Breaking News
More () »

Minnesota State Parks 101: A beginner's guide to going outside

Summer is the perfect time to explore the wealth of state parkland across Minnesota, but with a little research, you'll see our parks offer something all year-round.

MINNEAPOLIS — Close your eyes.

Can you hear the rushing water at Gooseberry Falls? Trumpeter swans at Lake Maria? Wind blowing through the prairie at Blue Mounds?

Summer is the perfect time to explore the wealth of state parkland across Minnesota, but with a little research, you'll find there's a place for the adventurer in all of us year-round.

Read on for a beginner's guide to navigating Minnesota's system of 75 state parks and recreation areas, and a side of personal park recommendations from KARE 11 staff.

Before you go, purchase your permit

Visitors to all of Minnesota's state parks are required to purchase a vehicle permit, which the DNR suggests purchasing before you arrive.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) provides park visitors with the option to acquire either a daily or yearly pass, which can be purchased at:

A year-round pass is $35 and is good for an unlimited amount of visits at any of Minnesota's state parks for a full year from the month of purchase. Daily vehicle permits will set you back $7 and are good for an unlimited amount of visits to any state park for the day. 

If you're staying in a park overnight, you can get a one-day overnight pass, which remains valid through 4 p.m. the next day.

Visitors with a tendency toward convenience and efficiency can also buy a permit through the Yodel app (for both Apple and Android), which acts as a one-stop shop for not only permits but additional purchases like overnight camping reservations, firewood and other amenities. 

Also, be on the lookout for various deals that include free passes and discounts for veterans, active military, tribal members, educators, people with disabilities and others.

Not a fan of windshield stickers? Minnesota State Parks and Trails license plates are available, too.

For a list of all fees when planning your trip, click here.

Not all those who wander are lost! Download a map app

Avenza Maps offers easy navigation and GPS location tracking — no cell service or internet is required.

The app, available to download for both Apple and Android devices, contains free, up-to-date GeoPDF maps. All you have to do is download the app and type "MNDNR" and the name of your intended destination in the search bar of the Avenza store (e.g. "MNDNR Frontenac State Park"). 

Maps available for viewing include:

  • State forests
  • State parks and rec areas
  • State trails
  • State water trails
  • Trout streams
  • Hunter walking trails
  • Off-highway vehicle trails
  • Snowmobile trails
  • Twin Cities area public boat landings

If you prefer a different means of viewing GeoPDF maps on your device, the DNR made a map of the state's park locations available for download here.

Some rules are meant to be broken — but NOT these ones

Minnesota's state parks are meant to be enjoyed by everyone, so to preserve that philosophy and the actual parks and rec areas themselves, the DNR stresses the importance of following a general set of rules, while also adhering to specific guidelines set in place for each respective location you plan to visit.

The list includes, but is not limited to:

  • Restrictions on possessing and consuming alcohol; as well as adherence to state laws regarding possession and use of drugs
  • Buying firewood near where you intend to burn it to curb the spread of invasive species of tree insects and disease. (Always check state fire danger and burning restrictions before heading out.)
  • Abstaining from igniting fireworks inside state parks
  • Complying with state fishing laws, including licensure and keep limits
  • Foraging for edible fruits and mushrooms for personal use; foraging for commercial harvesting is not allowed
  • Picking wildflowers and other plants is not allowed
  • Pets are allowed, but they must be kept on a 6-foot-or-shorter leash and be attended to at all times. Only service animals are allowed inside state park buildings, beaches, on tours, etc.
  • Smoking is not allowed indoors or within 30 feet of park buildings.
  • People who are legally permitted to carry a handgun in the state of Minnesota may do so in state parks, but it's otherwise illegal to possess explosives or firearms of any kind — unless unloaded and fully contained in a gun case or closed trunk of a vehicle.

For a list of more regulations from the DNR, click here. If you'd like to see the complete rules and regulations for Minnesota's state parks system put forth by the legislature, click here.

Not sure what to bring? Send yourself packing with a checklist

Thanks to the DNR, novice parkgoers can hold their own among the ranks of even the most experienced explorers with a helpful supply checklist for both single-day and overnight excursions.

The list includes recommendations for clothing, personal gear, camp gear and kitchen gear to adapt to (almost) whatever the wilderness throws at you. For the DNR's comprehensive preparedness list, click here.

Hit a fork in the road? Let state officials pave the way for you

If you're new to Minnesota — or the great outdoors in general — planning your state park visit can seem like a lot of pressure.

If you aren't sure where to start, check out some of the DNR's various itineraries already customized and catered to those looking for the perfect plan. 

Now, let's get to the fun...facts!

