Best Picks: Minnesota State Parks
By Thomas O'Sullivan
Ask a Minnesotan to name a favorite state park, and youll probably get a half-dozen answers—a favorite for camping, another for skiing, one for birdwatching during the spring migration, another for fishing.
With 66 parks drawing more than 8.5 million visitors in a year, its unlikely that any group of Minnesotans would agree on the "best" state park. Each park has its own natural setting, human history, and special programs. Heres an unofficial list of popular activities and some of the best parks for enjoying them, based on tips from birdwatchers, bicyclists, botanists, and other specialists. Wherever you go, be sure to talk to the park manager or naturalist for the inside scoop on park resources.
Itasca State Park offers drive-in sites with hookups for motor homes, cart-in sites off the beaten path, and backpack camping deep in the woods.
Wild River and St. Croix state parks include canoe-in camping sites on the St. Croix and Kettle rivers.
Split Rock Lighthouse State Park rewards campers who haul in their gear on the parks two-wheeled carts: They get privacy and superb Lake Superior views.
Lake Maria State Park has three hike-in log cabins set on lakes in a peaceful stand of hardwoods.
Whitewater State Park has 29 buildings as well as dams, bridges, and other structures built in the rustic style of the 1930s.
Charles A. Lindbergh State Parks granite water tower and log picnic shelter are important examples of Works Progress Administration history.
Scenic State Parks shelter pavilion is a log-cabin masterpiece with a great stone fireplace and the original log-and-branch furniture.
Gooseberry Falls State Park features a spacious new visitor center built with local materials to blend into the landscape. It is a worthy addition to the Civilian Conservation Corps 1930s granite refectory, water tower, bridge abutments, and Lakeview shelter.
Itasca State Park has the Jacob V. Brower Visitor Center, the newest landmark in a park whose historic district includes dozens of rustic-style buildings.
History and Archaeology
Itasca State Parks bison kill site reveals how Indian people hunted 8,000 years ago.
Split Rock Lighthouse State Park tells the story of Lake Superior shipping through the lighthouse complex operated by the Minnesota Historical Society.
Upper Sioux Agency and Fort Ridgely state parks along the Minnesota River preserve archaeological sites and historic buildings from the United States--Dakota conflict of 1862.
Hill Annex Mine State Park features tours of a vast open-pit iron mine.
Soudan Underground Mine State Park conducts tours half a mile into the earth.
Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park includes a restored 19th century village with a well-stocked general store and working garden, all operated by the Minnesota Historical Society.
Old Mill State Park has traces of the ox cart route known as the Pembina Trail, as well as a steam-powered mill that still grinds flour each summer.
Crow Wing State Park was the site of a frontier town in the 1850s. You can visit a restored Greek Revival house, walk a stretch of historic ox cart trail, and learn about the history of the old town of Crow Wing along an interpretive boardwalk by the Mississippi.
Mille Lacs Kathio State Parks 20 known archaeological sites have earned it the designation of National Historic Landmark District. The visitor center and interpretive tours show how archaeology has revealed 9,000 years of human interaction with the landscape.
Whitewater State Park has spring-fed streams and scenic limestone cliffs, a perfect place for trout fishing, summer and winter.
Father Hennepin State Park has both boat ramp and pier access to Mille Lacs, one of the largest and most popular fishing lakes in the state.
Temperance River State Park on the North Shore features spectacular trout and salmon fishing.
Big Stone Lake State Park on the South Dakota border has a 30-mile-long lake, a favorite spot for pursuing walleyes, northerns, and bluegills.
Glendalough State Park offers two lakes and two distinct fishing experiences: one for your motorboat and the other, a motor-free "heritage fishery" for canoe or rowboat.
Nerstrand Big Woods State Park is the home of the endangered Minnesota dwarf trout-lily. Each spring, hepatica, trillium, and Dutchmans breeches cover hillsides and streambanks.
Carley State Park has carpets of Virginia bluebells in spring.
Blue Mounds State Park blooms with prairie plants such as prickly pear cactus and pasqueflower.
Gooseberry Falls State Park is bright with wildflowers all season, from the wild strawberries of May to fireweed in late summer.
Itasca State Park hosts a July butterfly count and guided hikes.
Lake Bemidji State Park boasts an abundance of butterflies from late June into September.
Buffalo River State Park is home to 250 species of wildflowers and grasses that attract butterflies, including the rare Dakota skipper.
Glacial Lakes State Park abounds with native prairie wildflowers that attract butterflies.
Gooseberry Falls State Park is alive with butterflies all summer, with a long stretch of the Superior Hiking Trail to bring watchers to their varied habitats.
Frontenac State Park draws more than 260 species of birds to its Lake Pepin shoreline, bottomlands, and forests. Spring migration is a great time to see birds ranging from bald eagles to warblers.
