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Geocaching in Minnesota: Thrilling Treasure Hunts in Nature

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Multigenerational family geocaching at Whitewater State Park / MN DNR

Geocaching in Minnesota: Thrilling Treasure Hunts in Nature

By Joe Albert

The equivalent of a modern-day treasure hunt, geocaching takes people to places they otherwise may never have gone.

Joshua Johnson, for example, has followed his passion for geocaching–a location-based game in which participants navigate to hidden caches–by cliffs near Duluth and to parks all across Minnesota. He’s discovered waterfalls he never knew existed, happened upon interesting sculptures, and discovered some of the most beautiful scenery he’s ever laid eyes on.

“One of the biggest things that I love about geocaching is all the places that it brings you,” said Johnson, 40, who maintains a popular YouTube channel devoted to the hobby. “There are so many awesome and hidden treasures in our state. I get exposed to all these new and different places that I would never necessarily know about because somebody hid a geocache there.”

Dad and son geocaching at Tettegouche State Park

Dad and son geocaching at Tettegouche State Park / MN DNR

What is Geocaching?

The basic concept behind geocaching is relatively simple: Participants use handheld global positioning system (GPS) devices or their smartphones to navigate to the latitude and longitude coordinates where other participants have hidden caches. Caches are listed on at geocaching.com/play, a popular geocaching website. Every cache includes one rating for how difficult it is to find, and another that describes the difficulty of the terrain on which the cache is hidden. The caches themselves are often waterproof containers that blend in with the surrounding landscape.

Once geocachers locate a cache, they can take one of the trinkets that’s been left inside. The rule is they must leave something of equal or greater value for the next person. Generally speaking, however, it’s not about the object itself. “It’s all about the thrill of the hunt,” Johnson said. And some caches simply provide clues that players use to find another cache in the area.

Father and daughter at Minneopa State Park Mankato

Father and daughter at Minneopa State Park in Mankato / Jim Henderson

The easiest caches to locate might be in a small park and easy to see because they’re hanging from a tree. In other cases, the general location of caches is easy to find, but they might be disguised as rocks or sticks. And then there are the really tough ones: “I’ve found one that required me to rappel off the side of a cliff near Duluth,” said Johnson, who advises beginners to start with caches that have low difficulty ratings. “I had to have special equipment and go along with someone who knew what they were doing.”

While some caches are hidden on private land, the majority are on public land throughout the state. Every state park, for example, has at least one cache hidden within its boundaries. There also are 35 state parks where players can check out GPS units and receive more geocaching instruction. The DNR also offers a number of geocaching programs and events at state parks. Nearer the Twin Cities, the Three Rivers Park District also offers a robust geocaching program, as well as specific events related to the activity. There are caches hidden in Minnesota’s Chippewa and Superior national forests, and in city and county parks throughout the state.

Girl with GPS device at Fort Snelling State Park

A girl geocaching at Fort Snelling State Park in St. Paul / MN DNR

Different Types of Geocaches

Geocaches come in all shapes, sizes and styles. The most traditional geocaches are a simple container in the woods, usually containing a logbook to mark down your name. Others may involve solving mysterious clues and riddles, answering educational questions or showing up for an event. Below, we've outlined a few of the more common types of geocaches:

  • Traditional Cache: The most straightforward of the bunch, a traditional geocache is simply a container you'll find after getting yourself to the given coordinates. Most if not all will contain a logbook, at the very least.
  • Multi-Cache: Like a traditional geocache, but with multiple stops. Instructions to the first cache can be found online, but to find the hidden treasure at the end of the rainbow you'll need to follow the instructions or coordinates at each stop along the way.
  • Travel Bugs: Another variation on geocaching that is especially fun for road trips is the travel bug geocache. Think of travel bug caches like game pieces moving across a board—each bug has a goal (“this travel bug wants to go to Duluth”), and it’s your job to carry the bug for part or all of its journey.
  • EarthCache: These geocaches come in many varieties, but the common thread tying them all together is that each EarthCache is designed to help you learn about a unique geological feature or aspect of the planet. Before logging an EarthCache, you'll need to answer questions about the geological feature by which it was placed.

Of course, there are many more types of geocaches—but rather than spell it out for you, we thought you might want to discover them for yourselves. After all, isn't that what geocaching's all about?

Pair of winter cabins at Whitetail Woods Regional Park

Whitetail Woods in Farmington has two camper cabins open year-round / Paul Vincent

Go Geocaching All Year Round

Geocaching can be done all year long and be easily combined with other activities. In the fall, it takes you into the woods among the leaves while they change color. In the winter, it can be combined with skiing or snowshoeing, or spend part of your time fishing or downhill skiing. In the spring and summer, it fits in well with fishing, hunting, or any family resort or camping vacation.

Joe Albert

Joe Albert is a Bloomington-based writer who currently works for the Department of Natural Resources. His work has appeared in publications including Outdoor NewsStar Tribune and Field & Stream.