The Pigeon River roars down a 120-foot drop on the Canadian border, forging the tallest waterfall in Minnesota. About 250 miles due west, carnivorous pitcher plants lure insects with sweet nectar, playing their small part in a 500-square-mile otherworldly peat bog landscape. Farther west, tall prairie grasses dance and swirl in wind whipping off the plains. Bluffs in the east tower over the Mississippi, the continent's largest river.
These remarkable places — Grand Portage, Big Bog, Buffalo River, Great River Bluffs — comprise a small part of Minnesota's vast state park system. The richly diverse landscapes here include caves that weave underground and old-growth forests that touch the sky.
But the parks do more than hold these natural gems. The system includes bike and water trails, ribbons of green and blue to be explored. It leans on scientists to keep the lands bustling with life and offers some of the state's best places to spend the night, no tent required.
With holdings that range from tiny to immense, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' division of Parks and Trails boasts 66 parks, nine recreation areas and nine waysides encompassing 240,600 acres, plus 25 land-based trails and 35 water trails that collectively cover more than 6,000 miles. That's a lot of parkland — and it is full of hidden treasures and more than a few surprises.
More to explore
At Lake Vermilion, wild roses and thick woods encircle a grassy area with picnic tables overlooking sparkling waves. A dock welcomes boaters; the landlocked can arrive by car. The site in Soudan is prime shoreline real estate on one of the state's most beautiful lakes. Only one thing saved it from becoming an upscale housing development: Minnesota bought the land — 2,848 acres worth — and turned it over to everyone as its newest state park.
The move, in 2010, underscores the DNR's continuing drive to expand access to Minnesota's outdoors.
The lakeside picnic area was just the first development at Vermilion. The park now includes a hiking trail that runs past exposed bedrock 2.7 billion years old and two canoe-in campsites, 32 campsites with electricity, three group campgrounds and eight camper cabins, with electricity, heat and Wi-Fi, that opened this winter. In 2014, the park merged with its neighbor known for subterranean iron ore mine tours to become Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park.
Another relative newcomer to the system is the Big Bog State Recreation Area, in Waskish. The park encompasses part of a 500-square-mile peat bog, the largest peatlands in the Lower 48 states. A mile-long boardwalk, completed in 2005, juts into this strange landscape that hosts scraggy tamarack trees, orchids, moose and western painted turtles.
On the Iron Range, Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area turned the gouged landscape left by open-pit mining into a magnet for mountain bikers, kayakers and scuba divers, a process begun in 1993. In 2011, the state created La Salle Lake State Recreation Area in Solway. The 1,000-acre plot of woodland has trails, one of the state's deepest lakes, a boat launch, 39 campsites and two cabins.
These projects continue a long history. Minnesota became the second state in the nation to set aside lands for protection and outdoor enjoyment in 1891, when Itasca State Park was created at the trickling start of the Mississippi River. Since then, the system of parks and trails has grown so vast that most Minnesotans live within 30 miles of one of them.
We have ourselves to thank: Minnesotans have consistently supported funds for parks with bonding bills, cigarette taxes and lottery proceeds. In 2008, we added the Legacy Amendment to the constitution, a portion of which ensures a steady flow of funds to parks and trails.
Further proof of our enthusiasm lay in the numbers. Parks hosted 12 million visits last year, according to DNR estimates, and in a year when the outdoors beckoned more than ever, annual permit sales were up 69%.
Land of 35 water trails
The 42-mile Root River State Trail meanders through quaint towns and bucolic landscapes in southeastern Minnesota. The route, atop former railroad beds, draws people who pedal for miles. A less well-known trail runs right beside it. The Root River State Water Trail makes sure that kayakers and canoeists can explore the same bluffs, wooded hills and pasturelands as bikers.
In the realm of water trails, Minnesota was a trailblazer.
In 1963, the state became one of the first in the nation to designate waterways as places for people to enjoy. The Big Fork, Little Fork, Minnesota and St. Croix rivers became the founding four. The Mississippi, Root and 10 others joined in 1967, making Minnesota's state water trail system the largest in the country. With numerous additions since then, the system now veins across the state and includes the Lake Superior Water Trail, with five distinct sections stretching a collective 150 miles from St. Louis Bay in Duluth to the Pigeon River on the Canadian border.
In total, 35 designated waterways cover more than 4,500 miles on rivers and Lake Superior and outnumber the 25 landlocked trails.
