mother’s Delight, Blueberry Slide, Hell’s Gate, and Dragon’s Tooth. Come summer, the scenery becomes even more stunning. Take a hike along the Kettle River to witness breathtaking rock formations made vibrant by liverworts, lichens, and mosses.
If you’re looking to dip your toes in history, visit the Sandstone Quarry near Hell’s Gate. Hikers taking the Quarry Loop Trail will witness remnants of a building where sandstone rock was crushed and sorted before being loaded onto railroad cars for transportation.
A handicap-accessible trail leads to the Teacher’s Overlook, where a stunning view of Hell’s Gate Rapids and portions of Mother’s Delight, Blueberry Slide, and Teacher’s Pet may be seen. Learn about the park’s unique geology and wildlife through interpretive panels located along the trail.
PRO TIP: All sites in the Banning State Park Campground are open for reservations from April 1 to mid-November. There are 22-non electric sites, 11 electric sites, and one camper cabin.
The state park also manages the Willow River Campground located within General Andrews State Forest. Most attractions are accessible to the disabled and can accommodate groups of 45 or more.
2. Blue Mounds State Park
Blue Mounds is one of the best MN state parks for rest and relaxation. Located on the tallest hill in Southern Wisconsin and 25 miles west of Madison, Blue Mounds State Park is filled to the brim with surprises (it is the only Wisconsin state park with a swimming pool).
Unique geological features and spectacular views are this park’s main draws, with 1,532 acres of untamed natural beauty.
Travelers flock to Blue Mounds to hike, camp, swim, mountain bike, or go cross-country skiing, but if you’re looking to spend your downtime in restful inactivity, this park offers enough gorgeous views to pair with your reposeful mood.
The Blue Mounds campground has 77 wooded sites open year-round with a rustic and accessible disabled-friendly cabin. Each site in the area houses a fire ring and a picnic table. Water founds and toilets are scattered throughout the campgrounds for your convenience.
PRO TIP: All trails in the area are open for hiking, but only three are designated as hiking only. Among the most notable trails are Flintrock Nature Trail, a beginner-friendly educational trail with interpretive signs that offer insight into the geology in the area, and Single Track Trail, a unique 3-mile mountain bike trail for daring cyclists willing to take on the challenge.
3. Grand Portage State Park
Bordering Canada and home to Minnesota’s tallest waterfall, Grand Portage is one of the most popular MS state parks on this list. While it’s one of the smallest parks in the state, the 120-feet High Falls, which pours unstoppably into Pigeon River is this location’s main draw.
To bypass the falls, American Indians developed an ancient nine-mile trail from Lake Superior named the “The Grand Portage”. Today, travelers can take a half-mile trail and boardwalk to reach the falls overlook area.
If you’re looking to go nature-hopping, Grand Portage is one of the best MN state parks to visit. A visit will have you venturing amidst hardwood-conifer forests and hiking trails that snake along the banks of the Pigeon River.
The breathtaking scenery and unique terrain attract photographers, hikers, and travelers looking to commune with nature.
PRO TIP: Grand Portage is available for day-use only with no options for overnight camping. There are 12 miles of dirt trails with difficulties ranging from easy to expert.
The trails to Pigeon River High Falls are paved and ADA compliant, but they aren’t accessible by wheelchair during the winter months. Because of the state park’s small size, it does not have a campground.
4. Glacial Lakes State Park
Travelers who have visited Glacial Lakes come home with some of the most memorable experiences. When standing on top of the scenic glacial hills and beholding the expansive open prairie, it’s hard not to feel completely taken over by the dramatic scenery.
This sprawling park is located just five miles south of Starbuck, right smack at the crossroads between the central hardwood forests to the east and the original prairie land to the west. The valleys and hills that make up this park are a testament to the impact of glaciers that once studded this area over 10,000 years ago.
During spring through fall, thousands of wildflowers and prairie grasses blanket the entire landscape. Countless species of woodland and prairie birds consider Glacial Lakes their home.
