Minnesota probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind when you think of incredible outdoor adventure destinations. I mean, it doesn’t have the mountains like Colorado and California or the waterfalls of the Pacific Northwest or the red rocks and incredible canyons of Arizona.
What Minnesota has, though, is more than 10,000 lakes and four distinct seasons offering endless adventure that you simply can’t find anywhere else. Minnesota is, quite possible, the most underrated state for outdoor adventure.
These ten adventures are a must for any outdoor lovers’ Minnesota bucket list.
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Minnesota Bucket List: Choosing a Top Ten
Narrowing down my Minnesota bucket list to just ten items was painstaking.
How did I choose which items to include on this list?
First, I chose outdoor adventure experiences that are completely unique to Minnesota. Next, I added experiences that embody Minnesota culture. Last, I chose things that demonstrate the incredible diversity of the state. There truly is something for every adventurer.
1 | Paddling into the Boundary Waters.
There was no question that the Boundary Waters would be the very first item on this Minnesota bucket list.
Setting out into the Boundary Waters isn’t just an adventure, it’s often described as a truly transformative experience. A place where you deeply connect with nature and disconnect with the distractions of our busy lives. It’s a true gem that Minnesotan adventure lovers fiercely protect and passionately enjoy.
Located in the Superior National Forest in northeastern Minnesota, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) sprawls out over one million acres with more than 1200 miles of canoe routes. Adventurers head out for a day or for weeks with packs on their backs and canoes on their shoulders to explore by land and by water all that this magical place offers.
Permits are required and designate your permitted entry date and entry point. Numerous outfitters are available all along the north shore of Lake Superior to gear you up and assist with securing permits, but the most popular are in Grand Marais and Ely.
Feeling overwhelmed with planning your first trip to the BWCA? It’s understandable. The Boundary Waters Planner Guide on the Superior National Forest and the Exploring the Boundary Waters Planning Guide book are great resources if you want to plan it yourself. But there are also outfitters that offer planning services as well as guided trips!
If you’re craving the solitude of pristine wilderness and are willing to put in some work to enjoy it, the BWCA is calling you.
2 | Hiking the Superior Hiking Trail.
This 306 mile hiking trail traces the ridgeline overlooking Lake Superior all the way from the border of Canada to Wisconsin. This trail has everything including waterfalls, stream crossings, mountains (yes, mountains), lakes, and loads of wildlife. If that’s not enough to love, it’s also a designated footpath for hikers only! No motorized vehicles or bicycles are allowed on the trail.
The trail was built and continues to be maintained and managed by the Superior Hiking Trail Association. Their website offers a wealth of information, including a section-by-section breakdown of the trail. What’s incredible is that there are no permits or fees required to hike the trail!
The trail can be hiked in sections or as a thru-hike. With trailheads every 3-11 miles, it’s easy to get on and off whenever you please. There are 94 backcountry campsites, available first come-first serve.
Pro Tip: Join the Superior Hiking Trail Facebook group to get inspiration, advice and tips to plan your hike!
3 | Exploring Voyageurs National Park by canoe or houseboat.
I continue to be surprised by how many people don’t know that there is a national park in Minnesota! It’s a seriously well kept secret.
Established in 1975, Voyageurs National Park is located along the Canadian border near International Falls. Over one third of the park is accessible only by boat, making it one of the most unique US National Parks.
While you can stay in a lodge along the outskirts of the park, the real adventure is only accessed by paddling yourself or navigating a houseboat into the more remote areas of the park.
If you want a break from the water, explore the 27 miles of hiking trails, petroglyphs, waterfalls, and wildlife.
Pro Tip: This is black bear country, so have a bear safety plan when you explore the park.
4 | Ice climbing frozen waterfalls in Winona.
In Minnesota, we don’t let cold temperatures keep us inside. There are so many ways to get out and enjoy winter, but ice climbing is one of the more exhilarating options.
Standing hundreds of feet tall, Winona’s ice climbing wall is free to use with your own gear. If you new to the sport and don’t have your own gear, Big River Climbing Guides offers guided ice climbing experiences.
5 | Mountain biking the Cuyuna Mines.
What was once a series of iron-ore mines has been transformed into a mountain biking, scuba diving (yes, in Minnesota), kayaking and hiking destination in Minnesota. Today the Cuyuna Mines offer more than 30 miles across several loops of single track mountain biking trails, with options for all skill levels. Along the trails enjoy views of the turquoise water of the mine lakes and sweeping views of the surrounding wilderness.
The Cuyuna Lakes MTB Crew website has resources to help you pick the best trail for you as well as most recent trail conditions (try the Bobsled Trail for a real challenge!). Mountain bike rentals are widely available. Check out Cycle Path & Paddle and Red Raven.
