Where can you find blueberries, strawberries, chokecherries, pin cherries, raspberries, and thimbleberries growing wild? Cook County, Minnesota is your place! Berry picking is a fun afternoon adventure, and one of the best things to do with kids when you need to slow down for a while. Find, identify and pick wild berries — and just try to save a few for your favorite berry recipe.
June is the month for strawberries. Sweet, tiny, prolific – don’t miss out! Then comes July, with the middle two weeks typically being the best time to gather blueberries. In August, it’s time for chokecherries, pin cherries, raspberries and thimbleberries. When you’re here, just ask your hosts to point you in the right direction, then arm yourself with a pail and enjoy the sweet harvest.
Never eat anything you are unsure of. Always taste test one berry before you toss down a mouthful. Although berry picking is one of many great things to do with kids, NEVER let children pick berries unsupervised. They are more likely to make mistakes in identification and ingest berries they shouldn’t.
Blueberries are the forest fruit that people associate most often with canoe country, and they’re plentiful throughout the region. They like dry, well-drained, rocky soil with good sun and are often found under jack or red pine stands and in recent burns. The plants are a woody shrub, usually less than two feet tall and resemble miniature trees. Blueberries almost always grow in patches from a few individual plants to many square yards in size. If you find one plant, you’ll probably find more.
Next on the list for most folks is raspberries, which are also found throughout canoe country. They like disturbed soil and lots of sunshine. Recent burns and openings in the forest are likely places to look. Along portage trails and around the edge of campsites are good habitats, too.
Thimbleberry, also called salmonberry, is a close cousin to the raspberry. Look for the huge, maple-like leaves that are from 4-8 inches in diameter. The plants are almost always about three feet tall and very bushy. Earlier in the summer, thimbleberry has beautiful white flowers that are very similar to wild rose.
Wild strawberries are a passion for some and the best pickin’ patches are closely guarded secrets. They like well-drained soils and lots of sunshine. You’ll find them in forest openings, along portage trails and around some open campsites. The plants are very small, low to the ground and the berries like to hide beneath the leaves.
These are a few of the fruits and berries you are likely to encounter on your next trip to Cook County. There are many other berries and fruits in the forest – some edible, some not. It is always best to be sure of what you are eating and taste test even if you feel sure. Remember to be a good forest grazer and leave more than you take.
From July 22 – August 14, 2022, take any wild-picked blueberry to one of the many weigh station locations on the Gunflint Trail! The three biggest berries of the summer will receive CASH prizes and bragging rights to all of your friends. Happy picking!
Blueberries in the Gunflint Trail area tend to peak around late July or early August. Wild blueberries are easy to identify, looking much like the grocery store variety, only smaller. The plants are woody shrubs, usually less than two feet tall and resemble miniature trees. They grow best in dry, well drained, rocky soil with good sun and are often found in recent burn areas.
Blueberries will be measured by weight and must be picked fresh and not store bought. CASH prizes awarded to the 3 biggest berries. $100 to the first place winner, $50 to the second place winner, and $25 to the third place winner.
1st Place: Chris | .41 grams weighed at Gunflint Pines Resort and Campground 2nd Place: Mark | .38 grams weighed at Chik-Wauk Nature Center 3rd Place: Chloe | .37 grams weighed at Chik-Wauk Nature Center
2022 Weigh Stations
Weigh stations will be designated by large road signs at various resorts and locations along the Gunflint Trail.
Explore Minnesota: The northern lights have been lighting up the skies in Minnesota! This incredible natural phenomenon can be seen throughout Minnesota at various times of year. Have you witnessed the northern lights in Minnesota? Here’s how by Brian Fanelli!
A solar storm explosion near Grand Marais / Travis Novitsky
OUTDOOR ADVENTURES: As the name suggests, the northern lights become more pronounced the further north you go, and Minnesota’s location makes it one of the best states in the lower 48 to view them.
There’s a perfectly scientific explanation for the aurora borealis phenomenon (more commonly known as the northern lights), and we’ll get to that in a minute. But when you see it in person—weaving, flickering and pulsing across the night sky, lighting up the stars with its impossible river of greens, purples and reds—it just feels like magic. Like the universe is reaching out to you, personally, and waving hello.
One slightly less obvious reason why Minnesota is an incredible place to view the northern lights? Our abundance of inland lakes. Prolific northern lights photographer Travis Novitsky(opens in new window) explains: “My favorite spot is on the south shore of any inland lake in northeast Minnesota. Being on the south shore means you get a great view of the lights looking north over the lake (as their name implies, northern lights are often most visible in the northern part of the sky).”
Unlike other states that might have one or two ideal spots to view the northern lights, Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes offer borealis chasers a practically unlimited supply of unique spots to view and frame them.
