In 2003, mere weeks from our wedding date, my future husband and I picked up a Minnesota State Parks Passport Club kit from one of the park nature shops. What a wonderful way to step off on our life together, I recall thinking, by flitting around Minnesota exploring all 70+ state parks and recreation areas. Get your passport stamped at each one and receive — along with bragging rights, of course — a personalized commemorative plaque. Oh, I could see that plaque right then, hanging on some future living room wall.
“Five years, tops,” I loftily told my husband. And for the first couple of years together, we made good on that goal — taking weekend day trips or camping overnight in beautiful parks such as those along Minnesota’s North Shore. It was when the babies came — four in 6.5 years — that our jaunts around the state started to flag. We didn’t love exploring the parks any less, but our pace (and, to some extent, our motivation as life got busy) had to cool off.
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That and the parks still remaining on our list were hella far from our home in the Twin Cities metro. It took, for instance, a good 3-night, 4-day trip to make it to the far-flung northwestern corner of our state to reach the pocket of parks up there (and this following the feat itself of carving out enough time from six different schedules to make the trip happen!). Fifteen years after we began our journey around the state, we’re still chasing that plaque.
It’s a happy chase, though. Minnesota’s collection of state parks are very special to our family. We step out of the hustle-bustle of everyday life, stow away our devices, strap our sturdy shoes on and immerse ourselves in the natural world. We swim and skip rocks. We find living history lessons. We stop and watch animals. We’ve explored a cave, an underground mine and a ghostly quarry. We encourage your family to discover these state parks, too, and think one of the best ways to get started is (roughly) in our metro area’s backyard.
Ideas for Playing In Nature: 65+ Fun Nature Play Ideas for Kids
7 Minnesota State Parks With Camping Near the Twin Cities
Nine beautiful Minnesota state parks are located within 60 miles of the heart of Minneapolis and St Paul; an hour’s drive or less. Seven of them offer camping. The current cost of a daily vehicle permit is $7; an annual permit is $35. We share them below with a few highlights of each:
Hastings, MN | 26 mi from MM (middle of Metro)
Afton State Park has bluffs, rolling prairie and a descent to a strip of a sandy swimming beach on the St Croix river. Note that this beach is not guarded. There is also a grassy space with picnic tables if you’d like to enjoy a waterfront lunch. Making your way back up out of the river bottoms may prove moderately-to-quite challenging for little hikers so plan ahead. It definitely depends on how sturdy your kids are. And bring your water bottles!
Afton State Park features:
- 4 year-round camper cabins w/ electricity, heat & a fire ring but no bathroom or cooking indoors allowed ($85/night).
- Occasional naturalist programs found if you check the Afton State Park events calendar. Look for Universe in the Parks and Archery in the Parks events annually.
- Family friendly: Kids will enjoy the sandy swimming beach on the St. Croix River. Afton also offers FREE equipment to borrow and explore with including geocache units and birding, fish & kids discovery kits. Check at the state park visitor center.
- 9 Ideas for Family Fun at Afton State Park.
Family fun near Afton State Park:
After a picnic and swim, we like to pay a call on the Historic Village district of Afton and get a scoop at Selma’s Ice Cream, the oldest ice cream shop in Minnesota! We’ve included this distinguished joint in our round up of the Best Ice Cream Shops in the Twin Cities.
If you’re visiting Afton State Park during the late summer or early fall for the colors, can we tempt you with a stop at a nearby apple orchard? We can vouch for three in the neighborhood: Fischer’s Croix Farm Orchard, Whistling Well Farm and Afton Apple Orchard. All are bursting with fresh picks and fall activities for the family. Find out more in FFTC’s Guide to Twin Cities Apple Orchards.
Marine On St Croix, MN | 35 mi from MM
William O’Brien State Park, also on the banks of the St Croix river, offers family programming year-round and a location close to Stillwater-area attractions to make a day or weekend of it. Our family has enjoyed hiking, biking, swimming, paddling and tent camping at William O’Brien State Park.
William O’Brien State Park features:
- drive-in & electric campsites & 4 year-round camper cabins w/ heat, electricity & a fire ring (again, no bathroom or cooking indoors – $90/night).
- Naturalist programs have traditionally been offered on weekends – Minnesota State Park “I Can” programs offered this summer at William O’Brien include an introduction to camping, paddling & hiking plus Universe in the Park three dates in 2021.
- Family friendly: a superb, sandy swimming beach on Lake Alice, paddle board and kayak rentals, free outdoor rec equipment, berry picking, easy biking trails for all ages, and a kid-friendly visitor center.
Family fun near William O’Brien State Park:
William O’Brien State Park is perched just outside the sweet little community of Marine-on-St Croix. Pop into town to get treats at the throwback Marine General Store (established 1849!) and pay your respects to the historic Marine Township Hall.
Taylors Falls, MN | 50 mi from MM
You can easily spend an entire day-plus at Interstate State Park, picking your way around potholes of all sizes, watching rock climbers and even taking a paddle wheeler out on the St Croix. The river is still calm near this park location, but has had a scene change to high, rocky cliffs overhead. Our family simply loves to be in the Taylors Falls area (see below for more recreation ideas). We have camped, hiked, and explored the river by boat & canoe at Interstate State Park.
Interstate State Park features:
- Drive-in & electric campsites (this is a very popular campground that fills quickly for the summer).
- Naturalist programs are offered in 2021, many of which are guided tours of the park’s famous potholes.
- Family friendly: amazing glacial pothole trail that is suitable for kids (note there are many short flights of steps involved – absolutely no strollers), paddle boat rides on the St. Croix, the superb Taylors Falls Canoe & Kayak Rental service, and beautiful fall colors.
