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.
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.
Six Minnesota state parks are located within 60 miles of the heart of Minneapolis and St Paul. An hour’s drive or less. 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:
Afton State Park | Hastings, MN | 26 mi from MM
Afton State Park has bluffs, rolling prairie and a descent to a sandy swimming beach on the river.
– 4 year-round camper cabins ($55-$60/night)
– occasional naturalist programs (such as Universe in the Parks & Archery in the Parks)
– family friendly: a sandy swimming beach on the St. Croix River, geocache units to borrow
William O’Brien State Park | Marine On St Croix, MN | 35 mi from MM
William O’Brien, on the banks of the St Croix, offers family programming year-round and a location close to Stillwater-area attractions.
– drive-in & electric campsites & 4 year-round camper cabins
– naturalist programs every weekend (I Can Paddle, archery, stargazing)
– family friendly: 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.
Wild River State Park | Center City, MN | 54 mi from MM
– drive-in & electric campsites & 6 year-round camper cabins
– water & showers (mid-April thru mid-Oct)
– year-round visitor center w/ exhibits and deck overlooking the St Croix River
– naturalist programs many summer & fall weekends
– family friendly: paved bike trail, self-guided hikes & geocache units to borrow
Lake Maria State Park | Monticello, MN | 55 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.
– 3 year-round camper cabins – none with electricity (for that extra rustic feel)
– family friendly: short hiking trails, lakeside picnicking, great fall colors and in winter, a small ice skating rink
Interstate State Park | Taylors Falls, MN | 56 mi from MM
You can easily spend an entire day 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. For more ideas on family fun in the area, try our list of 6 Things To Do Near Taylors Falls.
– drive-in & electric campsites (popular campground fills quickly for the summer)
– water & showers (mid-April thru mid-Oct)
– naturalist programs most summer & fall weekends
– family friendly: amazing glacial pothole trail, paddle boat rides on the St. Croix, and beautiful fall colors
Frontenac State Park | Frontenac/Red Wing, MN | 60 mi from MM
Perched high above the Mississippi and Lake Pepin, Frontenac State Park has lovely views of the river valley.
– drive-in & electric campsites
– water & showers (early May to mid-Oct)
– family-friendly: In-Yan-Teopa rock hike, a short distance to Red Wing & Lake City with more recreational options.
State Park Perk: Borrow Free Equipment
While each State Park is different, 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, but loaner equipment can include: