Minnesota’s State Parks: Five Must-See Attractions

By Joe Albert

Bison at Minneopa State Park by Flickr user Christa R.
Bison grazing at Minneopa State Park / Christa R., Creative Commons License 2.0

Minnesota's state parks are among our crown jewels, welcoming millions of residents and visitors alike to learn about the state’s ecosystems, recreate in the outdoors or simply commune with nature.

The state park system, which includes 76 parks and recreation areas that range in size from small to vast, got its start more than 100 years ago with the 1890s designation of Itasca and Interstate state parks. Many people use the campgrounds and hiking trails that are staples of state parks, but there are plenty of other reasons to visit them, too. In fact, the parks have seen a steady increase in visits over the years as people seek respite from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

Here’s a look at five state park attractions that should be included on any visitor's bucket list.

Waterfalls at Gooseberry Falls State Park

Justin_Pruden_-_Gooseberry_Falls_State_Park_waterfall_homepage.jpg
Middle Falls at Gooseberry State Park / Justin Pruden

Known as the “Gateway to the North Shore,” Gooseberry Falls State Park near Two Harbors is well worth a stop even if your ultimate destination is farther north. Situated on the banks of Lake Superior, the park is home to five waterfalls, including three awe-inspiring—and loud!—falls where the water of the Gooseberry River roars through a rocky gorge on its way to Lake Superior. Trails allow visitors to get an up-close view of the falls, and wading in the river where the current is easy is a great way to get a different view.

Bison Herd at Minneopa State Park

Though the days of bison roaming across Minnesota’s prairies are long gone, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Minnesota Zoo are working together to reintroduce them in several parts of the state, including Minneopa State Park near Mankato. The herd ranges across 331 acres of unbroken prairie, with a “bison drive” that gives visitors the best chance to see the animals, which are the largest mammals in North America.

Dakota Memorial at Fort Snelling State Park

It’s hard to visit Fort Snelling State Park, at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers, and not feel the history it exudes. Sitting atop a bluff that overlooks the two rivers is Fort Snelling itself, a military installation built in the 1800s. The 3,711-acre park features an extensive system of trails, some of which lead to the Dakota Memorial. The wood and brick memorial is a somber place, serving as a marker of the fighting between the United States and members of various Dakota Indian bands, and an important reminder of this violent chapter of Minnesota history.

Mississippi River Headwaters at Itasca State Park

Itasca State Park headwaters
Mississippi River headwaters, Itasca State Park

Located between Park Rapids and Bemidji, Itasca State Park is Minnesota’s oldest and largest state park, and perhaps its best-known, too. With more than 100 lakes inside its borders, it’s a water enthusiast’s dream. But what makes Itasca State Park particularly noteworthy is the headwaters of the Mississippi River, which begins its 2,318-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico inside the park. Large rocks on the river bed create a natural bridge for visitors to walk across this section of the river, which is knee-deep, about 18 feet wide and surrounded by towering pine trees. From the park, the river flows north to Bemidji and east toward Grand Rapids, where it finally begins meandering south.

Old Crow Wing Village at Crow Wing State Park

Just south of Brainerd, where the Crow Wing River meets the Mississippi River, it’s easy to see why the area that now constitutes Crow Wing State Park was important to early settlers and traders. While that early settlement no longer exists, visitors can still get a feel for what it was like by walking through Old Crow Wing Village, which includes an interpretive boardwalk and the Beaulieu House, a structure that was constructed in 1849 by fur trader Clement Beaulieu. Visitors also can see remnants of an ox cart trail that once was used to carry supplies.

Discover all of Minnesota's state parks on the Parks & Forests page.