Born to explore

It seems like everyone has the travel bug lately. Even parents — a more traditionally tied-down crowd — are doing round-the-world travel. And they’re even bringing their kids, if their many Facebook photos are to be believed.

But — as exciting as Iceland sounds and as enticing as Jamaica may be — large-scale travel isn’t right for every family or for every budget. 

And, guess what?

Minnesota offers a wonderland of outdoor adventures.

This summer, instead of lusting after places around the globe, grab the old road map, unplug and challenge your family to pursue a new kind of Minnesota bucket list. 

Here are just a few ideas to get you inspired to explore.

The Minnesota State Parks and Trails I Can! programs are designed for families wanting to try new activities with expert guidance. Photos courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 

Visit Minnesota State Parks

dnr.state.mn.us/ican

Minnesota’s 67 state parks might not seem overly exciting at first glance. 

You may have already dipped your toes into the headwaters of the Mississippi and perhaps conquered the stairs at Gooseberry Falls.  

But have you ever really immersed your family in outdoor experiences such as camping, paddling, mountain biking, fishing or climbing? 

If you’ve always wanted to try one or all of the above — but felt limited by your own skills, gear or even the cost — then we recommend you check out the Minnesota State Parks and Trails’ I Can! programs, designed for families wanting to try all those activities (plus archery!) for the first time in some of Minnesota’s most beautiful places. 

Families pick one activity and then receive hands-on instruction from experienced, friendly guides. Gear is provided. Some programs are free and all are designed to be affordable for families. 

You’ll get to learn and grow — as a family — together in the outdoors. 

Registration is required.

Rent a cabin … or a tipi!  

tinyurl.com/cabins-mn

Not into sleeping on the ground while you’re learning a new skill in the wild?

Check out the state park system’s cabin and yurt rentals for a cozier camping experience (for about $50 to $70 a night). 

Wall-tents and tipis are another option and cost even less, typically $30 to $35.

Reserve as soon as possible, however: They go fast!

The Minnesota DNR Hiking Club combines elements of an expedition, a classroom and a treasure hunt on trails around the state, including the Dakota Trail in Whitewater State Park. 

Hike and explore!

tinyurl.com/hiking-dnr    

Do you need a catalyst to help you make the extra effort in seeing ALL of the state parks in Minnesota?

The Minnesota DNR’s Passport Club — built around a kit that costs $14.95 — might be just the thing. 

Kids get to collect a stamp for each park they visit. After acquiring 25 park stamps, they earn a free night of family camping and a commemorative pin. Kids who visit all 67 parks earn a personalized plaque and another free night of camping. 

The Minnesota DNR Hiking Club — yes, the one referenced on the blue signs you see on so many state trails — cost the same as the Passport Club and offers the same camping rewards, plus you can earn colorful patches for hiking 25, 50, 75, 100, 125 and 175 miles. 

The North Country Trail Association also awards patches to individuals who hike 100 or more miles in a single calendar year on the North Country National Scenic Trail. The 4,600-mile route runs through Minnesota and six other northern states. 

Want to travel 365 self-propelled miles this year? Sign up for this fun, grassroots challenge (for a $15 fee) to boost your family’s motivation.

You’ll get a #365milechallenge vinyl sticker, admission into a private, supportive Facebook group for participants, exclusive discounts on gear and automatic entry into prize drawings.

Get started soon: You have until New Year’s Eve to get your miles done. 

The Minnesota DNR’s Passport Club encourages kids to visit each state park to collect stamps and, eventually, earn a free night of camping and other prizes.

Join the Junior Rangers

nps.gov/kids

Minnesota is home to six national parks, monuments and recreation areas, including Voyageurs National Park (all the way up at the state’s northern border); the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway; Grand Portage and Pipestone national monuments; and the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, which happens to have a visitors center in the lobby of the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul.

Such destinations — along with the rest of the country’s national parks — are extremely educational. 

But it’s not always easy for kids to listen to lectures and read informational signs and historical markers geared toward adults. 

Fortunately, many parks offer Junior Rangers programs to better engage the entire family with special kid-friendly attractions, such as activity booklets or worksheets, plus patches, badges and certificates children can earn during park visits. 

For a list of participating locations — and to learn more about free park admission nationwide for families with fourth-graders — see nps.gov/kids.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources explorer program is another way for kids to earn badges. And it’s geared toward three age groups — 3–5, 6–8 and 9 and older — with nine booklets to take kids from age 3 to 11.

If your kid enjoys earning badges of any kind, you could even get him or her an adventure vest. Any safari vest will do; you don’t need to buy the national park gift shop version for $30.

It could be the ultimate visual reminder of how many bucket-list items you’ve checked off your list as a family!

Adventure junkies, rejoice!

Need an adrenaline rush this summer? 

Check out these adventures geared toward kids who like a little physical excitement mixed in with all that nature! 

Zip-line adventure destinations in Nisswa and Henderson are geared toward ages 10 and older. Photo courtesy of Zip Line Minnesota

Zip Lines

The Brainerd Zip Line Tour in Nisswa near Gull Lake offers seven different zip lines, a 65-foot suspension bridge and more for ages 10 and older, all just 2.5 hours north of Minneapolis. 

Kerfoot Canopy Tour is even closer (in Henderson, an hour southwest of Minneapolis) and offers more than a mile of zip lines (14 in all), plus a 170-foot suspension bridge (also for ages 10 and older). 

In the metro area, Sand Creek Adventures in Jordan offers a high-ropes course and zip lines for ages 8 and older. 

Stand-up paddle boarding, billed as a cross between surfing and canoeing, is one of the fastest growing water sports in Minnesota. Photo courtesy of Paddle North 

SUP! 

Stand up paddle boarding is the water sport that’s currently sweeping the country — and region, thanks to our fantastic expanse of lakes. And families are getting in on the action, too. 

Most outfitters and major destinations in Minnesota rent paddle boards (and sometimes offer lessons, too), including more than a dozen state parks that loan out paddle boards for $10 per hour (as well as kayaks and canoes). 

Minneapolis-based Paddle North — a local maker of beautiful, lightweight boards made of bamboo — offers reviews of some of the best SUP outings around the state (with details about water clarity and depth), including the Lake Calhoun, Lake Superior, Medicine Lake, the Mississippi River and others. (Food for thought: You can demo Paddle North boards for free on any lake in the Twin Cities before you buy one.) 

Multiple local companies offer balloon rides in Minnesota, including Stillwater Balloons, which departs from the banks of the Saint Croix River, weather permitting. Photo courtesy of Stillwater Balloons

Soar in a hot air balloon

You don’t have to travel to Albuquerque to fly high in a giant balloon. 

Right here in Minnesota, you can cruise around bluff country in style with Aamodt’s Hot Air Balloon Rides, which take off from Aamodt’s Apple Farm and Saint Croix Vineyards in Stillwater — or check out Stillwater Balloons, with rides departing from the banks of the Saint Croix River.

Imagine soaring over Minnesota — and Wisconsin — in your own private basket! 

Yes, this is a major bucket list item. Tickets (known as certificates) can cost more than $250 per person, so you might want to save this for a special occasion (and maybe even opt to not bring the kids). 

We’re thinking anniversaries, family reunions or 40th birthdays. 

Keep in mind that balloon flights are totally at the mercy of the weather, so your trip may be postponed.

The Timber Twister at Spirit Mountain Adventure Park in Duluth is open to ages 3 and older. Photo courtesy of Spirit Mountain Adventure Park

Alpine rides 

Got younger kids who need a thrill ride?

The Timber Twister at Spirit Mountain Adventure Park in Duluth is open to ages 3 and older. 

Riders travel on a 3,200-foot, elevated track — alone or in pairs — and can control their speed, which tops out at 26 miles per hour.

It’s a fantastic way to catch a breeze on a hot summer day (as well as some gorgeous views) and it’s something truly different. 

Ages 3 and older can also ride the Timber Flyer zip line — with bench-style seats secured with safety belts — suitable for singles or pairs with no terrifying platforms or stairs to conquer.

Also on site you’ll find disc golf, mini golf and the classic chair lift ride — just like skiing, but sans snow.

Seeing the outdoors while on horseback can be a thrill — and even therapeutic — for kids. Photo courtesy of Bunker Park Stable

Horseback riding

Let your school-age kid hit the dusty trail and grab the reigns!

Horseback riding can be a thrill — and even therapeutic — for all ages. Not only do children get to learn a bit about horses and how they work, but they also get to see the outdoors from a new perspective on trail rides. 

Summer horse camps abound for youth, but you can also let your kids try weekly lessons. 

Windy Ridge Ranch of Woodbury offers lessons for ages 7 and up, while Bunker Park Stable of Andover caters to ages 8 and older. 

Both offer weeknight and Saturday sessions, ideal for households with two working parents.

River rafting on St. Louis River southwest of Duluth includes whitewater trips for ages 11 and older. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Whitewater Rafting 

Whitewater rafting

While you might not know about Minnesota’s whitewater, it’s a bona fide thing — on the St. Louis River southwest of Duluth.

Minnesota Whitewater Rafting, based in Scanlon, and Swiftwater Adventures, based in Esko, are two popular places that accommodate paddlers age 11 and older. 

No experience is necessary. Most trips cost about $50 per person and last for 2.5 hours. 


Amanda Williams lives in rural Minnesota with her two energetic sons and husband.