There’s a popular piece of trivia that says that Minnesota, ostensibly due to 10,000+ lakes, has more shoreline than California. Sometimes, the ante is upped and Minnesota is claimed to have more shoreline than California, Florida, and Hawaii combined. Other times, it’s simply “Minnesota has more than 90,000 miles of shoreline.”
According to Explore Minnesota Tourism, who used the “more shoreline than California” line in a 2011 television ad, it’s a “commonly-used statistic that was researched and compiled at least 20 years ago by a former advertising agency.” But despite how ubiquitous the factoid has become , there’s no definitive proof that it’s true. So: does Minnesota have more shoreline than California? Let’s find out.
First, let’s determine the total shoreline in Minnesota. There is no official source for the shoreline of each lake, so we’ll have to get creative. In 1968, the Minnesota Conservation Department published a report titled “An Inventory of Minnesota Lakes” (warning: 498 page PDF). This report included a summary of lakes by size:
We can use this as a starting point. Lake shorelines are irregular, and the further they deviate from being circular, the more shoreline there is for a given area. But if we assume each lake is a perfect circle, then we can calculate the minimum possible lake shoreline in the state:
|Minimum Lake Size, in Acres||Minimum Lake Size, in Square Feet||Number of Lakes||Minimum Circumference of Each Lake, in Feet||Minimum shoreline length for this set of lakes, in feet|
|Total Shoreline, in feet||88,732,822|
|Total Shoreline, in miles||16,805|
16,800 miles is the minimum possible shoreline, given lakes of those sizes.
If we had the exact acreage of each lake, we could get a better estimate. Fortunately, that same 1968 report also contains the acreage of each lake! Unfortunately, it’s a PDF of a typewritten document from 45 years ago, and OCR efforts to digitize the table failed. Fortunately, the good folks at the Minnesota DNR provided me with a CSV containing the name of every lake in Minnesota and its last-surveyed acreage! Thanks, DNR! (The spreadsheet with lake sizes is available here.)
Now that we know the exact surface area of each lake, we can do the same “perfect circle” calculations and find that the newest minimum shoreline length is 22,384 miles.
We’re getting closer, but it would be great to not have to rely on the crutch of assuming circular lakes. Isn’t there some way that we can get access to lake dimensions? It’s our lucky day, because the spreadsheet provided by the DNR actually included shoreline measurements. When I said there was no official source for the shoreline of each lake, I fooled you!
According to the DNR, Minnesota has 44,926 miles of lakeshore. (Spreadsheet with data here.) That’s a lot of shoreline, but is it more than California’s?
I’ve been unable to find a California DNR resource as helpful as Minnesota’s, so we’ll have to take another approach. Where else can we get geographical data about lakes? OpenStreetMap to the rescue!
OpenStreetMap is like Wikipedia for maps, and a service called Geofabrik provides downloads of OpenStreetMap data on a state-by-state basis. (Here’s Minnesota.) The download is an XML file containing all of the information needed to map a given state. Fortunately, we can use a tool called osmfilter to filter the XML file and give us a much smaller file with just the water features.
I wrote a program to parse that file and measure the shoreline of each lake. When I ran my program on the Minnesota data and compared the results to the DNR-supplied data, I found it was off by about 10%:
DNR Shoreline Results compared to OpenStreetMap Shoreline Results
|Minnesota||44,926 miles||49,759 miles|
It’s mainly because OpenStreetMap includes the entire boundary of some lakes that are only partially in Minnesota. If I took some time, I could weed those out, but I’m satisfied that this data is close enough for my purposes.
California has 3,427 miles of ocean shoreline as (generously) calculated by NOAA , and according to OpenStreetMap, it has an additional 32,050 miles of lakeshore. That’s a total of 35,477 miles of ocean and lake shoreline.
California Shoreline vs. Minnesota Shoreline
So yes, Minnesota does have more shoreline than California.
Raising the Stakes
Can Minnesota beat California and Hawaii? Hawaii is practically all shoreline, but because it is so small, it only has 1,052 miles of ocean shoreline  and 229 miles of lakeshore. Add that to California’s total, and even at 36,758 miles, it still doesn’t top Minnesota.
California and Hawaii Shoreline vs. Minnesota Shoreline
|CA + HI||4,479||32,279||36,758|
So yes, Minnesota does have more shoreline than California and Hawaii combined.
