The “Land of 10,000 Lakes” — which is actually an undercount by at least 1,500 lakes — is packed with beautiful places to spend a day, a weekend, or longer. Its state parks offer up opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing. With so much water, canoeing and fishing are favored options, too. Then again, you could just pack a picnic, sit by the shore of the lake, and take in Minnesota’s beauty.
1. Itasca State Park
Itasca is not only home to the headwaters of the Mississippi, it is also Minnesota’s oldest state park. Spend the day cooling off in the water of Lake Itasca, or see if you can make it across the rocks that span one of the longest rivers in the world. It can get pretty busy, so get there early if you want to get pictures without people. There is something for everyone in the family: biking, hiking, swimming, fishing, boat tours, camping. And for those who want to enjoy the outdoors without sleeping outdoors, there are plenty of lodging options ranging from a hostel to suite rentals.
2. Gooseberry Falls State Park
This park is called the gateway to the North Shore, because it was the first of several state parks lining the north shore of Minnesota that will eventually be connected by the Gitchi-Gami State Trail. There are several falls, as well as hiking — on 20 miles of trails to choose from — that will lead to the shores of Lake Superior. Grab a picnic lunch and head down to the area known as Picnic Flow to walk on an ancient volcanic lava flow. Gooseberry Falls is a perfect day-trip destination for those in the Duluth area.Bring a fishing rod in summer, as the lakes teem with trout. In winter, get a workout on the 12 miles of cross-country ski trails.
3. McCarthy Beach State Park
McCarthy Beach State Park sits between Side lake and Sturgeon Lake, near Superior National Forest. The beach is one of the best in Northern Minnesota, and the water is clear and shallow enough to wade out for several hundred feet. You can also launch your watercraft on Side Lake and spend the day fishing or cruising along the five lakes that connect Side Lake to Sturgeon Lake. The campground sites overlook Side Lake, but make sure to reserve early. If you don’t get one, it’s a short bike ride, walk or drive from the upper campground to the lower campground.
4. Fort Snelling State Park
You can escape the concrete jungle of the Twin Cities with a short trip to Fort Snelling State Park. Fort Snelling was built in the 1820s atop a bluff overlooking the point where the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers meet. In fact, the Dakota called it Ha-Ha Mdo-Te, which means “junction of two rivers.” The park has 18 miles of hiking trails, and biking and canoeing are also possible in warmer months; in winter the park is ideal for snowshoeing. If you want to enjoy miles of hiking through a wonderland of colors, though, go in the fall. There is also a beach on Snelling Lake and canoe rentals at the park office.
5. Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park
You can tour the historic Soudan Underground Mine in the Iron Range to learn what life was like for a miner in Minnesota’s first iron ore mine. The mine is now home to the University of Minnesota’s particle physics lab. After you are done touring the mine area, you can drive or hike to Vermillion Lake and drop a line to catch your lunch. There is also camping available.
A version of this article was previously published on May 17, 2017, and was updated on September 22, 2020, with more information.