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Chasing Waterfalls

Breathtaking waterfalls draw crowds at parks and hiking trails around Minnesota

Gooseberry Falls

photo by AMB-MD Photography – Fotolia

A hiker tilts her head and pauses as the first rustling sound filters through the boreal forest of Minnesota’s far northeastern tip. The trail threads upward through fragrant firs, a few draped with gray wisps of lichen, like tinsel on Christmas trees, and anticipation builds as a river’s babble becomes a distant rumble and then a roar as the view opens to the Pigeon River’s 120-foot plunge.

Like a crescendo up the North Shore, the High Falls on the Pigeon River is the grand finale, showcasing Minnesota’s highest and most dramatic waterfall on the border of the U.S. and Canada. Rivers rush through eight state parks, plus waysides, the Sawtooth Mountains, and Superior National Forest, creating waterfalls of all shapes and ferocity on their way to Lake Superior.

Believe it or not, waterfalls can be found throughout the state—even on the southwestern prairie. Snowmelt and early summer rains showcase waterfalls at their peak flow, while other months combine with wildflowers and autumn leaves for colorful day trips or weekend getaways. Here’s a look at the top 10 waterfall destinations around Minnesota.

High Falls, Grand Portage

photo by Lisa Meyers McClintick

High Falls, Grand Portage

Native Americans and early fur traders carved out a 9-mile grand portage—a footpath for carrying canoes and supplies safely—so people could traverse around the Pigeon River’s 120-foot plummet to calmer waters and trade routes upriver.

Six miles from Grand Portage State Park, Grand Portage National Monument’s interactive visitor center and exhibits offer an in-depth look at that pivotal era of history. In the summer, costumed interpreters show what life was like for traders, tribes, and voyageurs through hands-on activities and an August Rendezvous. 

Devil’s Kettle, Grand Marais

The aptly named Devil’s Kettle Falls along the Brule River in Judge C.R. Magney State Park stumped people for decades. While the eastern half of the Brule River drops 50 feet down volcanic rock and rushes toward Superior, the western half disappears into a deep cauldron of rock, seemingly swallowed up by the earth.

The mysterious nature of the waterfall draws visitors down a 1.1-mile trail parallel to the river with a scenic stop at 25-foot Upper Falls along the way to Devil’s Kettle. The park is also popular with campers and travelers who want to be near the outdoorsy and artsy harbor town of Grand Marais.

Hidden Falls, Schroeder

Just south of Tofte, the aptly named Hidden Falls ranks as the trickiest waterfall to see, but it makes its presence known with a roar as the Temperance River rumbles and gurgles through a steep quarter-mile gorge along Highway 61.

The Temperance River Gorge Trail starts near the Highway 61 parking area where the river’s churning stirs up bubbles and foam. Over the centuries, water carved about a quarter-mile through an ancient lava flow, sometimes trapping gravel that would scour out basalt potholes or cauldrons. Overlooks give visitors a glimpse into cauldrons and a peek at Hidden Falls as it drops about 15 feet and thunders and twists through the gorge. Hikers who continue upriver can cross a footbridge and eventually reach Upper Falls, which tumbles about 10 feet. Hikers following the river southeast under Highway 61 can see the Lower Falls, which also drops about 10 feet as it flows toward the river’s mouth and the rocky beach.

The entire 5,059-acre Temperance River State Park features 52 drive-in campsites near the lake, an inland forest covering a stretch of the Superior Hiking Trail, and paths up to Carlton Peak in Tofte, offering sweeping views from over 1,500-foot elevation.

Just 2 miles south of the park is Cross River Falls, which can be admired from both sides of the highway from the wayside. Following the river from the falls, visitors can see a granite cross standing near the mouth of Cross River. The historical marker was originally wooden and erected by missionary Father Baraga in 1846 in gratitude for surviving a perilous journey across Lake Superior.

High Falls, Tettegouche State Park

photo by Ackerman + Gruber

High Falls, Silver Bay

Follow the Baptism River upriver from Tettegouche State Park’s Visitor Center, and you can see (or hear) a few small waterfalls until the grand finale 1.5 miles away: the 60-foot High Falls. Because it’s an inclining hike inland, the crowds are thin at this pretty waterfall, and it’s one of the many draws to this dramatic park.

Other spectacular views can be enjoyed from Shovel Point, where a 1.2-mile roundtrip hike brings you to the edge of a sharp cliff that plunges down to Lake Superior. The area draws serious rock climbers, but for a more leisurely way to see Shovel Point, visitors can also drive up nearby Palisade Head, a distinctive headland south of the park. However, keep in mind that parking can be tight on peak summer days when Lake Superior shimmers calmly and wild blueberries can be picked among the rocks.

