By Trent Jonas
Minnesota is a hiker’s paradise. With terrain that ranges from elevation changes of almost 2,000 feet in the northeast part of the state to sweeping prairie in the southwest—and a lot of variety in between—hikers are guaranteed to find a trail to suit their mood and ability. Whether you’re looking for a walk along the water or to roam with the buffalo, the North Star State has the trail for you.
One of Minnesota’s most beautiful prairie parks, Blue Mounds State Park is a testament to the tallgrass and big skies of the state’s Western region. One of the best ways to see what the park has to offer is to hike the 4.5-mile Upper Cliffline Trail. Paved in some portions and graveled in others, this relatively tame hike sees less than 150 feet of elevation change as it ascends shimmering cliffs hewn from Sioux quartzite. On the prairie, though, this is enough to create panoramic views across the grasslands and the park’s native heard of American bison to the horizons over Iowa and South Dakota.
The Root River State Trail is a 42-mile, paved multi-use trail system that follows the course of the Root River in Southeastern Minnesota. The Root River valley is a prime example of the Upper Midwest “Driftless Area,” describes the part of the country that avoided glacial coverage during the last Ice Age. Rather than praire, you’ll take in views of limestone bluffs, pristine springs, and hardwood forest. Wildlife, such as whitetail deer, raccoons, raptors, wild turkeys, and the protected timber rattlesnake are not uncommon along the trail.
Start at the mouth of Temperance River in the eponymous state park, and follow the trail along its course and back into geological time. The first part of the hike from the Lake Superior shoreline across Highway 61 to hidden falls and along the cauldrons gouged into the feldspar by the flow of the river is ruggedly gorgeous but not overly-challenging. Parents should keep a hand on children at points where the trail gets close to the gorge. Those with the lung capacity can keep going beyond where the park trail converges with the Superior Hiking Trail and to the 1,500-foot Summit of Carlton peak. The total vertical rise of the three-mile hike from shore to summit is about 600 feet. Birds, black bears, deer, moose, and fox are often sighted in the park. Turn around at the summit to complete the six-mile round trip.
Overlooking the Mississippi River as it widens into Lake Pepin south of Red Wing, Frontenac State Park’s Bluffside Trail is a loop that can be as challenging as you want to make it. Stay on top of the bluff and simply return to the starting point for sweeping vistas across the river valley to Wisconsin. The more adventurous can complete the entire loop, including a descent to the banks of the Mississippi and a climb of more than 400 vertical feet as you ascend the bluff to close the loop. Apart from wildlife like deer and wild turkeys, hikers may see raptors, including vultures, hawks, bald eagles, and golden eagles—all of which use the river as a migration way—as they traverse the trail.
One of the Minnesota’s most stunning day hikes, the Split Rock River Loop is a starts from the trailhead on Highway 61, where the Split Rock River finishes its downward tumble to Lake Superior. The 4.5-mile loop follows the river gorge, up the lake bluffs, along a rugged footpath. While the hiking itself is not particularly challenging, the trail can be rough as it traverses hills, tree roots, and boardwalks to a Superior Hiking Trail walk bridge over the river. Moose, deer, and black bears may be seen, but rapids, waterfalls and beautiful dense forest are guaranteed—as are sweeping Lake Superior views at the beginning and end of the hike. Seeing another hiker, on the other hand, is not.