Minnesota’s Best Hikes (and Where to Refuel), According to a Black Conservationist
Discover the North Star State’s scenic beauty on its abundant trails—and enjoy mouthwatering lunch spots along the way—with these tips from Dudley Edmondson, an author and activist with a passion for getting people of color outdoors.
Known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes, Minnesota seems to have just as many hiking and biking trails, all ready for adventure. Few know that better than devoted birder, filmmaker, and wildlife photographer Dudley Edmondson, a longtime Duluth resident who has been exploring the trails of the uppermost area of this great Midwestern state for decades. “Learning about nature and the environment is a never-ending quest for me,” he says. “It’s a constant in my life. I’m a life-long bird watcher—as long as I can see or hear the outdoors I’m always birding. There’s a therapeutic piece to that; it’s relaxing to see and hear and watch birds.”
Growing up in inner-city Columbus, Ohio, Edmondson sought refuge in the nearby wooded areas, and even as a child, intuitively recognized the great healing properties of being outdoors. As an adult, he’s made it part of his life’s work to inspire people of color to get out into nature more often. His groundbreaking 2006 book Black and Brown Faces in America’s Wild Places continues to serve as a beacon for BIPOC budding nature enthusiasts. “I wrote it to tell the story of people like me, African Americans with a deep, unwavering connection to nature. I wanted to create outdoor role models for young African Americans,” he explains.
His advice to people of color who fear they won’t be welcomed outdoors in unfamiliar places is to first survey the area to see who, if anyone, is there, how they are using the space, and if it looks safe. Noting that everyone belongs on public land, he recommends keeping that in mind and says, “In my 40 plus years of adventure travel I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve encountered unfriendly people in the outdoors. Most folks know you’re there for the same reasons they are and treat you as such.”
Connecting with the outdoors is paramount for everybody in our increasingly urbanized world, adds Edmondson. “Our mental and physical well-being depends on it. People who submerge themselves in nature are simply healthier. We need to see, understand, and appreciate how we fit into the web of life.” Edmondson recognizes that humans aren’t the only ones who benefit: “The earth needs us to have that awareness, too; people protect what they love and understand.” Here, Edmondson offers a primer of Minnesota highlights from North to South. Follow his expert advice to start your own journey to increased well-being.
Marvel at Northeastern Minnesota’s superior vistas
There’s no shortage of ways to commune with nature and the birds along the shores of Lake Superior in Northeastern Minnesota. Full of rivers and unbroken tracks of coniferous forests, with an abundance of pine and deciduous trees and plenty of other wilderness, it’s easy to find peace here. As Edmondson says, “I can walk or bike from my house and be where there are hardly any people.”
Indeed, there’s an abundance of parks and trails right in Duluth that Edmondson favors, including Jay Cooke State Park. “There is never a bad time of year to visit Jay Cooke; it’s my favorite park to hike close to home,” he says. “The old-growth pine forests are full of trails with lots of wildlife and birds. It’s one of the best places I know to see white-tailed deer and bald eagles.”
Nearby, Duluth Lakewalk Trail, a favorite of tourists and locals alike, provides stunning views of the city’s downtown area and Lake Superior. For a better look at the water, head out to Park Point trailhead, the world’s longest freshwater sandbar, stretching seven miles out into Lake Superior. “The trail winds through a pine forest and offers access to Lake Superior on one side and the harbor on the other. Depending on the time of year you visit, the area has great bird watching, as migrants use the sandspit both spring and fall.”
Also among his favorite places in Northeastern Minnesota, Hawk Ridge Nature Preserve is 235 acres of undeveloped land at the highest point along the eastern portion of Skyline Parkway. “It’s excellent in fall, around September and October, when migratory birds and birds of prey pass by the shore of Lake Superior,” says Edmondson. “It’s a large body of water, so they travel along the shore, out of Alaska and Canada.” Keep your eyes peeled for bald eagles and broad-winged hawks—the Duluth Audubon Society has been counting hawks during the annual migration here since the early 1950s.