The park also includes numerous campsites, inland lakes, remote cabins, and 23 miles of trails, including a 12-mile stretch of the Lake Superior Hiking Trail.

Gooseberry Falls

photo by Justin Pruden

Gooseberry Falls, Two Harbors

As the closest North Shore state park to Duluth and home to selfie-worthy waterfalls, Gooseberry ranks among Minnesota’s top outdoor destinations.

Accessible trails take visitors to the wide Upper Falls, which tumbles 30 feet, followed by another 30 feet at Middle Falls. Most visitors gather between the two, shooting photos and exploring the rocky gorge and side pools. Hikers can take the stairs down to the Lower Falls, which splits into two falls and drops another 30 feet as the Gooseberry River rushes toward Lake Superior and Agate Beach.

The 1,687-acre park encompasses close to 20 miles of trails, which includes a 2-mile loop to Fifth Falls upriver. Visitors also climb across Picnic Flow, an ancient lava shelf along Lake Superior that is dotted with brilliant orange lichen native to the area.

Plan ahead to snag a spot at the popular 69-site campground. The park also connects to the Superior Hiking Trail and a paved stretch of the Gitchi-Gami State Trail that follows the shore on its way to Split Rock Lighthouse State Park and Beaver Bay.

Minnehaha Falls, Minneapolis

Elegant and soothing, this 53-foot waterfall offers a peaceful retreat and showpiece for a 167-acre park tucked into southeast Minneapolis. Visitors can dine at the park’s seasonal restaurant, Sea Salt Eatery, play the disc golf course, and wander the wooded hills surrounding Minnehaha Creek. The creek, which begins at Lake Minnetonka in the western suburbs, flows into the Mississippi River with hiking trails flanking both sides as the falls’ runoff makes its way to the mighty river. Minnehaha Park connects to Minneapolis’ Grand Rounds Scenic Byway, a 50-mile loop of parks, lakes, and greenways that include the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area and Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

Outfitters lead paddles on the Mississippi, while additional trails, a fishing pier, and a historic frontier fort attract visitors to Fort Snelling State Park, a mere 4 miles away.

Vermillion Falls

photo by david youngren

Vermillion Falls, Hastings

With two of the country’s biggest rivers—the Mississippi and the St. Croix—converging near Hastings, the little-known Vermillion River often gets overlooked. But anyone who takes the time to find the river can enjoy a 35-foot waterfall that gushes into a limestone gorge. The river, flanked by Vermillion Falls Park and Old Mill Park, offers a wooded getaway on the southeastern edge of the Twin Cities.

Fill out a balmy day trip with a trek along the new Mississippi River Trail, family beach time at Point Douglas Park along the St. Croix, or a drive across the river to Prescott, Wisconsin, for the family-friendly Great River Road Visitor and Learning Center. It’s 12 minutes from the waterfall and sits on a bluff for optimal views of the rivers’ confluence and Minnesota shoreline.

Minneopa Falls

photo courtesy of explore minnesota tourism

Minneopa Falls, Mankato

About 80 miles southwest of the Twin Cities, Minneopa Creek tumbles across sandstone that has been carved by water over the years at Minneopa State Park. It drops about 7 feet at the Upper Falls and then tumbles another 40 at the nearby Lower Falls. Fittingly, “Minneopa” was inspired by the Dakota word for “water falling twice.”

A steep path into a lush, mossy gorge tempts visitors to keep exploring and to check out shade-loving wildflowers. Other areas of the park include an 1800s grist mill with views of the Minnesota River Valley, a newly restored bison herd that roams its prairie areas, and outlooks to watch for bald eagles perching in the tall cottonwood trees.

Ramsey Falls, Redwood Falls

About two hours west of the Twin Cities, the Minnesota River cuts across prairie and a patchwork of farm fields in Redwood Falls. Nearby, the Redwood River and Ramsey Creek wiggle and wind through ravines in one of Minnesota’s largest municipal parks, Alexander Ramsey Park. In the heart of the 219-acred wooded oasis, Ramsey Falls tumbles down an impressive 40-foot drop.

The park, which had once been part of the state park system for more than 50 years, has five historic pedestrian bridges that span the creek and river and frame up scenic views of the falls. Families can camp at 31 sites, fish in trout streams, or photograph bison, deer, elk, prairie dogs, and waterfowl at the small zoo.

Winnewissa Falls, Pipestone

photo by Myra Smisek

Winnewissa Falls, Pipestone

Southwestern Minnesota’s big-sky prairie landscape can seem deceptively flat, but its rivers carve pretty hikes in unexpected places, including Pipestone National Monument. While the monument is best known for its cultural legacy of producing stone for Native American pipes used in sacred ceremonies, it is also home to Winnewissa Falls.