Northern lights over a houseboat in Voyageurs National Park
Where to See the Northern Lights in Minnesota
The vast, open skies of northern Minnesota are ideal for viewing the northern lights. Undisturbed by the light pollution of Minnesota’s urban areas, natural darkness reigns as you venture into the northernmost reaches of the state. Here are a few of the best spots in northern Minnesota for catching the aurora borealis:
Voyageurs National Park is a newly certified International Dark Sky Park(opens in new window) offering expansive views of unpolluted skies from its waterways, where visitors can see impressive meteor showers and northern lights shows. More than a third of this remote 218,000 acre national park is covered in water and presents primetime night sky viewing.
Lake of the Woods and the Northwest Angle(opens in new window), where there is a panoramic view of the waters and forests by day and, sometimes, the Milky Way and northern lights by night. Separated from the rest of Minnesota by Lake of the Woods, the Northwest Angle is the northernmost point in the continental U.S.
Outside of northern Minnesota, other destinations across the state, remote and urban alike, provide ideal stargazing conditions:
In the mid– and southern parts of the state—including Park Rapids, St. Cloud, Stillwater, Lake City, Mankato and Rochester—locals can see constellations on any clear night, and these cities have been known to host an occasional northern lights display.
Just miles from downtown Minneapolis, Silverwood Park hosts after-dark events for visitors to explore and learn about the fascinating things that occur outside after the sun sets.
Northern lights over the Gunflint Trail / David Johnson
When to See Northern Lights
The early sunsets and long, star-filled nights of fall and winter make those seasons popular for northern lights trips, but despite what you may have heard, no one season is especially likely to result in a showing.
That doesn’t mean weather has no effect on light activity—in fact, northern lights can be predicted quite accurately by following weather conditions—just not the weather conditions here on Earth. What you want to follow is space weather, primarily the solar wind stream and solar flares of the sun.
According to the popular science website howstuffworks(opens in new window), aurora borealis occurs, “when highly charged electrons from the solar wind interact with elements in the Earth’s atmosphere. As the electrons enter the Earth’s upper atmosphere, they will encounter atoms of oxygen and nitrogen at altitudes of 20 to 200 miles above the Earth’s surface. The color of the aurora depends on which atom is struck, and the altitude of the meeting.”
Novitsky uses spaceweather.com(opens in new window) as his primary resource for “keeping watch” on northern lights activity. “If there’s a chance of activity, [the site] will tell you about it—sometimes as many as three or four days in advance. I check that website almost every day.”
Milky Way stargazing near Motley / Jordan Watke
Celestial Photography & Learning Vacations
Capturing an incredible photo of the northern lights is possible with most types of modern cameras—just make sure your camera allows for manual shutter speed control, because capturing a truly stunning shot requires an exposure of 10 to 30 seconds. That likely rules out the camera on your smartphone, but leaves most DSLR and mirrorless varieties in the mix, including many relatively inexpensive ones. Other than manual shutter speed, you’ll also need a sturdy tripod to keep your camera steady during those long, night sky exposures.
If you’re just starting out with night photography, there’s no better introduction than a photography workshop. Limited to 10 or fewer participants, these beginner-friendly learning vacations will guide you through the basics of night photography via a combination of classroom-based learning, shooting time and one-on-one instruction.
Novitsky also recommends picking up a book on night-time and low-light photography and giving it a good read. Once you’ve got a grasp of the basics, it’s just about practice, he says.
Of course, you won’t catch the northern lights every time you go out shooting, but you’ll find plenty of other, more common night sky photo ops in the North Star State. Rural Minnesota’s deep, dark skies are rich with celestial displays such as meteor showers, shooting stars, the Milky Way and star constellations.
To learn more about celestial displays such as the northern lights, and to share your enthusiasm with younger family members, there’s nothing better than a trip to one of Minnesota’s planetariums. Most planetariums offer regular public showings, and private group showings by appointment.
Northern lights in Minneopa State Park / @russ.man
Planning Your Northern Lights Trip
Planning a trip around the northern lights is easier said than done.
No matter how much planning goes into your trip, there is never a guarantee it will coincide with a celestial display. Maybe the cloud coverage will be too heavy, or the lights will be a little weak. Sometimes you’ll come away empty handed. Sometimes you’ll fail.
But, for many northern lights photographers, that’s part of the fun. Because when the solar wind blows just right, and the sky is clear, you’ll come face-to-face with a phenomenon that humans have been yearning to capture and understand ever since we first looked toward the stars: aurora borealis, the northern lights. There’s nothing quite like it, and no matter how much time you spend chasing the northern lights, it’s always worth it.
So start checking the space weather and cleaning your lenses, because it’s always northern lights season in Minnesota, and there’s never been a better time to go exploring.
Brian Fanelli is a writer and editor for Explore Minnesota. When he isn’t writing about life in The North, you’ll find him browsing the sci-fi shelves in a local bookstore, biking one of Minnesota’s spectacular trails or walking his Chihuahua around Minneapolis.