The 8 Best Hiking Trails in Minnesota
Minnesota is one of the most beautiful states for hiking and offers fantastic views and outdoor experiences for any range of voyageurs and outdoorsmen. As the land of 10,000 lakes and even more beautiful views, the country is ripe for exploring whatever your capabilities, from cross-country treks to afternoon trots. And once the brutal winter has passed, the state culture is to get out and explore and escape into the tranquil exterior. With nearly 4 million acres of protected lands across 72 state parks and 58 state forests, the Minnesotans really know how to treasure their local scenery and seize the day once the snow has thawed.
In addition to all the walking trails, they offer more biking trails than anywhere in the country, and the highest percentage of fishing among the continental lower 48 (having over 10,000 lakes to choose from can’t hurt). Simply put this place is an outdoorsman’s paradise, with varying outlets for your nature niche. Make sure you’ve got the right shoes on, and then get out there
Geographically the state is split into four diverse ecological provinces: in the southwest expect prairie parkland, versus big woods, and broadleaf forests in the southeast. That includes gorgeous deciduous forests, and expansive prairies as you progress out west and when turning north towards Canada, you’ll come across dense woods which are both a haven for the domestic forestry industry as well as protected recreational areas to camp, climb and fish. In the northern Laurentian divide offers a mixed forest where you’ll see a blend between the previously mentioned broadleaf forests and boreal forest. And circling back to that northwest there’s a tallgrass aspen parkland.
Simply put the state can give you any experience you want, for any duration and difficulty setting. All you have to do is get out there and explore. So without further adieu, let’s breakdown the different sized trails and treks you can come across in this beautiful state.
We can’t start a list of Minnesota’s best hiking trails without first mentioning the Superior Hiking Trail. Wrapping around the entirety of Lake Superior’s North Shore, no path provides a more scenic and varied expanse of views, from forested ravines, calm pebble beaches, and jagged cliffside dives, as this expansive beauty. It’s a huge stretch of terrain, covering over 300-miles of trails across northern Minnesota. As with most of Minnesota once you’re out of the Minneapolis and St. Paul metropolis, know that the rural town coverage can be limited up north, and depending on where you are on the trail, you could be miles away from the nearest town. If you’re on the paths for more than a weekend step, remember that towns like Lusen and Silver Bay are great places to stock up on camping supplies. It may be helpful to pack a handheld GPS considering the lack of reception and natural unknown you’ll come across up there.
As a forewarning, this is one of the more challenging treks the state has to offer, so be sure to pack your hiking boots and have a handy map. But with over 300-miles of terrain (and trailheads popping up around every 10 miles or so), you’ll be able to find something for any type of skill level, from family-friendly afternoon walks to the premier outdoorsmen. There are even more than 90 free backcountry campsites where you can set up base camp without having to pack a wallet.
Some of the more notable destinations along the trail are the Split Rock Lighthouse and Tettegouche State Parks. For the biodiversity, affordable price tag and breadth of options, this marks one of Minnesota’s best-preserved treasures.
We love this park because it’s only 20 miles from downtown St. Paul. A quick hop skip and a jump away is St. Croix River and is a popular place for birdwatching, camping, picnics, and other idyllic summertime activities. Expect to see rugged, rolling landscapes and delicate prairie flowers. The site is popular with horseback riders as well as skiers and hikers and those who just want a place to camp, swim and hang out.
Within the Afton State Park are five trails ranging from moderate 2.6 miles walks to 19.3-mile excursions to satisfy any range of ability and outdoorsmen interest. However, when getting there, you should know that there is no vehicle access to the camping area or swimming beach.
If you thought the Superior Hiking trail was long at 300+ miles, just wait until you step onto the North Country National Scenic Trail. Staying true to its name, the route starts in New York before stretching over 4,600 miles across 7 states and 10 national forests. This is one of the longest trails in the United States through lesser-known than the Pacific Coast Trail and Appalachian thoroughfare hikes, the North Country trail is nothing if not as scenic, challenging and rewarding.
The route arrives in south-central Minnesota from Wisconsin by the Jay Cooke State Park, linking with the Superior Hiking Trail as it leans alongside the Canadian border. Some of the scenic highlights along this passage include the Sawbill mountains on Lake Superior’s north shore. Following that, it enters the Border Route Trail and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Eventually, it steps through the Superior National Forest, past Grand Rapids and the Chippewa National Forest, another regional highlight of the passage. This area is a lengthy 71-miles stretch that provides beautiful lake trail camping spots, something that’s easy to find considering the state’s reputation as the state of 10,000 lakes, but still, a lovely way to end an evening. Finally, the route runs alongside Itasca State Park before entering North Dakota via Fargo.
If you want to explore the state and come across the varied terrains, and have a minimum of a week to upwards of a month, and really want to disconnect and say hello to some several hundred diverse flora and fauna across the state, there’s no better place to start than on the North Country National Scenic Trail. It stays true to its name both in national scope and spectacular views.
Because over half the state’s population lives and works in the twin city metropolis, it would be impossible to not cover what’s more accessible and easier for the more casual hiker. Look no further than the Great River Bluffs State Park, where you can find manageable trails for the family only an hour out of Saint Paul. We love this state trail for its accessibility and variety. There’s a total of five different paths, each around a one-mile trail, some as short as a half-mile loop to eventually total six miles of enjoyable flat and easy routes.
Plus, you can experience a variety of views from the Mississippi River, and the park’s interior offers splendid panoramas across prairies, fields, and forests. Among the highlighted views you can experience include steep-sided bluffs which can rise upwards of 500 feet, while you budge along between them. These gorgeous cliffs are such a notable area that it’s recently been granted additional protection from the Minnesota Scientific and Natural Areas program, so it will stay safe until your children want to hike there with their children.
