Historic Sites In Minnesota. More Than Just Parks has 10 incredible must-see sites for you to visit.
I’ve been to so many of these amazing places since retiring from teaching in 2018. Did I mention that I taught history? I spent a lifetime teaching about the history behind these momentous sites. Then I got to see them firsthand. And now I’m sharing the stories of these incredible places with you. It doesn’t get any better than that!
I’m going to give you my list of the 10 Historic Sites In Minnesota that you’ll want to see.
To be clear, this list includes national park sites (as in sites managed by the National Park Service) as well as national parks.
If you’re planning a trip to the Land of 10,000 Lakes then one book that I highly recommend is: The Seven States of Minnesota: Driving Tours Through the History, Geology, Culture and Natural Glory of the North Star State by John Toren.
Without further ado, let’s dive in.
Historic Sites In Minnesota
10. Split Rock Lighthouse
We begin our Top 10 Countdown of Historic Sites in Minnesota with Split Rock Lighthouse.
Built in the early 1900s, after a series of shipwrecks in the area highlighted hazards of the local shoreline, Split Rock Lighthouse is one of Minnesota’s most recognizable landmarks.
Split Rock Lighthouse is one of the country’s best-preserved examples of a Great Lakes light station with attendant living and service quarters. It also happens to be the most photographed lighthouse in the United States.
It’s comprised of 25 acres. The Split Rock Lighthouse historic site also includes the original fog signal building, oil house, and one of the original homes occupied by a lighthouse keeper and his family.
Points Of Interest At Split Rock
While you’re there, be sure to check out:
- The Lighthouse Keeper’s House: Pay a visit to the lighthouse keeper’s home, restored to its 1920s condition when the light station could only be reached by water. See how the lighthouse keeper and his family made do in one of the harshest and most isolated places in North America, when visitors and fresh supplies were few and far between.
- The Fog Signal Building: The foghorn was used at the first sign of fog, smoke, or snow. Until it was decommissioned in 1969, the fog siren served as an audible warning for ships when inclement weather led to reduced visibility. The foghorn sounds two to three times an hour.
- The Oil House: Explore the building that housed kerosene: the dangerous but crucial oil that fueled the bright-burning lamps. The oil vapor lamps installed at Split Rock were officially visible for 22 miles, though some fishermen claimed to see the beacon from as far away as Grand Marais, more than 60 miles from Split Rock. (Source: Minnesota Historical Society)
9. Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway
Coming in at #9 on our list of the best historic sites in Minnesota is the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway.
Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway, formed by the St. Croix and Namekagon, offers clean water for paddle boating and fishing.
There are 252 miles of recreational opportunities. You can canoe along the Northwoods and see wolves, deer, otter and porcupine. You will be surrounded by wooded bluffs and historic towns.
Other activities include bird watching, boating, camping, fishing, hiking, hunting and paddling.
Hiking Trails Along The Saint Croix
There are seven hiking trails which are open year round. Trail surfaces are uneven and may be steep so be sure to watch your step. And also make sure to check for ticks.
Ridge View Trail is a three mile trek with two loops. The Chisage Loop traverses basalt rock outcroppings; the Osceola Loop is more level as you hike through pine and woods. Vistas of St. Croix River backwaters are visible from the bluff side of the trail.
This trail is a great place to see scarlet tanagers, bald eagles, turkey, grouse, and other forest-loving wildlife.
Forest plants include marsh marigolds and large maple trees.
Trego Lake & Trego Nature Trails
The Trego Lake Trail is 3.6 miles and 3 loops. It offers hikers many scenic overlooks of Trego Lake. The area has a large population of white-tailed deer and ruffed grouse. Watch the ground for signs left by these animals.
The Trego Nature Trail is 2.8 miles. Hikers will see a beautiful forest and breathtaking views of the Namekagon River. Wildlife seen can include deer, fox, otters, wolves, and bobcat.
Indian Head Flowage & Sandrock Cliffs Trails
The Indian Head Flowage Trail is a three quarter mile trek. This trail crosses bridged streams as it winds its ways through woods and wetlands to the river.
