here’s my definitive (sort of) list of the top 10 state parks in minnesota. after a summer of driving and traipsing around the state to visit 72 state parks and recreation areas, this list is the result of what parks i would visit again given the chance.
i knew that not all parks would be my cup of tea, and not all parks would be a destination. but here’s what i do know: there is a park in close proximity to every minnesotan. there’s no excuse to not visit a state park. however, if you want to make a park in minnesota a destination? here are the 10 parks i recommend.
EDIT: apparently i need to clarify some stuff. i enjoyed the north shore. i consider jay cooke to be a part of the north shore parks. but i guess it is not because the big lake is not visible. but here’s my thing: EVERYONE LIKES THE NORTH SHORE. everyone GOES to the north shore. the parks there are visited SO MUCH. they are not in danger of losing funding or support. so i include jay cooke as my favorite “north shore” park even though no big lake. and i include judge cr magney on my bonus national monument park. if i could place grand portage national monument on my state park list? it would probably be #3 or #4. But here’s the thing: you need to GET OUT AND LOOK AT THE REST OF THE STATE. it is FANTASTIC, this state. sure, the north shore is great, but so is itasca and hayes lake and whitewater and BLUE MOUNDS. GET OUT THERE!
itasca was the first state park and is considered the crown jewel of the parks system. it’s the 3rd-most-visited park in the state (behind snelling and gooseberry) and is the 2nd largest (just closely following st. croix at 32,700 acres), located up by park rapids (it’s about 20 minutes from bemidji). it houses the headwaters of the mississippi and the biggest red pine in the state.
it’s also got two campgrounds, several cabins, a lodge, a restaurant, an interpretive center, ANOTHER interpretive center, two gift shops, the best CCC built structure, a wilderness drive, bike paths, hiking paths, several historical sites, and many lakes where you can spend some time.
two anecdotes: 1) i passed through from bemidji to home and only planned on spending 30-45 minutes at the park. i ended up spending 2 hours there. and this was a drizzly gross day in july; 2) right after visiting, a coworker of mine stopped by and asked me about itasca and if he should take his visiting parents there. i said absolutely, though he wasn’t convinced. after he got back, he came to my office and raved about the park. next time his parents visit, they want to spend a week there.
so NO JOKE when i say that itasca is the real deal. i convinced my entire family to spend 5 days there next june. that’s how much i am enamored by itasca.
it’s number one in my book. 😍
2. blue mounds
here’s why i like blue mounds state park, even though the average person will take a look at its location (far SW corner of the state) and wonder why this is worth the trip.
take a look at that picture: take in the wide blue sky, the waving grass, and imagine that a buffalo herd is wandering across the prairie. (blue mounds has a bison herd but they weren’t wandering close to the fence this day.) to me, blue mounds screams: GO WEST GO WEST GO WEST and i want to load up my car on an early june morning and set out across south dakota, across the prairie, to the hills, to the rough red buttes, to the mountains.
minnesota is in a great place of the country. while non-mountainous, it houses three (perhaps four) distinct biomes, highly unlikely for a non-mountainous state. it’s also home to three watersheds, also unlikely for non-mountainous states. so while a geological wonder, most people just see boring corn fields or monotonous tree-lined roads.
get out and visit blue mounds because it’s a great example of the diversity this state has to offer. the rangers are harboring a patch of dirt that grows native prairie grasses, which supports the bison herd that lives in the park. the location, buffalo ridge, also shows us the varied altitude within the prairie, giving way to lower areas on one end of the park to wide vistas.
go west without even leaving the state.
3. jay cooke
and in stark contrast the wide-open spaces of blue mounds, we hop to the northeastern-ish area of the state, with tall pines and slate rock.
most people gravitate to gooseberry, but i would offer that jay cooke is the far superior (ha) park. just south of duluth, it’s where the st louis river is getting close to its final destination in lake superior. with the lack of shrubbery and grass due to slate, it’s a fascinating landscape (all up the north shore, really). the st. louis rolls its way around islands and over rocks, which seem to be the perfect location for a pine to take hold.
i can speak to the campground, as jay cooke was one of four parks i camped in over the summer. the spot was spacious – more than enough for two tents – and i was able to put my hammock up between two trees. the trail to the office and lodge was lined with tall pines, which smelled great, and the park had programming every night (the night lori and i were there, it was hoots and howls or something like that).
jay cooke is right outside carlton, which is a nice little town with a lot of historical significance once you dig in a little. the restaurant scene was surprisingly nice, and the drive on 210 to duluth from jay cooke was EXCELLENT.
i have to admit – i visited william o’brien park in early may when the trees were barely starting to bud and the ice was JUST out. when i stopped at WOB, it was starting to rain and get gloomy. i wasn’t sure how i was going to like this park.
