Hiking at Great River Bluffs State Park

With commanding views of the mighty Mississippi and meandering trails through southern Minnesota forest, Great River Bluffs State park is worth adding to your list of dog-friendly hiking destinations. The park contains approximately 6.5 miles of hiking trails, making it an easy day hike location. If you include the interpretive trail, the total comes to about 9 miles.

About Great River Bluffs State Park

According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MN DNR):

The creation of Great River Bluffs State Park in 1976 on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River Valley grew from a public need for better access to the bluffland area of southeastern Minnesota. The park’s 2,835 acres lie within the Richard J. Dorer Memorial Hardwood Forest. Classified as a “Natural State Park,” park staff are dedicated to the protection and restoration of natural resources.

Great River Bluffs State Park is located in the Blufflands Landscape Region. This landscape features half-dome bluffs with sheer rock cliffs, steep valley walls, and rolling uplands. The park includes a diversity of plant communities including maple-basswood forests, old hickory, pines, goat prairies, and old fields.

Great River Bluffs in the fall

This diverse landscape makes the trails a lot of fun to explore. Below you will find a list of my favorite hiking routes. However, I think it is also important to note that although Glia and I have yet to camp at Great River Bluffs, the campsites look amazing. Especially the cart-in campsites. There is enough foliage between each site, that the sites feel a lot more remote than they actually are. If you are considering a southern Minnesota camping location for a short weekend trip, look no further. Campsites can be reserved here.

Great River Bluff’s Trails

From the entrance of the park, you will drive through some prairie terrain. Just before you enter the forest, you will come across the first parking lot. If you park here, you will have easy access to the interpretive trail as well as connections to the rest of the trail system. About half of my hikes start here, the other half of the time I will park at the picnic area (as seen on the map). As an additional bonus, the picnic area is often stocked with doggy bags if you forget some (but don’t plan on it, especially in the off-season).

Regardless of where you park, I recommend hiking to as many overlooks as possible. Great River Bluffs has a total of 9 designated overlooks. The problem with hiking for the overlooks is that you end up with a lot of out and back hikes. But I promise it is worth it.Overlook at Great River Bluffs

For a full hiking experience, start at the first parking lot. Hike the interpretive trail out and back to give yourself the early reward of a great view. Then hike from the parking lot to the group campground. Hike past the cart in campsites and reward yourself with two more views, plus motivation to go camping in the near future. Seriously, these campsites are really nice for being in a state park close to a parking lot.

Hike from the group campsite to the main campground. Hike out to both the overlooks at the southeast end of the park. From there backtrack back past the group campsite, but turn right and cross the road when the trail junctures. This will take you to my two favorite overlooks. Take the time to walk out to each of them. Then take the trail to the last overlook and back to the parking lot.

For shorter walks, park at the picnic area and just do one half or the other of the park.

Spring at Great River Bluffs

A few additional notes:

In the winter, the park converts some of the trails to cross-country skiing trails. Don’t bring your dog on groomed trails.

As with most of the state parks in Minnesota, this is an on-leash hiking opportunity.

A nice feature of the out and back hiking is frequent access to out-house style bathrooms. The picnic area and both campground areas offer bathrooms.

Alright, that is it for this post. Time to get out and enjoy more of the many wonderful outdoor parks and forest that are preserved for public use. For example, I recommend nearby Hixon Forest or Perrot State Park.

Do you have a favorite Minnesota state park for camping and hiking with your dog (or cat)? If so, let me know in the comments section below.


Kate is the writer of Pawsitively Intrepid. She has spent the last 9 years working full-time as a veterinarian, treating dogs and cats. But as of June 2023, she is taking a year to travel with her dog, volunteer, and work on some passion projects.

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