The great heritage of Minnesota’s state park system begins at the source of America’s greatest river. Itasca State Park, home to the headwaters of the Mississippi River, was established in 1891, launching what is now the second-oldest state park system in the nation. The system has continued to grow, and Itasca remains one of the most beloved of the state’s 67 state parks (76 if you count state recreation areas).
Managed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the parks cover more than 200,000 acres spanning every corner of the state, welcoming visitors to explore the full diversity of Minnesota’s natural environment. Most are on lakes or rivers with opportunities for boating, canoeing, fishing and swimming, with hundreds of miles of hiking trails through forests, bogs, grasslands, and along riverbanks and lakeshores.
No license is required for fishing in a state park, as long as the angler has a vehicle permit to enter the park (except for a small percentage of waters requiring a trout stamp). One-day vehicle permits are $5, or pay $25 for a year of unlimited access.
Camping facilities are as numerous as they are diverse. Most are semi-modern, with showers and indoor toilets, with both simple tent sites and others providing water and electric hookups for recreational vehicles. For those who prefer a more secluded camping experience, many parks offer primitive and hike-in sites. Many also have large group camps, available for family reunions and other gatherings.
Below are just a handful of Minnesota’s popular state parks. For a full list, or to make reservations, visit mndnr.gov/parks.
Itasca State Park’s 32,800 acres make it the second-largest in the state, just after St. Croix State Park. The headwaters themselves are a top attraction, marked by a signpost where generations of visitors have walked across the Mississippi with their children, and their children’s children.
In addition to more than 200 individual campsites and several large group camps, Itasca is home to Douglas Lodge, the only full-service lodge and restaurant in a Minnesota state park. Built in 1905, the historic log building features a spacious lobby and stone fireplace, as well as lodging in suites and cabins in the lodge building and nearby. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner daily throughout the spring and summer.
In fact, Itasca and many other state parks are filled with historic log and stone buildings, mostly built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Works Progress Administration in the 1930s and ’40s.
Docked near the lodge, the Chester Charles II excursion boat takes visitors on a two-hour, 10-mile narrated history and wildlife tour of Lake Itasca. Guides share stories of the discovery of the headwaters in 1832, as well as the Indian and logging history of the area. Dinner and music are offered on some cruises. Eagles, loons and a wide variety of wildlife are often spotted on the tour, and throughout the park.
Itasca has nearly 50 miles of hiking trails through the most scenic parts of the park, and 16 miles of paved bike trails, including six miles along the lake between the lodge and the headwaters. Bikes, canoes, boats and pontoons are available for rent.
Jay Cooke State Park, about 20 miles southwest of Duluth, follows the rugged, rocky St. Louis River, which thunders when the water is high. Whitewater rafting trips are hosted on the river in nearby Carlton, and the University of Minnesota Duluth runs the Kayak and Canoe Institute just outside the park boundaries, with classes open to the public.
Within the park, 50 miles of hiking trails run along and near the river. A great way to start is by crossing the swinging suspension footbridge over the river gorge, right behind the River Inn Interpretive Center, which offers naturalist-guided outings. There are also eight miles of paved bike trails and nine miles of mountain bike trails.
The park has 82 semi-modern campsites, 21 with electric hookups, and five rustic, one-room camper cabins with electricity. Visitors should enter through the west entrance in Carlton (the east entrance was closed after a flood in 2012).
Lake Carlos State Park, 10 miles north of Alexandria, lies on a transitional zone between prairies to the southwest and pine forests to the northeast. It offers 1,154 acres of hills dotted with maple and basswood forest, marshes and tamarack bogs, wrapped around a deep, clear lake with good fishing for walleye, northern pike, bass and crappie.
Sightings of deer, beavers, loons, herons and dozens of other species are common, on the lake or along the park’s 14 miles of hiking trails and nine miles of horseback riding trails.
Two campgrounds offer 121 individual sites, 81 with electric hookups, as well as four camper cabins.
Bear Head Lake State Park, 20 miles southwest of Ely, won an online contest in 2010 as “America’s Favorite Park,” capturing nearly a third of the 5.7 million votes. (A popular webcam of a black bear and cubs contributed to the victory.) Near the 2 million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the park offers a unique opportunity to experience a remote, Boundary Waters-like experience, but with drive-in sites, hot showers and all the amenities of a modern campground.
Bear Head Lake is quiet and beautiful, great for canoeing, but also open to motorboats, with a 10 mph speed limit. Canoe rentals are available, and there’s an access for those with their own boats. Two lovely smaller lakes within the park are managed for brook trout.
The park has 73 drive-in campsites, 45 with electric hookups, as well as several remote hike-in sites and one accessible only by boat. Several trails loop through particularly gorgeous country, some of it fairly rugged. One of the trails intersects with the 165-mile Taconite Trail between Grand Rapids and Ely.
Blue Mounds State Park, in the southwest corner of the state, is distinguished by its 1,500 acres of ancient prairie, and a small but distinctive herd of bison. While the large majority of bison nationwide are descended from cattle/bison hybrids bred by western ranchers after the near-extinction of the wild species in the 19th century, this herd has been tested and found to be one of the purest surviving strains of wild bison. The park also has a population of coyotes whose howls can occasionally be heard, as well as deer and a wide variety of prairie-loving birds.
The prairie sits on top of a massive, dramatic cliff of Sioux quartzite, 1.5 miles long and 90 feet high in spots. This remnant of the vast prairies that once covered the region survived largely because the quartzite made the grasslands too difficult to plow.
Blue Mounds has 71 drive-in campsites, 40 with electric, and 14 more remote cart-in campsites, plus a canvas tipi that sleeps six. In the area, consider visiting Pipestone National Monument 30 miles to the north, where American Indians continue to quarry red pipestone and carve it into ceremonial pipes, as they have for many centuries.
William O’Brien State Park, less than an hour northeast of Minneapolis-St. Paul near Marine on St. Croix, offers great canoeing on the St. Croix River, and fishing for northern pike, walleye, bass and brook trout. Canoe and kayak rentals are available. Day visitors can enjoy the large picnic grounds with a shelter, and a swimming beach at Lake Alice.
Sixteen miles of hiking trails wind along the river and through the river’s floodplain, oak savanna, upland prairie and wetlands. Wildlife is plentiful, including raccoons, mink, beavers, woodchucks, deer, foxes, bald eagles, hawks, herons and many more.
Campers can choose from 114 drive-in sites, 71 with electric hookups, as well as four camper cabins.