Hikers will be treated to wildflowers which include marsh marigolds, trilliums, blue flag iris, wild geraniums, and more.
Sandrock Cliffs Trail is five miles and four loops. The lower loop of this trail follows the river closely, then turns onto a ridge providing a variety of terrain and scenery.
The highlight of this trail system is the sandstone cliffs located in a side channel of the river.
CHECK OUT: 10 BEST Revolutionary War Sites In America
8. Pipestone National Monument
In the #8 spot on our list of the best historic sites in Minnesota is the Pipestone National Monument.
It’s a magical place where, for countless generations, Native Americans have quarried the red pipestone found at this site.
These grounds are sacred to many people because the pipestone quarried here is carved into pipes used for prayer.
Have no fear! If you go you won’t have to quarry pipestone. You’ll have an opportunity, instead, to experience some wonderful indoor and outdoor adventures.
A Wide Range Of Interpretive Opportunities
There are a wide range of indoor interpretive opportunities and hands-on activities are available from spring through fall.
Exhibits and a 22-minute film provide visitors with an understanding of the cultural and spiritual significance of the site. And then from From April through October, visitors can learn from cultural demonstrators.
Outdoor activities include:
(1) Interpretive programs and (2) Hiking the Circle Trail, which is a 3/4-mile long paved path that cuts through a Tallgrass Prairie, along a creek with the endangered Topeka Shiner, in front of a waterfall, and past ancient quarries still used by Native Americans today.
CHECK OUT: 10 BEST Civil War Sites In America
Historic Sites In Minnesota
7. North Country National Scenic Trail
At lucky #7 we have the North Country National Scenic Trail.
The North Country National Scenic Trail provides visitors opportunities from bird watching to backpacking. This is another great Minnesota National Park!
The trail traverses eight northern states and connects a host of natural, historic and cultural sites. You can see everything from small towns to larger cities, valleys to hilltops and much more.
The History Of The North Country National Scenic Trail
In 1980, the North Country National Scenic Trail (NCT) was authorized by Congress. It stretches 4,600 miles from upstate New Hampshire to its western terminus at Lake Sakakawea State Park.
The trail actually traversed seven states until 2019 when Vermont was added. The Vermont section is only about 70 miles long.
From the leisurely lake walk of downtown Duluth to the rugged Sawtooth Mountains to the prairies of the Red River Valley to the gentle rolling Laurentian Divide, the North Country Trail offers a cache of contrasting hiking experiences across its roughly 850 miles in Minnesota.
Historic marks include the remnants of iron mining along the Mesabi and Vermilion ranges, Native American historic sites, and remnants of Paul Bunyan’s white pine logging era.
Keep your eyes open wide for iconic Northern wildlife such as loons, moose, whitetail deer, black bear, Canada lynx, timber wolf and bald eagle. (Source: North Country Trail Association)
The North Country Scenic Trail In Minnesota
There is a 196-mile, contiguous segment located in north-central Minnesota between Detroit Lakes and Remer and a 400-mile, contiguous segment from near Ely to Jay Cooke State Park south of Duluth.
6. Mississippi National River & Recreation Area
Coming in at #6 on our list of the best historic sites in Minnesota is the Mississippi National River & Recreation Area.
Now you wouldn’t expect the best historic sites in Minnesota to include a site called Mississippi National River & Recreation Area. Did someone flunk geography?
No? Actually it’s because the “Mighty Mississippi” goes a lot farther than you might imagine.
The Mississippi National River and Recreation Area is a 72-mile and 54,000-acre protected corridor along the Mississippi River through the Minneapolis–Saint Paul metro in the U.S. state of Minnesota, from the cities of Dayton and Ramsey, to just downstream of Hastings.
Things To Do
This 72 mile river park offers quiet stretches for fishing, boating and canoeing, birdwatching, bicycling, and hiking.
And there are plenty of visitor centers and trails that highlight the fascinating human history of the Mississippi River. This a great place to start your exploration of this important river.
