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

Spread from east to west and north to south, state parks are among Minnesota’s crown jewels. Each year they provide millions of residents and visitors alike with a wide variety of opportunities to learn about the state’s ecosystems, recreate in the outdoors or simply commune with nature. The state park system, which includes 66 parks that range in size from just more than 100 acres to tens of thousands of acres, got its start more than 100 years ago with the 1890s designation of Itasca and Interstate state parks.

While the rate of state park acquisition has slowed in recent years—the most recent addition was in 2010, with creation of the Lake Vermilion State Park (which later was merged with the Soudan Underground Mine State Park to create the Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park)—they’ve seen a steady increase in visits as people seek a respite from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

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

Waterfalls at Gooseberry Falls State Park

The little falls at Gooseberry / Eve Schrank

Known as the “Gateway to the North Shore,” Gooseberry Falls State Park near Two Harbors is well worth the stop even if your ultimate destination is farther north. Situated on the banks of Lake Superior, there are five waterfalls within the park, 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

Bison once roamed all across Minnesota’s prairies, but those days are long in the past. However, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Minnesota Zoo are working to reintroduce bison in several parts of the state, including Minneopa State Park near Mankato. There are about 15 bison there that range across 331 acres of unbroken prairie and provide excellent viewing opportunities for park visitors. There’s a “bison drive” at the park 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, which is 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 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.

Headwaters of the Mississippi River at Itasca State Park

Headwaters Itasca State Park
The headwaters of the Mississippi River

Located near Park Rapids, 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

Located 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.