We recommend this hike for families with small ones or anyone eager for an afternoon getaway but don’t want to get too dirty or pack too much stuff. All you need are some sandwiches, a water bottle and away we go. We appreciate the simplicity of getting out into nature for a few hours and to be able to bring the family without any fuss or fights or a car ride too long is a perfect set-up.
If you are hoping to venture with something a bit more intensive, know that you can stay the night, and the campsite offers a picnic area and 31 areas to camp. There’s a restroom of course, and a group campsite which can host up to 80 tenters if you want to bring the whole extended family as well. Be on the lookout for wildlife in this area! You can come across wild turkeys, grouse, coyotes and several species of birds depending on the time of year, so maybe bring binoculars as well.
Let’s now highlight one of the more accessible and rewarding day hikes that’s back along the Superior Hiking Trail. We love the Split Rock River Loop, in Two Harbors for its simplicity, easy accessibility and stunning and rewarding views (a common phrase you’ll hear when hiking in Minnesota). While the SPT spans over 300 miles, why trek over hundreds of miles when you can get a condensed view of the trail’s best offerings all in an afternoon?
This simple day hike starts from the trailhead on Highway 61, just outside of Duluth. From the parking lot, the footpath is easily found and offers a pleasant path with immediate returns. Once you arrive, simply follow the Split Rock river gorge up to the lake bluffs. This five-mile hike is surprisingly sparse of other hikers, and you can move for hours without seeing another person on the trails.
Some of the other highlights on this route include the beautiful Ellingsen Island and pebble shorelines, and the gorgeous lighthouse which sits atop the lakeside cliffs. On the east end are several waterfalls and a breath-taking lake view. With so many notable features on the state trail, this is the best bang for your buck kind of passage you’ll come across in the region.
However, you should know that the area can be both hilly and rocky, with some boardwalks too, so you may want to waterproof your boots beforehand. It’s a bit more difficult than the previously mentioned route, but it’s worth it as long as you’re prepared beforehand.
To get to the highest peak in Minnesota is going to take a bit more than a simply stroll past a few rocks. The Eagle Mountain trail is a 6-miles up and down state trail that demands a more experienced hiker. With an ascent of 210 m, the average grade of the climb is around 4% but in that last mile can reach upwards of 21% so you’ll want to bring your best boots for the occasion and maybe even a light stretch before. It’s a pretty tough climb with a few muddy wooded boardwalks to step through along the route, so be prepared for the elements. We’re talking roots, rocks and steep grades so don’t say we didn’t warn you!
And because it’s within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a good portion of the train is maintained as a wilderness trail, meaning uneven footing, rocks, and roots. You could come across overgrown areas and should be adequately prepared with the standard goods: emergency supplies, enough time to plan for the ascent and ensuing return, etc. Also, there is no cell phone service up there, so be prepared. Your preparation will also require a permit for the trails, but it’s not something so hard to come by, just visit the trailhead kiosk visitor center for a self-issue one day pass.
However, you’ll finish the route at 2,301 feet above sea level, offering the best view in the Pat Bayle state forest and maybe all of the state. And, if you have a rowdy canine companion, this is a great place to tire out your dog. They’re fine as long as they’re leashed, and a sure-fire way to tire them out chugging along the route. It’s a tough route but worth the view, plus a killer calf workout and experience to boot.
The Grand Portage hiking trail is a fun 8.5-mile day hike that takes you to the national monument on this site. The site is a preserved hall that was a vital center of fur trade activity and Anishinaabeg Ojibwe activity and was one of the original four outposts of fur trading centers in North America.
Of course, you reach that cool history lesson after a moderate intensity climb to the top, so you can expect about 7 hours of hiking alongside wildflowers and wild animals. It’s still a well-preserved trail that offers a fascinating history to a previous era, starting with waterfalls and rapids before culminating history lessons at the trail’s finish. We recommend the hike around October, as the fall color foliage just shimmers and ripples with the wind. And once you reach the top, it’s one of the best views in all of Minnesota. But don’t say we didn’t warn you; the trail demands some moderate-intensity so be sure to pack enough provisions and be prepared to trudge along at times.
This is a nice intermediate 3-mile loop trail near Taylors Falls featuring a river walk and a good option for leashed dogs. The Saint Croix river trail is a well-kept path with lots of scenic points and overlooks, and it’s a local secret that the gorge is as beautiful as the fiver. However, potential hikers should know this hike comes with a lot of steps if that would be a problem for you. Another potential hazard is the lack of fountains to refill bottles, so be sure to pack enough before you get out there. Overall this is a perfect high beginner low intermediate trail that any family could do, and ever bring the dog along!
Minnesota is one of the best states in the union when it comes to hiking and outdoor experiences, both for quality and quantity. The exceptional range and breadth of trails for hikers, bikers, and even cross country skiing when the snow starts to fall, ensures that this state is an outdoorsmen’s paradise. The countless lakes and national parks, plentiful flowing headwaters like the St. Croix River and Minnesota River prove that there’s hardly a more beautiful stretch of land across America if you choose to compare.
That being said, we still need to declare a favorite trail within the state’s borders, and for that, we recommend the North Country National Scenic Trail. You cannot find a more interesting stretch of the itinerary as you pass through the various climates and forests of this trail. In addition, when considering the potential scale of this route if you want to parade from New York through the Dakotas, it’s really a great opportunity to see this great country.
Bonus tip: Check out this helpful video breaking down the North Country National Scenic Trail!