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Get to know Minnesota’s many landscapes with these 10 hikes

A winding trail in Great River Bluffs State Park, taken Sept. 20, 2017
A winding trail in Great River Bluffs State Park, taken Sept. 20, 2017Tony Webster via Flickr 2017

by Darby Ottoson

July 29, 2022

The name “Minnesota” was extracted from the Dakota phrase Mni Sota Makoce, which roughly translates to the land of cloudy waters. But did you know it also contains the largest peat bog in the lower 48?

There is much to explore within Minnesota’s borders, from urban lake shores to old-growth pine forests. We have an amazing array of habitat types to see in all corners of the state, so lace up your boots, apply your sunscreen and get out there. Let this list of trails guide you through a wide range of landscapes.

Bluffs - King’s Bluff Overlook

The most recent wave of glaciers never scraped this corner of Minnesota, leaving it with distinctly unique topography. This trail starts at a high elevation (you know, for Minnesota) and gradually climbs up to a phenomenal view of the Mississippi River Valley, especially during the colorful fall months. Birders: don’t forget the binos lest you miss a migrating bobolink heading back to South America. To lengthen the trek, park at the Great River Bluffs Picnic Ground.

2.5 miles, Great River Bluffs State Park, Winona

waterfall at Nerstrand State Park
Hidden Falls at Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park near Faribault. The area's geology is like two pancakes -- a layer of glacial drift about 150 feet thick overlying a layer of Platteville Limestone. Erosion at the falls exposes the limestone.
Cassandra Parker

Coniferous Forest - The Lost 40 Loop

Due to an 1882 logging survey error, this patch of old-growth red and white pine narrowly escaped the saw. Today those trees are 300-400 years old, thriving in a forest that brims with colorful fungi and lush mosses in the warmer months. The main hike is just a mile long, with an optional half-mile side quest trail down to a brook and an accessible 0.2-mile loop showcasing the largest trees.

1 mile, Blackduck

Creeks and Streams - Nine Mile Creek Loop

This trail leads down a flight of stairs and weaves along the bucolic Nine Mile Creek until it meets the Minnesota River. Despite its proximity to the Twin Cities, this nondescript loop offers frequent wildlife sightings, varied terrain, and plenty of picnic spots along the creek’s rocky banks.

4 miles, Bloomington

Deciduous Forest - Nerstrand Beaver Loop

Nerstrand Big Woods forest — composed of sugar maple, basswood, oak, hickory, aspen, elm, ash and ironwood trees — appears as a shaded leafy oasis dropped into a landscape of sparsely forested farmland. This loop, a combination of smaller trails, encompasses nearly most of the small state park and rewards hikers with a 20-foot limestone waterfall toward the end of the trek.

2.5 miles, Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, Nerstrand

Grasslands - Prairie View Trail

Just as romantic as it sounds, this untouched tallgrass prairie is populated with rare butterflies,  fringed orchids, and wispy prairie smoke flowers. The short, level trail ends at a secluded waterfall, where a creek tumbles over large smooth stones into a wide pool. Bring bug repellent to ward off ticks and visit at sunrise or sunset if you want to avoid direct sunlight.

3.1 miles, Glyndon

June 11, 2021 at Bde Maka Ska, in Minneapolis
Ron Trenda/MPR News

Lake Shores - Chain of Lakes Loop (Lake of the Isles, Bde Maka Ska, Lake Harriet)

With more than 22 lakes in Minneapolis, city folk don’t have to travel far to find a shore. Accessible by foot, bike, or wheelchair, this meandering loop encircles three of the city’s most loved lakes — Lake of the Isles, Bde Maka Ska, and Lake Harriet. Feel free to start anywhere on the loop, or break it down into smaller sections.

10.1 miles, Minneapolis (Wheelchair Accessible)

Oak Savannas - Oak Savanna County Park Loop

Oak savannas, a transitional ecosystem between prairie and forest, once covered 10% of Minnesota. Since the arrival of colonizers and widespread fire suppression, only a small fraction of this diverse landscape remains. However, you can still wander through a sea of grass and wildflowers species studded by mature burr oaks on this habitat restoration trail.

1.7 miles, Becker

The boardwalk into the Big Bog.
Completed in 2005, the boardwalk was constructed to preserve the bog while providing access to the wonders within. The panels are perforated to allow precipitation and sunlight through it.
Alison Hiltner for MPR News

Peatlands - Big Bog Boardwalk

The longest boardwalk in the country carries visitors into a mysterious realm of bug-eating pitcher plants and stunted black spruce trees. This acidic peat bog, essentially a large mat of slowly decaying moss, spans 500 square miles and leaves a lasting impression. Wheelchairs and strollers roll easily on the elevated, level path.

2 miles, Big Bog State Recreation Area, Waskish (Wheelchair Accessible)

Rivers Shores - North River Trail Loop

Perfect for the easily bored, the loop carries you down to the banks of the St. Croix River, but also snakes through diverse forest and prairie scenery. A mere 30 minutes from St. Paul, and well-traveled even in the winter months, Afton State Park is the perfect day trip for city dwellers. If you’re searching for a wilder river, try the Temperance River Falls Loop on the North Shore.

3.8 miles, Afton State Park, Hastings

Visitors navigate a passage on a tour of Mystery Cave
Visitors navigate a passage on a tour of Mystery Cave in May 2019 near Spring Valley, Minn. The cave is part of Forestville-Mystery Cave State Park.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News

Subterranean Caves - Mystery Cave Scenic Tour

If you get bored of these earthly scenes, you can always head into the underworld and visit the bats and stalactites hanging around Mystery Cave, the longest cave system in the state (that we know of). Though it requires $15 and a reservation, this guided, wheelchair-accessible hike is well worth the hassle.

.75 miles, Preston (Wheelchair Accessible) 

Two people hike down a hill near a river and a farmers market
Minneapolis artist Andrés Guzmán created three original pieces of 89 Days of Summer artwork.
Andrés Guzmán for MPR

This feature is part of The Current’s 89 Days of Summer series, helping you enjoy the best of the season with weekly guides to events, entertainment, and recreation in the Twin Cities.

Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.