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Green Travel Tips: Plan Your Next Eco-Friendly Vacation in Minnesota

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Bde Maka Ska, Minneapolis / Paul Vincent

Green Travel Tips: Plan Your Next Eco-Friendly Vacation in Minnesota

By Erica Wacker

Known for our sky blue waters, clear night skies and top-rated urban parks, Minnesota is a natural choice for eco-conscious travelers. Some of our state’s most popular pastimes—camping, biking, canoeing, hiking, cross-country skiing and birding, to name a few—are environmentally friendly and have a low carbon footprint.

Hotels and resorts, restaurants and breweries, and attractions across the state are doing more to reduce their own impacts, making it easy for visitors to have fun and feel good about traveling while treading lightly on our planet.

Family at Mall of America, Bloomington

Mall of America, Bloomington / Ryan Taylor

Green Things to Do

Minnesota’s largest and most popular attraction, Mall of America in Bloomington, is also one of its greenest. The mall is heated with ambient heat from massive skylights and, believe it or not, the body heat of its millions of visitors. Food waste is given to hog farms for food, shipping materials are recycled whenever possible, and lost-and-found items are donated to crime victims through a local trauma organization. For more sustainable shopping, check out Minneapolis’s two zero-waste stores, Tare Market and The Zeroish Co.

West of Minneapolis in Chaska, the 1,200-acre Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, one of the country’s top botanical gardens, promotes sustainability throughout the beautiful gardens and other natural areas where visitors can hike, snowshoe and cross-country ski. The Arb’s numerous eco-conscious efforts include responsible water management, using biological control to manage pests, geothermal heating and cooling of its buildings, native plant restoration and using organics collected from the area as compost in its gardens.

In St. Paul, the Saint Paul RiverCentre Convention Center Complex and adjacent Xcel Energy Center, home to the Minnesota Wild, major concerts and other big events, are the only venues in the world to earn three separate sustainability certifications. Learn more about their green initiatives, awards and impacts on their sustainability website. The Minneapolis Convention Center also boasts LEED certification, rooftop solar panels, a pollinator park and several other sustainability efforts.

Visiting attractions dedicated to conservation is a great way to travel with a purpose. Nature-focused destinations including the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, International Wolf Center and North American Bear Center in Ely, Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory in Duluth, Jay C. Hormel Nature Center in Austin and dozens of other nature centers and wildlife refuges can be found throughout Minnesota—and remind us all why our planet is worth protecting.

Eating and Drinking Locally

There’s no shortage of locally sourced, organic and homegrown fare in Minnesota; you just have to know where to find it. Our locally grown/farm-to-table listings feature more than 100 options, for starters. Highlights include Angry Trout Cafe in Grand Marais, where the fish of the day is caught straight from Lake Superior. In Minneapolis, Wise Acre sources ingredients from its own farm 40 miles away, and J. Selby’s is St. Paul’s only vegan restaurant. And then there's our nearly 350 markets for picking up fresh produce and local products, which are outlined in detail by the Minnesota Farmers' Market here

If you find yourself in Granite Falls, don’t miss Bluenose Gopher Public House, a cooperatively run establishment that serves Minnesota-made beverages, bread from the town’s Carl’s Bakery and produce from the farmers market and the co-op’s own herb garden. Most cities in Minnesota host farmers markets in the summer; find one near your destination on the Minnesota Grown website.

For locally made libations, many Minnesota wineries grow cold-hardy grapes that were developed at the University of Minnesota to thrive in our northern climate. Taste wines made with La Crescent, Marquette, Frontenac and the newest Minnesota grape, Itasca, at wineries including Schram Vineyards Winery and Brewery and Parley Lake Winery in Waconia, Chankaska Creek Ranch and Winery in Kasota, Carlos Creek Winery in Alexandria and Saint Croix Vineyards in Stillwater.

In Duluth’s Canal Park, Vikre Distillery uses several local ingredients to make its products, including water from Lake Superior in its vodka and whiskeys, grains sourced within a 50-mile radius and oak barrels made in Minnesota. One of the state’s oldest breweries, Summit Brewing Co. in St. Paul, prides itself on its “green beer” practices, making every effort to reduce water use, energy consumption and waste during production.

Kids in Car

Family road trip / Micah Kvidt

Reducing Your Carbon Footprint

In general, road trips are more climate-friendly than flying, especially if you’re sharing the vehicle with others. Make it an electric car and your impact goes down even more.

Minnesota is installing more and more electric vehicle charging stations along major highways and at attractions and hotels statewide; find some at Mall of America, Canal Park in Duluth, the Green Giant Museum in Blue Earth, downtown Austin (home of the SPAM Museum), city and state parks, and at independent resorts and chain hotels. Plan your EV road trip using the Plugshare app so you know where you can charge along the way and at your final destination.

If you prefer to travel car-free, consider taking a trip by train on Amtrak’s Empire Builder, which loosely follows the Mississippi River and stops in Detroit Lakes, St. Cloud, St. Paul, Red Wing and Winona. Or travel by bus on Jefferson Lines, Greyhound or Megabus (from Chicago or Wisconsin) and enjoy free Wi-Fi and power outlets, reclining seats and great views while someone else does the driving.

The greenest option of all? A long-distance bike trip. Serious cyclists can travel on two wheels along the 620-mile Mississippi River Trail, or from the Twin Cities to the northeast tip of the state on the North Star Route. Big bike events, including the weeklong Tour of Minnesota in June, five-day Bike MS Ride in July and one-day Mesabi Trail Tour in August, are just a few of the organized rides that Minnesota has to offer.

Radisson Blu Hotel, Bloomington

Radisson Blu Hotel, Bloomington

Eco-Friendly Lodging

It doesn’t get more green than sleeping among the trees with only a canvas tent between you and the great outdoors. Pack light and enjoy the serenity of Minnesota’s wildest spaces, including the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (no motorboats allowed), the Superior and Chippewa national forests, and any of our Minnesota state parks.

Notch up the comfort factor and consider renting a camper cabin, tipi or yurt. These options feature basic amenities like beds, tables, screen porches and a fire ring outside for cooking. Some of the state’s newest camper cabins, at Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park, were designed using green building practices to make them extremely energy efficient. Explore the many options on the Minnesota DNR website.

If camping isn’t your thing, there are still ways to stay overnight sustainably. Duluth’s only waterfront bed-and-breakfast, Solglimt has a green policy detailing all the steps they’ve taken to be environmentally friendly, including installing solar panels, using non-toxic cleaning supplies and serving locally sourced food, the scraps from which are composted for the inn’s gardens.

In the Twin Cities, the Radisson Blu Mall of America was the region’s first LEED-certified hotel. The on-site restaurant, FireLake Grill House & Cocktail Bar, sources its ingredients from local farmers markets and butcher shops, and is one of the few restaurants in the state serving Minnesota walleye from the Red Lake Nation. 

Elsewhere in the state, lodging properties that back up their green claims through their actions include the Adventure Inn in Ely, with EV charging stations and rain barrels; the Bowen Lodge in Deer River, with its stabilized shorelines and state-of-the-art peat filtration septic system; and The Lodge on Lake Detroit in Detroit Lakes, which boasts eco-friendly bath products and a rain garden that protects the lake from runoff. If you’re staying at one of Minnesota’s many resorts, check out these tips to make your stay as eco-friendly as possible.

Erica Wacker

Erica Wacker is a Midwesterner through and through, growing up in Illinois, going to college in Wisconsin, and settling down in Minnesota. She loves to run, travel with her family, and go to concerts to relive her youth.