According to the DNR:

  • There are 66 state parks, 9 state recreation areas and 9 state waysides, totaling 235,545 acres.
  • Campers can choose from more than 5,000 campsites throughout 43 state forest campgrounds.
  • There are 25 state trails that provide more than 1,500 miles of developed trail — 647 of which are paved.
  • Public water accesses, campsites, rest areas and scenic views are among the perks associated with the state's 35 water trails covering over 4,500 miles.
  • Prospective anglers can set their outgoing messages to "Gone Fishing" with 100s of fishing piers and shore fishing sites across the state.
  • Depending on location, our state forests and parks present nature lovers with the chance to catch a glimpse of a wide range of wildlife. The DNR lists thousands of species native to Minnesota, including 78 mammals; 22 amphibians; 31 reptiles; 444 birds; 800 nongame; and 20,000 invertebrates. The DNR notes also that Minnesota has the largest population of gray wolves and bald eagles in the lower 48 states.

Still don't know where to go? Here are a few recommendations from KARE staff to get you started:

A must-stop destination for Minnesotans and out-of-state visitors alike, Minnesota’s first state park is famously home to the headwaters of the Mississippi River; but don’t miss the towering pines, the miles of paved bike trails, and the cool waters of Lake Itasca.

Credit: Jeremiah Jacobsen/KARE 11
Itasca State Park - Park Rapids, Minnesota

Northeast of Two Harbors, the first of the North Shore state parks along Highway 61 features the must-photograph namesake falls, along with fantastic hikes and great views of Lake Superior.

Credit: Jeremiah Jacobsen/KARE 11
Gooseberry Falls State Park - Two Harbors, Minnesota

Possibly one of the most photographed landmarks in the state, be sure to follow the trails down to the Lake Superior shore to the south of the historic site for postcard-ready pics of the famous lighthouse on the rocky cliffs above.

Credit: KARE
Split Rock Lighthouse on Lake Superior - Two Harbors, Minnesota

You might be forgiven if you forgot you were even in Minnesota when you visit this park in the heart of southeastern Minnesota’s river bluffs, featuring sweeping vistas of the Mississippi River and neighboring Wisconsin.

Credit: Jeremiah Jacobsen/KARE 11
Great River Bluffs State Park - Winona, Minnesota

Just southeast of Bigfork in northern Minnesota, you’ll find this gem of a park that lives up to its name. A great spot to camp, fish and hike, and depending on the time of year, catch some cool fall colors too.

Credit: Jeremiah Jacobsen/KARE 11
Scenic State Park - Bigfork, Minnesota

If you're just looking for a day trip on the edge of the Twin Cities, there are several parks to consider along the St. Croix River, including Afton, which features a variety of bluffs, woods, prairie, and river views.

Credit: Alissa Gold
Afton State Park - Hastings, Minnesota

It’s quite a trek along the entire Minnesota North Shore to get to this park located right on the Canadian border, but the journey pays off with a short walk to spectacular views of High Falls on the Pigeon River.

Credit: Jeremiah Jacobsen/KARE 11
Grand Portage State Park - Grand Portage, Minnesota

The wilderness experience is especially memorable – an easy hike to the waterfall is surrounded by trees and the sound of the rushing Pigeon River.

The views are breathtaking, but remember to wear a poncho – the waterfall is so powerful, you will get surprisingly wet.

There is also a lesser-known trail along the river that’s more beautiful than the paved hiking trail.

There are various interpretive displays, including an international boundary marking Canada.

Lastly, it’s so close to Grand Marais – a town that reminds me of the Pacific Northwest that has some of the best seafood at the restaurant Fisherman’s Daughter.

Credit: Jennifer Hoff/KARE 11
Grand Portage State Park - Grand Portage, Minnesota

Located about two hours north of the Twin Cities, Jay Cooke is a super popular park that's also close to Duluth. I've been multiple times, for both hiking and casual leaf-peeping in the fall. There are plenty of trail options for those looking for a more moderate hike and tons of great spots to stop for photos! The river and Swing Bridge are especially beautiful in the fall when the leaves turn orange and yellow.

Credit: Alexandra Simon, KARE 11
Jay Cooke State Park in Carlton, MN


Download the free KARE 11+ app for Roku, Fire TV, Apple TV and other smart TV platforms to watch more from KARE 11 anytime! The KARE 11+ app includes live streams of all of KARE 11's newscasts. You'll also find on-demand replays of newscasts; the latest from KARE 11 Investigates, Breaking the News and the Land of 10,000 Stories; exclusive programs like Verify and HeartThreads; and Minnesota sports talk from our partners at Locked On Minnesota. 

Watch more Hitting the Trails:

Watch more about Minnesota's State Parks and Trails in our YouTube playlist:

Before You Leave, Check This Out