Cascade River State Park affords views of tens of thousands of hawks migrating along Lake Superior each fall.
Blue Mounds State Park is the prairie home of the seldom-seen blue grosbeak.
Sibley State Park is a great place to see prairie birds such as bobolinks, as well as pelicans, loons, and bluebirds.
Beaver Creek Valley State Park shelters the Acadian flycatcher.
Great River Bluffs State Park harbors the endangered Henslows sparrow.
Itasca State Park is home to the black-backed woodpecker, as well as owls, loons, and warblers.
Interstate State Park has many climbing routes on the cliffs along the St. Croix River, with plenty of friendly climbers ready to share tips and stories.
Blue Mounds State Park lures climbers to the prairie to tackle the quartzite cliff that gives the park its name.
Tettegouche State Park on the North Shore offers experienced climbers the exhilarating challenge of 200-foot cliffs.
Temperance River State Park boasts Carlton Peak in the Sawtooth Mountains.
These are the only state parks that allow rock climbing. All require an annual climbing permit—available free at each park office.
Hayes Lake State Park has seven miles of horse trails that join more than 110 miles of roads in the adjacent Beltrami Island State Forest.
Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park has 15 miles of trails, which wind along the ridges and through the valleys of southeastern Minnesota.
Glacial Lakes State Park has rolling prairies and open skies that invite riders to 11 miles of horseback trails in a landscape as wide as a western movie.
Camden and Lake Louise state parks offer 10 miles of trails each. Like Forestville/Mystery Cave and Glacial Lakes, they have horse camps designed for riders and their mounts.
Itasca State Park has a lakeside beach within sight of the Mississippi headwaters.
Zippel Bay State Park has a long, white sand beach on Lake of the Woods.
McCarthy Beach State Park features a beach along Sturgeon Lake, marking the southernmost point once reached by a 1,000-foot-tall glacier.
Flandrau, Whitewater, William OBrien, and Mille Lacs Kathio state parks all feature human-made, sand-bottom swimming areas, which are perfect for family outings.
Fort Snelling State Parks paved trails carry bikers along the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers and connect to the Twin Cities 53-mile Grand Rounds Scenic Byway.
Sakatah Lake State Park is midway on the Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail, between Faribault and Mankato.
Camden State Park has more than four miles of trails for mountain bikers. Youll also find five miles for mountain bikers at Lake Bronson State Park and 10 miles at Savanna Portage State Park.
Jay Cooke State Park has eight miles of paved bikeways and 13 miles of mountain-bike trails, plus access to the paved 70-mile-long Willard Munger State Trail from Hinckley to Duluth.
Split Rock Lighthouse State Park features six miles of mountain-bike trails and also has the first segment of the new Gitchi Gami State Trail, which will ultimately run from Duluth to Grand Portage.
Sibley State Park offers a panoramic view across miles of prairie and forest from 150-foot Mount Tom.
Cascade River State Park includes dramatic sights such as the waterfalls along the Cascade River gorge and sweeping views of Lake Superior and the North Shore highlands.
Tettegouche State Park also features spectacular views of Lake Superior.
St. Croix State Park has overlooks to the Kettle and St. Croix rivers, and a fire tower to climb for a birds-eye view.
Great River Bluffs State Park provides perfect perches for viewing birds and barges along the Mississippi River.
George H. Crosby Manitou State Park is a back-country hikers paradise of waterfalls and wildlife.
Buffalo River State Park has 12 miles of trails winding through wildflower meadows and along tree-lined river bottoms.
Afton State Park boasts 20 miles of hiking trails through hardwood forests, oak savannas, and restored prairies.
Lake Bemidji State Park includes a short hike into a conifer bog on a boardwalk that affords a close-up view of orchids and pitcher-plants in their own fragile habitat.
Blue Mounds State Park shows the prairie at its best along the loop trail at dusk.
Scenic State Park offers a guest house that accommodates eight to 10 people in comfort, with a trail at your doorstep and a canoe and rowboat at your disposal.
Tettegouche State Park is home to the historic Tettegouche Camp, a hike-in cabin complex on Mic Mac Lake.
Itasca State Parks Douglas Lodge has welcomed visitors since 1905; today it features air-conditioned rooms and a restaurant overlooking Lake Itasca. The Mississippi Headwaters Hostel, another historic building, offers communal lodging as well as private rooms. For reservations, call Hostelling International, 218-266-3415. For other camping and lodging reservations, see listings on page 63.
Thomas O'Sullivan is a St. Paul writer who enjoys hiking, bicycling, camping, and presenting slide shows on art and history in Minnesota state parks.
The author wishes to acknowledge the expert assistance of Carolyn Anderson, Kim Eckert, Dorian Grilley, Michael Koop, Larry Long, Stephen Regenold, Stan Tekiela, John Weber, Larry Weber, and many DNR staff members in preparing this article.