Camping next to a waterfall at George Crosby Manitou State Park

Waterfall by the campsite, all photos by Holly Scherer

“Look at the tamaracks” I squealed with delight as we drove down the dusty gravel road. “They’re the most incredible color right now. I thought they were amazing in the fall, but they’re just as beautiful in the spring.” “I don’t see them,” my husband responded. “Hold on, there are more ahead. I’ll point them out to you,” I said as we made our way to George Crosby Manitou State Park.

We hadn’t reached our destination for the weekend and still had a challenging hike ahead, but I was already in my happy place as we drove down County Road 7 between Finland, Minnesota and George Crosby Manitou State Park. As we pulled into the small parking lot, we were a little concerned when we saw how packed it was. But we were able to slip into one of the last open spots. Relieved, we changed our shoes, strapped on our backpacks, and hit the trail.

I had studied the map before we left home and knew the quickest way to the riverfront campsite I had reserved for the long weekend. We were eager to get to camp and set up but that didn’t stop us from slowing down to marvel at the beautiful cedars, budding ferns, and abundant wildflowers.

The trail into our campsite was a little more difficult than the trails we’d just hiked. But we knew it would be worth it as we savored a weekend of quiet isolation in one of my favorite Minnesota State Parks.

“I forgot there was a waterfall next to this campsite,” I said as we made our final approach. “Will you be able to sleep okay with the sound of roaring water?” I jokingly asked my husband. “This is an awesome campsite,” he responded. “I can’t believe we’ve never camped here before. I’d come again,” he said.

The Cascades at George Crosby Manitou State Park

What you should know about George Crosby Manitou State Park

George Crosby Manitou State Park is just eight miles from the charming small town of Finland, Minnesota, and 15 miles from the more popular Tettegouche State Park. But once you’re out on the trail or hunkered down in a campsite, you’ll forget that you’re just a short drive from civilization.

The 3,320-acre park was established in 1955 after being donated by George H. Crosby. From its inception, the state committed to limiting the development of this park and that’s what makes it a true hidden gem. Instead of drive-in campgrounds, bathhouses, and a visitor center, the park hosts 21 primitive backpack campsites dispersed throughout the park.

The trails are challenging—among the most challenging of any Minnesota State Park—but you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views, solitude, and incredible wildlife.

There are no flush toilets and the only source of potable water is from a hand pump near the park entrance. There is no trash service so anything brought into the park must be packed out. The trails might be muddy and you may have to climb over or under a downed tree or two. And it’s unlikely you’ll have phone service. But if you like nature and solitude, George Crosby Manitou State Park is a must-see state park.

What to do while visiting the park

George Crosby Manitou State Park is best known for its waterfalls, specifically the cascade that sits below campsite number two. On Saturday, the first full day of our stay, we took an eight-mile hike through the park. The cascades were one of our first stops. Even on a busy Saturday, we lingered there for quite some time and enjoyed having the view and sound of the raging waterfalls all to ourselves.

There are 24 miles of rugged back-country trails throughout the park and as of this last visit, I’ve officially hiked all 24 of them. The most popular is the Middle Trail which leads you to the park’s most visited spot, The Cascades. The Middle Trail connects to Humpback Trail to create the Hiking Club loop. The Humpback Trail is more strenuous than I remember. But if you’re in decent shape, allow yourself enough time, and bring plenty of water and snacks, you’ll be rewarded with a feeling of accomplishment and epic scenic vistas. If your prime hiking days are behind you, the Benson Lake Loop is a good alternative to the Hiking Club Trail.

Benson Lake Picnic Area
Benson Lake Picnic Area

Five miles of the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) pass through the park. The descent on the SHT down to the Manitou River, and back out, is one of the more challenging sections of the trail—especially with a fully-loaded pack. The Manitou River Trail is beautiful and strenuous. I’ve hiked this trail several times with the last two visits being the most difficult. The 2022 floods caused significant trail damage and the snowy winter of 2022 to 2023 took down a good number of trees. Know that the conditions in a wild park like this are always changing. So, if you come to a dead-end this time, I encourage you to try again.