BUT, despite the gloom and rain and late spring, i would go back to WOB in a heartbeat. in fact, any of the parks on the st. croix river (see below), and just the drive along the st croix river, are worth the visit. WOB is in a very excellent location in the state, where the deciduous forest meets the coniferous forest, so you have pines and maples hanging out together in this picturesque location along a rumbling little river on its way to the mississippi.
here’s how i knew WOB is a winner: it was raining and i barely got out of the car so i could get the shot above, but even just a short car tour through the park and i was sold. in fact, i might head back there in the next couple weeks so i can experience the park again when it’s not so gloomy
interstate is on my list for many of the same reasons that william o’brien is on my list, with one distinct point: the park is located directly on the st. croix river, giving you excellent locations for camping and listening to the water sliding past. the river valley and bluffs of the st croix are gorgeous, and although this park is small and bordered by busy hwy 95, it’s worth the visit and the stay.
i stopped at interstate the same day as WOB, so i know i’m missing out on a lot of loveliness that this park has to offer. another thing i am doing next time i visit is stopping over to the wisconsin side (hence the name of the park), which offers the same sort of setting with much more park. the minnesota side makes up a small part of the interstate park.
interstate is also close to taylor’s falls, a quaint little historical village on the st croix.
if you’ve ever taken the drive from the cities to winona or la crosse, you know the river road is one drive that you want to take at least once. frontenac seems like it’s a park that might seem a little boring at first: you drive through old frontenac, then up a slightly barren bluff to get to the top. but once you’re there? you’ve made it.
the chippewa river in wisconsin, one of the hardest working rivers in the country, dumps into the mississippi just northwest of wabasha, creating a delta that makes up lake pepin. yep, lake pepin is not the result of a man-made dam but a naturally made delta by a river that’s outputting so much water into the mighty mississippi that it creates a lake.
and frontenac state park gives you a giant view of the widening of the river, letting you take in the bluffs and barges and buoys. there is a series of wooden stairs that take you down to the riverfront, switchbacking their way down the bluff through the trees and foliage with the occasional deck overlooking the river with informational placards and benches.
while you’re there, make sure to take a quick tour through old frontenac, a very historical town with old plantation style houses that line the river to take in the view. the whole village is placed on the national register of historical places. i knew i was in for a treat when there was a horse paddock in the middle of town 🙂
7. zippel bay
from the highly populated area of the metro and southern part of the state to the far north – zippel bay is the most northerly state park in minnesota, located on the southeast side of lake of the woods. (garden island recreation area is more north, but it’s located on an island in the middle of lake of the woods 30 miles from shore.)
white sand beaches and the shorter, less dense aspen of the area give this park an almost otherworldly feel. i stood on the edge of the lake and felt like i was on the edge of the world (well, edge of the country, that’s for sure). this lake has a different feel from the much larger lake superior, which is lined with tall pines and cliffs. and it was sparse – i was one of 3 people in the park and felt very much isolated, not only from people but from civilization. as i slept in my tent that night, i heard the waves crashing on the shore – a half a mile away.
it might seem like this park is almost too eery to recommend, but i highly recommend this park, if only to take the time to separate yourself from civilization. like i said, i heard the waves a half a mile away. it is never that silent in my neck of the woods. it’s rare that anyone experiences that kind of silence or darkness. the park is beautiful and awe-inspiring and eery and invigorating.
8. hayes lake
i almost didn’t include hayes lake in my top ten. in fact i’m still hesitant to add it, but it’s in a part of the state that people rarely visit and i think it’s important to expand our horizons.
also, it’s one example i’ve found of a man-made dam doing a lot of good for the environment. i’ve learned a lot about a lot of things while on my parks visits: the dakota resettlement saga; the oak savannah; the ecology, topography, and geology of minnesota; preservation and conservation efforts; and man-made efforts to contain rivers. in most cases, i’m pro-river, pro-environment. get rid of the control of the rivers and let water do its thing.
but hayes lake is in the middle of a lake droughted area that has a lot of wildlife passing through. so the addition of hayes lake in the early 1900s was a boon for the wildlife in the area, which you can see in the photo above. when i visited, there were a ton of fowl on the water, just paddling along.
