Two years ago, I decided to embark on a journey to visit all 69 Minnesota state parks. What started as an exercise to be more courageous changed my life in so many ways. In this post, I highlight some of the most important lessons I learned along the way. I also share my favorite parks you’ll want to add to your bucket list.
Isn’t it crazy how life never turns out exactly how we think it will? Growing up, I never could have imagined that I’d spend more than 100 nights sleeping in a tent over the course of two summers. I’ve always enjoyed nature but I grew up in an indoorsy family and was never exposed to activities like camping, hiking, and canoeing.
Early in our marriage, my husband, Jeremiah, and I took a weekend trip to Minnesota’s North Shore and were instantly hooked! We tried to get up there as often as we could during the next five years. We found
Our vacation rental budget came to an abrupt end when we decided to pay off our mortgage. We were done spending thousands of dollars on weekend getaways but our desire to go north was still there. This desire pushed us to get creative and to give camping a try. We started by renting camper cabins but I quickly figured out that we could stay three times longer if we camped in a tent.
We’ve been mortgage free for five years (the exact date this post went live–YAY!) and we still love camping. Now that I’ve visited all of the Minnesota state parks, we’re exploring backpacking and canoe camping. I love how all of the things we did when we were trying to save money have become some of our greatest passions.
THE JOURNEY IS THE REWARD
As a part of my goal setting process, I choose one word that I live and breathe throughout the entire year. My word for 2017 was courage.
As a lifelong perfectionist, I always played it safe. If there was a good chance I’d fail at something, I wouldn’t even try. When I set out to build my own business, I quickly discovered that my fear and perfectionism were holding me back from achieving my potential.
Throughout that year, I made it a habit to say yes to things that scared me. But when Jer suggested I camp solo, I really had to think it over. I had always wanted to visit all of the Minnesota state parks but the idea of sleeping in a tent alone in the woods scared the crap out of me. Then I ran the numbers and saw that I could easily knock it out in two years if I went on my own. If I kept waiting for a time when Jer and I could do it together, I’d be waiting indefinitely.
After I made my decision, I took action quickly. I planned a test run for later that month and two weeks later, my journey to visit 69 parks and recreation areas was in full swing. At the start of my journey, I just wanted to find the best parks so we could spend our summers camping in the primo campsites. I never imagined how this journey would change my entire life.
I learned so much over those two summers. I learned a lot about my limiting beliefs and other behaviors that were holding me back. I learned that I am so much stronger than I thought I was. I found that the world is safer and people are kinder than we’re taught to believe. But more than anything, I learned that there’s good in everything.
While compiling the list of my favorite parks, I tried to think of the worst park but couldn’t. There were plenty of miserable experiences on my journey, like the park where the mosquitoes were so thick that I couldn’t breathe without them flying up my nose. As horrible as that was, the history of the park and the interpretive signs were an unforgettable learning experience.
As I reflected on that, I was reminded of how that’s true for everything in life. We can train ourselves to find good in any situation. Flight delays are annoying, but I always enjoy having extra uninterrupted time to read. Having your furnace and air conditioning quit working on the hottest day of the summer is unpleasant. But having a new furnace and not worrying about your heat going out is a breath of fresh air in the winter.
Give it a try. Can you find the good in all things?
THE BEST Minnesota State Parks
This next section is all about parks. Since we all have different goals and desires, let me tell you a little bit about what I look for in state parks. Jer and I are active people and we go out on adventures every day we camp. We like cycling, challenging hiking trails, swimming, canoeing, and even a little fishing from time to time.
When it comes to camping, we love secluded campsites with a great view. This means they might be work to get to, but the peace and quiet are priceless for us city folk. With that in mind, here’s a list of my favorite Minnesota state parks.
14 – Beaver Creek Valley (A Minnesota State Parks hidden gem!)
Welcome to the land before time. There’s a region of southeastern Minnesota known as the Driftless Area. This area escaped glaciation during the last ice age so you will find a landscape, flora, and fauna unlike the rest of the state. This particular park is very distinct which makes it a must-see for anyone who loves rugged adventure.
13 – Forestville Mystery Cave
Also in the Driftless, Forestville Mystery Cave is a great alternative to the wildly popular Whitewater State Park. While you’re there, be sure to check out one of the many caves in the area. And if you enjoy cycling, plan a day on the nearby Root River State Trail.
12 – Big Bog
The coolest place in Minnesota that hardly anyone knows about. Did you know that Minnesota is home to the largest bog in the Lower 48?