I recommend beginning your visit at The Mississippi River Visitor Center. The center provides fun activities for people of all ages as well as highlighting the fascinating human history of the Mississippi River.
I also recommend exploring the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam. This central, historic landmark provides panoramic views of the Upper St. Anthony Lock and Dam, St. Anthony Falls, and the surrounding mill district.
If you love a good hike then Coldwater Spring is a great place for you. There are many for wildlife viewing and photography. The breathtaking trails there surround a restored prairie oak savannah and wetlands.
CHECK OUT: 10 MUST-SEE Historic Sites In Mississippi
The Top 5 Historic Sites In Minnesota
5. Grand Mound Historic Site
We’ve got the Top 5 Historic Sites In Minnesota. Coming in at #5 is Grand Mound Historic Site.
Located along the Rainy River on the Canadian Border, Grand Mound is the largest prehistoric structure in the Upper Midwest and one of the largest Native American burial sites in the United States.
It’s thought to have been constructed around 200 B.C. by the Laurel, an indigenous people about whom little is known.
It’s A National Historic Landmark
Grand Mound Historic Site is one of 25 National Historic Landmarks in Minnesota.
The largest of the five mounds is 25 feet high and 140 feet long. It is:
- Minnesota’s largest Native American earthwork
- the largest surviving “prehistoric” structure in the Upper Midwest
- the only effigy mound of this type in Minnesota
Some interpret the mound’s unique diamond shape and long “tail” to be a muskrat or serpent. While most mounds were built in high elevations, Grand Mound was built in a floodplain close to the Rainy and Big Fork Rivers.
Grand Mound Historic Site is part of a chain of more than 20 burial mounds that runs for 90 miles along the Canadian and U.S. sides of the Rainy River. (Source: Minnesota Historical Society)
4. Sinclair Lewis Boyhood Home
We’re on to the final four. Coming in at #4 is the Sinclair Lewis Boyhood Home.
Sinclair Lewis grew up in the central Minnesota town of Sauk Centre.
Lewis became the first writer from the United States to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, which was awarded “for his vigorous and graphic art of description and his ability to create, with wit and humor, new types of characters.”
His works include: It Can’t Happen Here, Main Street, Babbitt, and Elmer Gantry. They were often inspired by Lewis’ Minnesota roots.
Lewis wrote 24 novels, more than 70 short stories and several plays and poetry collections.
It Can’t Happen Here
Sinclair Lewis most impactful and prescient work is a story titled: It Can’t Happen Here.
First published in 1935, the book details the rise, consolidation, and partial collapse of an American fascist dictatorship.
The book is told primarily from the perspective of Doremus Jessup, an owner-editor of a small-town Vermont newspaper and self-described middle-class liberal intellectual. Jessup is 60 years old at the start of the novel.
The book describes how easy it would be for a charismatic, populist politician to rise to power during times of economic crisis and implement totalitarian rule in America, in contrast to many characters in the novel who argue that totalitarianism can’t happen in America.
Lewis argues for a politically-engaged and informed population that can resist the empty promises of demagogues, as well as for establishment political and economic elites to be aware of how they might be creating the conditions that allow totalitarianism to flourish.
Things To Do On The Tour
Narrated guided tours are approximately 25 minutes long and take you through the restored turn-of-the-century home where Sinclair Lewis lived with his parents and brothers.
If you’re interested in learning more about this talented author then I recommend: Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street by Richard Lingeman.
Historic Sites In Minnesota
3. Fort Snelling
At #3 on our list of the best historic sites in Minnesota is Fort Snelling.
Fort Snelling is a National Historic Landmark which resides on Dakota homeland, known as Bdote, with history spanning 10,000 years.
The fort was built in the 1820s and originally called Fort St. Anthony, after the falls just upstream on the the Mississippi. It was originally constructed as a military outpost to protect the region’s significant fur trade and, ultimately, had a role in the United States’ war with the Dakota people.
The Minnesota Historical Society now runs the fort, located atop a bluff along the river.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources runs Fort Snelling State Park, protecting the land at the bottom of the bluff.
Visitors to the site can learn the stories of the military fort and its surrounding area, which is home to a wide history that includes Native peoples, trade, soldiers and veterans, enslaved people, immigrants, and the changing landscape.
2. Grand Portage National Monument
In the runner-up position at #2 on our list of the best historic sites in Minnesota is Grand Portage National Monument.
For over 400 years, Ojibwe families of Grand Portage have tapped maples every spring on a ridge located just off Lake Superior. During the summer, Ojibwe fishermen harvest in the same areas their forefathers have.
Before the United States and Canada existed, the trading of furs, ideas, and genes between the Ojibwe and French and English fur traders flourished.
From 1778 until 1802, welcomed by the Grand Portage Ojibwe, the North West Company located their headquarters and western supply depot here for business and a summer rendezvous. (Source: National Park Foundation)
Things To Do At The Grand Portage
The monument preserves 710 acres which includes: the historic depot (71 acres) located on Lake Superior, the site of Fort Charlotte (98 acres) on the Pigeon River with the Grand Portage (541 acres) connecting the two depots. The 8.5 mile portage corridor and Fort Charlotte (639 acres) contain the majority of the Monument’s semi-wilderness setting.
There are some wonderful activities for visitors which include:
- Heritage Center and Historic Depot: It’s a great place to begin your adventure. There you can view exhibits about Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) culture and where you learn about a time when the fur trade dominated North American commerce.
- View One Of The Excellent Films On The Grand Portage Story: There’s a feature film (23 minutes) titled “Rendezvous With History A Grand Portage Story,” as well as shorter films which include: “Our Home: The Grand Portage Ojibwe,” “The Gift of the Birch Bark Canoe,” “A Gap in the Hills: Geography of Grand Portage,” and “The Men of the North West Company” – Running time for all four is 24 minutes.
- Visit The America’s National Parks Bookstore.
- Visit The Historic Depot: It includes three reconstructed post and sill log buildings and four outside areas.
- Hike The Mount Rose Loop Trail: Visitors will be treated to a stunning overlook of the historic depot, Grand Portage Bay, Mount Josephine, and the gap in the hills where the Grand Portage footpath goes.
The #1 Historic Site In Minnesota
1. Voyageurs National Park
As the #1 Historic Site In Minnesota, More Than Just Parks has chosen Voyageurs National Park.
From kaleidoscopic sunrises and sunsets mirrored on glassy waters of its lakes to some of the most spectacular displays of the northern lights you’ll find anywhere on earth, Voyageurs is a true monument to the wonders of nature.
If you’re wondering how challenging it is to visit Voyageurs given that it’s almost exclusively accessible by boat – don’t!
The area has countless lodges and outfitters that will rent you any kind of boat you could want from a canoe on up to a houseboat at very reasonable prices.
The park is extensively mapped and easy to navigate once out on the waters. Trust me, you won’t want to miss out on an unforgettable experience because you’re unfamiliar with boating.
Check out our complete article on the 10 Best Things to Do in Voyageurs National Park
The History of Voyageurs National Park
Voyageurs National Park has a rich history of human habitation and culture. The area has long been home to the Ojibwe people who made their lives in this harsh, yet bountiful environment. Native Americans called this place home for thousands of years, fishing, hunting, and traveling the lakes in birch bark canoes.
The first Europeans to arrive were early trappers and fur traders known as Voyageurs. These Voyageurs were French Canadians who transported furs using canoes. It was these early frontiersmen for whom the park was named.
Later the park experienced a brief gold rush and a logging boom before finally becoming the recreation paradise it is today. You can read more about the park’s history on their website here.
Save The Boundary Waters
Right now Voyageurs National Park and the Boundary Waters face the threat of permanent despoilment from mining interests looking to exploit the area for metals located beneath the lakes and rivers, namely the Twin Metals Mine.
You can do your part to help save this precious wild area by visiting or donating to Save The Boundary Waters here.