After touring the visitor center’s expansive displays of pipes and watching demonstrations provided by modern carvers, visitors can take the three-quarter mile Circle Trail to see the waterfall flow across pink quartzite rock before tumbling about 20 feet down. The trail will also bring visitors to rock formations such as Old Stone Face and The Oracle, as well as an example of the 56 hand-dug quarries that dot the monument’s more than 300 acres of prairie, so visitors can experience the true prairie culture among the land’s rocks, constructs, and 70-plus prairie grasses. 

In nearby Pipestone, historic downtown buildings and the Calumet Inn feature rosy quartzite exteriors, some unique carvings, and plenty of ghost stories, which are told during seasonal walking tours.

Where to eat, play and stay while chasing waterfalls

Grand Portage

High Falls, Grand Portage State Park

Eat: Try one of the massive cinnamon rolls or omelets with blueberry wild rice sausage at The Naniboujou Lodge Restaurant’s brilliantly painted dining room inspired by Cree Indian designs. The lodge, near C.R. Magney State Park and between Grand Marais and Grand Portage, also serves afternoon tea and sandwiches, evening entrees such as pork tenderloin with cranberry glaze, and a Sunday brunch buffet.

Play: Enjoy stellar views of Lake Superior with Mount Josephine hikes or catch a ferry for day trips to Isle Royale National Park.

Stay: Naniboujou Lodge offers basic rooms, some with wood-burning fireplaces, off the digital grid. Grand Portage Lodge Casino offers 95 hotel rooms along the harbor, an indoor pool, and on-site dining. Log cabins and campsites can be found in the quiet hideaway at Hollow Rock Resort.

Grand Marais

Devil’s Kettle, Judge C.R. Magney State Park

Eat: Try a sweet potato farro burger, shrimp and grits, and banana brulé with cashew brittle at the Crooked Spoon Café or grab a cold beer and kick back on the rooftop at Voyageur Brewing Company. For waterfront dining, Angry Trout Café serves a daily Lake Superior catch, as well as entrees such as grilled bison tenderloin with chimichurri sauce.

Play: Supplement your northern outdoors wardrobe with shops such as Lake Superior Trading Post, see the boreal landscape through artists’ eyes at Sivertson Gallery, and delve into the area’s maritime history at the Cook County Historical Society’s museum in the former lighthouse keeper’s house. Don’t miss a walk onto Artists’ Point at sunset or an evening trek up the Gunflint Trail, where it’s possible to spot a moose.

Stay: Enjoy balconies, views of Lake Superior, and the ease of walking to downtown restaurants and shopping from East Bay Suites and Best Western Plus Superior Inn.

Tofte-Lutsen

Hidden Falls, Temperance River State Park

Eat: Opt for elegant appetizers, drinks, and dinner at the Bluefin Grille at Bluefin Bay or go more casual with salad, sandwiches, and fish tacos at Coho Café. As a bonus, both offer views of Tofte’s bay.

Play: Learn about the area’s heritage at the North Shore Commercial Fishing Museum in Tofte or the Cross River Heritage Center in Schroeder, a few miles south of Tofte. Zip down the alpine slide or take a scenic gondola ride up Moose Mountain at Lutsen Mountains.

Stay: Look for rooms, condos, and vacation homes at Caribou Highlands Lodge nestled into Lutsen Mountains or opt for lake views, historic lodge rooms, or modern condos and cabins at Lutsen Resort near the mouth of the Poplar River.

Silver Bay

High Falls, Tettegouche State Park

Eat: Dig in to baby-back ribs, award-winning burgers, and breakfast all day at North Woods Family Grille. Down the road in Beaver Bay, try local brews and barbecue at Camp 61, or go for Swedish meatballs, hot beef sandwiches, and coconut cream pie at Lemon Wolf Café.

Play: Learn about the life of a lighthouse family and the dangers of early Great Lakes shipping with tours of Split Rock Lighthouse historic buildings. Leave time for hikes through the adjoining Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. Rock hounds shouldn’t miss Beaver Bay Agate Shop’s free museum.

Stay: AmericInn offers a pool and quick access to Black Beach. In Beaver Bay, Cove Point Lodge rooms face the lake, where a shoreline boathouse stands for evening gatherings and campfires, and guests can also get a view of the trail along the spit of land creating the cove.

