How Accessible are Minnesota State Parks for Non-motorists?

After living in Minnesota for four years, I decided last year to focus on getting away from the metro area and exploring greater Minnesota. I also decided to take up camping for the first time since childhood in 2017. As someone who is car-free, accomplishing these goals required some creativity on my part. I purchased camping gear with an eye towards backpacking/bike camping and researched parks (state and local) where I could visit without using a car.

One of my goals was to visit Bemidji, but Bemidji is a 19-hour bicycle trip and I only had a two-and-a-half day weekend available. Over the previous Christmas holiday travel plans went awry so at the last minute I booked a Jefferson Lines bus round-trip to Springfield, Missouri, and as I searched for a way to get to Bemidji, I thought to include Jefferson Lines in my search.

Jefferson Lines does have a stop in Bemidji, so at noon on a Friday in late-July of last summer I boarded a Jefferson Lines bus in Maple Grove and rode north. Once we passed through St. Cloud and began to approach Little Falls I fell in love with Minnesota anew. Staring out the bus window at each passing town–Brainerd, Nisswa, Pequot Lakes, Walker–my heart leaped with joy and wonder at the landscape. However, as we drew near to Bemidji we encountered a massive thunderstorm and I was not able to see much of the town upon approach due to limited visibility.

Me on the Paul Bunyan Trail in Bemidji, on my way to see Paul Bunyan & Babe the Blue Ox

The bus reached Bemidji at 5:30–an hour late due to construction and the thunderstorm and I waited another 45 minutes in the lobby of Holiday Gas Station until the storm subsided enough for safe walking conditions. With daylight waning, I took off under drizzling skies, making the pilgrimage to see Paul Bunyan and Babe before renting a Nice Ride bike in downtown Bemidji. Then I rode through what I dubbed the Canyon of Pines–Paul Bunyan Trail–along the eastern shore of Lake Bemidji until I reached Lake Bemidji State Park.

A few weeks ago I was involved in a twitter conversation about accessibility and Minnesota State Parks–particularly how inaccessible they are to those who choose to live a car-free life. I recounted the above story because I have discovered several non-motorists are not aware of the Jefferson Lines bus option. This conversation sparked the idea to research how many Minnesota State Parks and Recreation Areas are accessible via bus (for trips originating in downtown Minneapolis). Here are the results of my research:

There are only 13 (out of 75) Minnesota State Parks or Recreation Areas within 10 miles (half-day hike or less) of a Jefferson Lines bus stop.

Day-trips:

There is only one Minnesota State Park where traveling via Jefferson Lines on a day-trip is feasible.

  • Myre-Big Island State Park (Albert Lea)
    • Departure from Minneapolis: 6:45am
    • Arrival in Albert Lea: 8:30am
    • Walking time/distance to park: 1 hour, 1 minute/3 miles
    • Departure from Albert Lea: 3:10pm
    • Arrival in Minneapolis: 5:15pm
    • This schedule allows 4.5 hours to explore the park

Overnight trips:

I am listing these by walking distance, nearest to farthest (all of the Minnesota State Parks and Recreational Areas listed here have camping facilities).