Family fun nearby:
For more ideas on family fun in the area, try our list of The Best Things To Do Near Taylors Falls with Kids. You’ll find enticements including, but not limited to: miniature golf, wildlife park, a waterpark, an alpine slide, a quirky sculpture park and a fun throwback diner!
Center City, MN | 54 mi from MM
Wild River State Park is the furthest north of the three metro-area Minnesota State Parks along the St Croix River. Do not be frightened off by the “wild” moniker – our family has loved a leisurely paddle on the river. If you’re interested in a top-notch canoe rental service, see Interstate State Park below. Rentals are not offered at Wild River.
Wild River State Park features:
- Drive-in & electric campsites & 6 year-round camper cabins (see above parks for details – $90/night).
- Year-round visitor center w/ exhibits and a large deck overlooking the St Croix River.
- Naturalist programs have been offered summer & fall weekends but a check reveals nothing scheduled for 2021.
- Family friendly: an easy paved bike trail, a self-guided hike along the river & free loaner equipment including GPS units; birding, fishing & kids discovery kits.
Family fun near Wild River State Park:
The south boundary of the park is a stone’s throw from WILD MOUNTAIN in Taylors Falls, a family destination that offers a waterpark, an alpine slide and go-karts during the summer. Our family has visited as part of an “adventure day” in the St Croix River area.
Monticello, MN | 54 mi from MM
Families with little ones can come to Lake Maria State Park for picnicking, an easy self-guided interpretive hike, and nature observation. The park has a manageable, day-trip feel to it, but there are options to stay overnight if you’d like. Our family has visited in three seasons enjoying hiking in the summer, admiring the colors in the fall, and ice-skating in the winter.
Lake Maria State Park features:
- 3 year-round camper cabins – none with electricity (for that extra rustic feel – $80/night)
- Family friendly: short hiking trails, lakeside picnicking, great fall colors and in winter, a small ice skating rink. You can check out free birding kits & kids discovery kits at the park office.
Nerstrand, MN/55 mi from MM
It’s a small park, but Nerstrand Big Woods State Park feels totally manageable with small children and we recommend it for a nice day trip from the Twin Cities. You can pack a picnic and spend a couple of hours at the nature playground and hiking the short trail to Hidden Falls. Not a grand waterfall by any scale, but that makes it perfectly safe for your kids to wade at the base.
- Drive-in and electric campsites
- Family-friendly: A cute nature playground, visitor center with interpretive exhibits for kids and a safe little waterfall to wade near.
Frontenac/Red Wing, MN | 60 mi from MM
Perched high above the Mississippi and Lake Pepin, Frontenac State Park has lovely, quiet views way out over the river valley. Our family has spent time here camping, picnicking and taking short hikes with the kids. It’s a definite stop on any day or weekend trip to Red Wing, Minnesota. Heads up, there’s no swimming beach within the park; you’ll need to head closer to town for that.
- Drive-in & electric campsites
- Family-friendly: In-Yan-Teopa rock hike, a short distance to Red Wing & Lake City with more recreational options.
Two More Minnesota State Parks - No Campsites
Saint Paul, MN
Explore Fort Snelling State Park where below, the mighty Mississippi and Minnesota rivers meet and above, the land is rich with history dating back to before even the earliest days of the Twin Cities. Unlike the previous entries on this list, Fort Snelling does not offer camping, but it is technically in Saint Paul and is a great option for spontaneous visits. Our family has enjoyed biking the trails near the river and up on the bluff, geocaching, swimming at the beach, picnicking, fishing with grandparents and visiting the interpretive center. We have also explored the impressive HISTORIC FORT SNELLING, though it is operated by the Minnesota Historical Society and not a part of Fort Snelling State Park.
Fort Snelling State Park features:
The beach is a good place to watch planes landing and taking off from the airport, but you can also hike beautiful trails along the river. GPS units, birding kits, and fishing poles are available for free during your visit to the park. Activities include:
– Dakota Memorial
– Interpretive exhibits
– Bike trails/connections
– Cross-country skiing
Family fun near Fort Snelling State Park:
Guarding the state park from atop the bluff, Historic Fort Snelling takes you back to the roots of the Twin Cities. Explore the historic buildings, chat with costumed interpreters, watch cannon and musket firings, and join in historic games. Open seasonally, Memorial Day – Labor Day. CURRENTLY PROGRAMS ARE SCALED BACK IN 2021 AS THE SITE IS REVITALIZED.
Jordan, MN | 35 mi from MM
This piece of the Minnesota State Park system is technically a State Recreation Area. This park also does not offer camping.
- Picnic areas
- Hiking & nature observation
- Horse trails
Family fun nearby Minnesota Valley State Recreation Area:
You can’t miss the screaming yellow beacon of a barn by the side of Hwy 169. All ages with a sweet tooth will want to visit Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store – conveniently located right before the turn off the the state recreation area.
Minnesota State Parks Perk: Borrow Free Equipment
While each State Park varies, many offer free equipment for visitors to use while at the park. Families can check out free loaner equipment to try out new activities. Check at the park office; loaner equipment can include:
2022 Free Entrance Days to Minnesota State Parks
Although, we highly recommend getting the annual vehicle permit so you can go to State Parks whenever you want during the year, there are four days in 2022 when all 75 Minnesota state parks and state recreation areas offer free admission to everyone. Mark your calendar for these fee-free dates:
- Saturday, February 19
- Saturday, April 23
- Saturday, June 11
- Friday, November 25
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