Woman hiking at Afton State Park in the fall

5 Incredible Minnesota State Parks for Hiking

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Fall hiking at Afton State Park, southeast of St. Paul on the St. Croix River / Paul Vincent
Parks & Forests // Hiking // List

5 Incredible Minnesota State Parks for Hiking

By Hatie Parmeter

Minnesota has 75 state parks and recreation areas where you'll find stunning views and hiking trails of all difficulty and mobility levels. With so many paths to tread, it can be challenging to know where to start. Here are five incredible trails to introduce you to these wild spaces.

  1. Gooseberry Falls State Park
    Woman hiking at Gooseberry Falls State Park

    Get your boots dirty on a fall hike at Gooseberry Falls State Park / Micah Kvidt

    Gooseberry Falls State Park

    Heading north from Duluth, Gooseberry Falls is the first of eight Minnesota State Parks on the North Shore of Lake Superior. You'll find 20 miles of hiking trails at this popular destination including the fantastic Fifth Falls Trail. The 3-mile trail loop passes the park's well-trod lower and middle falls, winding northwest along the Gooseberry River to the less-crowded upper falls before continuing along the southern side of the waterway to the park's secluded Fifth Falls.

    Birch and pine trees line the path, and summer wildflowers and fall leaves provide beautiful bursts of color. Hikers on Fifth Falls Trail get incredible views of the falls and a mellow workout from the 298-foot elevation. Start your hike early to avoid crowds, and wear waterproof shoes to prevent blisters.

    People looking for a more level hike should take the Gitchi Gummi trail. This mostly flat Hiking Club route is 2.2 miles long and crosses the Gooseberry River before heading east for some jaw-dropping overlook views of the lake. Open year-round, this intermediate path is an excellent option for snowshoeing during the winter.

  2. Old Mill State Park
    Old Mill State Park

    Old Mill State Park is in northwest Minnesota, near Argyle, and features a historic site that was a family homestead in 1882. The area was once a travel route for traders and local Anishinaabe people who took advantage of the region's many beaches for easy travel. In the late 1800s, settlers installed water- and wind-powered mills, one of which the park still uses to process flour during an annual community event. 

    Hikers should check out Agassiz Trail, a 1.9-mile beginner-friendly hike named after the massive glacial lake that covered much of this area around 12,000 years ago. The receding waters created the high beach ridgelines you'll see along the hike today as it that meanders through marshes, prairie and riverine forest.

    The Middle River cuts through the park, providing a perfect habitat for deer, beaver and nesting marsh hawks. During the summer, the park bursts with vibrant wildflowers like showy lady’s slippers and foxgloves. If passable, walk over the suspension bridge with beautiful stone arches to get a better view of the river.

  3. Lake Shetek State Park
    The shoreline of Lake Shetek at Lake Shetek State Park

    Lake Shetek State Park is nestled along the scenic shoreline of its namesake lake / Rex Tollefson

    Lake Shetek State Park

    Lake Shetek State Park is near Currie in southwestern Minnesota and abuts the largest lake in the region. The park is nestled against the southeast corner of the lake, offering 14 miles of hiking trails through restored prairie, wetlands and 250-year-old oak trees. 

    Take the 1-mile self-guided loop across a land bridge around Loon Island for an easy start. This wheelchair-accessible pathway is crushed quartzite rock and runs from the picnic area around the island. For a longer hike, take the 7.7-mile perimeter loop around Loon Island—a combination of the Lakeside, Bluebird, Smith Lake and Hawthorn Trails.

    As you’re hiking, watch for the unique, purple pom-pom-like wild bergamot flowers—you’ll know them from their mint-scented leaves. Take a rest at the benches along the way to enjoy views of the sandy beach and clear blue waters. Use the Lake Shetek birding checklist to denote which bird species you observe, including resident purple martins and bald eagles. The trails follow the lake and are often wet, so consider calling the park ahead of time to see which routes are dry.

  4. Buffalo River State Park
    Buffalo River State Park

    You'll find Buffalo River State Park in Glyndon, just 14 miles from Moorhead. The 19-acre park has 12 miles of flat, unpaved trails that travel through prairies and forests along the Buffalo River. It’s one of the state’s biggest grassland preserves, and a great place to hike on warmer days thanks to plenty of tree cover and cool, breezy winds.

    Hike the 2.2-mile Prairie View Trail through the northwestern part of the park as it follows the western bank of the river to the edge of Bluestem Prarie Scientific and Natural Area. This lush prairie landscape is home to over 250 species of grasses and wildflowers, including rare types like the small white lady’s slipper. You'll also find more common flora like butterfly weed, an orangish-red flower with bright green-leafed stems, and switchgrass.

    Wildlife viewing is also a popular activity at Buffalo River. As you explore the park, take a peek among the cottonwood, oak, ash and elm trees along the water’s edge for beavers, deer and even moose!

  5. William O'Brien State Park
    Woman poses on hiking trail

    Hiking at William O'Brien State Park in the early fall / Jenny Anderson

    William O'Brien State Park

    Found along the rushing St. Croix River about an hour northeast of Minneapolis, William O’Brien State Park is a perfect, city-adjacent getaway for many Minnesotans and visitors. The 1,653-acre park encompasses rolling, wooded hills and 12 miles of hiking trails.

    Start with the wheelchair-accessible Riverside Trail to enjoy interpretive signs explaining the area geology and history. This 1.5-mile loop starts at the picnic grounds and takes visitors on a self-guided tour along the St. Croix River, Lake Alice and the park's majestic 100-year-old pine trees. 

    More ambitious hikers can check out the Prairie Overlook Trail, a 3.8-mile trek with 367 feet of elevation gain and beautiful views of the St. Croix Valley from the top. This medium-traffic route passes through a wetland, over gentle hills and past a beaver lodge! You may spot white-tail deer, beaver or woodchuck strolling along in this diverse environment. Many hikers wear bathing suits to cool off with a dip in Lake Alice, which borders the western half of the trail. 

Man and dog at Superior Hiking Trail overlook

Sunset on the Superior Hiking Trail / Alyssa Hei

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.
  • Some Minnesota state parks have all-terrain electric wheelchairs for use on unpaved trails.
  • 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."
Hatie Parmeter

Hatie Parmeter is an outdoor instructor and writer who loves the Midwest. She enjoys paddling in the BWCA and introducing people to the Chicago River.