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
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.
"There is not enough good that one can say about the Superior Hiking Trail," JonJosephA writes in a TripAdvisor review. "It is beautiful, rustic, challenging and rewarding. The woods, rivers, streams and views of Lake Superior are all terrific."
"There is not enough good that one can say about the Superior Hiking Trail."
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 year-round Thursday through Monday. 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
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
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.
"You are so close to the eagles soaring over the river."
"The hike is a little strenuous but it is so worth it," says Hugh W. on TripAdvisor. "You can literally see for miles. Watch barges go up and down the river. You are so close to the eagles soaring over the river."
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 13 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
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.
Know Before You Go
A vehicle permit is required to enter Minnesota state parks and many regional parks. Save time by ordering one online before you arrive at the park.
For comfort and safety on the trail, be sure everyone has appropriate footwear (tennis shoes, not flip-flops).
Bring a water bottle for each hiker as well as plenty of sunscreen, bug spray and snacks.
Pick up a paper map at the park office or load a GeoPDF map before you leave (don’t rely on your phone to navigate because cell and Internet service may not be available in the woods).
The accessible trails at Minnesota state parks are stroller friendly as well as wheelchair friendly.
If your dog will be hiking with you, keep it on a leash and clean up after it.
Don't pick wildflowers or otherwise disturb the landscape. "Take only photos, leave only footprints."
James Riemermann is a retired writer and editor. Raised in St. Paul, he's a city boy who feels more at home in the woods. Sitting by a campfire on the shore of a quiet north woods lake is his idea of paradise.
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