Each has been mapped, with access, rest stops and campsites noted along the way. Signs guide visitors. The DNR also measures river levels, from "scrapable," so low canoes can scrape the bottom, to "very high," an indication that the river is dangerous. Private outfitters serve the trails, acting as guides or renting equipment. Some routes pose risks such as white water rapids. Lake Superior conditions can change rapidly and has dangerously low temperatures.
But others, like most sections of the St. Croix, offer gentle floats. Paddlers pass sandstone bluffs and sandy islands. Along the Mississippi near Wabasha, slow back channels glide through quiet lands; in parts of the metro, the city slips away, shrouded by trees along the riverbank.
Research to fuel conservation
Bison still rumble across prairies — and in Minnesota, most of them live in state parks. Though the animals nearly went extinct after European settlers arrived, these rugged beasts are going strong at Blue Mounds State Park in Luverne and Minneopa State Park in Mankato.
The species' rebound is due to an unsung mission of our state parks. They are bound by law to preserve and perpetuate significant natural and cultural areas and to reintroduce significant species that had once been abundant on the land.
A staff of 18 resource specialists, mostly ecologists, keep park lands thriving, fix troubled spots and work with an archaeologist and historians from the Minnesota Historical Society to ensure that any new park projects don't pave over history.
Members of the Minnesota Bison Conservation Herd, as the rebounding population is known, share a rare biological profile that makes them different from most of the bison elsewhere in the U.S.: None of the animals have traceable cattle DNA.
The staff who look after these wild bison know the DNA profile of each animal, information they use to bolster genetic diversity and keep the herd growing by shuffling certain individuals between pods.
Given their commanding size and historic significance, bison attract the most attention, but the parks focus on a range of significant species.
Despite its scientific name — Crotalus horridus — the timber rattlesnake is a beauty, with a banded body and black tail. For years the venomous slitherer persevered in the bluffs of southeastern Minnesota. But a survey in the 1990s found a steep decline in their numbers. Park staff responded with patrols to scare away poachers and by clearing den sites of shading brush since the animals need sun. The animals are making a comeback.
Scientists have also used prescribed burns to keep prairielands healthy, planted soggy lands at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park near Northfield with water-tolerant trees and removed invasive species at many parks. Much of the vital work goes unnoticed, tucked away on the 95% of state park lands that are undeveloped, wild and protected.
Slumber party, park-style
Out in the woods or prairie, away from the city, the night sky sparkles with stars. In the morning, bird calls nudge a sleeper awake and the rising sun slowly turns the world from muted to bright. The scene beats an alarm clock's blare and the quick, harsh switch of electric lights — it is worthy of the small effort of pitching a tent. But in Minnesota, that is not the only way.
The parks service has for years been increasing its lodging options as a way to get more Minnesotans into the parks for a natural kind of slumber party.
Yurts, circular, insulated, canvas-wrapped structures crowned with skylights, have been popular since debuting in 2014. Afton State Park in Hastings has two. Three at Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area in Ironton cluster along Yawkey Mine Lake, not far off a mountain-bike path. The two-yurt campsite at Glendalough State Park in Battle Lake sits on the far side of Annie Battle Lake, away from much of the park's activity; overnighters arrive by paved path or canoe. The yurts have wood flooring, basic furniture and wood stoves for heating inside, and picnic tables, a fire ring and grills outside.
Yurts originated in Mongolia, but parks offer a historic shelter that springs from our region, too. Two tepees at Blue Mounds and three at Upper Sioux Agency State Park in Granite Falls provide overnight shelter — and a small round opening overhead that offers a peek at the stars.
Walled tents, 10- by 12-foot canvas structures on a platform, are another alternative camping experience. Afton State Park has one. Myre-Big Island State Park in Albert Lea offers two, and one is in a hike-in site.
Want a solid wall between you and the outdoors? Last year, Camden State Park near Marshall opened a renovated Depression-era lodge that sleeps eight. At Tettegouche State Park in Silver Bay, Tettegouche Camp is a cluster of four rustic hike-in cabins nestled on a lake more than 3 miles by foot (or mountain bike or cross-country skis) from the main park trailhead. In Park Rapids, Itasca State Park, the second largest in the system, offers four-season suites, and seasonal cabins and lodge rooms at the historic Douglas Lodge, which has a dining room that serves three meals a day.
The most popular of the camping light offerings are camper cabins, and they are mushrooming. More than 100 of these 12-by-16 structures now dot the parks. The newest opened in January at Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park. The eight camper cabins there — the most at any park — are practically posh: They come with Wi-Fi. In other ways, they share the camping vibe of others in the system, which all come with bunk beds, mattresses, a table and benches inside. Some have electricity, heat and screen porches, but none have bathrooms. It's camping, after all.