Two Harbors

Gooseberry Falls, Gooseberry Falls state park

Eat: Start the day with wild rice porridge, Swedish pancakes, or walleye cakes at Vanilla Bean. Near Gooseberry State Park, the Rustic Inn Café serves brandy-spiked barbecue ribs, walleye picatta, and shrimp pasta. And a trip to Two Harbors would not be complete without a slice of pie à la mode from the legendary Betty’s Pies.

Play: Check out Castle Danger Brewery, stroll along the Agate Bay Pier, watch for ore boats, or tour museums dedicated to the lighthouse, the Iron Range Railroad Company depot, or the birthplace of 3M.

Stay: For a luxury lakefront rental, book a room or a full unit with a kitchen at Larsmont Cottages. Tucked into the woods, Northern Rail Traincar Inn features renovated boxcars to give this hotel a unique atmosphere. History lovers can book a stay in the historic Lighthouse Bed and Breakfast.

Minneapolis

Minnehaha Falls, Minnehaha Falls regional park

Eat: If you want to go beyond Sea Salt within the park, stroll less than a mile away to Al Vento, which serves elegantly plated Southern Italian pastas in its cozy restaurant or on the garden patio, or Sassy Spoon for gluten-free small plates and entrees from yucca patties to miso-braised pork. 

Play: Extend your day outdoors with a bike ride or run along East Minnehaha Parkway to Lake Nokomis for some beach time. For a cold, frothy craft brew, walk a few blocks from Minnehaha to Venn Brewing Company.

Stay: Stay at Radisson Blu or JW Marriott, both conveniently attached to the Mall of America and only seven stops from Minnehaha Falls via the Metro Transit Blue Line light rail. Several additional hotels, including Crown Plaza Aire MSP Airport and Hyatt Regency Bloomington, sit near the Blue Line in Bloomington’s South Loop east of Mall of America.

Hastings

Vermillion Falls, Vermillion Falls park

Eat: The pressed-tin ceiling may look fancy at The Busted Nut, but this bar and grill welcomes diners to toss peanut shells to the floor while they wait for hamburgers that may require an extra hike to work off. The Nut Burger comes piled with bacon, cheese, and peanut butter. The Hulk adds green olives, cream cheese, wonton strips, and homemade blackberry ketchup.

Play: Have a picnic in the vineyard, play a game of bocce ball, and stroll among the sculptures at Minnesota’s esteemed Alexis Bailly Vineyard. Craving something grittier and less grown-up? Try driving a 26-ton excavator or bulldozer at Extreme Sandbox.

Stay: For a rustic escape within the Twin Cities, rent a camper cabin or seven-person yurt at Afton State Park about 11 miles north of Hastings.

Mankato

Minneopa Falls, Minneopa state park

Eat: Feast like Thanksgiving with pulled turkey and cranberry sauce or walleye with faro, dried blueberries, and wild rice at Pub 500 or Number 4 American Bar Kitchen’s housemade pastrami and grilled sandwiches and lobster bisque.

Play: Order a flight at Mankato Brewery, take the CityArt Walking Sculpture Tour, grab a bike route, or take a guided tour down the Blue Earth River with Bent River Outfitters.

Stay: Hilton Garden Inn sits close to downtown restaurants or head 11 miles north to enjoy Chankaska Creek Ranch and Winery’s live music on Friday and Saturday nights and stay at the historic five-room Konsbruck Hotel in downtown St. Peter.

Redwood Falls

Ramsey Falls, Alexander Ramsey Park

Eat: Grab a sandwich or steak at Duffy’s Riverside Saloon or Mexican fare at Plaza Garibaldi.

Play: Follow the rolling landscape at the Rees Jones-designed Dacotah Ridge Golf Course, play the slots or game at Jackpot Junction Casino, or brush up on the complexities of the 1862 U.S. Dakota War at the Lower Sioux Agency state historic site and other historic spots along the Minnesota River Scenic Byway.

Stay: Find hotel rooms at the Redwood Lodge or The Vintage Inn Bed Breakfast in downtown Redwood Falls.

Pipestone

Winnewissa Falls, Pipestone National Monument

Eat: Savor the slow-cooked beef and famous pies at Lange’s Café, which has been open 24/7 for more than 60 years.

Play: Check out Native American art and carved pipes, take a photo in front of the “largest pipe in the world” at Keeper’s Gift Shop Gallery, and check out downtown’s historic quartzite architecture on your own or sign up for seasonal ghost tours. Bike on Casey Jones State Trail, one of Minnesota’s first state bike trails, or head 30 miles south to Touch the Sky Prairie and Blue Mounds State Park in Luverne.

Stay: Find traditional rooms at GrandStay Hotel Suites or soak in the history at downtown’s Calumet Inn.

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