If you’re looking to spend the night, 40 campsites in the park sit comfortably under the shade of towering oak trees.
Swim in the crystal clear waters of the beach located nearby, hike in any of its nature trails, explore the area by boat ramp, rowboat, or canoe, or go horseback riding and cross-country skiing. There’s plenty to do for travelers looking to fill their itinerary.
PRO TIP: Picnickers will find a deck beautifully overlooking Signaless Lake. The park’s council ring offers plenty of naturalist and interpretive programs suitable for all ages.
5. Voyageurs National Park
Voyageurs is one of the best MN state parks to visit if you’re looking for the ultimate adventure. This national park features untouched natural landscapes mostly defined by water, thanks to the confluence of four major lakes on the US/Canadian border.
Most travelers begin by car at the city of International Falls – the preferred launching point to access the area. While the visitor’s center may be accessed by car, the state park’s heart – the Kabetogama Peninsula – may only be reached through a plane, boat, or over the frozen lake during winter.
Voyageurs National Park is located in the southern boreal forest and features a myriad of nature-based activities including fishing, canoeing, hiking the many trails, visiting historical sites like Ellsworth Rock Gardens, and exploring the local flora and fauna.
Travelers looking to make the most of the parks are advised to stay a few nights at any of the state park’s 270 campsites only available by boat travel. You’ll find several public and private campgrounds on the inland shores, but these cater to car camping.
PRO TIP: Located deep within a forest and away from urban pollution affords travelers extremely clear skies. If you’re lucky, you may just witness one of the most amazing starscapes at night – the brilliant aurora borealis.
6. Split Rock Lighthouse State Park
The beauty of Minnesota’s Lake Superior is legendary, and beholding North Shore from the Split Rock Lighthouse State Park is the best way to enjoy this popular attraction.
Named after its most prominent feature – a historic lighthouse that sits atop a rocky bluff – Split Rock offers beautiful trails, cobblestone beaches, cart-in campsites, cross-country skiing, and fishing.
Walk along the pebble beach shoreline to get the best views of the historic lighthouse, or visit the nearby History Center to explore the structure from within.
Once you’re done gawking over the lighthouse and learning about its history, try hiking on the Superior Hiking Trail, which offers hikers and backpackers the full North Shore experience by foot.
Adventurers looking to spend the night may opt for any of the cart-in sights that offer phenomenal views of the lighthouse from a distance. Access to North Shore’s entirety makes Split Rock Lighthouse State Park one of the best MN state parks on this list.
PRO TIP: The History Center offers excellent insights about the lighthouse’s history through exhibits, displays, and video presentations. Take a 20-minute tour to the lightkeeper’s home and outbuildings to learn about their remote way of life. Do note, however, that Split Rock Lighthouse State Park is a separate entity from the Lighthouse.
7. Jay Cooke State Park
Splendid views of the St. Louis River make Jay Cooke one of the best MN state parks on this list. The moment you exit the parking lot, you’re treated to picturesque views of St. Louis River – a tributary for Lake Superior, which lies 20 miles to the north.
Jay Cooke’s rugged land formations make it the perfect playground for bikers, backpackers, horseback riders, skiers, and hikers. Throughout the park, the St. Louis River makes its presence felt through steep valleys, water-eroded gorges, and massive rock formations. The park comes alive in spring and fall where wildflowers bloom and the environs burst with vivid colors.
Jay Cooke has over 50 miles of some of Minnesota’s best hiking trails. Travelers who brave the steep terrain in Carlton Trail will be rewarded with the best views of the park, but you can also walk across the swinging suspension bridge above the raging St. Louis River.
PRO TIP: If you’re seeking wildlife, there’s plenty to see in Jay Cooke. With a thriving ecosystem, Jay Cooke is an integral wintering area for white-tailed deer.
Timber wolf, black bears, and coyotes are the most common among the 46 animal species found in the park. Notable birdlife includes the marsh hawk, pileated woodpecker, and the great blue heron.
