For those of us lucky enough to live in this part of the country, we’re blessed with some of the most beautiful state parks to be had. From majestic shorelines to dense forests to wildflower-filled prairies, there’s something for just about everyone looking to escape the noise and confusion of our concrete-filled world. Even better is the fact that you can drive to these parks in a matter of a few hours (or oftentimes much less). If you have an itch to get into the wild, here are our favorites from across Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Split Rock Lighthouse State Park — Probably one of (if not the most) well known structure in Minnesota, Split Rock Lighthouse is the main attraction of this park. That’s not to say, however, that there isn’t an overabundance of natural beauty to enjoy while you’re there. Located about 45 miles northeast of Duluth on Lake Superior’s North Shore, the park also features campsites with dramatic views. Miles of hiking trails combined with access to the Superior Hiking Trail and nearby Split Rock River Loop make this park a must-visit for hikers.
Temperance River State Park — Located about 50 miles northeast of Two Harbors, this park covers a stretch of the Temperance River and the Lake Superior shoreline. Dramatic river gorges await as you hike along the Superior Hiking Trail and the edge of the Temperance River gorge. You’ll experience stunning waterfalls surrounded by pine, spruce, cedar and birch forests. The trail to Hidden Falls is especially beautiful.
Tettegouche State Park — About 20 minutes north of Split Rock is another North Shore must-see: Tettegouche State Park. Fantastic views of the Lake Superior shore and Sawtooth Mountains await hikers, and the 60-foot High Falls of the Baptism River are a must-see. The park’s tall cliffs also attract rock climbers, and bird-watching opportunities abound, especially in the fall.
Devil’s Lake State Park — Mystical, idyllic, breathtaking—all words that could be used to describe Wisconsin’s Devil’s Lake in Baraboo. This park is a hiker’s paradise and brings to mind visions of Tolkien’s Middle Earth especially along the park’s East Bluff Trail. Huge boulders, deep glens and beautiful valleys will make you feel as if you’re truly in another world. While you’re there, check out nearby Glen State Natural Area, the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, and the Aldo Leopold Cabin.
Itasca State Park — To see the headwaters of the Mississippi River, visit to Itasca State Park, Minnesota’s oldest state park. Established in 1891, the park is located between Bemidji and Park Rapids and features more than 32,000 acres and more than 100 lakes. The historic Douglas Lodge offers classic lodge room rentals year round, and multiple campgrounds provide loads of tent space. And yes, you really can walk across the Mississippi Headwaters.
Gooseberry Falls State Park — If you’re into waterfalls (and hey, who isn’t?) then put Gooseberry Falls on your must-visit list. The beautiful series of cascading waterfalls make this the most popular state park on the North Shore. About 30 miles northeast of Duluth, the park features miles of hiking trails, including a portion of the Superior Hiking Trail.
Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park — Looking for something a little different? Head to Soudan, MN and go underground for a tour of this former iron ore mine that until recently was also used as a high-energy physics lab. Numerous historic buildings and archeological sites dot the park grounds including rock quarries, historical rice pits, and mining test pits. Lake Vermillion offers boating, fishing and swimming.
Kettle Moraine State Forest — Situated in southeastern Wisconsin, this geological gem features hilly terrain and highly glaciated landforms such as kettles, kames and eskers. The forest includes ample camping along with 250 miles of hiking trails, almost 100 miles of cross-country ski trails, 130 miles of horse trails, 150 miles of snowmobile trails, and 75 miles of off-road bicycle trails.
Blue Mounds State Park — Cactus, buffalo and beautiful prairie grasses and wildflowers make Blue Mounds State Park near Luverne, MN, a must-see. The park’s mysterious 1,250 foot long stone ledge at the southern end may be an ancient calendar, its history and development as mysterious as Stonehenge. On the first day of spring and fall, the sunrise and sunset aligns perfectly with the stones. Visit in the spring when the grasses are low for the best views. Also be sure to see the historic reddish Sioux quartzite quarry, a sport where Native Americans hunted buffalo, likely by chasing them off the cliff.
Big Bay State Park — This mile-and-a-half of secluded beach is one of Wisconsin’s best secrets, tucked away in a bay on Madeline Island’s shore of Lake Superior. In order to get there you’ll need to take a car ferry out of Bayfield, but it’s worth the extra effort to see some of the most undisturbed wilderness around. While there, be sure to stop at Big Bay Point, where you’ll be treated to panoramic views of the park and Lake Superior, the Apostle Islands, and nearby Michigan.