Split Rock Lighthouse on Minnesota's North Shore
Best Minnesota state parks to visit on free parks day: Split Rock Lighthouse State Park in Two Harbors, MN Post Updated Jan. 8, 2024

Minnesota, the land of 10,000+ lakes (11,842 of them), is also home to 75 state parks and recreational areas. And the state offers four free entrance days to all Minnesota state parks and recreation areas every year. Visiting a state park is one of the best free things to do in Minnesota. Note that admission to MN state parks is free – any other fees associated with special tours, camping, activities, etc. are not included.

Free admission is now available to every Minnesota state park every day for Minnesota state tribal members. Many Minnesota state parks are home to sacred Native American sacred sites. Previously, tribal members could visit designated state parks with sacred sites; however, to improve tribal relationships with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), legislation passed to provide open admission to all Minnesota tribal nations beginning in 2022. Long overdue.

My travel blogger friend Wendy with Perth Travelers (Australia adventures), inspired me to include this sentiment. I would like to respectfully acknowledge the traditional owners, first people, and tribal nations of these lands. As we visit Minnesota state parks, let’s pay respect to the elders past, present, and future, for they hold the memories, the traditions, the culture, and hopes of their tribal nations.


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The best Minnesota state parks to visit on free parks day

Banning State Park in Minnesota with tree reflections in water
The best free things to do in Minnesota: Visit Banning State Park in Sandstone, MN on one of the four free park days

I hiked/explored all 66 state parks as part of my Minnesota State Park challenge (there are also 9 Minnesota state recreation areas). So which are the best state parks to visit, hike, snowshoe, horseback ride, kayak, canoe, picnic on the Minnesota free park days?

All of them.

Now that I have explored all of the most beautiful Minnesota state parks, I must confess that I have not met a state park I hiked that I didn’t like.

The free entrance days event is a great opportunity for you to meet your favorite Minnesota state park. And it’s one of the best free things to do in Minnesota. Know what else is the best free thing to do in Minnesota? Visiting a sunflower field in the summer is one of the best free things to do in Minnesota.

When are the free entrance days to Minnesota state parks in 2023?

Trail and steps leading through fall colors and trees along a river
St. Croix State Park in Hinckley, MN is one of the best state parks to visit on one of the four free park entrance days in Minnesota.

Here are the 2024 dates for the four free state park days in MN – best free things to do in Minnesota. Check the individual Minnesota state park’s website for hours and special announcements.


  • Mon., Jan. 15, 2024 (Martin Luther King, Jr. Day)
  • Sat., April 27, 2024
  • Sat., June 8, 2024
  • Fri., Nov. 29, 2024

How much does a Minnesota state park pass cost?

Best almost-free things to do in Minnesota. An annual pass to Minnesota state parks is very affordable – only $35 a year with discounts for multiple vehicles ($26 and expire same month as first vehicle) and $30 a year for motorcycles. And daily passes are only $7 per vehicle or $5 per motorcycle (with unlimited park visits on the same day). Check the Minnesota DNR website for the most up-to-date costs.

Top-ranked Minnesota state parks to visit on free park days

Gooseberry Falls State Park North Shore Minnesota
Best Minnesota State Park with waterfalls: Gooseberry Falls State Park in Two Harbors, MN is the most popular and most visited state park in Minnesota. Check it out on one of the four free entrance days.

So when people ask me to name my favorite Minnesota state parks, it’s a challenge as they each have their own personality and their own special something. I’ve now hiked/explored all 66 Minnesota state parks (the 9 Minnesota state recreation areas are up next) on my Minnesota state parks challenge. I am in the process of creating and publishing a local’s guide with reviews of all Minnesota state parks, and will include what I love about each one.

Special discount! Sign-up for kmf’s local guide to Minnesota state parks

If you’d like to order a copy at a special discount, please sign up for my email list. I will email you details when my local’s guide to the best Minnesota state parks is published.

Until then, here is my list of some of the top Minnesota state parks that I recommend as the best things to do for free in Minnesota on one of the four Free Park Days. Honestly, I recommend all of them. My guide will include special Top 10 lists: Best Minnesota State Park Hiking Trails, Best Minnesota State Park Waterfalls, Best Minnesota State Park Lakes, Best Minnesota State Park Winter Hikes, Best Frozen Waterfall State Park Hikes in Minnesota, etc.

Sampler: most beautiful MN state parks to hike


Which Minnesota state park is best for each free entrance day?

Cliff overlooking Lake Superior
Best Minnesota state parks to visit on free park days: Palisade Head overlooking Lake Superior at Tettegouche State Park in Silver Bay, MN

The best Minnesota state parks to visit on the free entrance days is another tough list. So I’ve come up with some criteria to help you choose based on where you live in the following regional areas.

Best Minnesota state park to visit on free entrance day near Duluth

River waterfalls forest trees
One of the best Minnesota state park to visit on free park days: Jay Cooke State Park in Thomson, Minn. is only 17 miles from Duluth.