8. Whitewater State Park
This popular 2,700-acre park just 25 miles east of Rochester features picture-perfect limestone bluffs and deep ravines, but its flowing waters are its main draw. A true angler’s paradise, the spring-fed Trout Run Creek and Whitewater River thrive with brook, rainbow, and brown trout, drawing in travelers looking to cast a line.
But more than just fishing, Whitewater State Park offers a myriad of outdoor activities, which includes swimming from the beaches of Whitewater River and hiking along the picturesque limestone bluff trails.
Visitors can also scale Chimney Rock for spectacular views of the verdant landscape. For interpretive programs about the natural and human history of the areas, travelers can take a trip to the visitor’s center.
Come winter, there’s even more to do. Visitors can enjoy snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, or spending the night at the group center in rustic cabins (unlike other state parks MN, travelers will be delighted to know that there are zero mosquitoes in Whitewater State Park).
PRO TIP: Whitewater State Park is home to a host of flora and fauna. Over 250 kinds of birds and 50 kinds of mammals use the Whitewater River Valley during different seasons of the year.
Once spring arrives, keep your eyes peeled for the Louisiana waterthrush, an elusive bird that methodically bobs its rear ends while foraging. Around 43% of Minnesota’s rare plants and animals live in the Blufflands that Whitewater State Park is located in.
9. Tettegouche State Park
While it’s a mouthful to say, Tettegouche State Park has something to offer for every type of visitor. Encompassing over 9,000 acres of untouched wilderness, Tettegouche is one of the best MN state parks, and with good reason.
This pristine location is home to several rivers, lakes, and miles of picture-perfect hiking trails. Everywhere you go in Tettegouche, you’ll find sceneries worthy of a postcard.
A hot spot for anyone longing for the outdoors, Tettegouche is studded with jutting cliff sides, pebble beaches, and over 20 miles of hiking trails. You’ll also find designated areas for rock climbing – a unique attraction amidst Minnesota’s State Park system.
There are plenty of spaces to camp out at Tettegouche, so travelers can spend as many days as they want to explore the area. Here, outdoor activities abound: hike up to High Falls (Minnesota’s highest waterfall), head over to any of the area’s six inland lakes, have a picnic at Nipisquit Lake, or go rock climbing at any of the state parks 100 designated wall climbing areas.
Tettegouche is also home to some winged beauties and many other animals, including the white-tail deer, black bear, and the occasional northern flying squirrel.
PRO TIP: The Baptism River is located just a short hike from the Tettegouche visitor’s center. This river flows into Lake Superior, creating a scenic cobblestone sand bar – a great place to dip your toes or go sunbathing during the summer months.
10. Itasca State Park
If you’re looking for one of the best MN state parks, be sure to pay a visit to Itasca. As Minnesota’s oldest state park, Itasca offers more than just spectacular sceneries and outdoor activities, but rich history as well. Established in 1891, Itasca covers 32,000 acres of land with over 100 lakes.
You’ll find old-growth forests, ancient lakes, towering pines, and 49 miles of hiking trails in Itasca. Itasca is also famous for offering access to the headwaters of the Mississippi River.
Sit back and relax with a cup of coffee at the historic Douglas Lodge or spy on a host of birdlife, including loons, cormorants, grebes, hummingbirds, finches, and warblers. Take a journey across Wilderness Drive and admire tall north woods trees, or take a hike on the scenic Bohall and Nicollet Trail.
If you grab a map of Minnesota state parks, you’ll see Itasca’s longstanding relationship with the Gulf of Mexico. This Minnesota state park offers you a chance to stand at the Headwaters of the Mighty Mississippi – an incredible 2,318-mile river that runs to the Gulf of Mexico.
PRO TIP: One of the best ways to explore Itasca is on a boat tour. Here, local naturalists may guide you through the Itasca’s local flora and fauna and walk you through a history of Native Americans and how logging is essential to the area.