There's No Hiking like Fall Hiking

By James Riemermann

There's not much room for debate: Fall hiking is simply the best. Moderate temperatures, infrequent rain, no mosquitoes and lighter crowds are added bonuses to the breathtaking landscapes bursting with fall color—nature’s buffet enticing hikers to push forth and feast upon the next spectacular view. From the craggy North Shore to majestic hardwood forests to beautiful Bluff Country, here are some of the prettiest places to hike in Minnesota this fall.

Superior Hiking Trail

Sawmill Dome on the Superior Hiking Trail - Alyssa Hei
Sawmill Dome on the Superior Hiking Trail, photo by Alyssa Hei

Running more than 300 gorgeous miles from Jay Cooke State Park south of Duluth to the Canadian border at Grand Portage, the Superior Hiking Trail crosses numerous rivers and streams with waterfalls flowing through colorful forests, topped off by many vantage points overlooking the vast waters of Lake Superior. The trail is great for short day hikes as well as backpack camping for ambitious hikers, with trailhead parking lots every few miles along the route.

The simplest way to sample the trail is to pick a short loop section, like the easy but stunning Oberg Mountain Loop near Lutsen, or the Gooseberry loop at Gooseberry Falls State Park. For a longer, more ambitious day hike, a shuttle service runs Friday-Sunday through mid-October. Reservations are recommended in order to guarantee seating.

The Superior Hiking Trail Association has detailed trail maps and a guidebook with mile-by-mile descriptions to help you plan your hike based on length, terrain and scenery. The association leads free guided hikes on weekends in September and October.

Maplewood State Park

Maplewood-State-Park-in-fall-Mali-Mish-Family
Maplewood State Park, photo by Mali Mish family

Near Pelican Rapids, Maplewood State Park's 25 miles of trails—2.2 miles of them self-guided with interpretive signs—lead to magnificent views of the surrounding forests of sugar maple, basswood, elm, oak and aspen trees from the tops of hills as high as 1,600 feet. A half-mile hike to Hallaway Hill Overlook is rewarded with a spectacular view of Lake Lida and Hallaway and the hardwood forest below.

The park's 9,000 acres lie in a transition zone between the forests to the east and the prairies to the west, and as a result foster an especially wide variety of habitat. Approximately 150 bird species and 50 species of mammals live in the park, including white-tailed deer, beaver, raccoon, herons and raptors. Prairie hikes lead through growths of wild onion, showy milkweed, beardtongue and prairie rose, some of which flower in the fall.

Mississippi River Bluffs

Fall hike up Barn Bluff in Red Wing
Fall hike up Barn Bluff, Red Wing

Some of best hiking and fall color in Minnesota can be found at parks on the limestone bluffs towering over the Mississippi River south of Red Wing on Lake Pepin, the widest naturally occurring expanse on the entire length of the Mississippi.

Red Wing itself is home to the stunning Barn Bluff, with magnificent views of the river and the city from a 400-foot-high peak. It's less than a mile to the top on either of two trails leading up; the South Trail is the easier one, and the Quarry Trail is shorter but steeper. The South Trail leads to a scenic overlook at the western end of the bluff, from which the Prairie Trail leads back to another overlook at the eastern end. All the trails have portions near steep cliffs, and hikers should be cautious.

South of Red Wing, between the tiny, historic towns of Old Frontenac (once a riverside resort town) and Frontenac Station (once a railroad stop), is Frontenac State Park, with 14 miles of hiking trails along the shore of Lake Pepin. The easiest is a mile-long, fully accessible trail, connected to an accessible picnic site with a gorgeous view of the river. More challenging is the Bluff Side Trail, a loop descending 430 feet by wooden stairs and switchbacks down to the river, then back up to the picnic area.

Three Rivers Park District

Carver Park Reserve, Victoria.jpg
Carver Park Reserve, Victoria

The Three Rivers Park District manages parks in suburban communities of five Twin Cities-area counties, the bulk of them to the north, west and south of Minneapolis. The system operates 25 parks and 17 multi-use trails, with extensive opportunities for hiking, camping and pretty much any sort of outdoor recreation. They're great family parks, many with interpretive nature centers, programs and large state-of-the-art playgrounds.

A few of the larger ones, all beautiful in the fall, include Carver Park Reserve in Victoria on the western edge of the metro area, with 36 miles of paved and unpaved trails winding around more than 10 lakes; Hyland Lake Park Reserve in Bloomington, with 18 miles of hiking trails; and Elm Creek Park Reserve in Maple Grove, at 4,900 acres the largest park in the system, with more than 50 miles of hiking trails.

Discover more places to hike this fall in Minnesota.