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When I was a young man, I drove to a family reunion at a picturesque park in Redwood Falls, Minn. By early afternoon it was hotter than Hades. The relatives were bursting with pie and ice cream and one blink away from a nap.

Restless, I wandered out onto the Ramsey Park paths, meandering through groves of elm and ash. A rumbling sound grew louder with each step. As I came around the last crook in the path, I was astonished to see a beautiful three-story waterfall crashing into a deep pool. I was just as surprised to see a man hurtling off the cliff and splashing into the rippling waters alongside the falls.

Wow, that looked scary and fun! I couldn't resist. I found the stone path to the top of the bluffs in time to see a young woman take the same leap. I fretted at the edge for a moment or two, but I could see that the waters were deep with a dark green, almost blackish hue. I took one more deep breath and vaulted into the abyss. My landing was loud but decisive and I shot down into the deep lagoon. The water was delightfully cool, and when I popped up at the surface, I was brimming with exhilaration.

I'll never forget the thrill of discovering those "hidden" falls. It's an experience that I would seek out again and again. You can catch that same sense of wonder today with a hike to Ramsey Falls. Now there is also a large aquatic center, which is a good thing because these days the cliff leap would earn you a misdemeanor ticket.

View of the Mississippi River at St. Anthony Falls from the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis on June 17, 2021.
View of the Mississippi River at St. Anthony Falls from the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis on June 17, 2021.

Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

Waterfall season

Minnesota's historic snowfall this year has caused cities to stack sandbags like kindling, casting ominous shadows over riverfronts. And the old saying rings true: "One man's misery is another man's treasure." This spring I'm packing my bags, my heart racing in anticipation of the most remarkable waterfall sightseeing in recent memory.

Minutes from Mankato at Minneopa State Park, Minneopa Falls reveals many surprises. The flat paved path to the falls is surrounded by steep wooded hills that foreshadow an exciting change in the landscape. I am the only one in the park on a chilly Sunday morning, and I don't need directions. I follow the sound of the falls. At the first overlook I am stunned by the fury of the dual falls and the precipitous drop below the railing. Minneopa's descent of 50 feet is the largest in southern Minnesota.

The second overlook lines up perfectly for photo taking. A cool mist wafts from the falls, which will be invigorating during warm weather. The shady, refreshing oasis makes it hard to believe this park is carved into the farming landscape of southern Minnesota.

A hop, skip and splash away

The middle falls in Gooseberry State Park seen in Mid-April.
The middle falls in Gooseberry State Park seen in Mid-April.

Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

Vermillion Falls Park is a convenient Twin Cities side trip, right on the main drag in Hastings. The cozy city park emerges around the corner from the hubbub of Hwy. 61. Many reviewers said that they have lived in the area their whole life and never knew it was there.

As I walk toward the din, the sound is unlike other parks — a loud whirring drone. When I reach the first overlook, I am blown away by a fierce violent cascade, pinched in tightly to the retaining walls of the mill. I never expected the Vermillion Falls to be this compact and explosive. The turbulent waters fall over 35 feet on their inexorable path to the Mississippi.

The Hastings Mill structure that soars above me is still in operation and contains preserved sections of the first Minnesota flour mill, built in 1853. Continuing along the walking trail for a half-mile, I cross a wooden bridge spanning the gorge and discover the ruins of another 19th-century mill.

Serenity at the birthplace of Minneapolis

Minneapolis' newest park, Water Works, is my jumping off point for a stunning rendezvous with Minneapolis history and St. Anthony Falls. These falls propelled the city to national prominence. One of my favorite walks leads from the unearthed stone walls of the Occidental, Bassett and Columbia mills, southeast to the Stone Arch Bridge.

On the way, the landmark Gold Medal Flour sign and the Pillsbury A Mill tower over the river like silent sentinels of the city's halcyon flour-milling past. I can hear the rumble. When I reach the Stone Arch, I am rewarded with the money shot: a head-on view of the falls. After the massive spring thaw, the wide torrent is so violent that I can feel and taste the river spray misting around me. There is nothing more tranquil than to grab a bench and listen to the crashing falls for a minute or 30.

North Shore treasure hunt

For waterfall hunters, the trek along the North Shore is like a discovery of the lost Incan City of Gold. Starting at Lester Park in Duluth and climaxing at the soaring High Falls of the Pigeon River on the Canadian border, there is a slew of rushing treasures.

The medley of falls at Gooseberry Falls State Park are what postcards are made of. Scenic rocky bluffs, birch and pine highlight the three dramatic steps of the falls and the more remote, hikeable Fifth Falls. When I think of Gooseberry, I think of accessibility and one of the most intimate waterfall experiences around. The middle and lower falls offer accessible trails, and the walking distances are some of the shortest in the state. Wear sturdy shoes and you can leapfrog across a shallow riverbed and nestle into the shadow of the cascades. In mild weather, there are several opportunities to take a dip.

At Tettegouche State Park, I had the High Falls of the Baptism River on the top of my list, and drove a couple of miles south of the visitor center for the closest access. After a moderately difficult 1 ½-mile hike, I was glad I brought my swimsuit to wade alongside the falls.

Fifteen minutes from Lutsen, Hwy. 61 runs you smack-dab to the roaring Falls at Cross River. Use the pedestrian bridges for a quick photo stop. Then drive two minutes north to Temperance River State Park. The trails along the Temperance are chock full of zooming white water and surprising waterfalls. The park offers scenic camping options on the shore of Lake Superior or the river banks.

Twenty miles up the road there is another underrated gem in Cascade Falls. It is a short and relatively easy hike to witness the Cascade River pummeling into a steep rocky gorge.

Beautiful riches await those with the time and determination to follow Minnesota's North Shore to its culmination. Straddling the border with Canada, Minnesota's highest waterfall is the High Falls of the Pigeon River in Grand Portage State Park. Developed in collaboration with the Grand Portage Ojibwe, the park features fresh trails and an observation deck to take in the breathtaking 120-foot falls. Welcome Center exhibits celebrate the culture of the Ojibwe people.