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A&E Explores: 10 adventures for a spring break staycation

Who needs Jackson Hole when you live in Minnesota?
Illustrated by Abby Adamski
Image by Abby Adamski
Illustrated by Abby Adamski

In Minnesota, when it comes to “day-ventures,” there’s no place like home.

Of course a trip to Yosemite National Park would be nice, but Minnesota has everything you need for a worthwhile trip, too. Skiing? Got it. Climbing? Check. Hiking? Of course.

Here are 10 staycation expeditions for spring break that will get you pumped and proud to be from the North Woods.

Day hike Jay Cooke State Park

As one of the most beautiful state parks in Minnesota, Jay Cooke tops the list for day hiking options. Nested near Fond Du Lac State Forest, the hikers’ playground offers a multitude of hiking circuits.Taking the longest full-circuit hike hoofs you up boulders and along the semi-frozen St. Louis River (scattered at this time of year with mesmerizing ice formations). Hikers get some decent elevation and top-out with an eye-sparkling view of the North Woods. The wildest part? All of this is found before you reach Duluth — ensuring you get home in time to rest up for tomorrow’s adventure.

Day hike Taylors Falls

A go-to spot for rock climbers come climbing season (assuming it will ever come this year), Taylors Falls boasts arguably the best cliffs in the state. Perched atop the Mississippi’s banks, these trails take you out of Minnesota and drop you in Narnia.

With ancient pines and birch bark trees lining every turn, the hikes on these trails make the list because of how truly Minnesotan they are. The area holds some of the best eagle spotting in the state and otters are commonly seen throughout the park as well. Almost all of these trailheads start with a world of drooping pines, and at the “peak” of each trek explorers will find sweeping views of the meandering St. Croix. To top it off, right across the river is Interstate State Park — you can look down at it from its Minnesotan side.

Explore the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge

Different river, same abundance of wildlife. This 70-mile-long refuge holds some of the most diverse populations of animals in the state … only a quick drive away from the Mall of America. Here, the Minnesota River and surrounding landscape curates a habitat that allows Minnesotan wildlife to flourish and be appreciated by all. Be sure to bring a camera and binoculars to document the experience, but, as always, please remember to leave no trace! 

Spelunk in Minnesota Cave Preserve

Dig, Dug. Tucked into the southeastern corner of the state, these natural catacombs are one-of-a-kind. Some of many discovered by a 27-year-old farmer in the ’60s, these cave systems have long been regarded as some of the best in the Midwest. Spend a day and go spelunking in any of the most popular seven caves within the preserve — even though a total of 42 have been discovered within the system. The subterranean tunnels connect for a total of 36 miles, with the longest being the Spring Valley Caverns at over 5.5 miles. These labyrinths lay underneath Minnesota’s creek country, so camping above ground is a perfect way to spend a night in fresh air after a day down under. 

Climb Eagle Mountain

If going down doesn’t sound desirable, go up. Standing proud at 2,301 feet, the Minnesota mound still gives hikers an extraordinary trip. The trailhead begins within the Superior National Forest and takes peak baggers through portions of the stellar Boundary Waters Canoe Area as well. With no stairs and a relatively rugged terrain, adequate preparation is advised when lacing up for this trek. The summit holds mesmerizing views of North Country that can’t be seen elsewhere. In fact, Eagle Mountain is the ninth most isolated peak in the country — meaning there isn’t a summit as tall for more than four hundreds of miles away. Take that, Teton.

“Alpine” ski Lutsen Mountains

On your way back, head to Lutsen Resort for some of the best shredding in the state. While the North Shore hills don’t have any pow, big dumps this year still give skiers and boarders plenty of reason to yell “yeww!” At Lutsen, runs range from bunny hills to double blacks. Atop the lifts are views of Lake Superior, meaning you can carve straight out of your cabin’s backdoor for a milk run and feel the Great Lake-kissed wind fly by.

Adrenaline-doused terrain parks are a staple at Lutsen, too. For any ‘sender out there hoping to hit those blunt grabs and dub corks, the mountain is calling and it’s saying come one come all. Unlike major hubs out West, Lutsen Mountain is family-owned and operated; the resort has a homey feel that undoubtedly stands alone on top of the podium.

Cross country ski Theodore Wirth Regional Park 

While many slopes are hit in Minnesota, it’s Nordic skiing that uses the state’s attributes to the fullest. Adjacent to Minneapolis and the Chain of Lakes, the beautiful clash of rustic and urban collide for a gliding promenade of trails in Theodore Wirth Regional Park. With the Minneapolis skyline peeking out over the tree-line, this Nordic skiing adventure is a calming and incredible way to get some serious fitness in, too. Whether it’s your first time trying the old-fashioned mode of transportation or you’re training for the Birkie, these loops don’t disappoint. 

Snowshoe and birdwatch in Sax-Zim Bog

Bogs are one of the most underrated and alluring landscapes out there. Sax-Zim’s sits northeast of Duluth, in between the North Shore and Chippewa National Forest. And yes, you really do get the best of both worlds. Regarded as one of the top birding locations in Minnesota, Sax-Zim’s eclectic geography — consisting of bog, forest river and meadow — make the ecological community a nesting ground for outdoor enthusiasts and birds alike.

Boreal chickadee, evening grosbeaks, a northern hawk owl and great grey owls have all been spotted in the park this winter. With the arrival of spring, new waves of animals are expected to flock in regularly. While lodging is very limited within the bog, a 45-minute drive to the North Shore will give you an ideal place to set up camp and scroll through the best shots of the day.

Ice climb at Sandstone Ice Park

For those really looking for a new adventure, grab proper gear from the RecWell, strap on crampons and send some ice. Sandstone Ice Park is a quintessential part of a niche climbing community here in Minnesota. In the summer, these Robinson Park crags host some of the best top rope and traditional climbing in the state. In the winter, though, the area transforms into a play land.

Efforts from the Minnesota Climbers Association turned what used to be ephemeral ice into a bonafide frost farm — meaning these routes are specifically curated for those with a pickax in hand. The MCA even offers lessons for those looking to get hooked. These clinics are highly advisable for those new to this type of crushing; it’s worth it.

Explore Voyageurs National Park

Enveloping the northernmost reaches of the state, Voyageurs is a haven of outdoor recreation and appreciation — there’s something for everyone. Winter camping here is some of the best in the country. Rustic Nordic skiing on these trails is unmatched. Hiking here transcends wonder and takes travelers through ancient forests relatively unchanged for hundreds of years. Miles upon miles of rock formations and elder forests make this destination a staple on any adventurer’s checklist. With proper gear and preparation, the national park becomes whatever you want to make it. In the summer you’ll feel secluded, but in the winter you truly experience solitude. Go with a group and be sure to prepare adequately — it’s the real thing up there.

Whatever your activity of choice, go with a group and go wild. You’re on spring break, after all.

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