Happy Trails: The 10 best (mostly easy) hikes in the state
By Greg Breining
Hiking is a great way to slow down to appreciate some of the diversity Minnesota offers—craggy bluffs overlooking Lake Superior, rushing streams hidden in the north woods, ruins of prairie homesteads. So lace up those lightweight hiking shoes, grab some bug spray, and pack a granola bar or two. We’ll meet you at the trailhead.
1. Eagle Mountain
The term “mountain” may be a bit hyperbolic, but at 2,301 feet above sea level, Eagle Mountain is indeed the highest point in the state. For that fact alone, it’s worth a hike. From the trailhead, the route climbs gradually for the first three miles. But in the last mile, as the trail leaves the shore of Whale Lake, the trail rises 400 feet over boulders and tree roots to the peak. The rewards are excellent vistas from the flat-ridge top of the surrounding terrain, including the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. A brass survey marker on the west side of the granite outcrop pinpoints Minnesota’s highest spot.
Distance: 7 miles round-trip Time: 4 hours
Difficulty: Moderate Elevation change: 554 feet
Trailhead: From Highway 61 near Lutsen, take County Road 4 (Caribou Trail) north until it ends at Forest Road 170. Turn right, drive east 3.5 miles to trailhead on the left. Because Eagle Mountain is in the Boundary Waters, you’ll need to fill out a form for a day permit at the parking lot.
Contact: Superior National Forest, Tofte Ranger District, 218-663-8060, or Gunflint Ranger District, 218-387-1750
2. Beaver Creek Valley
Beaver Creek Valley Trail snakes through the narrow valley of its namesake creek, tucked in the folds of southeastern Minnesota’s bluffs near Caledonia. The gorge is lush and verdant—more like a jungle than any landscape in Minnesota has
a right to be. At most water levels, the stream is crystal clear and filled with brown trout rising to eat aquatic insects. The southern loop of the trail scales the steep valley walls and circles the end of the gorge. Numerous springs seep from limestone cliffs.
Distance: 6.2-mile loop. You can extend it a bit with short detours to Plateau Rock Overlook and Big Spring, the source of Beaver Creek.
Time: 3 hours
Elevation change: 250 feet
Trailhead: Parking lot just past the entrance of Beaver Creek Valley State Park. Ask for directions at the office.
Contact: Beaver Creek Valley State Park, 507-724-2107
3. Magnetic Rock Trail
Magnetic Rock Trail is an easy out-and-back hike that begins at the Gunflint Trail and leads to a weirdly prominent 25-foot-tall slab of rock with magnetic properties. It’s not a pretty route, but it is impressive, weaving among the charred stumps and blackened trunks that remain after the 1999 blowdown, the 2002 prescribed burn, and the 2007 Ham Lake wildfire. Now exposed to full sunlight, the thin soil sprouts wildflowers and, in late July, loads of blueberries. Follow the rock cairns where the trail crosses barren rock outcrops. After about an hour, you’ll arrive at Magnetic Rock—just like Stanley Kubrick’s monolith, but without the apes. Retrace your track for the shortest route back to the car. To make a loop, continue on the trail (it’s part of the much longer Border Route) as it turns south and meets Gunflint Narrows Road, a gravel strip commonly known as Warren’s Road. Go right (west) and hike about a mile back out to the Gunflint Trail. Turn right again (north) and hike 1.5 miles back to your car.
Distance: 3 miles round-trip Time: 1.5 hours
Elevation change: About 130 feet, with few ups and downs
Trailhead: Gunflint Trail (County Road 12), 48 miles northwest of Grand Marais Contact: Superior National Forest, Gunflint Ranger District, 218-387-1750. Hiking maps are available from Gunflint Trail resorts.
4. Mount Tom
The appellation “Mount Tom” doesn’t exactly ring with grandeur, but that’s probably as it should be. Climbing through the rolling hills, oak woodlands, and patches of prairie in Sibley State Park north of Willmar is pleasant and pretty, but not sublime. What is awe-inspiring, however, is the panorama from the top of Tom, where a granite-and-wood lookout tower adds a bit of elevation to the so-called mountain, one of the highest spots in 50 miles, offering a view of lakes, hills, and distant towns.
Distance: 3.5-mile loop, including the short climb to Mount Tom and
the Lakeview Trail on the shore of Andrew Lake.
Time: 2 hours
Elevation change: 185 feet, with rolling terrain in between
Trailhead: Parking lot just past the entrance to the park. Ask for directions at the park office.
Contact: Sibley State Park, 320-354-2055
5. Superior Hiking Trail
The Superior Hiking Trail stretches 240 miles from southwest of Two Harbors to the Canadian border (with another segment through Duluth and Jay Cooke State Park)—enough distance to keep you walking for weeks. Most hikers, however, sample the trail a bit at a time. Dozens of day hikes are possible, accessible by country roads, highways, and other trails. One of the prettiest (and most strenuous) treks runs from Silver Bay northeastward to Highway 1, ascending spectacular overlooks of Bear and Bean lakes, and of Palisade Valley from the top of Mount Trudee. Hikers have many views of Lake Superior as well. Elsewhere, the trail plunges into creek valleys and cool glades of cedar and maple. To avoid having to backtrack, set up a shuttle with two cars, or ride the Superior Shuttle (superiorshuttle.com), which operates Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from mid-May to mid-October. Park at your end point, ride to your start, and then hike back to your car as fast or as slow as you want.
