Minnesota is blessed with six National Parks. Two are actually in the Twin Cities metro area! Okay, I am using the word “park” somewhat loosely. Technically, Minnesota has a National River and Recreation Area, a National Scenic Riverway, a National Scenic Trail, two National Monuments, and one true National Park — Voyageurs National Park. Here we introduce you to each of the six parks plus share some cool things to know about National Parks in general, including when to mark Free Entrance Days on your calendar (and why not to bother), kids programs including the Junior Ranger Program, the Passport program, the wonderful 4th Grade Pass and other annual pass information.
Collectively, as a nation, we own millions of acres of public lands. This includes national parks, historic structures, cultural artifacts, forests, mountains, and lakes. Of course these are not always free and they are not always close. For me, they tend to hover out there on my “someday list”. I’d love to visit all the national parks, but that needs to be a year I’m not using vacation time for kids — and yet it needs to be while my kids are still in the wonder years. Here are some of our favorite ideas for enjoying National Parks plus an overview of the Minnesota National Parks.
National Parks Passport Program
Make your visits fun by collecting passport stamps at every National Park you visit. Note that the Passport to Your National Parks Program is run by America’s National Parks, which is actually a retailer, not the National Parks Service. However, they are a partner of the NPS and donate some proceeds to National Parks. Passport stamps are free at many national parks, but if you want an official passport, you’ll need to buy it through America’s National Parks. You can collect the cancellation stamps in a notebook or journal if you prefer. Either way, you’ll find the cancellation stamps in visitor centers or park stores at participating national parks.
National Parks Jr. Rangers Program
The NPS Junior Ranger program varies in application from park to park. Most parks offer activities for Junior Rangers to accomplish and kids can receive a patch for finishing the activity and answering park ranger questions. The program is geared toward kids ages 5 to 13, but anyone can participate.
- Kids can print some of these Junior Ranger Books to do at home anytime.
- For the rest, ask for a booklet at the visitor center when you visit the park.
What is the Best Year to Travel With Kids?
How about 4th grade? Fourth grade is a great year to explore history. It’s an age when kids will be old enough to remember, but not too busy with a life of their own yet.
To help engage and create a new generation of park visitors, the National Park Foundation is continuing the Every Kid in a Park initiative. This program, gives every 4th grade student across the country and their families a chance to experience their public lands and waters in person. If you are lucky enough to have a child in the fourth grade this school year, BOOKMARK THIS PAGE, and sign up for further posts.
Oh, and before you go, you can print a free Owner’s Guide to the National Parks. It’s always good to have the Owner’s guide.
2023 Free Entrance Days in the National Parks
Don’t have a fourth grader and still want to visit for free? 2023 has five days when all National Park Service sites that charge an entrance fee will offer free admission to everyone.
- January 16: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
- April 22: First day of National Park Week
- August 4: Anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act
- September 23: National Public Lands Day
- November 11: Veterans Day
6 Minnesota National Parks
After all the information above that will come in handy if you are traveling, we have a little secret to share: None of Minnesota’s National Parks currently charge an entrance fee on any day of the year. Neither do Iowa or Wisconsin’s National Parks. The Dakotas are the closest states with national parks that charge entrance fees. In fact, waiting for a free day may just make it a busier day to visit.
- Distance from the Twin Cities: Twin Cities Metro (There is a Visitor Center is in the Lobby of the Science Museum and another near St. Anthony Falls). The park itself actually runs along the Mississippi River from Dayton to Hastings.
- Entrance Fee: Free
- Visitor Center Addresses:
120 W. Kellogg Blvd. Saint Paul, MN 55102;
1 Portland Avenue Minneapolis, MN 55401
- Visitor Center Hours: Sun-Thurs: 9:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.; Fri-Sat: 9:30 a.m. – 9:00 p.m.
Right in Saint Paul and Minneapolis and free all the time, you don’t really have an excuse not to visit this National Park at least twice. You’ll likely want to split up the Minneapolis and St. Paul visits. Start your visit in the lobby of the Science Museum. Then get outside. The park consists of 72 miles of river park. Families can go fishing, boat or canoe, try birdwatching, and bike or hike along the river. This park participates in the Jr. Ranger Program.
