Minnesota National Parks: Dark Forest, Open Prairies, Wild Rivers

Northern Lights in Voyageurs National Park
The Northern Lights glowing over the waters of Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota.

BlueBarronPhoto / Getty Images

Minnesota's national parks are dedicated to the forest, lake and riverine resources of the state, and the history of Native American residents and French Canadian fur trappers known as voyageurs.

Minnesota National Parks Map
A map of Minnesota National Parks, from the NPS. National Park Service

According to the National Park Service, the state of Minnesota has five national parks, monuments, recreation areas, deep forests, and prairie environments, which garner nearly 1.2 million visitors each year. 

Grand Portage National Monument

Grand Portage National Monument
Reconstructed Grand Hall and Kitchen from Fort Charlotte, Grand Portage National Monument, Lake Superior, Minnesota.

lynngrae / Getty Images Plus

Grand Portage National Monument is located on the point of the Arrowhead Region of northeastern Minnesota and entirely within the reservation of the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, also known as the Ojibwa. The park and reservation are both named for Grand Portage ("Gichi-onigaming" in Ojibwe, meaning "the Great Carrying Place"), an 8.5-mile-long footpath along the Pigeon River. The portage was a shortcut used to carry canoes past the rough waters—rapids and waterfalls—of the Pigeon River's last 20 miles above its mouth on Lake Superior. The Grand Portage was cut by the ancestors of the Ojibwe at least 2,000 years ago and used by the French-Canadian voyageurs of the North West Company between the mid-1780s and 1802.

Voyageurs ("travelers" in French) were fur traders, men who between 1690 and the mid-1850s bought furs from the North American native people to feed a growing demand in Europe, which in turn stimulated trade in North America's forests. Voyageurs were employees of the North West Company, a fur trading company based in Montreal, Canada between 1779–1821, and they worked 14 hours a day for six to eight weeks at a stretch to trade goods over the 3,100 miles of trails and waterways. 

Within the confines of the park are several reconstructed buildings of the North West Company's Fort George on Lake Superior, and Fort Charlotte at the end of the portage, and the Three Sisters Native American garden. The museums preserve artifact and historical photos, maps, and papers from the French settlement as well as birch canoes, cedar paddles, and footwear recovered from underwater excavations. Museum collections also include examples of 20th century Minnesota Ojibwe artwork: birchbark, leather, and sweetgrass objects decorated with traditional designs of floral-patterned beading, embroidery, and delicate porcupine quillwork.

Mississippi National River and Recreation Area

Mississippi National River and Recreation Area
Stone Arch Bridge and Mill Ruins Park, Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. NPS / Gordon Dietzman

The Mississippi National River and Recreation Area includes 72 miles of the Mississippi River in central Minnesota, including the conjunction with the Minnesota River in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area. The Mississippi River is one of the largest and most complex floodplain river ecosystems in the Northern Hemisphere, as well as the most dominant river in North America.

The park's limits begin where the Mississippi is a modest-sized river, and it continues over the St. Anthony Falls and then enters a deep, wooded gorge. The park and river open up in the twin cities into the huge floodplain that is characteristic of the massive waterway all the way to New Orleans, some 1,700 river miles to the south.  

The St. Anthony Falls is the only waterfall on the Mississippi, and the bridge below it, the Stone Arch Bridge, is a remarkable design of native granite and limestone. The former railroad bridge measures 2,100 feet long and 28 feet wide. Built by railroad baron James J. Hill in 1883, the 23 arches of the Stone Arch bridge enabled the expansion of the twin cities across the river. 

Minnehaha Falls, located on Minnehaha Creek in Minneapolis, was a favorite subject of early photographers. Those photos sparked the imagination of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who used the falls in his epic poem, "The Song of Hiawatha," despite never having seen it. 

Pipestone National Monument

Pipestone National Monument Rock Outcrop
Sioux quartzite rock outcrop at Pipestone National Monument.

PBouman / Getty Images

Pipestone National Monument, located in southwestern Minnesota near the town of Pipestone, celebrates an ancient stone quarry, which was used by Native American people to mine the sedimentary stone called catlinite, a unique variety of pipestone that contains little or no quartz. 

The catlinite was laid down between 1.6–1.7 billion years ago, as multiple clay layers of metamorphosed mudstone sandwiched between deposits of hard Sioux quartzite. The lack of quartz in the pipestone made the material dense and soft: about the same hardness as a fingernail. The material was ideal for carving into objects such as the iconic "peace pipe," but also figurines and bowls and other objects. Native American groups began quarrying at Pipestone at least as long ago as 1200 CE, and completed artifacts were widely traded across North America beginning about 1450 CE. 

At the entrance of Pipestone are the Three Maidens, enormous glacial erratics of neither quartz nor pipestone. Around the base of these rocks were placed 35 pipestone slabs decorated with petroglyphs, carvings of people, animals, bird tracks and others. The slabs were removed in the late 19th century to protect them from being defaced or stolen: 17 of the slabs are now on display in the park's visitor center. 

The park also sustains a sliver of the ecosystem that once covered the plains, accessible via hiking trails: the unplowed tallgrass prairie, with over 70 different grasses and hundreds of plants including a mass of wildflowers.

Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway

Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway
Foggy sunrise with fall color reflection on St Croix river at Interstate Park, MN.

RC Digital Photography / Getty Images Plus

The Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway includes the entire 165-mile length of the St. Croix River, which makes up the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin north of Minneapolis, and another 35 miles of the Namekegon River, a St. Croix tributary in Wisconsin. The route of the rivers was a favored fur trade route connecting Lake Superior to the Mississippi.

The St. Croix and Namekegon rivers begin in a remote, isolated corner of the American midwest, and end at Port Douglas as it meets the Mississippi River, today near the border of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area. The St. Croix valley encapsulates the history of the Upper Midwest, from its role as a voyageurs' highway to its Bunyanesque contribution to the logging frontier. 

The river crosses and intertwines with three major ecozones, the northern coniferous forest, the eastern deciduous forest, and pockets of tallgrass prairie. There is an abundance of wildlife, including native and migrating birds. Saint Croix and other midwestern parks have established a collaborative effort with Costa Rican national parks on the Osa Peninsula, where many of the migrating species spend the winters. 

Parks and river landings and hiking trails and forests and rapids and wildlife preserves are all found along the length of the park, which can be accessed by car or canoe. 

Voyageurs National Monument

Voyageurs National Monument
A late afternoon view of Lake Kabetogama in Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota, USA.

Steven Schremp / Getty Images Plus

Voyageurs National Monument is situated at the central northern border of Minnesota and Ontario province in Canada, near International Falls. It is dedicated to the celebration of the voyageurs, the French Canadian fur trappers who made this region of North America their home for a brief time. 

The park is actually a set of interconnected waterways, lakes and rivers and bayous that can be enjoyed from campsites or houseboats. In addition to Native American and fur trapper history, the region of the park was the focus of late 19th–early 20th-century gold mining, logging, and commercial fishing activities. 

The long winters make Voyageurs an attractive spot for those who enjoy snowmobiling, cross country skiing, snowshoeing, or ice-fishing. The park offers some of the best conditions to see the aurora borealis, or northern lights, which occur sporadically depending on a combination of solar radiation and clear skies away from city lights.