Bogs are home to incredible plants and wildlife you’ve probably never heard of. There are pine trees that turn gold in the fall and lose their needles. You’ll find carnivorous plants that survive on insects. Keep your eyes peeled for moose, bear, wolves, and maybe even a bobcat. If you have kids (or not) make sure and pick up the book Big Belching Bog, by Grand Marais artist Betsy Bowen before you go.
11 – Banning
A beautiful park that I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t visit until I started my Minnesota state parks tour. The next time you’re headed to Duluth or the North Shore, set aside a few hours to hike this magnificent park. You’ll be grateful you did.
10 – Hayes Lake
This park might not sound that great to a Minnesota native. With nearly 12,000 lakes to choose from, I tend to ignore dammed lakes. But this park took my breath away. It was worth the six-hour drive, getting lost on unmarked forest roads, backing my new car into a tree, and camp neighbors who announced every morning at 6:30 am that “this beer isn’t gonna drink itself.”
9 – Savanna Portage (One of Minnesota state parks best-kept secrets.)
Another underrated park I fell in love with. Like Banning, I didn’t visit this somewhat close park until I started my state park tour. Since then, I’ve planned an annual trip and have had a completely new experience each time. Stay tuned to see the exciting adventure we planned for this year.
8 – Itasca State Park
This is one of the best state parks in Minnesota but it can lose its serenity during the peak summer months. Minnesota’s first state park is 32,690 acres and sees over half a million visitors per year. That’s double the number of people that go into the one million acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area. But don’t let the crowds deter you. There are beautiful backpack and canoe sites far away from the crowds.
Or visit during the winter. I’m not a fan of cold weather but have thoroughly enjoyed this park year round, even when it was 20 below.
7 – Jay Cooke
I catch myself saying, “I forget how beautiful this park is,” every time we visit. Another stunning park just two hours from the Twin Cities. Plus, both the Superior Hiking Trail and the Willard Munger State Trail cross through this park so you’ll never run out of things to do.
6 – Temperance River
It was hard to not put every North Shore park on this list. I love them all and usually visit each one every year. So what makes Temperance special? For starters, both campgrounds are on the lake which makes it easy to get up for these epic sunrises. The hiking and beaches are fabulous. But the best thing is that my favorite bike trail runs through the park all the way to Ski Hill Road in Lutsen. And if you make it to Ski Hill Road, you must climb it for bragging rights.
5 – George Crosby Manitou
While this park is increasing in popularity, it’s still a great place to escape the crowds. On my last trip, I spent four hours wandering through the forest and didn’t cross paths with another person. It’s one of the best places to enjoy a long hike with nothing but the sounds of nature.
4 – Scenic
The name says it all. It’s impossible to not fall in love with this park. The lakes, virgin pines, and abundant wildlife make it a great place to spend your summer vacation.
3 – Split Rock Lighthouse (One of the most popular Minnesota state parks.)
I’ve camped at this park three times and have never actually entered the lighthouse. Maybe this summer?
There are so many great things about this park. It has beautiful hiking trails, a breathtaking shoreline, and the best section of the Gitchi-Gami State Trail. But my favorite thing about this park has to be the campground.
This park has 20 cart-in and 4 backpack sites, most of which sit on Superior’s shore. The downside is that with only 24 sites, it can be very difficult to score a campsite. People have figured out how to cheat the system, which is very disappointing and frustrating. (Use your integrity and please don’t follow their lead.) Still, it’s worth the effort to wake up to views like these.
2 – Bear Head Lake
This park holds a special place in my heart as it was the first state park Jer and I “camped” at in a camper cabin. This is one of the most beautiful parks in the state with great hiking, canoeing, and fishing. I can’t wait to get back this year and do even more exploring.
1 – Tettegouche (One of the largest and most diverse Minnesota state parks.)
This has been my favorite state park since our first visit to the North Shore in 2005. Upstream from the stunning shoreline, you’ll find gorgeous waterfalls, including High Falls, the highest waterfall entirely in Minnesota. Arguably the best hiking in the state can be found in the borders of this park. You can rent a canoe at one of the inland lakes and follow that up with some serious rock climbing. We’ve spent a lot of time in this park and have yet to see it all. It’s truly an adventurer’s paradise.
Spending time in nature has been a healing experience for me. The silence has allowed me to listen to myself and uncover the things I didn’t know were holding me back. My time in the woods gave me the opportunity to experience nature’s strength, resilience, and abundance. I learned valuable life lessons and was reminded how to see the good in everything.