  • Red River State Recreation Area (Grand Forks)
    • Departure from Minneapolis: 11:35am
    • Arrival in Grand Forks (ND): 7:20pm
    • Walking time/distance to park: 12 minutes/0.6 miles
    • Departure from Grand Forks (ND): 8:45pm
    • Arrival in Minneapolis: 5:10pm
    • While this is the shortest walk, the length of the bus trip means a two-night stay is preferred
  • Moose Lake State Park (Moose Lake)
    • Departure from Minneapolis: 6:55am
    • Arrival in Moose Lake: 9:45am
    • Walking time/distance to park: 15 minutes/0.7 miles
    • Departure from Moose Lake: 1:00pm
    • Arrival in Minneapolis: 3:40pm
    • You could technically make Moose Lake a day-trip, but you would spend five and a half hours on a bus for two and a half hours of park time.
  • Cuyuna Country State Park (Crosby)
    • Departure from Minneapolis: 11:35am
    • Arrival in Crosby: 2:50pm
    • Walking time/distance to park: 43 minutes/2.2 miles
    • Departure from Crosby: 1:25pm
    • Arrival in Minneapolis: 5:10pm
    • Hike the scenic Cuyuna Lakes State Trail to and from the park
  • Charles A. Lindbergh State Park (Little Falls)
    • Departure from Minneapolis: 11:35am
    • Arrival in Little Falls: 1:45pm
    • Walking time/distance to park: 1 hour, 6 minutes/3.4 miles
    • Departure from Little Falls: 2:45pm
    • Arrival in Minneapolis: 5:10pm
  • Jay Cooke State Park (Cloquet)
    • Departure from Minneapolis: 6:55am
    • Arrival in Cloquet: 10:00 am
    • Walking time/distance to park: 1 hour, 14 minutes/3.8 miles
    • Departure from Cloquet: 12:35pm
    • Arrival in Minneapolis: 3:40pm
  • Banning State Park (Sandstone)
    • Departure from Minneapolis: 6:55am
    • Arrival in Sandstone: 9:20pm
    • Walking time/distance to park: 1 hour, 41 minutes/5.1 miles
    • Departure from Sandstone: 1:25pm
    • Arrival in Minneapolis: 3:40pm
  • Lake Bemidji State Park (Bemidji)
    • Departure from Minneapolis: 11:35am
    • Arrival in Bemidji: 4:40pm
    • Walking time/distance to park: 2 hours, 5 minutes/6.4 miles
    • Departure from Bemidji: 11:30am
    • Arrival in Minneapolis: 4:30pm
    • Hike the Paul Bunyan Trail to the park after visiting Paul Bunyan and Babe in downtown Bemidji.
    • Unfortunately, Nice Ride Bemidji is no longer in operation so biking to the campsite is not an option
  • Blue Mounds State Park (Luverne)
    • Departure from Minneapolis: 12:01pm
    • Arrival in Luverne: 5:45pm
    • Walking time/distance to park: 2 hours, 19 minutes/7 miles
    • Departure from Luverne: 11:05pm
    • Arrival in Minneapolis: 5:00pm
    • Head to the prairie and see a heard of real American Bison and do rock climbing. There is a recreational path from the north edge of town to the park, a much better alternative to walking along the shoulder of the highway.
  • Upper Sioux Agency State Park (Granite Falls)
    • Departure from Minneapolis: 12:01am
    • Arrival in Granite Falls: 3:45pm
    • Walking time/distance to park: 2 hours, 32 minutes/7.6 miles
    • Departure from Granite Falls: 1:10pm
    • Arrival in Minneapolis: 5:00pm
  • Split Rock Creek State Park (Pipestone)
    • Departure from Minneapolis: 12:01pm
    • Arrival in Pipestone: 5:15pm
    • Walking time/distance to park: 2 hours, 38 minutes/8.1 miles
    • Departure from Pipestone: 11:40am
    • Arrival in Minneapolis: 5:00pm
    • Pipestone National Monument is a 25 minute walk/1.2 miles from the bus stop in Pipestone
  • Rice Lake State Park (Owatonna)
    • Departure from Minneapolis: 12:01pm or 6:05pm
    • Arrival in Owatonna: 1:45pm or 7:25pm
    • Walking time/distance to park: 3 hours, 17 minutes/10 miles
    • Departure from Owatonna: 9:25am or 3:45pm
    • Arrival in Minneapolis: 11:20am or 5:15pm
  • Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park (Faribault)
    • Departure from Minneapolis: 12:01pm or 6:05pm
    • Arrival in Faribault: 1:20pm or 7:05pm
    • Walking time/distance to park: 3 hours, 19 minutes/10 miles
    • Departure from Faribault: 4:10pm
    • Arrival in Minneapolis: 5:15pm

