One may not expect a Midwestern state to be a hiker's paradise, but Minnesota defies all such expectations. In fact, American Trails named Minnesota its "Best Trails State." With ecosystems that range from vast prairies in the southwest part of the state, to deep, boreal forests in the north and rugged coastline along the North Shore of Lake Superior, Minnesota is one of the country's premier hiking destinations. If you're looking for elevation, waterfalls and megafauna, head north. Big sky and seas of grass? Head south. Scenic water views? Just look around. Minnesota boasts more than 12,000 lakes, as well as the Mississippi, Minnesota and St. Croix Rivers. Here are the 15 best hiking trails the Gopher State has to offer.
For serious hikers who want to see as much of the state's biodiversity as possible, the Minnesota section of the North Country Trail (NCT) is as good as it gets. A National Scenic Trail that traverses two national forests and a national wildlife refuge, the NCT tracks along the Sawbill Mountains on Lake Superior's North Shore, skirts the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) and nears the headwaters of the Mississippi River before entering North Dakota near Fargo. Once all sections are complete, the NCT will be the longest in the country, with 4,600 miles of trails stretching from New York to North Dakota.
With more than 300 miles of pathway that tracks the North Shore of Lake Superior, the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) is the longest trail that lies wholly within the state. The trail runs from Jay Cooke State Park, just south of Duluth to the Canadian border. Stunning vistas, and the opportunity to cross paths with North Woods species like black bear, timber wolves and moose, make the SHT a popular destination for hikers. Deserted back country and rugged terrain-elevation changes of several hundred feet are common-mean that novices should not attempt to through-hike. However, plenty of section hiking possibilities are available for trekkers with less time or less experience.
The Split Rock River Loop is a gorgeous day hike that starts from the trailhead on Highway 61, at the mouth of the Split Rock River where it opens into Lake Superior. The trail follows the river gorge, up the lake bluffs, to where a SHT walk bridge traverses the flow, and then back down to the trailhead. Rapids, waterfalls and dense forest make a hiker feel lost in time. One can walk the five-plus miles of trail and never see another human being.
Due to a 19th century surveying error, a 40-acre stand of massive red and white pine trees escaped Minnesota's voracious appetite for lumber. Now located within the boundaries of the Chippewa National Forest in north-central Minnesota, the 'Lost 40,' as it's now known, offers a snapchat of the state's landscape prior to the extreme changes brought about by settlement. A couple of short loops are easy walks for hikers who want to see a bit of the Minnesota's natural history.
Stretching more than 60 miles from the SHT near Grand Portage to the Gunflint Trail, north of Grand Marais, the Border Route Trail (BRT) traverses the BWCAW just south of the Canadian border (hence, the name). Most of the BRT's route is true backcountry, so only experienced hikers and campers should attempt the trek. Because of its sections within the BWCAW, through-hikers will need to obtain the proper permits to enter the backcountry. Several spur trails connect to the BRT and offer day hiking opportunities, as well.
Located between Grand Marais and Hovland on Hwy. 61, Judge C.R. Magney State Park offers nine miles of trails along the swift and tumbling Brule River. Walking upriver from the trailhead, hikers can participate in a self-guided nature tour as they make their ways to the park's signature feature: The Devil's Kettle. A double waterfall in which one cascade continues downriver and the other disappears mysteriously into a rocky maw in the riverbed, the Devil's Kettle is a popular hiking destination. While the trail is relatively short, day hikers should be aware of considerable elevation changes and a large number of steps on the walk.
Hikers in the Twin Cities can find a river oasis in the form of the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge (MVNWR). The Louisville Swamp Unit, on the western end of the refuge, near Shakopee, offers a system of several intersecting trails that meander through the largest and most diverse part of the MVNWR. Swamp, prairie, bottomland forest and hardwood hammocks can all be explored during a single day's hike through the area.
The trails at the Jeffers Petroglyphs historic site are not so much about the hike as the history. What makes this short loop one of the best in Minnesota is that it showcases the natural prairie beauty of the southwest as it leads hikers to one of the state's most significant archaeological sites. More than 7,000 years old, the Jeffers Petroglyphs were carved into exposed prairie bedrock by the area's ancient Native Americans. The carvings depict humans, elk, bison, turtles, arrows and more.
Sweeping views of the upper Mississippi River and vistas to Wisconsin from bluff tops 500 feet over the river valley make the seven miles of trails in Great River Bluffs State Park some of the most stunning in Minnesota. Migrating bald eagles and the hardwood forest's fabulous fall foliage draw hikers, particularly in the autumn.
The "Kek," as the Kekekabic Trail is commonly known, wends its way through 46 miles of the Superior National Forest, from Snowbank Lake near Ely to the northern terminus of the Gunflint Trail in the BWCAW. A true backcountry trail, in an area where wolves, moose and black bears are common, hikers are encouraged to bone up on map and compass skills, carry bear spray and use bear-resistant food containers.
One of Minnesota's premier prairie parks, Blue Mounds State Park is home to shimmering Sioux quartzite cliffs and a rolling sea of tallgrass where buffalo still roam. The Upper Cliffline Trail, which is an easy day hike along the top of the cliff, affords hikers panoramic views over the prairie, extending south and west to the state's borders.
Located within the eponymous park, the Beaver Creek Valley Trail is a six-mile loop that highlights the beauty of the Upper Midwest's "Driftless Area," a term describing that part of the country which avoided glacial coverage during the last Ice Age. What otherwise would have been prairie instead is an area of limestone bluffs, clear springs and hardwood forest. The trail offers a moderate work with only a couple hundred feet of elevation change as it climbs and descends the valley carved out by Beaver Creek.
A semi-paved multi-use path that follows a former railroad bed, the Glacial Lakes State Trail showcases the beauty of central Minnesota over dozens of miles, moving from eastern deciduous forest into the state's western prairies. Wetlands, virgin prairie and many glacier-created lakes lend to the popularity of this trail for hikers, as well as cyclists.
In an area dotted with prairie knolls, glacial lakes and hardwood forest, the Lakeview Trail and climb to Mt. Tom offers something unique: an elevated, 360-degree view. One of the highest points in 50-mile radius, Mt. Tom is not all that tall-only 185 feet of elevation change over 3.5 miles of trail- but has just enough altitude to gratify hikers with breathtaking, landscape vistas once they reach the top.
With more than 20 miles of hiking trails-six miles of which are maintained during winter months-Afton State Park may be the best hiking destination near the Twin Cities metro area. From St. Croix River beaches to bluff-top prairies, the park's trails wend their ways through miles of forested ravines and tall-grass savannahs that offer spectacular views across and down the river, as far as Wisconsin.