Minnesota surely isn’t one of the first destinations that come in mind when traveling in the United States. However, The Land of 10,000 lakes is a state that has a lot to offer, especially when it comes to nature. From the vibrant twin cities to the beauty of the great lakes, there’s always lots to see and do. However, even today, most of Minnesota’s nature is vastly unexplored. Most people that visit, head straight to Minneapolis, St. Paul, or eventually the Minnehaha National Park and the Boundary Waters, missing out on some of the best hidden gems in Minnesota. That’s what this article is all about: the hidden natural wonders of Minnesota’s Outdoors!
The North Shore
We start off this list of hidden gems in Minnesota with the north shore. Minnesota’s north shore is quite popular among locals but rarely gets mentioned when it comes to the most scenic rides in the US (and it really should). The entire shore is dotted with cobblestone beaches, rocky cliffs, forested ridges, and scenic waterfalls that flow into Lake Superior. If you want to see the best of Minnesota’s nature, you should definitely consider taking this 151-miles-long adventurous journey.
The Birthplace of Minnesota
Photo by Bjoertvedt CC by SA 3.0
The community of Stillwater is often called the birthplace of Minnesota. The 1848 convention, which later resulted in the creation of the state of Minnesota took place right here in Stillwater. It’s a beautiful town that still retains its pioneer charm, but also offers a lot of activities to indulge in. Stillwater is famous for water sports and is a great place for kayaking, rowing, and gondola peddling. However, if you want to explore the waters in a rather more relaxed style, you can take a ride on a paddleboat steamer.
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Minneopa is one of the tallest waterfalls in Minnesota with a very descriptive name. In the native Dakota language, the word Minneopa means ‘water falling twice’ a beautiful simplification of the Upper and Lower Minneopa Falls. Today, the falls are a part of the Minneopa National Park, located on the south side of the Minnesota River.
Minneopa houses a few buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is home to the American Bison. It’s also the third-oldest national park in Minnesota. If you want to get off the beaten track in Minnesota, the best way to do this is by renting a car. To get some great deals, feel free to use my Auto Europe special offerand save up to 10% on all car rentals.
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Soudan Underground Mine State Park
Located on the shore of Lake Vermilion, the Soudan Underground Mine is the first iron ore mine in Minnesota. Today, the mine is a National Historic Landmark and it’s open to visitors, giving them the unique opportunity to hop on a metal train that goes more than 900 yards below ground and see the last remaining active mining site.
Winding through lush pine forests and maple stands, the Gunflint Trail is a 57-miles-long remote wilderness road and one of the least frequented parts of the United States. It’s the perfect destination for hiking, camping, kayaking, birdwatching, and even wildlife encounters. There are several different hiking trails for everyone’s taste. Some of them are strenuous, some or not, but they all wind through crystal lakes and dense, lavish forests.
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No visit to Minnesota is complete without a visit to some of its great lakes. Perhaps the most beautiful of them all is Pelican Lake. As its name implies, it’s an area of outstanding natural beauty where you can marvel at spectacular birds and wildlife. Pelican Lake also offers accommodation in some of the most charming cabins in the Midwest.
Split Rock Lighthouse
This lighthouse might not fit in the category hidden gems in Minnesota but it’s on this list due to its remoteness. The lighthouse was built more than 100 years ago but it got its glory only recently, after being featured in ‘The Great Gatsby’ in 2013. Today, the lighthouse is a part of the Split Rock Lighthouse State Park and one of the most picturesque places in the US.
In order to reach the lighthouse, you need to take a short trek through the forest. The place is open for visitors, incredibly well-preserved, and gives a great view of the entire Silver Bay.
Pipestone National Monument
Located in Minnesota’s far southwest, you’ll find one of the oldest sacred places of Native Americans in the whole country. Native Americans used these rocks for making ceremonial stone pipes used for the traditional rituals of Plains Indians. Today, only Native Americans are allowed to quarry the Pipestone and if you visit during the summer months, you can witness some of the rare cultural demonstrations that take place at the Pipestone National Monument.
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Voyageurs National Park
Stretching across 219,000 acres, the Voyagers National Park consists of 30 beautiful lakes and a series of interconnected waterways. These waterways were used by the early European settlers in the 17th century. The national park lies in the heart of the North American continent and it’s a great place for hiking, reconnecting with nature, seeing the Northern lights, and of course, go back in time and experience the life of the early voyageurs.
The Lost 40
The Lost 40 is an untouched forest that spreads over a surface of almost 150 acres. Trees in this forest were left to grow without disturbance and some of them are more than 100 meters tall. However, the reason why these trees were allowed to grow without disturbance was a curious mapping error. This mapping error made loggers think that the place the forest was located is under water. Hence, loggers never made it here, thus preserving the giant pine trees you can find in the forest today.
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Niagara Cave, Harmony
Photo by McGhiever CC by 4.0
Going as deep as one mile below ground and featuring an underground waterfall, Niagara Cave is one of the most spectacular natural caves in the Midwest. Here, you have a rare opportunity to see underground canyon-like passageways and fascinating rock formations. The cave was discovered in the 1920s but has been around for millions of years.
A local farmer came across the cave accidentally while searching for his lost pigs. However, it wasn’t until 100 years later that the cave got its glory. Since 2015, Niagara Cave is the only cave in the world to go 100% solar (the cave’s energy use is completely provided by solar panels).
The Northwest Angle is the only part of the US (outside of Alaska) located north of the 49th parallel. The Angle shares a land border with Canada but it’s separated from Minnesota by Lake of the Woods. This makes the Angle an exclave of the United States and one of the strangest borders in the Americas. How did this happen? The 1783 Treaty of Paris between the Americans and the British stated that the border between the US and the Northern British Territories runs between the Lake of the Woods and the northwest course of Mississippi River.
However, the source of the river was still unknown to explorers at the time. This made the identification of this northwest corner a bit tricky. However, that didn’t stop them to choose the spot rather randomly and the rest is history. Today, the Northwest Angle is home to only 119 people and most of this land belongs to the Red Lake Indian Reservation.
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Mystery Cave State Park
The Mystery Cave State Park is named after one of the most prominent sights in the park- the Mystery Cave. Inside the cave, you’ll see spectacular rock formations, squid fossils ingrained in the cave walls, and thousands of bats. The temperature in the cave also never changes- it remains 49 degrees (9.5 Celsius) throughout the year, despite the outside temperature.
This park is also a great place for outdoor enthusiasts and people that seek wildlife encounter opportunities. The park is home to some rare species like timber rattlesnakes and glacial snails but also a lot of raccoons, beavers, deer, opossums, squirrels, etc.
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The Minnesota-Shaped Forest
Finally, we round up this list of hidden gems in Minnesota with the Minnesota-Shaped Forest. Technically, you can only notice this while looking at it from above but the forest known as the Minnesota Forest has the exact same shape as the geographical map of the state of Minnesota.
The forest was designed by forest engineering genius, Bill Lockner and was only recently discovered by Google Maps’ aerial view. While Bill was cleaning dying trees in the 1990s’, he decided to have some fun; he gave the forest the shape of Minnesota’s map. Today, not a lot of people know about it, but this forest surely has the potential of becoming one of the most popular attractions in the region.
Helpful resources for traveling to Minnesota
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As you can see, Minnesota has a lot of interesting things to experience to indulge in, from cultural activities, winter sports, and downhill ice skating competition to exploring the great American outdoors, experiencing wildlife encounters, and numerous hiking and camping opportunities. Did you know about these hidden gems in Minnesota? Do you think you could add more to this list? Let us know in the comments!