SANDSTONE, Minn. -- When visitors to South Dakota drive past the Badlands in a hurry to get to the natural wonders of the Black Hills, they are making a travel mistake.

In the same vein, the myriad Minnesota travelers bound for the natural wonders of the North Shore who sail right past Exit 195 off Interstate 35, roughly an hour south of Duluth, have missed out on one of the true hidden gems.

Although these days, when the outdoors are more popular than ever as we emerge from the pandemic, there are fewer things hidden about Banning State Park, which is barely a mile off the freeway, but immerses visitors deep into the northern Minnesota wilderness within minutes of paying the $7 entrance fee.

“It used to be a kind of hidden gem, and now I feel that everyone has caught on,” said Clarissa Payne, the park manager at Banning. “Camping-wise, we’re full every weekend, and a lot of our electric (campsites) are full during the week.”

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Even if your final destination is the rocky outcrops and waterfalls and rapid rivers and secluded trails of the North Shore, Banning could serve as a kind of preview, with all of those features -- plus some fascinating man-made history -- in abundance.

“People come here for the waterfalls and the quarry loop, which is a self-guided trail along an old sandstone quarry,” Payne said.

The loop trail is less than two miles long, and relatively flat, as many of the trails are built atop former railroad grades established in the late 1800s. In contrast to the towering forest of hardwoods, as well as red and white pines that borders the rushing Kettle River, this region was devoid of trees for two decades, between 1892 and 1912, when an army of workers pulled the pinkish sandstone used to build such Twin Cities landmarks as Pillsbury Hall at the University of Minnesota and the downtown Minneapolis courthouse.

Over the course of 20 weeks this summer, we are introducing readers to a Minnesota state park each week. It is our look at the unique adventures available right here, in Minnesota's Backyard. Banning is the fifth park to be featured in our series.

In some spots at Banning, the evidence of the one-time quarry is obvious, as a few buildings and the foundations of others remain. Elsewhere, you would scarcely know that humans visited the area, as all you hear are the river’s waters rushing through rapids with names like Hell’s Gate and Dragon’s Tooth.

In addition to 20 miles of hiking trails, there is a paved spur that connects bicyclists to the Willard Munger State Trail, which is 70 miles long and runs from Hinckley to Duluth.

Second-best thing to do

The gorge torn through the region by the Kettle River is amazing to see from the trails up above. If you have the right gear and the right experience, there’s an even more thrilling view to be had from water level. Whitewater rafting and kayaking are increasingly popular, but they are definitely not for beginners.

“It’s just a whole different view than up on the rocks,” Payne said. “It’s Class III to Class V rapids (intermediate to expert), so you don’t want to be an amateur.”

Just a short drive away in Sandstone, guide services will take visitors on rafting trips down the river, for a thrilling and often soaking view of the park.