Pro Tip: Download the MTB Project app or use their website to find mountain biking trails reviews and tips. This is basically All Trails for mountain biking!
6 | Chasing the Northern Lights.
When you think of the Northern Lights, I doubt Minnesota comes to mind. But it should! From late fall through winter, head to northern Minnesota to catch a glimpse of this incredible phenomenon.
The best places to view the Northern Lights in Minnesota are Cook County (which includes Grand Marais and the Gunflint Trail), Voyageurs National Park, and Lake of the Woods.
Here are my tips on how to photograph the Northern Lights, even if you’re a beginner!
Pro Tip: Use the My Aurora Forecast app to check conditions and visibility of the Northern Lights in your location.
7 | Cross country skiing or snowshoeing the Gunflint Trail.
Minnesotan’s Nordic roots extend into their love of cross-country skiing. The state is absolutely packed with cross-country skiing trails, but the best in Minnesota is on the Gunflint Trail.
There are over 100 miles of trails across three groomed systems, which include the Central Gunflint, Banadad, and Upper Gunflint systems.
Gear rental is available throughout the area. Grand Marais is a cute town nestled right on Lake Superior with easy access to the Gunflint Trail. It’s a great base for a weekend of cross-country skiing. Here you can find Sawtooth Outfitters and Stone Harbor Wilderness Supply Co. For a more remote experience, grab your rentals from Boundary Country Trekking Wilderness Supply who also offers lodge-to-lodge skiing and yurts for accommodations. There’s also Golden Eagle Lodge, which has access to trails no matter your experience level.
Purchase a Great Minnesota Ski Pass if you plan to ski on the Banadad system of trails. Because the Upper and Central Gunflint trail systems are not maintained by the state, a ski pass needs to be purchased from the local hotels and resorts. Enquire about passes for both of these systems at wherever you are staying in the area or rent your skis.
Pro Tip: Cross-country skiing burns over 450 calories per hour! Bring snacks and treat yourself to a nice meal after you enjoy the snow.
8 | Whitewater rafting
Minnesota may be known as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes”, but there’s plenty of rushing rivers and whitewater rapids for those who are seeking something more adventurous! Raft through Class III+ rapids through the rugged tree-lined sandstone gorges to enjoy some of the most remote sections of river that flow through popular Minnesota state parks like Jay Cooke and Banning.
Near Duluth, both Minnesota Whitewater Rafting and Switftwater Adventures operate rafting tours. A little closer to the Twin Cities is Hardwater Sports, which is located on the Kettle River in Sandstone, MN.
9 | Hiking through the fall colors along the North Shore of Lake Superior.
As if the North Shore of Lake Superior wasn’t already beautiful enough, experiencing it in the peak of the fall colors is absolutely magical. Just a 2-3 hour drive from Minneapolis and St Paul, you can access miles of hiking trails at eight different state parks, many including sections of the Superior Hiking Trail already mentioned.
Make a day trip of it and explore Gooseberry Falls, the southernmost park on the North Shore. If you have a little more time, stay overnight in Grand Marais or Lutsen and hike the trails in Tettegouche, Split Rock Lighthouse, and Cascade River State Parks.
Pro Tip: Grab a Minnesota State Parks Passport and collect stamps at each of the parks!
10 | Kayaking or Standup Paddleboarding the lakes and rivers.
Kayaking is hands down one of my favorite ways to enjoy a summer day in Minnesota. There’s no shortage of places to paddle! Here are a few of the top spots I recommend.
If you’re in Minneapolis, rent a kayak on Bde Maka Ska (previously called Lake Calhoun) and explore the chain of lakes located right outside of the city. If you want to experience downtown Minneapolis from the water, try the Paddle Share on the Mississippi River. This allows you to rent a kayak and paddles from a station along the river, drop in and enjoy!
Just an hour southeast of the Twin Cities, Cannon River offers over 10 miles of kayaking near on Class I-II rapids (basically flat). Book your tour with Cannon Falls Canoe and Bike!
Another option is Bent River Outfitters, which is southwest of the Twin Cities near Mankato. They offer tours and/ or rentals for both kayaking and paddleboarding on a nine mile stretch of the Blue Earth River. Both are for all skill levels.
Bonus | Walking across the headwaters of the Mississippi River.
Ok, this one’s not super adventurous but it has to be on any outdoor lovers Minnesota bucket list!
Did you know that the Mighty Mississippi River starts as a wee little stream in northern Minnesota? As an official rite of passage to becoming a true Minnesotan, you have to walk across these headwaters located in Itasca State Park.
What’s on your Minnesota bucket list?
Minnesota has so much to offer outdoor adventure lovers! The real problem is finding the time to enjoy all the state has to offer.
I’d love to hear what’s on your adventurous Minnesota bucket list! What did I miss?