By Trent Jonas
In a state renowned for its trails, its hard to pick just a handful of scenic hikes—there are so many. What makes Minnesota such a great state for hiking is the diversity of terrain from one end of the state to the other: Sweeping, mountaintop views of the world’s biggest lake in the northeast to the prairies of Western legend in the southwest. And everything in between. Here are five hikes that we think are some of the most beautiful.
The 3.5-mile Lookout Mountain Loop begins at the trailhead in Cascade River State Park, and curves along the river gorge and the rushing cataracts for which the park is named. You cross a bridge and head up through the forests of birch, aspen, spruce and fir, gaining 600 feet in elevation over 1.75 miles, until you reach the top of Lookout Mountain on the Superior Hiking Trail. From the summit, you’ll have views to Lake Superior, up and down the Sawtooth Mountains and deep into the Cascade River gorge, as well as the valleys of two tributaries. As you breathe and take in the view, you can relish the fact that the return is downhill all the way.
If you’re looking for a fantastic hike that’s not far from the Twin Cities, head 40 minutes east to Afton State Park. Although the park is intersected with several superb trails, the Trout Brook Loop offers just the right combination of rigor, seclusion, and payoff to make it worth the trip. From the parking areas, this loop follows Trout Brook, which is rushing down from the bluffs to the St. Croix River, through a tight, wooded ravine, over wooden bridges, and then up over the top of the river bluff. The payoff is gorgeous views up and down the river valley and across the park’s restored prairie areas.
This hike is located within George H. Crosby Manitou State Park, the state’s first true wilderness park. Starting from the trailhead in the park, hike 1.6 miles on the Humpback Trail, through the birches and spruce, stopping to enjoy sweeping vistas of the Manitou River Valley, as you gain elevation. Then descend until you connect with the Manitou River Trail. Stop to enjoy the cascades on the river as it rushes down toward Lake Superior. Then follow the Manitou River Trail along the valley, keeping your eyes open for the moose, black bears, and wolves that call this park home. Stick with the trail for another 1.8 miles, until it connects with the Cedar Ridge Trail. Take the Cedar Ridge and Yellow Birch trails, past views over Benson Lake, back to the trailhead. Bring plenty of water along. The park has no modern facilities, so if you’re hoping to camp, be prepared to hike to your site with everything you need.
Lake Maria is a wilderness park that contains a remnant of the deciduous Big Woods forest that once covered more than 3,000 square-miles of Southern Minnesota. The 5.5-mile Big Woods Loop highlights the old-growth maple, oak, and basswood trees that dominated the terrain in the pre-settlement past. The hike will take you over rolling hills, through forests, and along several lakes, ponds, and marshes. Spectacular autumn colors make this hike particularly beautiful in the fall. Because Lake Maria is designed as a wilderness park, there are few amenities, and all sites are hike-in.
Grand Portage State Park, one of the newest in the system, is sandwiched between the Grand Portage Ojibwe Nation—who lease the land to the state for park use—and Canada. It’s named Grand Portage because fur traders seeking to reach Lake Superior from the interior—or vice versa—have to bypass the last 20 miles of rapids and falls in Lower Pigeon River gorge. It’s this part of the river that the park seeks to highlight. Starting from the visitor’s center, you’ll hike an easy half-mile to the 120-foot High Falls, the tallest, and arguably most spectacular, waterfall in the state (since the falls are shared with Canada, they’re not entirely “in” Minnesota). From there, you’ll hike another 1.75 miles along the river bank, through aspen, birch, and spruce, along ridge lines with views to Canada and a vista of the spectacularly rugged Middle Falls.