Getting hungry? About a 20-minute drive from Hawk Ridge you’ll find the casual, family-oriented Duluth Grill, which serves a seasonal menu of organic ingredients. “They grow their produce on the premises,” says Edmondson, who favors the cowboy-style burger with fries. Insider tip: Work off some of those fries while mountain biking on Duluth Traverse trail, which is also hike-able.
Further up the North Shore, Coho Café and Bakery in Tofte serves up award-winning pizza and homemade bread. In the town of Two Harbors, you’ll find SpokeNGear, a hybrid coffee shop, bike store, and restaurant all under the same roof. “It’s a good place to rent a bike, bike around the North Shore, and grab a sandwich and coffee,” says Edmondson, who recommends the shredded pork sandwich on a ciabatta bun, with a word of caution: “It’s really spicy.”
Should you want to venture further into nature, there are several state parks near Duluth worthy of your time, including Gooseberry Falls State Park and Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. Edmondson also suggests a walk along the Gitchi-Gami State Trail, a paved hiking and biking trail that winds through the woods, with amazing views of Lake Superior.
Seek peace—and birds and bees—in the Twin Cities and small towns
When Edmondson has meetings in the Twin Cities, he makes a point to wander through the hiking and biking trails at Theodore Wirth Regional Park, the largest park in Minneapolis. While there, be sure to traipse through the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary, to watch birds and pollinators. “The Indigo Bunting is my favorite bird there. You’ll also see great crested flycatchers; the American goldfinch, which is a really beautiful bird, and species of bees and butterflies, such as monarchs, red-spotted purple butterflies, and Eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies.” Come lunchtime, head to the nearby coffeehouse Cuppa Java for good brew and sandwiches. “The sausage egg and cheese on a croissant is pretty amazing,” raves Edmondson.
Outside the metropolitan area, you’ll discover plenty of charm and outdoor adventures. Between the cities of Osakis and St. Joseph, travel down the 62-mile paved Lake Wobegon Trail (named after Garrison Keillor’s fictional town in his much-loved A Prairie Home Companion show on public radio). Along the way you’ll find quiet rolling hills, picturesque country towns, dairy farms, and lakes and streams. Take a break and soak up that quintessential small-town allure served up with humble but tasty American fare at Charlie’s Café, a little gem right off the trail in the town of Freeport. No matter what you order, don’t forget to get a bag of their famous caramel rolls to go.
Explore south and north with wild spaces and historic dining
While Edmondson’s area of expertise is in Northeastern Minnesota and the Twin Cities, there are incredible trails throughout the state. With the scenic valley of Lanesboro at its heart, the 60-mile paved Root River State Trail winds through southern Minnesota, connecting communities all along the river. Bikers in particular relish following this trail—built on an old railroad right-of-way—along its namesake river through the Minnesota towns of Fountain, Lanesboro, Whalan, Peterson, Rushford, and Houston. Along the way, enjoy outstanding views of tall limestone bluffs and steep hills thickly wooded in maples and birch that rise above the water. Keep an eye out for turkeys, deer, and birds of prey.
Right off the trail in the town of Lanesboro, you’ll find the historic restaurant, The Old Village Hall. Originally built in 1886, this stone building was once a fire station, jail, and village hall. Relax on the deck overlooking the river and dig into a juicy burger or fresh, seasonal salad made from local produce that was hand-selected at the St. Charles Farmers Market nearby.
Upstate, head to Itasca State Park, Minnesota’s oldest state park (established in 1891), where you’ll discover the birthplace of the Mississippi River before it stretches out some 2,552 miles across America. Here, at the 32,000-acre park, you’ll hike the Ozawindib Trail and the Aiton Heights Fire Tower Trail, which boasts a view over Lake Itasca seen from a 100-foot-tall vista. Keep your eyes and ears on alert for loons, especially at sunset, when they’re most active.
Finish off the morning with a stop at the rustic century-old Douglas Lodge (open end of May to early October) for a hearty meal and taste of lake life. Or better yet, book a room for the night to immerse yourself deeper in this gorgeous landscape and revel in nature more.