Notes:

  • Every one of these trips arrives back in Minneapolis before 5:30pm, allowing you free time in the evening upon your return.
  • Jefferson Lines also passes through Cass Lake (Chippewa National Forest) and Walker (Leech Lake area), where many overnight camping opportunities are within an hour’s walk.
  • Jefferson Lines runs to Duluth several times a day. If you catch the early bus north and the late bus south, you will have around eight hours to spend in Duluth.
  • Purchase your bus tickets early–the best rates are three weeks in advance, but tickets are still cheaper up to eight days before the trip.
  • Jefferson Lines allows fold-able bikes (if in a bag) to be stowed underneath in the luggage compartment. Even a fold-able bike will cut down significantly on travel time between bus stops and state parks.
  • I appreciate that as a white male going on these trips alone can be less daunting than it can be for those who are not white males. If you do not feel safe taking these trips alone, form a group. (And, if you feel comfortable, reach out to me and ask me to join your group–especially if you are headed to Blue Mounds State Park, because it is high on my list of parks to visit next.)

In conclusion, the individual who started the twitter conversation about lack of accessibility to our Minnesota State Parks was correct. The vast majority of Minnesota State Parks are inaccessible to those who do not drive automobiles. While a few of these parks are accessible via bus, Minnesotans (politicians, policy makers, government employees and citizens) need to work together to make more of our beautiful state parks accessible to everyone.

 

 

About Tim Brackett

Tim Brackett is currently a CNC Machinist living in NE Minneapolis, who bikes and buses for 90% of his transit needs. Tim recently finished the Community Development program at Minneapolis College and is committed to engaging communities and working collaboratively to build safe, equitable and sustainable transportation choices for everyone. He is an avid concert-goer, bibliophile, non-profit supporter, nap-taker and sour beer drinker.

26 thoughts on “How Accessible are Minnesota State Parks for Non-motorists?

  1. Katie White

    Terrific article! Thanks so much for writing it. I love the detail you’ve included.

  2. Mike

    Interesting topic. It does seem this analysis is Twin Cities centric. There are regional shuttles, local services that may work for some outstate residents. For example there is a service that runs between Duluth and Grand Maris that would work for Gooseberry Falls I imagine if you were a Duluth resident, etc…. if the schedule was frequent enough.

    1. Jeb RachJeb Rach

      That particular schedule only runs once a week on Tuesdays, at least based on what I could find on Arrowhead Transit’s website. It also runs the opposite way (so you couldn’t do a day trip; it’d have to be out to Gooseberry Falls one Tuesday and then back in the next Tuesday.)

    2. Tim Brackett Moderator   Post author

      I wrestled with this post being Twin Cities-centric during the entire week I worked on the post. In the end I decided I wanted to cover what I knew and I still have a lot to learn about non-metro Minnesota. I also wanted this post to facilitate more conversation around the issue, and I feel that objective is best reached when I don’t try to cover everything at once. I’m very interested in learning how non-metro MInnesotans without cars reach Minnesota State Parks.

  3. Ann

    Great article. Have you ever thought about starting a group to encourage people who are trying to go car-free? Or to encourage people to stay car-free? Sharing strategies might be helpful. I did not even know about this bus line. I’m going to check it out next time I’m trying to do a car-free trip. I might stash a folding bike in with the luggage to add to my fun.

  4. Henry PanHenry Pan

    FYI, I just called TransitLink and learned that it is possible to go to Afton State Park on TransitLink. Pickup is from Sun Ray Center in St. Paul, and it costs $4.25. Last available pickup is 6:30pm.

    1. Jeb RachJeb Rach

      Interesting, though that runs into the weekday-only problem. With Transit Link only available on weekdays through most of their coverage area, it’d be quite difficult for someone with a Saturday/Sunday weekend to be able to visit without taking time off of work.