Let’s add Florida to the mix. Florida has 8,436 miles of ocean shoreline , and according to OpenStreetMap, it has another 22,236 miles of lakeshore. That’s a lot of shoreline, and it increases the tri-state total to 67,430 miles, more than Minnesota.
California, Florida, and Hawaii Shoreline vs. Minnesota Shoreline
|CA + HI + FL||12,915||54,515||67,430|
So no, Minnesota does not have more shoreline than California, Hawaii, and Florida combined.
Or does it? We’ve only been considering lakes and oceans, but Minnesota has an additional 69,200 miles of natural rivers and streams , both of which have shoreline on each side. That’s an extra 138,400 miles of shoreline, giving Minnesota a grand total of 183,326 miles of shoreline. That’s a lot of shoreline!
Rivers and Streams
According to Wikipedia, Hawaii has about 360 streams , the longest of which is 28 miles. Even if we assume they are all 28 miles, that gives Hawaii an additional 10,080 miles of shoreline. (I know it’s bad form to cite Wikipedia, but I think we can agree it’s good enough for this case. And look at that advantage I’m giving Hawaii!)
The Florida Public Service Commission states that Florida has “11,000 miles of rivers, streams & waterways.” 
California, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, has 29,664 miles of streams and rivers. .
California, Hawaii, and Florida Shoreline vs. Minnesota Shoreline, including Rivers
|CA + HI + FL||12,915||54,515||101,488||168,918|
California, Hawaii, and Florida combine for an additional 101,488 miles of river shoreline, bringing their grand total to 168,918 miles, which, if you recall, is less than Minnesota’s total of 183,326 miles.
So yes, Minnesota DOES have more shoreline than California, Hawaii, and Florida combined, but only if you consider rivers and streams.
51 comments on “Does Minnesota really have more shoreline than California?”
Keep me in your loop!
This is a very interesting article! Great work hunting down the data! Thanks!
Great analysis. When you assumed the perfect circle lakes, I was thinking you could probably just double the number for the actual shoreline. Then you found a more accurate number and that assumption would have been close enough!
One question though – did you add in Lake Superior shoreline? Or remove the shoreline for that particular lake in your numbers? That’s the only lake that probably needs special handling. The other cross state-line-lakes are insignificant (well, maybe Lake of the Woods too).
I didn’t manually modify any of the Minnesota DNR data for my final calculations. I don’t believe it included Lake Superior at all, because it classified it as “not in Minnesota”, but I consider it a wash, because it’s offset by the shoreline of rivers that straddle two states, like the lower half of the Mississippi.
In the grand scheme, those rivers and lakes all only total a couple hundred miles out of the ~180,000 that Minnesota has.
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what about islands within rivers and lakes?
The DNR report DOES contain the Lake Superior shoreline. Row # 5,664 in the Google spreadsheet.
Great, great work, by the way! I had heard about the piece of trivia long ago and today was the first day I just searched for some proof, and landed here.
You’re right, I don’t know how I missed that. Thanks!
How does Minnesota compare to Michigan, the Great Lakes State? I’ve been told that Michigan has more coastline than all eastern and western states have combined of oceanic coastline. Is this true?
I checked the facts after a debate over this exact topic. According to Michigan.gov, “Michigan’s shoreline, at 3,288 miles is ‘more than any other state except Alaska.’” Quoted from the World Book Encyclopedia 2000.
This does not count inland lakes, rivers, etc…just Great Lakes/Ocean shoreline. 3,288 miles doesn’t even come close to the numbers posted in the articles above.
Michigan may have more shoreline when you add in all those other things – but this is apples/oranges (or maybe oranges/tangerines) to what the article was addressing.
what about Alaska?
Hi I am a Minnesotan and if we add up all the minnesota shoreline that may be bigger than Alaskas shoreline (not with Florida California and Hawaii) please respond
Oklahoma has approximately 55,646 miles of shoreline along lakes and ponds and an additional (approximately) 167,600 miles of rivers/streams (x2 as it has that much shoreline on each side). That gives it 390,846 miles of shoreline (counting rivers and streams). Thats more than California, Hawaii, Florida, AND Minnesota combined!
Hey, let’s not turn this into a “which state has the most shoreline” contest…
Just joining in the fun and tossing around some trivia.
Not quite so sure…you have to include a lot of seasonal water to get close.
How about the states with the most shoreline in which the shoreline is bordered by boundary waters with another state or Canada, such as occurs in the Great Lakes. . .