Best Things to Do in Voyageurs National Park
1. Paddle in a Canoe
The best and only way to experience Voyageurs is by boat, but for a truly authentic experience try your hand at canoeing for a day, or if you’re experienced, plan a multi-day trip.
Canoes are the historic mode of transportation in this area and slowly plying the waters of the park’s lakes in a canoe can help give you a fuller appreciation of this unique north woods environment.
2. See the Northern Lights
On clear nights in Voyageurs you can see one of the most spectacular light shows in the world, the northern lights. They start as a faint glow on the horizon before working their way up the sky, dancing in real time right before your eyes.
Here in the remote north woods there is almost no light pollution whatsoever and the night sky is truly a wonder to behold.
There’s no need to go to Iceland or Norway or even Alaska if it’s the northern lights you seek, you’ll find them here in all of their glory.
Fall and winter give you your best chances of seeing the northern lights, but you may be lucky enough any time of year if the conditions are right.
3. Explore Ellsworth Rock Gardens
This incredibly unique garden features countless works of art made entirely out of stone. Some of the stones are massive monoliths balanced delicately upon other stones.
This incredible attraction is entirely the work of one man, a humble carpenter from Chicago named Jack Ellsworth, who built these amazing works of art over the course of 20 years starting in the 1940’s.
Tie off your boat here along the shores of Lake Kabetogama and explore the fascinating artistic expressions of one determined man.
4. Go Fishing
The waters of Voyageurs National Park and the surrounding areas are teeming with native fish that are great for eating or just for sport.
There’s nothing quite like the feeling of catching your own meal and cooking it over an open fire on an island all to yourself.
Be sure to follow NPS and Minnesota DNR rules governing fishing in the area and fish responsibly.
5. Camp on Your Own Island
In Voyageurs there are no campgrounds with sites plotted next to each other one after the other with whirring RV generators, yelling kids, and barking dogs.
In this one-of-a-kind national park every campsite is all to itself, and yes, some are even on their own entire island. Did I mention there are over 150 campsites?
See our full article on Camping in Voyageurs National Park
Watch Our Award-Winning Voyageurs National Park Video
This film is the culmination of several weeks spent in the northernmost region of Minnesota known as Voyageurs National Park. Encompassing more than 340 square miles, Voyageurs is a watery wonderland almost exclusively accessible by boat.
Journey with us as we explore a land blanketed in pristine lakes, erupting with kaleidoscopic fall colors, and home to the most spectacular displays of the northern lights on the planet. This is Voyageurs. Filmed primarily in stunning UHD 8K.
Map Of Historic Sites In Minnesota
List Of Historic Sites In Minnesota
- Voyageurs National Park
- Grand Portage National Monument
- Fort Snelling
- Sinclair Lewis Boyhood Home
- Grand Mound Historic Site
- Mississippi National River & Recreation Area
- North Country National Scenic Trail
- Pipestone National Monument
- Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway
- Split Rock Lighthouse
About The People Behind More Than Just Parks
You should probably know that we don’t just make this stuff up out of thin air. The Pattiz Brothers have spent their entire adult lives exploring and filming America’s national parks and public lands.
As for me, I’m a retired lifelong educator and a proud dad of these two wonderful guys who are hopelessly obsessed with the national parks. I taught history for over a quarter of a century. Now I enjoy researching and writing articles for More Than Just Parks. I’m always on the hunt for topics where nature and history intersect so please feel free to share any ideas that you might have with me.
We’ve worked with the National Park Service, the Department of Interior, and the U.S. Forest Service for years creating films on important places and issues. Our work has been featured in leading publications all over the world and even some people outside of our immediate family call us experts on the national parks.
Meet The Parks Brothers
Meet Jim Pattiz and Will Pattiz, collectively known as the Pattiz Brothers (and sometimes the Parks Brothers).
Our goal here at More Than Just Parks is to share the beauty of America’s national parks and public lands through stunning short films in an effort to get Americans and the world to see the true value in land conservation.
We hope you’ll follow our journey through the parks and help us to keep them the incredible places that they are. If you’re interested in joining the adventure then sign up below!