  5. Ryan

    Cuyuna sticks out to me on your list since there’s such a wealth of amazing bike trails of all sorts (paved, gravel, singletrack) in and around the state recreation area. It’d be a shame if someone couldn’t experience such an amazing cycling destination for lack of a car! I think if a metro-area bike shop offered a summer time shuttle service that included either a rental bike or transport for person-plus-bike, they’d have plenty of takers.

    1. Ann

      omg…I would so love to be able to get to Cuyuna without a car. I have been wanting to ride those trails in the worst way.

  6. Jeb RachJeb Rach

    Minneopa State Park is accessible via Land to Air Express – about an hour walk from the Mankato stop. If we’re including state recreational areas, Minnesota State Valley Recreational Area would also apply from the Belle Plaine stop

    If we’re really wanting to stretch our wings and include airport shuttles, Executive Express allows a couple more options:
    – Sibley State Park, about 3-4 miles from the New London stop
    – Glacial Lakes State Park, about 5 miles (I think there’s a MUP to use as well) from the Starbuck stop

    There’s definitely some more that are likely accessible, at least to outstate residents, through local transit agencies. The problem is that a lot of those routes are either weekday-only, select weekdays, once-a-week, or once-a month. If there’s a certain criteria someone is interested in, I’d be happy to do a bit of research and digging, though I think the once-a-week or once-a-month routes are too infrequent to be useful (especially since most of them run into the larger city in the morning and run back out to the rural areas, where the state park likely is, in the afternoon, leading to a week or month-long stay requirement.)

    1. Tim Brackett Moderator   Post author

      I love it! I’m adding this to my master list. I hope to follow up this post in the coming weeks with a lot more ways to visit Minnesota State Parks car-free.

  7. hokan

    I’ve considered using Jefferson for multi-modal trips with my bicycle, but they won’t carry unboxed bikes. I suppose I could box my bike for the trip out, but it’d be tough to find a place to stash the box for the return trip.

    Better if they’d just let people bring ready-to-ride bikes like Amtrak does and like Wisconsin’s Badger Bus.

    1. Ann

      I’m close to just getting myself a Brompton so I can use these buses for multimodal trips!

  8. Monte Castleman

    Worth noting that the 1930s plan was to have a state park within 40 miles of every Minnesotan. The obvious problem with that is that you’re reduced to calling an unremarkable grove of trees at the edge of every town, maybe with a swimming beach, as a “state park”. So it dilutes the branding of the system (just like putting bus lines on the Metro Transit map as purported equals of light rail dilutes the branding.) to put these on the map as equals to Itasca or Gooseberry Falls.

    Quite a few of these made it into the system and most are gone, Alexander Ramsey in Redwood Falls was probably the most elaborate of these, but most, like Pine Tree or Oronoco, were just a few dozen acres of some second growth trees and maybe a beach. Flandreau, Monson Lake, and Kilen Woods are examples of these that are still left in the system, and the DNR is making another effort to get rid of Kilen Woods. The DNR now designated a number of these as “Rustic” state parks, meaning “We’re not spending any money on something we don’t want.”

    Scenic is probably my personal favorite. It’s deep in the north woods, enough that you have the place pretty much to yourself, and there’s a large remnant of old growth forest on the peninsula.

    As to making parks more accessible, Obviously we’re not going to go back to the idea of hundreds of state parks. So beyond an idea that sounds good in on paper does anyone have any specific policy proposals? Considering the remote location of state parks, that most Minnesotan’s own cars, and that not all people that don’t own cars are interested in the state parks. How much demand would there be for Metro Transit bus service to Itasca (or even to Interstate? I’m thinking that anything that make the parks noticeably more accessible without a car would require a shocking subsidy.

    1. Lou Miranda

      I would think that, especially in larger cities, state parks are very much made for people without cars, since it is exponentially harder for car-less residents to “escape”.

      Wirth Park is a city park, but the fact that the Blue Line Extension will have a stop there (and the fact that the old Como Harriet streetcar line eventually got you to Lake Harriet, Lake Minnetona, and Lake Como) suggests that large regional parks in/near cities are a viable and worthwhile destination for transit.

