Remote Minnesota: Five out-of-the-way trails and state parks to escape to this summer

State Park Bench at Sunset In Nerstrand Big Woods State Park // Photo by Brett Whaley via Flickr, CC by-NC 2.0

Minnesota is blessed with an abundance of scenic attractions and wonders that are renowned across and beyond the Land of Sky Blue Waters. But for those amongst us seeking less-trodden trails, a host of options can be found across the North Star State. Some are hidden deep within Minnesota’s wilderness while others can be found a mere 20-minute drive south from Duluth’s Aerial Bridge.

If the path less taken calls to you this summer, here are a couple of options for the remote reaches of Minnesota.

1. Ely’s Peak (Gary-New Duluth, MN)

Travelers speeding along Interstate 35 just south of the Twin Ports are often heading home or just about to set out on their northern adventure, and in doing so unwittingly pass this Gary-New Duluth treasure. Ely’s Peak is a 1,133-foot-tall granite outcropping featuring miles of hiking trails that interconnect with the Superior Hiking Trail. Carved through the cliffside is the Duluth, Winnipeg, and Pacific Railway’s 520-foot-long, 18-foot-tall rail tunnel, which was finished in 1912 when the railway reached the Duluth area. The tunnel was utilized by rail traffic until the 1980s, and today is open for explorers to marvel at the views from inside and atop Ely’s Peak.

Nearest Brewery: Lake Superior Brewing Co. in Duluth, MN (11 miles)

Nearest State Park: Jay Cooke State Park (8.3 miles)

2. Eagle Mountain (Grand Marais, MN)

Not to be confused with its fellow mountain-in-name at Lutsen Ski Resort, this Eagle Mountain is located in the Misquah Hills inside of the Pat Bayle State Forest and Superior National Forest to the northwest of Grand Marais. Summiting at 2,301 feet, Eagle Mountain is the highest point in Minnesota and can be reached by way of a seven-mile out-and-back hike into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. The hiking trail is well-maintained with uphill stretches replete with rock- and root-strewn footings that necessitate good boots, water, and season appropriate apparel. Since the trail is open year round, summiteers will want to make sure they have their snowshoes ready in from the late fall to early spring, and bug repellent handy in the warmer months. Permits are required to hike the trail and can be found at the Eagle Mountain Trailhead kiosk or at the Gunflint Ranger District Office in Grand Marais.

Nearest Brewery: Voyageur Brewing Company in Grand Marais, MN (19.4 miles)

Nearest State Park: Cascade River State Park (17 miles)

3. Nerstrand Big Woods State Park (Nerstrand, MN)

What better example of a Minnesotan hidden gem than a waterfall literally named Hidden Falls? Nestled within the largest remaining remnant of the Big Woods, the temperate hardwood forest that stretched across Minnesota and Wisconsin prior to Euro-American settlement, the waterfall on Prairie Creek is just one of the treasures awaiting discovery at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. The forest, with its sugar maple, basswood, oak, ash, and ironwood trees, gives a glimpse of the pre-settlement landscape of present-day Minnesota while botany lovers visiting in the springtime can identify nearly 100 varieties of native wildflowers. Camping, hiking, skiing, and fall colors ensure four seasons worth of activities and sights.

Nearest Brewery: Chapel Brewing – Dundas, MN (12.8 miles)

4. Caribou Wildlife Management Area (Northeast Kittson County)

Just south of the Canadian border near Lancaster, Minnesota, lies one of the premier destinations for anyone wanting to hear the bugle of a full-grown elk. Extending over 14,000 acres, the Caribou Wildlife Management Area is the seasonal home to one of the three elk herds in Minnesota. Numbering around 150 animals, the Caribou-Vita elk herd returned to the native stomping grounds of the North American elk in the 1980s. The herd, best spotted at dusk or dawn in September and October, now travels between Kittson County in northwest Minnesota and the neighboring Canadian province of Manitoba. Caribou WMA is open, as are all Minnesotan WMAs, to the public and those interested in going the extra mile for wildlife-based tourism.

Nearest Brewery: Revelation Ale Works – Hallock, MN (31.3 miles)

Nearest State Park: Lake Bronson State Park (23.5 miles)

5. Buffalo River State Park (Glyndon, MN)

When seeking out the hidden gems of Minnesota, who better to turn to than the keepers of such places: the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Deborah Locke, regional information officer for the Parks and Trails Division, recommends Buffalo River State for those seeking adventure off the beaten path. Northern tallgrass prairies once covered one-third of present-day Minnesota but today cover a minuscule 2 percent of their original territory. The Northern tallgrass prairie at Buffalo River State Park extends nearly 8,000 acres and is perhaps the finest and most pristine prairie remaining in Minnesota. The park rewards visitors with the many seasonal hues of the prairie grasses, the “booming on the lek” of greater prairie chicken, and the knowledge that one is witnessing the restoration and reclamation of Minnesota’s natural ecology. This story of hope—that we can save our most endangered ecosystems and treasures—inspires Locke, who encourages everyone to join her in the appreciation of this Minnesotan gem.

Nearest Brewery: Junkyard Brewing – Moorhead, Minnesota (13.8 Miles)