Or, in which the state’s shoreline is bordered by territorial waters bordering international waters, such as the occurs with the Atlantic Ocean(including Gulf of Mexico), Pacific Ocean or Arctic Ocean(in the case of Alaska).
In other words let’s not include shoreline which is interior to a state’s borders.
Christopher , this is a good read and thanks for making all this data available. Now I have somewhere to brag to my friends in Texas who always claim they have more of everything. :)
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Not including the Great lakes shoreline you have 7,148 lakes in Michigan. (http://www.expertgps.com/data/mi/lakes.asp) There are 51,438 miles of rivers and streams. Start adding the off shore islands in the Great Lakes and the numbers go up fast.
In seventh grade Civics we learned that Michigan had 11,036 inland lakes. Minnesota boasts only 10,000 lakes.
Minnesota only *boasts* 10,000, but it has another 1,842 lakes recognized by the DNR. It wouldn’t be polite to boast about all of them.
And MI kicks all their asses…at least in the lower 48.
To Cali: Minnesota doesn’t consider anything under 10 acres a lake. A pond maybe, but we don’t consider ponds either otherwise there’d probably be double the number of “lakes”.
Oklahoma claims to have over 55,000 miles of shoreline dure to lakes and ponds. It also contains several rivers and borders on The Red River. Is it possible Oklahoma has more shoreline than Minnesota?
These comparisons leave out stream/creek shoreline; California has a lot of streams and creeks.
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But due to the fractal nature of coasts the shorter your minimum unit of measurement the longer the coast-line, such that some would argue that all coastlines are infinitely long, making comparison impossible (this sounds cool but ignores a lot of practical issues). I would just want to be sure we are using a common smallest measure for all those different coasts and I think that is a big issue comparing a small lake coastline to an ocean coastline.
Just thinking about it I would think that Alaska probably has the most coastline of any state, if BC can have 10% of Canada’s coastline with its little bit of Pacific real estate, the coast around there is very wrinkled.
Doing a web search suggests Alaskan Ocean coast (including Islands etc.) at over 47000 miles (more than the coastline of all Minnesota’s lakes) and given it apparently has lots and lots of inland water (2 million lakes above 20 acres in size), I would guess the lake coastline would be very large also as would rivers. So I suspect it beats out Minnesota on these measures….
Wow what an intriguing read. Got it done while my wife bought 3 pair of pants. Kept me from complaining about waiting. She was not interested in the topic. She just wanted to know if the pants were too tight…got thinking about another trivia topic…perhaps another day.
Nice little bit of trivia. Thanks for your persistence in gathering info.
How about a state with actual shoreline by quality of said shoreline? I’ll take a California shoreline over any shoreline in Minnesota any day if the week.
Any day of the week? Even Saturday?
The quality of MN beaches is very good actually and the good people at Wallethub would disagree with you…
Nothing at all against CA. I’d rather be there 4 out of 7 days a week myself.
I’m confused by the totals of Minnesota. Per the NOAA, the US shoreline is 95,471 miles!
The amount of shoreline that makes up the US geographical boundary is probably 95,471. The analysis done above however includes ALL oceans and lakes (and rivers and streams) within and bounded for MN, CA, HI, FL. Not just boundaries.
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OK, but I dare you to compare it to Michigan. :)
I know that Minnesota boasts of 10,000 lakes…..Have you looked into Michigan? Michigan has almost 65, 000 inland lakes. These, along with the Great Lakes shoreline brings Michigan to the state with the most shoreline (sans Alaska) with over 223,ooo miles of fresh water shoreline.
Michigan includes in their lake counts what Minnesota counts as ponds. With Minnesota’s criteria for what defines a lake (10 acres +) Michigan has 6500 compared to Minnesota’s > 11000. This isn’t to say Michigan doesn’t have a lot of water, just that definitions matter.
Also…not sure where the 65K you reference comes from. Per the Michigan DNR there are just over 35,000 bodies of water, including ponds, streams, etc.: http://geo.msu.edu/extra/geogmich/inland_lakes.html
I really like how you used OSM to help sort the data well done.
Any chance you could use the program you made to look up data on miles of rivers?
It has been published all over that Nebraska has the most miles of rivers then any other state, and being a resident there I just can’t believe it without some proof.
I thnk so, in theory, but in practice, I don’t have enough free time right now to find out.
Minnesota vs Alaska
states that borders the west coast includes HI vs states on the Mississippi (uh why does the name have to be so complicated)
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