Distance: 11.1 miles one way time: 7 hours
Elevation change: Lowest point to highest spans just 600 feet, but with all the ups and downs, you climb about 1,375 feet and descend 1,300 as you hike to the northeast.
Trailhead: Begin at the parking lot and trailhead on Penn Boulevard on the west edge of Silver Bay. End at Highway 1, just northwest of Highway 61. Contact: Superior Hiking Trail Association, 218-834-2700, shta.org.
6. Mazomani Trail
The Mazomani Trail, named for a 19th-century Dakota leader, circles through the lowlands along the Minnesota River near Jordan. For much of the loop, the trail skirts the edge of a large wetland complex known as Louisville Swamp, an admittedly baffling name for a feature in Minnesota. Mixed in, however, are uplands and a few rocky outcrops. The wetlands are rich in wildlife such as raccoons, beavers, mink, songbirds, raptors, wading birds, and waterfowl. Along the way, take notice of two old homesteads, the tumbledown ruins of the Ehmiller home and the restored buildings of the
Distance: 5.6-mile round trip Time: 2.5 hours
Elevation change: 60 feet. Much of the trail runs through lowlands with little change in elevation.
Trailhead: 4.5 miles south of Shakopee. Exit Highway 169 onto 145th Street West. The Louisville parking lot is on the left.
Contact: Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, 952-854-5900
7. Kings Bluff
Kings Bluff Interpretive Trail wanders the highlands overlooking the Mississippi River near Winona in Great River Bluffs State Park. Sure, there are sweeping fields of prairie plants, oak-lined valleys, and the prospect of glimpsing soaring raptors and bounding white-tailed deer. But this hike is all about the opportunity to see far. The trail to Kings Bluff provides opportunities to look down into the deeply dissected creek valleys that slice through the parkland. Then, after ascending the summit of the bluff, take in the scene: the broad Mississippi 500 feet below, the delta of the Black River in Wisconsin, and a tangle of channels and backwaters. The long valley stretches upstream and down, with folded hills like rumpled blankets guarding the river.
Distance: 3.6-mile loop, including the hike out to Kings Bluff overlook. Other loops and overlooks are possible. Time: 1.5 hours
Elevation change: Less than 100 feet. Despite terrific overlooks, the trails follow the contours and bluff top.
Trailhead: Parking lot just past the entrance of the park, or the picnic grounds. Ask for directions at the park office.
Contact: Great River Bluffs State Park, 507-643-6849
8. Quarry Loop Trail
Quarry Loop Trail in Banning State Park, near Sandstone, is an easy hike with spectacular sights. One side of the loop follows the Kettle River past sandstone cliffs and the violent white water for which the stream is known—rapids named Blueberry Slide, Mother’s Delight, and Dragon’s Tooth. Then hikers come to the eerie walls of the abandoned buildings that once housed the powerhouse and crusher for the sandstone quarry that operated here more than a century ago and gave rise to the once prosperous town of Banning.
Distance: 2.4 miles round-trip
Time: 1.5 hours
Elevation change: 40 feet, nearly level
Trailhead: Parking lot and boat access at the head of rapids in Banning State Park. Ask for directions at the park office.
Contact: Banning State Park, 320-245-2668
9. Upper Cliffline Trail
Upper Cliffline Trail through Blue Mounds State Park near Luverne reveals some surprises in Minnesota’s most spectacular prairie park. The trail follows the upper edge of a long, abrupt cliff of Sioux quartzite, the color of raw steak. On top of the bluff grows a native prairie of waving grasses, colorful flowers that bloom throughout the warm season, and even prickly pear cactus. A bit back from the ridgeline roams a small herd of bison, descendants of the animals that once dominated the plains. And from almost any point along the ridge, you’ll find views that extend into Iowa and South Dakota.
Distance: 5.3-mile loop, including return on either Mound Trail or Lower Cliffline Trail. Cutoffs make shorter loops possible.
Time: 3 hours
Elevation change: 200 feet,
a gradual climb and descent
Trailhead: Parking lot just past the entrance of the park. Ask for directions at the park office.
Contact: Blue Mounds State Park, 507-283-1307
10. Kadunce River Canyon
The Kadunce River canyon is surely one of the most unusual hikes in Minnesota. It is possible only when the water of this North Shore freshet is low, usually during the middle of summer. Park at the highway parking lot at the river’s mouth on Lake Superior. Slip on a pair of shoes with good traction. Then begin hiking right up the stream, wading through the water where you must. As you hike upstream, you’ll scramble over progressively higher waterfalls, some well over 10 feet high, until you enter a narrow slot in the rock, where the walls are so close together the sky is nearly lost from view. In your enthusiasm to scale each new falls, realize you might have to climb down to get out. Otherwise, it is possible to scramble over one last large falls and then, near a footbridge for the Lake Superior Hiking Trail, climb out of the canyon. Hike back down to the highway on a footpath along the east side of the river.
Distance: 2 miles round-trip
Time: 2 hours
Elevation change: 260 feet rise through the canyon
Trailhead: Kadunce River (often spelled Kodonce) State Wayside, 9 miles east of Grand Marais on State Highway 61. Contact: Cascade River State Park, 218-387-3053. Know before you call, however, that hiking the canyon is unorthodox and a bit risky. No one at the park is going to encourage you to do it.