      Of course, the further away the park is, the more special it needs to be to make transit worthwhile.

    2. Jeb RachJeb Rach

      I think the best current solution would be to either re-route or expand a few Jefferson Lines routes (probably using some 5311(f) funding) to include stops on (or next to) major state parks. At least bringing Itasca and the North Shore onto the intercity bus grid (or connected to intercity bus by local bus) would make some of Minnesota’s most famous and highly-demanded state parks reachable by non-car means.

      Itasca could be brought on by rerouting the Brainerd – Grand Forks run by either removing the Cass Lake stop, adding a bit of time, and going through Park Rapids and up to Itasca State Park before rejoining at Bemidji. If we didn’t want to add additional time, we’d have to essentially reroute the leg through Wadena then go up US-71, which I think would remove too many markets for it to be worthwhile. Cass Lake is currently served to Bemidji by their local transit agency on a weekday-only run, so perhaps some funding could allow them to expand that to seven-day-a-week service with timed transfers between the intercity bus and the local bus.

      Any North Shore service would require a new bus route. That wouldn’t be a bad idea, but we’d need to find a way to fund it. Perhaps a starter route could be Friday evening, Saturday, and Sunday, perhaps with any equipment that may be sitting idle on the weekends from Duluth Transit?

      1. Jeb RachJeb Rach

        To follow up a bit on the “subsidy” idea – while any sort of direct route catered specifically towards Twin Cities > northern Minnesota state parks would likely require extremely high subsidies, integrating it into existing intercity routes, or creating ones that also serve the local communities and integrating it into the intercity bus system would help to reduce at least the per-passenger subsidy and also help to make the service more useful to local residents.

  9. Dave B

    When I lived in New York, Harriman State Park was very easy to get to for day trips or overnight trips through Metro North/NJ Transit (it was a jointly operated line) as well as separate bus service through Short Line. The park offers pretty great backpacking considering it was just 2 hours from Penn Station. Breakneck Ridge is also really easy to get to by taking the Metro North Hudson Line. Cool to know that there are some MN options too.

  10. Andrew Evans

    I guess the choice is really does a person want to stay car free, or gas free, and is it such a big leap from taking a bus or transit to renting a car once in a while.

    My biggest comment is that it’s so expensive to rent a car for a weekend that it takes away the ability for some to get away. When my partner and I visit France, the average price for a rental is around $30 to $40 per day, where hear it’s at least twice to 3 times that. I know it’s apples and oranges, and that there is more than likely a subsidy involved over there.

    One of the vehicles we rented, or I should say they chose for us and we rented, was a decent sized van, which could have easily held a few people and their bikes. Shared between friends, the few hundred over the weekend would be similar or less than a subsidized bus ticket, and provide more space for gear, as well as a more flexible schedule.

    Point being, it needs to be more affordable here for people to live without a vehicle and rent when or if needed. Other than I admit, with the way our government and insurance is setup, cheap subsidized rentals are about as likely as the subsidized bus routes talked about in the comments here.

    1. Monte Castleman

      It of course leaves out the people that can’t drive, but t’s really hard to think about a mode of transportation more appropriate for taking one or a couple of individuals to very isolated locations than a car. Plus if renting a vehicle for a weekend wasn’t so expensive and so frustratingly inconvenient, people could rent a pickup or SUV every weekend or every other weekend and we’d have a lot more people driving cars instead of pickups and SUVs to work during the week.

      1. Christa MosengChris Moseng

        For varying definitions of “very isolated” trains do a great job. At a minimum they do a great job of getting most of the way there and local transportation providers can pick up the last mile(s).

        But as someone who seeks out true backcountry stuff and the most isolated of the isolated remote locations, I concede there really isn’t a great alternative to renting a car. But as you correctly identify, I can accomplish this with a rental—all the money I don’t spend on full-time car ownership easily pays for these trips when I absolutely need a vehicle.

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