Minnesota Waterfall Awards

12 of the best falls across the state

Why are we obsessed with chasing waterfalls? After all, when faced with a drop in elevation, what a Minnesota river does next — with the possible exception of the Devil’s Kettle — is fairly predictable.

It falls.

But whether our favorite waterfalls are on North Shore rivers making rapid descents to Lake Superior, or southern Minnesota creeks beating their way to the Mississippi, or even on underground streams, each has its own impressive geology, its own personality, its own story to tell.

A waterfall is often the prize at the end of a long journey, a satisfying climax to a road trip or hike. Some of our favorites even double as refreshing swimming holes. All belong to the public, but we pause for a reminder that getting closer to waterfalls can be tricky — even dangerous — so tread lightly and use your head.

Read on for 12 of the biggest, most interesting and/or visually pleasing falls in the state — along with an award for each one.

Video by Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune.

Drone photography and videography made possible through the permission of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Division of Parks and Trails.

Tallest inside the state

High Falls of the Baptism River

60 feet

Unlike the twice-as-tall High Falls of the Pigeon River, this also-imaginatively named cataract in Tettegouche State Park is the tallest one entirely within Minnesota’s borders. It’s the picture of a mountain falls, with mineral-reddened water descending in two or three chutes. Below, the Baptism River might be shallow enough not only for your sacrament of choice, but wading closer for full immersion.

Getting there: It’s a vigorous 45-minute hike from the Superior Hiking Trail lot on Hwy. 1 — or take the easier 1.5-mile trail from the main entrance of Tettegouche.

Photo by Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune


High Falls of the Pigeon River

120 feet

The tallest waterfall in Minnesota has an asterisk: This international torrent is shared with Canada. At 3,200 gallons per second, it’s a powerful symbol of peace. The spray hits your face before you even reach the overlook on the U.S. side. A rainbow might emerge from the deep, churning gorge. No wonder the Anishinaabe and French famously portaged their canoes through these parts: There’s no navigating this craggy river.

Getting there: At Grand Portage State Park on the tip of Minnesota’s Arrowhead, there’s a 1-mile round-trip hike (paved and boardwalk) to the falls.

Video by Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune

Most aesthetically pleasing

Minneopa Falls

39 feet

A 10-foot upper falls and 39-foot lower falls carve out a wide bowl in the sandstone of Minneopa State Park. When Minneopa Creek is running high, the face of the lower falls is almost a perfect square. See it from above, or take the stairs down to get up close and personal. Stick around and try to spot the reestablished herd on the park’s Bison Drive.

Getting there: Minneopa’s southern section, 3 miles west of Mankato.

Photo by Bre McGee, Special to the Star Tribune

Most unexpected

Ramsey Falls

30 feet

The lush Ramsey Park in the town of Redwood Falls is a surprising oasis amid southwestern Minnesota’s plains. Here, Ramsey Creek twists through a slender gorge, culminating in this rugged 30-footer. Cliff jumping has long been banned, but able hikers might wade into the creek below for an immersive view.

Getting there: In Ramsey Park, head to parking lot No. 4 for the observation deck, or lot No. 3 to walk there via a suspension bridge through the woods.

Video by Simon Peter Groebner, Star Tribune

Most underground

Niagara Cave waterfall

60 feet

Deep below the karst landscape of southeastern Minnesota, water from subterranean aquifers has carved out vast limestone caverns. That explains the “Goonies”-esque flume that gives Niagara Cave its name. The dramatically lit plunge is a highlight on a fascinating one-hour, half-mile guided tour, which includes fossils, rock formations, 275 stairs and a wedding “chapel.”

Getting there: Tours of the cave outside Harmony are offered daily May-Aug. and weekends in April and Sept.-Oct. ($20.95)

Photo by Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

Weirdest falls

Devil’s Kettle

50 feet

In an M.C. Escher-esque optical illusion, one of two descending halves of the Brule River seems to disappear into a cauldron of volcanic rock. Or does it? Scientists recently used dyes to prove what happens to the diabolical cascade, but honestly, we don’t want to know. We’re content with leaving it a fun, confounding mystery.

Getting there: At Judge C.R. Magney State Park, hike a mile up the rocky Devil’s Kettle Trail (two hours roundtrip), then down 175 stairs.

Video by Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune

Most historic

Vermillion Falls

35 feet

It’s the only waterfall in Minnesota that’s 500 feet downstream from an Applebee’s. But once you’re ensconced in the winding overlook trails at Vermillion Falls Park in Hastings, you’d hardly know it. This Vermillion River beauty once powered the 1853 Hastings Mill, still in business and looming over the falls. Look for the spired ruins of the nearby Ramsey Mill, which burned in 1894.

Getting there: Vermillion Falls Park is just off Hwy. 61 in Hastings.

Video by Simon Groebner, Star Tribune

Most interactive

Hidden Falls

10 feet

These not-quite-hidden falls are at the crossroads of trails in the hardwood- and wildflower-filled Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. The site is often just a dry ledge, but when it’s been raining, the seasonal Prairie Creek unfurls a broad, smooth aquatic curtain. Kids and adults can walk into the shallow creek and splash in the thin wall of water.

Getting there: Take the park’s gentle, half-mile Hidden Falls Trail.

Photo by Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

Most iconic

Gooseberry Falls

Approx. 30 feet (Middle Falls)

Beloved Gooseberry is up there with the Split Rock Lighthouse as a visual symbol of Minnesota. And the whole Gooseberry River estuary is fun to explore, with a series of four cascades hurtling toward Lake Superior, plus ancient lava flows, river islands and pedestrian bridges galore. And explore people do, with more than 750,000 visitors every year.

Getting there: Gooseberry Falls State Park is 12 miles north of Two Harbors.

Video by Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune

Most secluded

Wolf Creek Falls

12 feet

While most waterfalls immediately resume as a river, this lovely one in east-central Minnesota issues into a deep, cliff-ringed lagoon, where we could while away a summer afternoon. The creek then trickles into the Kettle River, downstream from the Hell’s Gate rapids. Howling coyotes, not wolves, ushered us away at dusk.

Getting there: Hike the Quarry Loop and Wolf Creek trails in Banning State Park (a 3.7-mile loop), or it’s a 1-mile hike from Robinson Park in Sandstone.

Photo by Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

Most adventurous

Illgen Falls

40 feet

Illgen might be our personal favorite falls on the North Shore: an intimate spot for a vigorous swim. View it safely from above, or climb down to the rocks below and jump into the punchbowl. We can’t swim all the way to the falls without being forced back by the Baptism River’s powerful flow, but it’s fun trying. Fair warning: The trail is steep, rocks slippery and current strong. Intermediate hiking and swimming skills a must.

Getting there: Find the less-used side entrance to Tettegouche State Park, 1.5 miles west of Hwy. 61 on Hwy. 1.

Photo by Stephen Regenold, Special to the Star Tribune

Best Urban

Minnehaha Falls

53 feet

Helping usher Minnehaha Creek waters from Lake Minnetonka to the Mississippi, and celebrated in Longfellow’s poem “Song of Hiawatha,” Minnehaha Falls is a historic symbol of Minneapolis, enthralling 19th-century visitors and still drawing daily crowds. Please don’t take your engagement photos in the steep rock shelter behind the falls, although many have.

Getting there: Minnehaha Regional Park, 4801 S. Minnehaha Drive, Mpls.

Video by Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune