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Split Rock Lighthouse State Park

5 Best National and State Parks in Minnesota (2024)

Full of lakes and tallgrass prairies, Minnesota is popularly known as the state with 10,000 lakes. Another striking feature of Minnesota is that it is home to 67 state parks and one national park. There is a unique range of landscapes that can be found throughout the state. Regardless of whether you are exploring the Twin Cities, Rochester, or you are up near the North Shore and Duluth, you will always be close to enjoying experiences like hiking to a waterfall, climbing a fire tower, or just coming across a herd of buffaloes minding their own business.

Throughout the year and with every season, the stunning natural spaces of Minnesota have lots to offer, with unique opportunities to explore. No matter what you enjoy doing outdoors, you will find a state park or nature preserve in Minnesota that will grab your attention. Visitors to these beautiful state and national parks can choose to indulge in activities like mountain biking, hiking, camping, hunting, horseback riding, fishing, canoe, kayaking, and boating.

5 Best National and State Parks in Minnesota

With over 227,000 acres of parks and recreation areas to choose from, here are some of the best state and national parks to explore in Minnesota.

1. Voyageurs National Park

The Voyageurs National Park is one of the most famous national parks in the Midwest. The park was named after the French-Canadian fur traders that used to frequent this area in the past. The park is primarily made up of rugged terrain, but it is mainly defined by water. The majority of the park is made from the confluence of four major lakes on the US-Canadian border.

Set against the backdrop of a stunning southern boreal forest, the park is spread over 218,000 acres. Established in 1975, the park welcomes 250,000 visitors every year, all of whom flock to the park to engage in the various outdoor activities available here. There are 282 camping sites that are perfect for RV, tent, or even houseboat camping, depending on your personal preference. You will find many anglers flocking to this park to fish for bluegill, largemouth bass, lake trout, and many other species of fish. You will find that nearly all of the lakes in the park are open for fishing. Some of the other activities you can enjoy while here include boating, hiking, canoeing, kayaking, and wildlife viewing. This is also a great spot for bird watching. There are over 50 miles of trails available that let you explore the park’s interior peninsula and backcountry.

It is possible to reach the visitor’s center of the park by car, but the Kabetogama Peninsula and the heart of this national park can only be accessed by boat, plane, or by crossing the frozen lake during the winter months. Many visitors often opt to stay at the city of International Falls to make it their launching point for exploring this national park.

There are several historical sites located here, including the Ellsworth Rock Gardens that are well worth exploring, along with the many trails and ecosystems that can be found throughout the park.

To make the most of your trip, it is best to spend a couple of nights at one of the campsites here, which can only be accessed through boat travel. There are also several public and private campgrounds located on the inland shores of the park that cater to car camping.

If you have a few extra days to spare, take the time to explore the many shorelines, smaller lakes, and inlets of the Voyageurs. This national park is also one of the best places to catch some of the most brilliant starscapes in the US, including the stunning full spectrum of the aurora borealis.

2. Split Rock Lighthouse State Park

If you are visiting Minnesota for the first time, you should know that the North Shore of Lake Superior provides one of the most scenic destinations in the state. The open-water beauty of this landscape is further enhanced by the stunning Split Rock Lighthouse State Park.

Named after the prominent feature of Split Rock, this state park is famous for the historic lighthouse that is located on top of a rocky bluff and attracts visitors from all over the place. The pebbled beach shoreline nearby is the perfect place to unwind and admire the full view of the lighthouse. Owing to the adjacent historic center, you will get to find out about the historic structure from within as well.

Apart from admiring the stunning lighthouse, you can also explore hiking on the Superior Hiking Trail, which is the best way to explore the entire North Shore on foot. You will find many hikers and backpackers along the trails. If you want to spend the night, there are some cart-in sights that provide the best views of the lighthouse in the distance. These stunning views and access to the rest of the North Shore have made the Split Rock Lighthouse State Park one of the most sought-after camping grounds in Minnesota.

3. Jay Cooke State Park

The Jay Cooke State Park stands out for its dramatic features along the mesmerizing St. Louis River – and what’s more, this breathtaking experience begins right from the parking lot. Functioning as a tributary for the majestic Lake Superior, which is located just 20 miles to the north from the park, the St. Louis River exposes the bedrock while defining most of the rugged environment that this state park is known for.

One of the most striking sights to see here are the churning waters of the St. Louis River as it makes its way across the landscape. With over 50 miles of hiking trails spread throughout the park, you will find many outlets where you can explore the park as you want. The park is known to be home to some of the best hiking trails in Minnesota. These routes lead to backcountry campsites and provide many stunning views of the St. Louis River while also connecting you with the North Country National Scenic Trail, which is a sight to behold in itself.

Not to forget the 3.5 miles looped Silver Creek Trail, which is a must-visit when you are at the Jay Cooke State Park. The trail takes you over the Swinging Bridge at the parking lot and shows you some of the best views of the Silver Creek and St. Louis River. The Carlton Trail also offers some of the best views of the steep terrain of the park, along with a high vantage point.

4. Whitewater State Park

Located on the banks of the cascading Whitewater River in southern Minnesota is the beautiful Whitewater State Park. Spread over 27,000 acres of space, the Whitewater State Park in Minnesota provides many outdoor adventure opportunities to visitors, and all this is within just 25 miles east of the town of Rochester. Some of the popular things to indulge in here at the park include casting a line in the Trout Run Creek, exploring the many limestone bluff hiking trails that can be found throughout the park, or just swimming and relaxing on the sandy beaches of the Whitewater River.

Camping is another popular activity here at the Whitewater State Park, and there are hundreds of drive-in sites as well as four camper cabins available at the park. A great feature of the park is that you won’t find as many mosquitoes here as in some of the other state parks, which has made it a popular place to visit. Further, the stunning scenery, such as the prominent Chimney Rock, provides hikers and other visitors with a bird’s eye view of the stunning landscape. Some of the other famous vistas to check out at the Whitewater State Park include Signal Point and Eagle Point.

5. Great River Bluffs State Park

Overlooking the great banks of the Mississippi River, Great River Bluffs State Park is one of the most scenic parks of Minnesota at any given time of the year. However, autumn is perhaps the best time to visit this park as the many blending shades of fall paint a riot of colors throughout the river valley.

There are over six miles of trails to explore at this park, and the most popular one out of them is the King’s Bluff Nature Trail, which provides the best views of the surrounding landscape. There is a self-guided tour of the King’s Bluff Nature Trail that provides great insight and knowledge on the surrounding woodland landscape and prairie area. Many scenic viewpoints are spread out through the park, scattered across the half-dome bluffs and sheer rock cliffs that define the landscape of the park.

It is a great idea to bring binoculars here to catch a sight of the active avian wildlife in the area. This is a popular bird-watching spot, and it is known for spotting the red-tailed hawks along with over 100 other species of birds.

Apart from these, there are several other state parks that are well worth visiting when you are in Minnesota. These include:

  • Tettegouche State Park
  • Grand Portage State Park
  • Banning State Park
  • Itasca State Park
  • Minneopa State Park
  • Blue Mounds State Park
  • Soudan Underground Mine State Park
  • William O’Brien State Park
  • Bear Head Lake State Park

So come prepared with your outdoor gear if you want to explore all the beauty of the state and national parks in Minnesota.

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