By Trent Jonas
Hiking is a wonderful way to get your heart pumping. As you hike with more frequency, you can up the ante by attempting to navigate longer, more challenging routes. The satisfaction of conquering a difficult trek combined with the gift of breathtaking views makes for a rewarding experience. Here are some of our favorite trails for an invigorating workout and energizing hike in Minnesota.
The entrance to Banning State Park is so close to Interstate 35 that you’d be hard-pressed to believe that a heavily-wooded park with steep bluffs and several sets of class III-V rapids is there. But lucky for you, it is. Banning State Park is bisected by the Kettle River as it rushes down toward its mouth. The state-designated Wild and Scenic River has carved a steep, rocky gorge through the boreal forest. Wolf Creek, on its course to meet the Kettle River, hewed its own gorge through the forest’s sandstone bedrock. And the trail along Wolf Creek is steep, rocky, and gorgeous. Upland forest gives way to large, exposed boulders as the trail steepens. Take the four-mile loop from the trailhead, following the creek downstream to 20-foot Wolf Creek Falls, where the stream cascades into the river. Then head back upstream. If you want to add some distance and elevation to your hike, cut over to the Hell’s Gate Trail, which skirts the whitewater on the Kettle River, via the High Bluff Trail, which intersects with the Wolf Creek Trail less than half a mile from the falls.
Tettegouche State Park is well-known for its challenging terrain. Most trails in the park have a “difficult” rating from the DNR, except for those rated “most difficult.” Parts of the trail to Mt. Baldy Lookout have earned the latter designation. To get to the trail, enter the park from inland, parking at the lot on Lax Lake Road, just north of the lake itself. Then start hiking up. You’ll hike about a mile through pines, aspen, birch, and balsam, gaining almost 300 feet of elevation, before turning left to head for the summit. Once you hit the top of Mt. Baldy, rest and enjoy the view. Then take the trail down toward Tettegouche Camp on Mic Mac Lake. You’ll find drinking water there. Be sure to fill your water bottle before heading out toward Floating Bog Bay, skirting around Tettegouche Lake, taking in views of Cedar and Lax Lakes, before rejoining the trail to the parking lot. The hike is about four miles with an elevation gain of more than 400 feet before you start heading back down.
Park at the Willard Munger State Trail lot on the east side of the town of Carlton. Start hiking east on the paved Munger Trail until you come to trail intersection 27. Take a right onto the rugged Carlton Trail, which follows the big rapids of the St. Louis River as it slices through Jay Cooke State Park. More than three miles of steep, rocky terrain follow the river gorge to a swinging bridge that leads to the park’s headquarters. At this point, you can make a choice: Fill your water bottle and go back the way you came or fill your water bottle and take the paved Forbay Trail to Thomson Trail. Compared to the Carlton Trail, the Forbay and Thomson Trails traverse relatively easy terrain. The Thomson Trail intersects with the Munger Trail on the other side of the river from where you started. Head west on the Munger Trail to get back to the trailhead.
Don’t let the wide, mowed grass of the Prairie Overlook Trail fool you: Sure, it’ll be easy on your feet, but your thighs will be screaming before you’re done. Park at the trailhead in William O’Brien State Park, which is located just outside the Twin Cities on the St. Croix River. Take the Wetland Trail 1.2 miles uphill through oak savanna and prairie to the Prairie Overlook Trail loop. The 1.4-mile loop skirts a pond and enables you to see sweeping vistas across and down the St. Croix River Valley. The loop ends at the Woodland Edge Trail, which you’ll take along the bluff’s edge before heading back down to the trailhead. The entire hike is more than seven miles, with a lot of ups and downs as you traverse the river bluffs. Wear good shoes and being plenty of water, as you won’t have a chance to refill until you pass the Savanna Campground on the way back down.
Folks looking for a trail workout in Southeast Minnesota need to head over to the Reno Recreational Area and test their mettle against the steep bluffs of the Mississippi River Valley. Start from the horse campground on Hillside Road in Reno Township, and take the short trail straight up and over the bluff. Hang a left at the “T” then a right at the fork that will lead you switch-backing down through the hardwood forest to the Crooked Creek Valley for about a mile. Head up the next bluff, then follow ridgeline along the creek until you meet the Brownsville Trail and Sand Rock Point Forest Road. Turn left to follow the trail back down the creek until it meets up with another forest road at a gate. Continue heading downhill on the road until you run into Reno Trail near where it crosses Crooked Creek. Follow the Reno Trail back to where you started. This hike is nearly 10 miles with a lot of ups and downs—but also a lot of payoffs: Views across and down the Mississippi Valley and out over the Bluff Country of Southern Minnesota. Bring a daypack with lots of water and snacks. Wear sturdy shoes, as some of the trails can be tricky and there are rattlesnakes in the area.