Minnesota boasts some of the most pristine wilderness in the whole of the U.S. We explore the Land of 10,000 Lakes, taking in its most beautiful counties: from urban Hennepin County to the wilds of Cook County.
Bordered by the north shores of Lake Superior, and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Cook County is Minnesota’s wild Arrowhead region epitomized. The legendary Highway 61 cuts a path along the county’s coastline, passing tiny towns like Grand Marais. Recently named one of The Culture Trip’s most beautiful Minnesota towns, Grand Marais is known for its arty charm, and for being home to the Grand Marais Art Colony and North House Folk School. Inland, pristine forests and lakes beckon adventurers from across America, with promises of canoeing in the wilderness, hiking amidst breathtaking scenery, and wildlife-spotting.
Clustered around the banks of the mighty Mississippi River in Minnesota’s southeastern corner, Winona County is where rural charm meets bustling river towns. To the south of the county in Great River Bluffs State Park, visitors can see bald eagles soar overhead, they can hike or cross-country ski its miles of trails; or simply take in breathtaking views of the Mississippi from its scenic overlooks. Take Minnesota’s Great River Road northwards to the eponymous county seat for historic architecture, arts, and culture festivals; or head inland to the picturesque Whitewater State Park, dubbed an ‘angler’s paradise,’ for world-class trout fishing.
Set amidst the rolling hills of west-central Minnesota’s prairies, Kandiyohi County is a beautiful destination located just a two-hour drive west of Minneapolis. Several hundred lakes, ranging in size from 10 to over 5,000 acres in size, punctuate the landscape. Naturally, the area attracts outdoor enthusiasts looking to fish and boat its waters. The beautiful Sibley State Park lies in the northern reaches of the county, and is a popular haunt during winter for cross-country skiing, snowmobiling and snowshoe hikes. The county seat, Willmar, brims with small-town charm and boasts a thriving arts scene as well as a lively cultural calendar.
Lake of the Woods County
With the Rainy River running past it to the east, and the edges of the breathtakingly beautiful lake of the same name to the north, Lake of the Woods County is naturally a mecca for fishing. Anglers travel from far and wide year-round to fish in the ‘Walleye Capital of the World.’ Head to the Northwest Angle, the northernmost point in the USA’s lower 48 states, for true wilderness and world-class walleye and muskie fishing, or see the county from Highway 11. Also known as the Waters of the Dancing Sky Scenic Byway, the road passes by Beltrami Island State Forest, and is a prime spot for viewing the Northern Lights.
From the beautiful city of Grand Rapids to the wild forests of its north, and the 1,000 lakes dotted in-between, it’s easy to see why Itasca County is such a beloved Minnesota destination. Within Grand Rapids, visitors can enjoy a relaxing round of golf at one of its many golf courses, take in a contemporary art show at the MacRostie Art Center, or learn about one of the city’s most famous natives at the Judy Garland Museum. Yet, to see the best the county has to offer, a trip northwards is a must, and the best route is via the Edge of the Wilderness National Scenic Byway – a beautiful road running north from Grand Rapids to Effie and into the wilds of Chippewa National Forest.
Located some 50 miles downriver from Minnesota’s state capital St Paul, Goodhue County boasts scenic Mississippi River bluffs, charming small towns and a picturesque countryside. The beating heart of the county is its seat: Red Wing – a lively riverside town with a delightful historic district, art galleries, antique stores and scenic spots like Barn Bluff Park. Further into the county, visitors will find a number of wineries, one of which, the award-winning Cannon River Winery, can be accessed via the Cannon Valley Trail – a 20-mile-long scenic route linking Red Wing and the lovely city of Cannon Falls.
Home of Leech Lake – which, at 112,835 acres, is Minnesota’s third biggest inland lake – Cass County is a top Minnesota destination for all kinds of water sports, from fishing and boating to activities perfect for daredevils like jet-skiing and wake-boarding. A haven for hikers too, Cass County boasts miles of trails traversing its beautiful forests and lakes, the most popular being its portion of Minnesota’s Heartland State Trail. A 22-mile section of the trail leads visitors from the county seat of Walker northwards to Cass Lake, where a quick boat trip over to Star Island leads to Lake Windigo – the only lake within a lake in the whole of the northern hemisphere.
Minnesota’s most populated county – and home to a great part of its most populous city, Minneapolis – may not seem a likely candidate for one of the most stunning counties, but Hennepin County proves that even the state’s urban areas are brimming with beauty. As the USA’s most bike-friendly city, Minneapolis boasts almost 200 miles of trails and paths throughout its metropolitan area. Cycling is definitely the best way to see the city’s most scenic spots – picturesque Minnehaha Falls Park, the amazing, Frank Gehry-designed architecture of the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum and the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden are just are few must-see sights.
Otter Tail County
Over in west-central Minnesota, not far from the border with North Dakota, Otter Tail County lays claim to 10% of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes, and boasts 1,274 miles of winding rivers – a feature that makes the area a natural playground for fishing, kayaking, water-skiing and the like. Some of the county’s most beautiful spots are easily accessed via the Otter Trail Scenic Byway – a 150-mile-long looped route that takes drivers past spots like historic Phelps Mills, a 19th century flour mill that today hosts an annual arts and crafts festival, and Maplewood State Park, a popular destination in the fall when its maples trees are ablaze with color.
St Louis County
From Duluth (Minnesota’s fifth biggest city) in its urban southeast to its wild northern reaches, St Louis County boasts a wealth of nature and culture just begging to be explored. Nestled on the shores of Lake Superior, Duluth – home of the Minnesota Ballet and the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra – is the place to get a culture fix in St Louis county. While you needn’t leave town to experience the outdoors (there’s 178 miles of wooded trails in and around the city alone), a trip to the county wouldn’t be complete without exploring its northern hot spots, like the charming town of Ely and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
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