Stretched along a ten-mile leg of the Kettle River in Minnesota, you’ll find the beautiful Banning State Park. It’s located near the city of Sandstone in Pine County and it offers a wide range of fun and activities for people of all ages. From swimming to rock climbing during the summer, and skiing to snowmobiling during the winter, you’ll find something to do all year long here. The kids will love fishing in the river so make sure to bring fishing gear in your motorhome.
The park’s centerpiece is about 1.5 miles of churning rapids, some of which are even rated as spine-tingling Class IIIs and IVs, that thrill-seekers from all around the country come to visit for a dose of adrenaline. In fact, the canoeists and kayakers that tackle the park’s rapids attract thousands of spectators who come to the park every spring to watch adventurers brave the whitewater.
For those who prefer to keep their feet a bit drier, they can enjoy a scenic hike along the park’s breathtaking sandstone formations, giant glacial potholes carved by ancient rivers, as well as the remnants of a historic Minnesotan quarry. Other features of Banning State Park include the Robinson Ice Cave and Wolf Creek Falls. Banning State Park is located in the General C. C. Andrews State Forest, so there is even more outdoor adventure to enjoy. The forest has 17 miles of hiking, a campground with 36 sites, a bike path, and, during the winter, you can enjoy skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling.
About an hour and a half north of Minneapolis, you’ll find the beautiful Banning State Park located just a few minutes off the interstate. It is easy to get to just off MN-23 from I-35 to the north and west, US-53 from the east, or MN-48 from the south. Duluth is less than an hour to the northeast where you can enjoy Lake Superior and the Superior National Forest.
No matter which way you come, as long as you stay on the main roads, you should have no trouble maneuvering whatever you are driving. However, during the winter months, it is best to call ahead and check road conditions because snow can close the roads sometimes. Keep your eyes open for wildlife that may cross the roads along the way.
Although the park has a maximum RV length limit of 50 feet, since some of the drive-in sites are in heavily wooded areas, it is advisable to contact the park first to see if they have enough room to accommodate your RV. On the other hand, smaller vehicles, as well as pedestrians and bikers, shouldn’t have any issues navigating in and around the park. However, any vehicles entering the park will need to purchase a vehicle permit at the entrance kiosk or park office.
The pet-friendly campground is open from April to November and offers 33 drive-in camping sites for RVers and campers. The drive-in sites are all in wooded areas, so campers get a real dose of privacy while enjoying all the park has to offer. The campground has an RV length limit of 50 feet and offers a picnic table, fire ring, and grill to cook on at each site. Eleven of the sites have electric hookups, and there are restrooms, water spigots, as well as a main office and gift shop where firewood and other supplies can be purchased.
Restaurants and groceries can also be found in the areas surrounding the park, including Sandstone, Askov, Banning Junction, and Finlayson, which are one to six miles from Banning State Park. The campground itself is on the small side, but this can be a good thing. While it means that reservations are highly recommended, it also means the site is likely to be quieter. And thanks to lots of trees and undergrowth in the campground, the sites here are very private. Reservations can be made up to nine months in advance.
Located along Stanton Lake in General Andrews State Forest, Willow River Campground has 36 spacious campsites, with 16 of these along the water’s edge. Each of the sites has a large cleared space, a picnic table, and a fire ring with a grill for cooking. Although there are no utilities offered here, the camp does have four vault toilets and three water spigots with potable water. The length limit for RVs and trailers is 50 feet.
The sites at Willow River are first-come, first-served only so you will want to get here early, especially if your visit will be on a weekend or holiday. With only 36 sites, they definitely fill up fast. Nearby, you will find a paved boat ramp and access to the Willow River Flowage. Two of the sites are ADA-accessible and, all of them are pet-friendly. The campground is just up I-35 about 15 minutes but is still owned and operated by Banning State Park.
The camp has one camper cabin on-site that you can reserve if you are thinking of doing something different on this trip as long as you did not bring a furbaby with you. Located in the southwestern corner of the Banning State Park Campground, the cozy log cabin sleeps up to five people, is ADA-accessible, and is about 275 feet from the ADA-accessible restrooms. The showers are also accessible and are about 700 feet away. The cabin does not have electricity, water, or a porch, but it does have two bunks, one with a full-sized bed and one twin and the other with two twins. Cooking can be done out front on the campfire grill, and there is a picnic table outside as well.
In addition, Willow River has a group campsite set aside in the southeastern corner of the campground. This is a tent-only site that can accommodate up to 50 guests with picnic tables, fire rings, and large cleared areas for playing frisbee, volleyball, or just sitting around the fire. The group site can be reserved by calling the park. Pets are welcome as long as they are restrained and supervised during your visit.
If you have an all-terrain vehicle or off-road vehicle and want to get out on the trails, you will be glad to know that roads in the nearby General C. C. Andrews State Forest are open to ATVs. They also have several miles of ATV trails throughout the middle of the forest where you can zip along and through the woods and along the Willow River. Check the hiking maps to find the right trails and roads that can be used for all-terrain and off-road vehicles. Be sure to follow all the state park rules on ATV riding as well as practicing proper trail etiquette.
The park’s centerpiece is about a mile and a half of swirling rapids that thrill-seekers from across the country come to conquer. Boaters can find two carry-in spots as well as boat ramps. Even for those who prefer to stay dry, it’s exhilarating to watch the thrill-seekers make their courageous descents through the rapids. Banning State Park offers kayaking and rafting in the springtime at Blueberry Slide, Dragon’s Tooth, Mother’s Delight, Little Banning, and the notorious Hell’s Gate.
The Robinson Ice Cave, located in the bluffs between Sandstone and Wolf Creek Falls, is a 200-foot deep cave. The cave’s entrance is gated off to protect the several species of bats that inhabit it. And, although the cave isn’t open to the public, it’s just one of the many impressive geological formations found in the park. All questions related to when and where to climb should be directed towards the park’s head office.
Banning State Park offers several hiking trails, the most intense of which is the Wolf Creek Trail, which is a solid four-mile loop of mostly steep terrain leading up the stunning Wolf Creek Falls. Or, try the two-mile Quarry Loop Trail to hike through an abandoned quarry and watch brave paddlers tackle the Hell’s Gate Rapids. If you want even more challenging backpacking trips, head to the General C. C. Andrews State Forest, which you can drive to or hike from the connected Willard Munger Trail.
What better way is there to enjoy nature than by watching it in its natural habitat? Banning State Park has plenty of wildlife that visitors can come and watch for. In fact, the park is home to over 180 species of birds, as well as an abundance of common mammals such as black bears, white-tailed deer, coyotes, foxes, beavers, hares, and raccoons. Overall, the park has a total of 184 species of birds, 34 species of mammals, and 17 species of amphibians.
Even when the weather is cold and there’s too much snow on the ground to get out and hike, you can still enjoy Banning’s stunning scenery by visiting the park on snowshoes. For this, you might want to stick to the park’s flatter trails such as the Quarry Loop Trail or the Big Spring Falls Trail. If you did not bring any snowshoes, you can sometimes rent them from the park or a nearby outfitter.