Your Quick-Hit Guide to Twin Cities State Parks
Despite winters that are notoriously harsh, cold, long, and dark, (should we keep going?) Minnesotans are legendary for their refusal to hibernate, and they take to the Great Outdoors in impressive numbers all year long. Locals claim that popular outdoor activities like in-line skating and water skiing were even invented in Minnesota. And to feed this seeming addiction to the outdoors, there are more than a dozen Minnesota State Parks within about 100 miles of Minneapolis/St. Paul, including a few of the state’s most popular outdoors destinations right in the city and surrounding suburbs.
The only drawback of this abundance of natural riches is that it may be difficult to decide which to venture out to, or you may go straight to the most popular and miss a few hidden gems. Peruse this quick-hit guide before you hit the road. These 16 state parks are an easy drive from either of the Twin Cities, and all offer plenty of reasons to embark on an adventure during all four seasons. Bonus: the Minnesota State Parks usually require a permit for entry, but Zipcar members get free access when driving a Zipcar. (Score!)
1) FOR THE HAPPY HIKER: AFTON RIVER BANKS AND BLUFFS
Distance from the Twin Cities: 30 miles; 45 minutes
You’ll drive through rolling corn and wheat fields on the way to Afton, which give no hint of the dramatic river bluffs to come. Located along the west bank of the St. Croix River, this park offers miles of shaded hiking and swimming, down the hill from river banks so steep that one of the region’s most popular downhill ski areas is adjacent.
2) FOR THE WATER SPORT ENTHUSIAST: BANNING
Distance from the Twin Cities: 92 miles; 89 minutes
Flanking both sides of the Kettle River, Banning is a haven for canoers and kayakers in May and June, when the rapid waters provide natural thrills. It’s also renowned for rock formations that draw hikers from throughout the region to this park, which is just minutes off of Interstate 35.
3) FOR THE BIRD WATCHER: CARLEY
Distance from the Twin Cities: 95 miles; 104 minutes
One of the state’s most compact state parks, this forested valley of the Whitewater River packs a ton into a limited space. Among the mix of hardwoods and white pine is a colorful carpet of wildflowers each spring. Adding to its natural, varied splendor: It’s legendary for bird watching—everything from songbirds to raptors.
4) FOR THE HISTORY BUFF: FORT SNELLING
Distance from the Twin Cities: 9 miles; 20 minutes
In the shadow of the namesake military installation established in 1819, this park is a wilderness oasis in the heart of the Twin Cities. Most popular is Pike Island, a four-mile (round trip) hiking loop to the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers. Barges and riverboats are a common sight, but watch for springtime trail closings due to flooding.
5) FOR THE EARLY ADOPTER NATURE LOVER: GREENLEAF LAKE
Distance from the Twin Cities: 75 miles; 104 minutes
One of the region’s newest recreation areas is a work in progress, as facilities for camping are still being developed, and use is limited to activities like fishing from shore on a pair of lakes. But there’s still plenty to enjoy if you visit. Trails for hiking in the summer and cross-country skiing in the winter are in place, and the shallow bodies of water are great places for bird watching—especially waterfowl—in the fall.
6) FOR THE ROCK CLIMBER: INTERSTATE
Distance from the Twin Cities: 49 miles; 53 minutes
The federally designated wild and scenic St. Croix River forms the Minnesota-Wisconsin border, and both banks feature rock cliffs that make this a geologist's dream. But no advanced degree is needed to hike and climb amid the ancient landscape formed by nearly a dozen different lava flows. Riverboat excursions are offered in the summer, for a further scenic perspective.
7) FOR THE YEAR-ROUND CAMPER: LAKE MARIA
Distance from the Twin Cities: 52 miles; 54 minutes
Less than an hour from the heart of the city is one of the region’s most beloved places to camp. From backpackers wanting nothing more than a front-row view of lakes to campers seeking wood stove heat and a roof, there are spots to serve different levels. Leave the car behind—all sites are about a mile from the parking lot. The many trails feature a well-maintained boardwalk, where hikers can traverse a wetland for an up-close look at the wonders of the marsh.
8) FOR THE WATERFALL WANDERER: MINNEOPA
Distance from the Twin Cities: 92 miles; 97 minutes
Just outside the vibrant college community of Mankato is this popular destination, featuring numerous waterfalls where Minneopa Creek flows into the Minnesota River. There’s history to be had, too, as visitors can tour Seppmann Mill, a wind-powered marvel where German settlers would have their grain ground into flour more than a century ago.
9) FOR THE HORSEBACK RIDER: MINNESOTA VALLEY
Distance from the Twin Cities: 43 miles; 50 minutes
The first Europeans to explore the Minnesota River valley likely gazed upon its woods and waters from the back of a horse. More than a century later, just beyond the fringes of the Twin Cities suburbs, viewing the river from horseback remains a popular pastime, as this state recreation area features miles of trails that wind between floodplains, wetlands, and oak forest.
10) FOR THE LEAF-PEEPING HIKER: NERSTRAND BIG WOODS
Distance from the Twin Cities: 58 miles; 63 minutes
It’s a picturesque drive through rolling farmland to get to these big woods, whose signature towering hardwoods once covered all of southeastern Minnesota (before European settlers cleared the land and planted crops). When the nights get cooler, this is fall colors paradise. For an extra treat, trek to a hidden waterfall that’s worth the hike.
11) FOR THE GET-AWAY-FROM-IT-ALL HIKER: RICE LAKE
Distance from the Twin Cities: 78 miles; 83 minutes
For centuries, wild rice was harvested by American Indians from the marshes along the edges of this southern Minnesota gem. That heritage is honored today, and the park features some of the most private camping available anywhere, with a handful of remote sites that are accessible only via canoe. In the winter months, it’s a popular snowmobile spot.
12) FOR THE LAKE LOVER: SAKATAH LAKE
Distance from the Twin Cities: 66 miles; 69 minutes
This waterfront setting is a de facto hub of the Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail, a 39-mile link between two of the region’s population centers. The trail is a year-round destination for bikers, hikers, and snowmobilers, and Sakatah Lake State Park is often the base of operations for those who enjoy the ride. The lake is a natural wide spot in the Cannon River, making it a popular fishing spot, as well.
13) FOR THE ADVENTUROUS PHOTOGRAPHER: ST. CROIX
Distance from the Twin Cities: 97 miles; 91 minutes
Where the Kettle River flows into the St. Croix, there are 34,000 wooded acres of year-round recreation to be had. Most unique is the opportunity for an aerial view of the landscape via a decommissioned fire tower, which visitors can climb for an amazing 360-degree panorama of both rivers (all the way into Wisconsin!). Watch for big crowds on fall weekends, when the colors peak.
14) FOR THE FLY FISHING FANATIC: WHITEWATER
Distance from the Twin Cities: 106 miles; 114 minutes
Those fishing for trout usually think first of the streams that flow out of the Rockies, but the river bluff country of southeastern Minnesota is renowned locally for amazing fly fishing in this vast wooded ravine. Shaded from the heat of the region’s muggy summers, this is one of the more popular Twin Cities day trip locations, with a variety of camping facilities.
15) FOR THE AMPHIBIAN: WILD RIVER
Distance from the Twin Cities: 54 miles; 60 minutes
Barely an hour from the Twin Cities, visitors to Wild River find nearly 20 miles of unspoiled water access along the St. Croix, making this a warm-weather destination for countless forms of water recreation. If you prefer to keep your feet dry, the park has a 35-mile trail system for biking, hiking, and cross-country skiing. Summer nature programs round out the nature mix.
16) FOR THE WET 'N' WILD ATHLETE: WILLIAM O'BRIEN
Distance from the Twin Cities: 37 miles; 42 minutes
This park’s access to the smooth, relatively shallow, stretches of the St. Croix—and its close proximity to the Twin Cities—has made it a canoeing destination for years. Now, with stand-up paddling gaining in popularity, this is a destination for water enthusiasts to challenge their skills and try something new. The park’s rentable camper cabins are a fun way to make a full night of your park visit.
Are you an outdoors person? Let us know your favorite parks—and what makes ’em special—in the comments below.