Top Minnesota state park to visit on free entrance day near Mankato

Frozen waterfalls
Highly recommend visiting Minneopa State Park in Mankato, Minnesota in any season. Minneopa State Park is also home to a bison range – see my full review.

You may also like

Minnesota Frozen Waterfall Tour – Best Day Trip from Twin Cities

Bison grazing on range
Check out the bison range at Minneopa State Park in Mankato, Minn. See my full review.

Best Minnesota state park to visit on free entrance day near Minneapolis and St. Paul

Bridge over a river with blue sky
Best Minnesota state parks to visit on free park days: Fort Snelling State Park in Bloomington, MN is within the Twin Cities – and only a couple of miles from the Minneapolis – St. Paul (MSP) Airport.

You may also like: The best hiking trails near the Twin Cities – one of my most popular posts that’s often featured on Google’s Interesting Finds. Additionally, check out my favorite winter hikes in the Twin Cities, Minnesota.


Best Minnesota state park to visit on free entrance day on the North Shore

Lighthouse on a cliff overlooking a lake
When forced to rank my favorite state parks on the North Shore or the entire Minnesota State Park, I would pick Split Rock Lighthouse State Park in Two Harbors, MN as my #1 choice. See my full review.

You may also like: The best photo op stops on the North Shore – the most scenic drive in Minnesota.


Best Minnesota state park to visit on free entrance day near Rochester

Overlook view of bluff and trees
Looking for the best state parks to visit on free park days near Rochester, Minnesota? Whitewater State Park in Altura is only 23 miles away.

You may also like: The best hiking trails near Rochester, Minnesota

Best Minnesota state park to visit on free entrance day near St. Cloud

Fishing pier on lake with blue sky
Hidden gem! One of the best state parks near St. Cloud, Minnesota to visit on free entrance day is Lake Maria State Park in Monticello, MN – only 24 miles away.

More of the best state parks in Minnesota

steamboat on a river surrounded by trees
Interstate State Park (aka Taylor Falls State Park) in Taylor Falls, MN is one of the best Minnesota state parks to visit on free entrance days:.

Choosing only some of the best Minnesota state parks was more challenging than any of the hiking trails I’ve trekked. This list doesn’t include the beautiful bluff trails and stunning views at Beaver Creek Valley State Park, Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park, Whitewater State Park and Great River Bluffs State Park, Zippel Bay State Park, and so many more.


Park bench overlooking fall colors and foliage from a bluff
One of the best bench views to check out on the free entrance days at Minnesota state parks belongs to Beaver Creek State Park in the far southeast corner of the state in Caledonia.

I hope you get the opportunity to use your free pass to one or more of Minnesota’s state parks this year. Hiking in these state parks is the best free thing to do in Minnesota.

Box of DEET-free mosquito repellent wipes
I cannot recommend Aunt Fannie’s DEET-free Mosquito Wipes highly enough. I am a mosquito magnet, but they stay away when I apply these wipes. My link does include a referral code, which means I’ll receive a small compensation – but I only recommend products and services I would use myself. And I definitely use Aunt Fannie’s – I bought a case of them and give to family and friends. And they smell good and are good for the environment – biodegradable and no harsh chemicals!

See my full review of what to pack on a day hike.

What to pack on a day hike

A day hiker’s favorite things

List of the best Minnesota state parks

View of Mississippi River and green foliage
Many of the best Minnesota state parks feature great views of rivers – including the mighty Mississippi River. If you plan to visit John A. Latsch State Park in Minnesota City, MN on one of the free entrance days, you’ll be in for a great workout as you hike up 300+ steps for this view.

So take advantage of the free entrance days to Minnesota state parks and discover which one is your favorite.

Itasca State Park Minnesota
And speaking of the Mississippi River…one of the best state parks in Minnesota to visit on one of the free entrance days is Itasca State Park – home of the Mississippi River Headwaters where you can actually wade across where the river gets its start.

Here is an alphabetical list of all the best state parks in Minnesota (all 66 of them). This list also includes the distance from the Twin Cities (Minneapolis / St. Paul – MSP airport) to help answer the question, “What’s the nearest Minnesota state park near me?”


View of large blue lake with trees and boat on the water
Free things to do in Minnesota: Visit a state park on one of the four free entrance days. Pictured: Frontenac State Park in Frontenac, MN

Check out my portfolio on Shutterstock! I’m submitting photos regularly so check back often! If you don’t see an image you need, contact me directly.


When can I get free passes to Minnesota state parks?

Which MN state park do you plan to visit on the next Free Parks Day – the best free things to do in Minnesota?

  • Mon., Jan. 15, 2024 (Martin Luther King, Jr. Day)
  • Sat., April 27, 2024
  • Sat., June 8, 2024
  • Fri., Nov. 29, 2024


Where to stay near Minnesota state parks on the North Shore


Not a camper or glamper? Caribou Highlands Lodge is one of the best places to stay on the North Shore in Minnesota. This Lutsen, MN resort is the most centrally located place to stay on the North Shore. And it’s dog-friendly. The Minnesota state parks closest to Caribou Highlands Lodge are Cascade River State Park, George Crosby Manitou State Park and Tettegouche State Park.

