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  • Writer's picturebertandernietheberners

5 Dog Friendly Hikes Within 45 Minutes of the Twin Cities

Updated: Dec 4, 2022

The days are getting longer, the weather’s getting warmer - if you’re looking to stretch your legs after the very long winter we’ve had, check out our recommendations for five places to hike within a 45 minute drive of the Twin Cities. These dog friendly parks will have you covered for everything from a casual stroll to a heart-pumping workout!

For more on what we bring for a day of hiking, check out this post.

Lebanon Hills Regional Park

We’ll start things off strong with our favorite FREE park to hike in the Twin Cities! No pass needed for this sizeable park, the largest in the Dakota County system. Lebanon Hills is great to visit at any time of year. In addition to extensive hiking trails, you’ll find water sports rentals (kayaks, paddleboards, etc.), horseback and mountain biking trails, a sandy swimming beach, and several picnic shelters. This park is also a popular place to take family photos in the fall.

The trails here tend to be wide mowed grass or dirt paths, although sometimes they narrow as they wind through the forest. AllTrails classifies most of the trails here as “moderate” but temper your expectations when it comes to topography - there are some rolling hills as the park’s name would suggest, but this is far from the rigors of North Shore hiking.

If you visit in the winter, you’ll be able to trek across the frozen lakes or go cross country skiing or snowshoeing. Be sure to stay off marked ski trails if you’re not skiing - friendly volunteer ski patrol members will be out on busy days to help direct you. We’ve gotten a little turned around on winter visits because many of our normal trails were closed to hikers, but luckily there are plenty of maps and trail signs in this well-marked park.

Just like all the Minnesota State Parks, Dakota County parks have free GPS maps available for download on the Avenza map app. You probably won’t need to navigate with your phone since the trails are clearly signed, but it’s nice to have as a backup or for planning your route in advance. Also note that there are a couple of parking lots here, so if you’re meeting a friend, drop a pin or a screenshot of the park map to confirm where you’ll rendezvous.

Whitetail Woods Regional Park

Another Dakota County favorite of ours, Whitetail Woods is FREE to visit and offers more than 10 miles of hiking trails including a 2 mile paved loop around Empire Lake. Whitetail Woods offers hiking year round, horse trails in the summer, and cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter.

We like the Empire Lake Loop trail, which is mostly paved but includes sections with metal grating and wooden boardwalk through a marshy spot around the west side of the lake. The boardwalk benches make for a nice spot to stop to listen to birds in the marsh or watch for aquatic critters. We always keep an eye out for osprey when we visit as there is a large pole-top nest box in the park. To get a bit more variety in your hike, take the spur trail off the southwest corner of the lake to the scenic overlook. This will add about a mile total of distance (0.5 miles out/back) on more rugged dirt trails through the woods.

Whitetail Woods has 5 camper cabins with spacious decks, electricity, heat, and wifi. You’ll still have to walk to the bathroom, but the cabins sleep 6 and several even have air conditioning! Unfortunately these are not dog friendly accommodations (nor are the camper cabins or yurts in Minnesota State Parks), but they are available year round as an alternative to tent camping.

Minnehaha Falls

One of the most popular parks in the state is Minnehaha Regional Park, home to Minnehaha Falls right in the heart of Minneapolis. The main attraction here is the 53-foot waterfall, but there’s so much more to see and do here once you’ve had a look at the Falls.

The park is free to visit, but be prepared to pay for parking either using meters in the lots or the Minneapolis parking app. Don’t try to get by “just hopping out for a quick visit” - you will get a parking ticket. The upper park area has a large pavilion where you’ll find popular seasonal restaurant Sea Salt Eatery and huge lines of people waiting for fried clams or fish tacos. Be sure to check out the statue of Hiawatha and Minnehaha and see the Falls from the top before descending several flights of stairs to view the Falls from below.

Here’s where the hike begins. The Minnehaha Creek Trail is a 1.8 mile loop that will bring you from the base of the Falls along the creek to its outlet in the Mississippi River. It’s unpaved and can be a bit rough in places, but it’s fun to comb through the woods and then find yourself standing on the banks of the second-longest river in North America!

Fort Snelling State Park

Fort Snelling is both a historic fort and state park and it sits on the Minnesota River right near Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport. It’s the closest state park to the Twin Cities - it actually has a St. Paul address! To visit, you’ll need to have a state park annual pass or pay the $7 daily entry fee. Did you know you can purchase MN State Parks passes at REI locations as well as on the DNR website?

Because the park is located along the river, the trails here are quite flat. Sections of trail are paved, and some actually connect outside the park to the Minnehaha trail system. It’s only 2 miles from Fort Snelling to Minnehaha Falls - a nice walk or bike ride.

Staying within the park’s boundaries, we like to hike the full 3 mile loop of Pike Island Trail. This trail is flat and wide, and you’ll alternate between riverside and forest landscapes. We’ve seen plenty of deer on this trail and several eagles along the river. This is a great park for cross-country skiing in the winter! Because of its close proximity to the Cities, Fort Snelling can get fairly crowded in nice weather.

Afton State Park

If you’re looking for hills and more challenging hiking near the Twin Cities, head to Afton State Park. With its bluffside setting along the St. Croix River, Afton’s trails offer plenty of elevation change, making it popular with trail runners. This park is right next door to Afton Alps ski hill, so park visitors can watch the lifts running for downhill skiers while winter hikers and cross-country skiers trudge up the hills under their own power. Be sure to have your State Parks annual pass or pay the $7 single day entry fee to access the park.

The Interpretive Trail Loop is the Hiking Club trail at this park. It covers a variety of terrain including wide open prairie, oak forest, and river bluffs. On the prairie sections, the trail is mowed grass, but in the woods, most of the trail is covered in crushed gravel, which keeps it from getting too muddy. Note that there are a few spots with stairs on this trail. Afton is another highly-utilized park since it’s near dense population centers, but even if the parking lot looks full, the park is large enough that visitors can generally spread out and it doesn’t feel too crowded.

Let us know where you decide to visit! Happy hiking!

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