the park is also quintessential north – the blue, crisp lake and green, tall pines.
if i hadn’t lived 10 miles from whitewater for three years, i might not have placed it on this list. but since i knew more about whitewater than i would’ve with one visit, i would recommend a visit because of the park as well as the area of the state. the whitewater river flows through the park, creating the valley and large bluffs surrounding the park. there are several trails throughout, awesome trout fishing, and a fire tower if you feel adventurous. there’s a small “lake” in the park (i call it a pond where i come from), along with several picnic pavilions and picnic tables. it’s a great place to take a day trip. st. charles has a small bike shop for those who need to get a tune-up before heading out on the trails.
i’ll also give a shoutout to the bluff country of southeastern minnesota while i’m here: lanesboro, rushford, preston. the area is fantastic sight seeing, and if you’re a biking buff, check out the root river trail.
10. glacial lakes
number 10 was hard. i was wavering between sibley state park, banning, and glacial lakes, and in the end glacial lakes won out because of the varied area surrounding the parks. there’s a lake with cabins available to stay in and camping, as well as boating and swimming.
but i think the topography of the area is really interesting. it’s where the glaciers left gravel deposits as well divots, so there are hills and lakes throughout. it’s also technically in the prairie, and there is preserved prairie within the park with native grasses and flowers, but the area also boasts some hardwood forest, so you can see how the hardwood forests have encroached a bit on the prairie.*
BONUS: grand portage national monument (and judge cr magney)
the farther north you get in minnesota, the more isolated you feel and fewer people you see. on the north shore jaunt, i stayed at judge cr magney park (home of devil’s kettle falls), where the light pollution is so small that you could see the milky way as soon as you stepped outdoors.
the drive there turns out to be one of the most breathtaking in the state, with the road curving up large hills through the pines and the expanse of the lake to the east. at this point, the lake no longer crashes against tall slate rock outcropping but laps at shoreline. as you pull into the national monument area with grand portage bay opening up below you, you can see why this was a popular place for furtraders and native americans coming and going in their large canoes.
unfortunately for lori and me, we got there too late for the visitor’s center, but we scoped out the historical displays and stood on the long dock. it’s not hard to imagine the haven this would have been.
every park i went to had something going for it. there was always something that was interesting, whether it was geological, topographical, the types of trees, water feature, etc. my top ten may not necessarily be anyone else’s top ten, especially since i confess to be a true trees and lakes kind of girl (and a person who appreciates south dakota).
what is great and what i encourage you to do is visit all the parks and find out for yourself what you like, whether it’s a refuge of a lake amid flat fields of corn (split rock creek state park, kilen woods), cascades (anything on the north shore), bluffs and river valleys (great river bluffs, beaver creek valley), or exploring the boglands (big bog – which is super interesting!).
and let’s take one paragraph to give some extreme props to the civilian conservation corps – the CCC. many, many of the parks i visited had some construction done by the CCC – whether it was the swinging bridge at jay cooke, the lodge and cabins at itasca, the water tower at lake bronson. your short history lesson: the CCC was a work relief program put in place 1933-1942 in efforts to get the economy going again (great depression, you know). it provided jobs to 3 million young men, who earned $30/month ($25 of which was sent home). the CCC planted 3 BILLION trees after conservationists pointed out that the loggers hadn’t planted any replacement trees. they construction trails, lodges, building, facilities in 800+ parks across the country. they created state parks, updated forest fighting methods, and did some public building and roadway construction. it was so popular that 82% of the public agreed with how it was working (can’t imagine that today!). so the style of the buildings you see in the state parks? that’s due to the CCC.
so. minnesota’s tourism office isn’t wrong one bit. explore minnesota. it’s really, really quite the mixture of greatness.
RUNNERS UP: here are the parks that i think you could also visit but are in the same area as other parks that i place higher on the list:
- anything on the north shore (hm… maybe cascade is the best one that’s not gooseberry)
- beaver creek
- st. croix
- lake bemidji
- maple river
- BIG BOG
- lac qui parle for the biggest cottonwood in the state
- crow wing
- great river bluffs
*you see a lot of oaks in this transition area. this is the oak savannah, and it used to be primarily oak trees and prairieland. oak bark is especially resilient to fire due to its thickness, so those trees stood after the other hardwoods succumbed to FLAME when prairie fires came through. after settlers started pouring in and putting out the prairie fires, the oak savannas disappeared and the hardwood forest started encroaching on the prairie.