- Distance from the Twin Cities: Approximately 150 miles (at the closest point)
- Entrance Fee: Free (However, the trail runs through Minnesota State Parks, which will charge vehicle and/or camping fees)
- Visitor Center Address: None
This trail runs through eight states beginning in New York and ending in North Dakota. The Minnesota portion is 486 miles and runs through the top half of the state hitting State Forests, several Minnesota Historical Society locations, and other tourist attractions.
- Distance from the Twin Cities: Approximately 200 miles
- Entrance Fee: Currently free, but under evaluation.
- Visitor Center Address: 36 Reservation Ave, Pipestone, MN 56164
- Visitor Center Hours: 8:30 AM to 5 PM daily
This is a site where Native Americans historically quarried red pipestone and is considered a sacred space. Families will find both indoor and outdoor things to do with kids and kids can pick up their Jr. Ranger book at the desk when visiting. Become a Jr. Ranger at this park.
- Distance from the Twin Cities: Approximately 300 miles
- Entrance Fee: Free.
- Visitor Center Address: 170 Mile Creek Rd, Grand Portage, MN 55605
- Visitor Center Hours: Find Seasonal Hours Here.
An historic site for both the Grand Portage Ojibwe and the North West Fur Trade Company and home to Minnesota’s tallest waterfall, there is so much to do at the park that the National Park Service offers ideas for visits from half a day to multi-day itineraries, including The Heritage Center for quick visits. If you are driving from the Twin Cities and plan to spend some time in the Lake Superior area, don’t miss the Historic Depot, with an Ojibwe village and historic gardens, where families can learn about heirloom seeds and the Three-Sisters method of gardening corn, beans, and squash. Kids can earn a patch as a Jr. Ranger at this park.
- Distance from the Twin Cities: This park runs down the St. Croix river and touches the east side of the Twin Cities Metro from Taylor Falls to Stillwater.
- Entrance Fee: Free, but it runs through other parks that may charge fees.
- Visitor Center Address: 401 N. Hamilton Street, St. Croix Falls, WI 54024
- Visitor Center Hours: Daily 9am-5pm; mid-April through late October
This Scenic Riverway is 200 miles formed by the St. Croix and Namekagon rivers through Minnesota and Wisconsin. Families can canoe, boat, fish, and camp along the riverway and visit historic sites along the way. The park offers Jr. Ranger Saturdays and other activities for Jr. Rangers.
- Distance from the Twin Cities: Approximately 5 hours.
- Entrance Fee: Free; Campsites are about $30/night.
- Visitor Center Address: Rainy Lake Visitor Center, 1797 Ut – 342, International Falls, MN 56649
- Visitor Center Hours: May 25 – September 29, 2019: 9 am- 5 pm, Daily. See website for winter hours.
This park is over 40% water. Campsites are only accessible by boat. But there are hiking opportunities with 15 separate trails (many along the Ash River) and 3 visitor centers. Open year round, there are also winter activities. Complete the Jr. Ranger booklet to become a Jr. Ranger at this park.
Camping the Minnesota National Parks
Some National Park campground sites are first-come, first serve. However, others can be reserved. Call the park directly or book campsites through Recreation.gov. If you use the online booking, you can filter your search by types of sites, equipment and amenities as well as activities. Besides regular tent camping, look for houseboat sites, cabins, RV and horse sites.
More Fun at Minnesota State Parks
Besides its National Parks, Minnesota also has 75 of the most beautifully pristine state parks. Nine are in Twin Cities Metro-Area, close enough for a day visit. While I would struggle to come up with a single reason why Minnesota is the best state, our State Parks are definitely at the top of my list. We love these parks for exploring, swimming, picnicking and camping; and it is well worth purchasing the annual vehicle permit for visits.
- FFTC Family Camping Guide: Minnesota State Park Campgrounds
- 9 Twin Cities Metro-Area Minnesota State Parks
After you get out and enjoy any National Park this year – Minnesota or beyond, leave us a comment and tell us about your visit. We would love to hear how it went.
More National Parks
Our hyperlocal friends around the country have written about their own National Parks, including insider tips for parents and kids: