On Air
0:00
0:00
Open In Popup
MPR News

The trail less traveled: Where to find Minnesota parks that are off the beaten path

Share story

Great River Bluffs State Park
A winding trail in Great River Bluffs State Park, taken Sept. 20, 2017
Tony Webster via Flickr 2017

There’s no shortage of beautiful state parks in Minnesota. But if you feel like you’ve already seen it all, or if you’re just looking to beat the crowds, consider a trip to one of these lesser visited parks.

Randolph Briley, special assistant to the commissioner at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, provided the suggestions and this important caveat: “The more remote parks tend to have less visitors, but they are not any less beautiful.”

In northwest Minnesota: A trip to the beach

Zippel Bay State Park
A beach along Lake of the Woods, at Zippel Bay State Park, taken Oct. 6, 2017.
Tony Webster via Flickr 2017

Zippel Bay State Park has a little bit of everything. Located on Lake of the Woods, the park totes trails, campsites, scenic views and beaches that offer great opportunities for swimming and fishing.

“A visitor recently described it as Florida-like,” said Briley.

In the same region, you’ll find Hayes Lake, Garden Island and Franz Jevne State Park.

If you’re looking for scenic views and quiet trails check out Hayes Lake. The park contains Grefthen Bay Overlook, a boardwalk through the bog and walk-in campsites as well as cabins. It’s a great place if you want to watch wildlife or take a dip in the lake, but if you’re planning on boating keep in mind that only electric motors are permitted.

Garden Island is a little tougher to get to, being 19 miles off the south shore of Lake of the Woods. Once you get there, though, it’s a great place for fishing, birding or just taking in the scenery as you walk down the beach.

Finally, Franz Jevne is the spot for folks in search of scenic trails and campgrounds. Located along the Rainy River, you can take your time searching for the perfect fishing spot.

In southeast Minnesota: Scope the scenic shores

Great River Bluffs State Park
A view of the Mississippi River from Great River Bluffs State Park, taken on Sept. 20, 2017.
Tony Webster via Flickr 2017

Lake Superior holds a special place in the hearts of Minnesotans, but it isn't the only option for waterfront views and adventures.

“If you are a fan of the north shore experience but want to get away from the crowds, check out the south shore,” Briley said.

Located along the Mississippi River, Frontenac State Park is packed with campsites and hiking trails where you can explore the area around Lake Pepin, the surrounding prairies or the shores of The Big Muddy. Reserve a campsite so you can take your time soaking it all in.

Or, if you’re looking for a day trip, John A. Latsch State Park is a good alternative. There, you can take a hike up Mount Charity for a breathtaking view of the Mississippi River Valley. It’s only a half-mile trek, but it’s all stairs so make sure you come prepared with comfortable shoes and drinking water.

Great River Bluffs State Park is another spot for hikes that end in incredible views. There are several scenic overlooks, plenty of prairie to traverse and walk-in campsites — many of which are surrounded by trees and vegetation.

In southwest Minnesota: Something for everyone

A path in Kilen Woods State Park
A path in Kilen Woods State Park, taken on Oct. 24, 2017
Tony Webster via Flickr 2017

Kilen Woods State Park is a quiet spot near the border of Iowa that offers all the outdoor staples: hiking, canoeing, camping, bird watching, and picnicking. Trails take you past creeks and prairies where you can check out rare wildflowers and other plants.

For a more strenuous hike, travel up to the Des Moines Overlook — the tallest bluff overlooking the river.

How to check if your favorite park is crowded, before you go

If you had your heart set on a certain state park, a good way to gauge the crowds is by checking availability on the DNR’s campsite reservation system. Once you select your campsite and a date range you can browse through how many sites have already been reserved.

Not finding an opening? Consider a state forest instead.

“State forest campgrounds are first-come, first-served and always a good alternative if you’re interested in visiting a particular region,” Briley said.

And if all else fails, just keep exploring.

“Due to the how extensive they are, state trails and state water trails provide good opportunities for a solitary experience,” he said.

Looking for more news from the outdoors? Check out our full coverage here and download our Outside in MN app where you'll find guides, outdoor events near you and weather updates. Get it on Apple or Android stores.