Before this trip, the only trail I hadn’t hiked was the Beaver Bog Trail. This relatively flat trail passes through a maple forest with spectacular fall colors and stunning spring wildflowers. You can easily make it a nice loop hike by adding the Cedar Ridge or Matt Willis Trail. We opted for the Matt Willis Trail and were delighted to follow fresh moose tracks for close to half a mile.

In addition to hiking, Benson Lake is a destination in its own right. I already mentioned the Benson Lake Trail—one of my favorites in the park. Benson Lake is a designated carry-in trout lake perfect for a relaxing day of paddling or fishing. If you decide to cast a line, be sure you have a Minnesota fishing license and trout stamp. The adjacent picnic area is one of the prettiest and quietest in the state.

Camping in George Crosby Manitou State Park

As I mentioned, this rugged, north-country wilderness park hosts 21 campsites that are only accessible on foot. They all have a fire pit, access to a latrine, and some sort of seating. Some sites have food storage boxes. If you get one of these campsites, you’ll want to make sure the food box is locked down tight and you may want to secure your food in a hard-sided plastic container that critters won’t be able to chew through. Many years ago, at a neighboring state park, we came back from a hike to find a chipmunk in our bear box feasting on our nuts. As annoying as it was to have to throw away an entire bag of nuts, it’s not good for wildlife to get a taste of human food.

The distance to the campsites ranges from one-half to four and one-half miles from the parking area. The sites around Benson Lake are the easiest to get to but offer the least privacy. Sites along the Manitou River offer more privacy but are a bit more physically demanding to get to. But that’s a small price to pay to spend a long weekend camping next to a waterfall. Not every river campsite features waterfalls of course. But they are all lovely nonetheless. There’s even a campsite with sweeping views of Lake Superior—a perfect spot to watch the sunrise.

I covered backpacking in Minnesota State Parks in detail in another article you can access here. As it pertains to George Crosby Manitou, be prepared before you leave home. Download a map and plan your route before you enter the park because it’s unlikely you’ll have phone service. Make sure you allow yourself enough daylight to get to your site. Some of these trails are quite challenging as I’ve mentioned—even for experienced hikers. Depending on your experience and the trail, it could take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour to hike one mile.

Finally, be sure to pack out everything you pack in. There is no trash service or campground hosts to clean up after campers. It’s always a good idea to get your party together before your trip to review the seven principles of Leave No Trace. You can learn more here.

Final thoughts about George Crosby Manitou

When the day of our departure arrived, we took our time, savoring our morning coffee, reading, and enjoying our tiny slice of paradise. We slowly packed up and were on the trail by late morning. The hike out was more arduous than the hike in. We had to stop a couple of times to catch our breath and laughed about how much more difficult it was than our hike in a few days earlier.

Once we made our way out of the steep volcanic canyon, we made good time and were back at the parking lot in less than an hour. As we approached the bench at the end of the trail, I noticed that someone had left delightful wood carvings—presumably gifts to park visitors. At another trailhead, the same gifted artist had left hand-carved walking sticks. We admired their work, grateful to share this space with such talented, generous, and kind-hearted humans.

George Crosby Manitou State Park is always full of surprises.

Whether visiting for the day or a week-long camping trip, the magic of this place will lure you back again and again. And if we all do our part to leave it better than we found it, future generations will be singing its praises for centuries to come. In a world where everything feels over-developed and technologized, hidden gems like George Crosby Manitou State Park are truly priceless.

Holly Scherer is a Minnesota-based writer, photographer, outdoorswoman, and guide. She’s most at home in the great outdoors; camping, hiking, paddling, cycling, and gardening. When she’s not on an adventure, she and her husband live in the Twin Cities where they’re fond of saying, “home is where we store our outdoor gear.”

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