Check out my full review of our hosted Odyssey Resorts stay at a three-bedroom townhome at Caribou Highlands Lodge. Opinions are always my own.



Pin it for later: Free things to do in Minnesota – Free MN State Parks Day

Free things to do in the winter in Minnesota free state parks day

Free things in Minnesota State Park Free Days


Find the best Minnesota state park near you to visit on one of four MN State Park Free Days.



Author

Twin Cities-based blogger sharing memorable emptynester, solo, family and girlfriend-getaway adventures, as well as my day hiking adventures (including all 66 Minnesota state parks), latest book reviews, and updates on my quest for the best adult mac and cheese. Also two WIPs: historical fiction and psychological thriller

96 comments

  1. I live in the US but unfortunately have never been to Minnesota! However this post certainly makes me want to go, I had no idea how beautiful it was! The Split Rock Lighthouse State Park looks amazing.

    1. Thanks! I hope you get the opportunity to visit. Whenever we have visitors, we take them to Split Rock Lighthouse…it’s the best state park in Minnesota.

  2. All of these state parks look incredible! Seems like Minnesota has so much natural beauty. As someone who loves waterfalls, I would definitely love to visit Gooseberry Falls!

  3. I never knew Minnesota had all of these wonderful things to do and for free! I have a friend who has wanted me to visit, she could have talked me into it with this list!

  4. What a great list! I love that there are 4 free days versus just one. However, your annual pass is super affordable, so I’d probably go that route if I lived in the state.

  5. I love free admission to parks. Although we go so often we just buy the yearly pass. It’s all good if it gets more people out in nature. Of course, Minnesota state parks are super gorgeous.

    1. Thank you! It’s awesome they have the free park pass days for all Minnesota state parks and recreation areas. We’re the same as it is a better investment just to buy the annual pass since we visit so often.

  6. These pictures are so pretty! I’ve only been to Minnesota once, but I would go back in heartbeat. I’d love to see where the Mississippi River starts. Judging from these pictures, though, I would love any of these parks!

    1. Thank you so kindly! You can’t go wrong with any of the state parks in Minnesota – I think they’re all the best. Itasca State Park is pretty special with the Mississippi River headwaters. So cool that you can wade across.

      1. I will keep that one in mind! I wish I could just road trip all the time. It’s cool that you’ve mentioned free state park days. I’m inspired to look for free days in my state!

  7. So many choices. I’d like to sit on the cliff and watch the weather roll on. When the clouds have character, it’s a place I’d want to be for photography.

    1. Minnesota state parks offer the best photo ops to be inspired for sure! Palisade Head at Tettegouche State Park overlooking Lake Superior and John A. Latsch State Park overlooking the Mississippi River are some of the best views.

  8. Your photos are amazing! Those hiking trails look absolutely gorgeous! Will have to add them to my list when we visit Minnesota!

    1. I always feel like I’m on the ocean when we visit Lake Superior! It definitely has that vibe. And Palisade Head at Tettegouche State Park is one of the best experiences in Minnesota.

    1. Minnesota has the most amazing and best state parks. Love that I have so many close by. The remaining state parks are all going to be 3-6 hours away. There are a couple of parks 340+ miles away so got a couple of road trips ahead.

  9. I keep hearing about gorgeous State Parks in Minnesota – I didn’t know they had free days though. It is fab that you can visit sooo many gorgeous spots for free!

    To be fair, I wouldn’t mind paying when there are so many fab possible adventures!!

    1. It is nice that they offer free entrance to parks a few days a year. I have an annual pass for all Minnesota state parks…so worth it!

  10. I love the idea of your challenge. 66 state parks is a lot, but good luck with the task. I doubt you’ll get them all done in the 4 free park days but that’s a great budget option for many and a really good way to encourage people to get out more

  11. All of these state parks look so beautiful – I would love to hike around any of these. Thanks for all of the tips about when they’re free to enter!

  12. I love the idea of a state offering free park days! What a great way of getting people outdoors. If we are in the area, I would love to stop at the John A. Latsch park to take in that view! WOW!

    1. I hope you get the opportunity! John A. Latsch State Park is one of the best state parks in Minnesota. The views of the Mississippi River are amazing. I first hiked it in July and then went back in December. Both great experiences!

    1. Thank you! I love connecting with nature also…hiking through the best state parks in Minnesota over the past year really nourished my soul.

    1. We are so fortunate to have so many beautiful protected green spaces. I also love that Minnesota offers four free state park days.

  13. The state parks are incredibly beautiful, I loved your photos and all of your tips for visiting. I also appreciated that you shared the free days for easier visiting. Thanks for the helpful post!

    1. My pleasure and thank you! Minnesota state parks are so beautiful and hope everyone takes advantage of the four free park days.

  14. I had no idea there were so many natural areas in Minnesota!! I love that there are four days to visit completely free too, although the annual pass is a good deal. I’ve never been to Minnesota, but your pictures (and all the things to do) are really enticing!

    1. Thank you! We would love to welcome you to Minnesota. So many cool things to do here especially when you visit Minnesota state parks on Free Park Day.