Much of what’s cool about Minnesota can be taken at face value. Some sites or attractions, however, benefit from the insight or connected storyline that a knowledgeable tour guide can offer. We think these are some of the best guided tours in the North Star State.
After a series of shipwrecks in the early 1900s, Split Rock Lighthouse was constructed to protect mariners against the hazards of the local shoreline. Now operated by the Minnesota Historical Society, the lighthouse is one of Minnesota’s most recognizable landmarks and one of the best-preserved examples of a Great Lakes light station in the United States. Tours of Split Rock—the most photographed lighthouse in the country—are available year-round.
Once the home and studio of Prince, Paisley Park is now also infamous as the site of the star’s death. The company that operates Graceland now operates the facility and has opened it for public tours. You’ll see studio space, the intimate concert hall, a considerable amount of memorabilia. Although the residential area is largely—reverently—off-limits, you won’t be disappointed as you delve into the life of Minnesota’s most famous and reclusive pop star.
The first iron ore mine in Minnesota is now located within one of newest state parks. The Soudan Underground Mine operated for nearly 80 years, helping to lend the Iron Range its name and bringing Duluth to shipping prominence. Visitors will travel half a mile down into the mine by cage and three-quarters of a mile by rail to the last level that was mined before its 1962 closure. Tours are available from spring to fall.
James J. Hill, once the state’s wealthiest man, was a lumber baron and railroad magnate. His Summit Ave. sits regally on a bluff, overlooking downtown St. Paul and the Mississippi River. Taking a Minnesota Historical Society tour of this historic, Gilded Age stone home will send you back to the turn of the 20th Century and offer you a taste of the “good life” from that time period.
Although tours of Mystery Cave—the longest in Minnesota—don’t take in the entire 13-mile length of the system, you’ll accomplish a good amount of spelunking on any of the several tours offered by DNR guides. While most folks settle for the “Scenic Tour,” serious spelunkers can take a four-hour “Wild Caving” tour.
Hop in a kayak and leave the main channel of the mighty Mississippi for a guided tour of the serene, haunting flooded forest of the river’s backwaters. Learn about the biodiverse ecosystem of the Upper Mississippi as you paddle in silence beneath the hardwoood canopy, espying the occasional eagle or sliding by sunbathing turtles.
Built by on the shore of Lake Superior by the philanthropic Congdon family in the early 1900s, Glensheen mansion is an icon of 20th century opulence. It was owned by the family until heiress Elisabeth Congdon and her night nurse were murdered in the mansion. The University of Minnesota now operates the mansion and offer tours of the estate. Tour guides downplay the murders and discourage questions about it, focusing instead on its period décor and architecture.
The Segway Magical History Tour takes you on a five-mile stand-up scooter ride around the birthplace of Minneapolis: St. Anthony Falls. Guides will describe the history and geology of the area as you visit sites like Mill Ruins Park, Nicollet Island, and St. Anthony Main, crossing both the Hennepin Ave. and historic Stone Arch bridges.
Niagara Cave is Minnesota’s most popular commercial cave. Located in the same part of the limestone-bluffed “Driftless Region” as Mystery Cave, Niagara Cave tours take you on a mile-long, underground hike, down and back up 275 stairs. The payoff? An underground waterfall that gives the cave its name.
In his early years, St. Paul native F. Scott Fitzgerald made the city’s posh Summit Hill neighborhood his stomping grounds. Starting from the newly-restored Commodore Hotel, the Minnesota Historical Society offers a walking tour of the area, visiting some of the residences in which Fitzgerald lived and wrote. Most are in private hands, and many of these stately homes are now on the National Register of Historic Places. Strolling past the neighborhood’s historic mansions may offer some insight into the young writer’s motives for penning “The Great Gatsby.”