Did you know that Minnesota is considered a “destination” and we are so very fortunate to have so many wonderful things to do and explore right in our own backyard? A few hours of planning can make a wonderful adventure a reality, whether you have one day or a week or even longer. Be sure to pick a few destinations so you can make hotel or camping reservations and look at maps to help with route planning. Most map programs will allow you to choose between highways or secondary roads and don’t forget that when you get off the highway, “Minnesota Nice” becomes a great resource as the people you meet are usually happy to steer you toward food, drink or entertainment.
Consider all the choices around the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers and towns along the way. Geology buffs will appreciate the glacial potholes at Taylors Falls Interstate Park. These mysterious, incredibly round holes vary in depth and are believed to be remnants from glacial retreat. Located on the bluffs above the St. Croix, this park offers interesting trails and priceless views of the river and the paddleboats. Warning: if you have difficulty with stairs or hills you should keep to the upper level and be sure to have a park pass as they are serious about patrolling the parking lot.
For art aficionados, about 15 minutes from Taylors Falls is the Franconia Sculpture Garden. Formed as a rebuttal to the success of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, sculptor John Hock began this garden to display out-of-the-ordinary designs by local artists. The displays are set up in a whimsical fashion so that many of the pieces seem to appear in front of you with little warning. There is a giant playground-like structure in the center of the park that children are encouraged to climb in, on and explore. The center offers special days with music and fundraising for various groups. Note: bring lots of water and avoid hot days as there is little shade.
Farther south in Red Wing, nationally known because of the iconic shoe and boot company and its famous Irish Setter Boot, the city commissioned local artists to produce four-foot tall decorated boots that are now located around town. There are also numerous mosaic benches scattered around the downtown area that celebrate all things local such as bald eagles, flowers and grasses. To celebrate its centennial, the Red Wing Shoe Company stitched together the world’s largest boot, a great photo op!
The Minnesota Marine Art Museum houses all kinds of art, each piece inspired by water. The artists range from Audubon to members of the Hudson Valley School to impressionists such as Monet, Renoir and Degas, to Picasso, Chagall and other modern artists to Washington Crossing the Delaware. Contemporary works, Minnesota artists and special exhibits make this museum a must see. If you have only one day, a visit to this museum to wander the informative exhibits and soak in the culture should be at the top of your list. There is also a lovely tree-lined patio where a visitor can relax and watch the push-boats at work moving barges up and down the river.
Speaking of water, there are a number of opportunities for riverboat excursions along the way. A lunch cruise on an authentic 1880’s era paddleboat includes a two-hour round trip and provides wonderful views of both sides of the river, bridges and marinas. The St. Croix Boat & Packet in Stillwater also offers private charters for a group event.
History buffs will enjoy a drive through the historic portions of Stillwater to look at homes and enjoy the view while speculating on what it must have been like when the homes were first built and horses were the source of transportation on the steep streets. Or walk along the historic district and shop at one of the myriad choice locations.
Lanesboro is another historic town that has many restored buildings and festivals with many choices for walking or biking to enjoy lovely scenery and shops. Other road signs designated the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Highway and leads one to stop in Spring Valley, another lesser known habitation of the Wilder family and where Almanzo met Laura and Rose was born in 1886. The museum is located in a former Methodist Church and contains reams of information about local history and the Wilder family.
Are you interested in alternate adult beverages? On the north side of Stillwater, a local gem is Thor’s Hard Cider at Aamodt’s Apple Farm, next door to Saint Croix Vineyards. They have 12 hard ciders available for tasting, so you can sample two “full flights” of six small glasses each. Food offerings include a fabulous charcuterie platter served on a log slice and homemade apple brats. Outdoor dog-friendly seating offers a shady spot for you to relax, and they frequently offer musical evenings and other special events. Unusual flavors and names are the order of the day. Voted a fan favorite was El Thoro, with hints of jalapeno, lime and cilantro, sort of like a jalapeno infused margarita. Other top choices included Nordic Press (aged over coffee beans), the Rhubarbarian, Artic Rose, Ginger and one reminiscent of an Arnold Palmer with hints of tea and lemonade.
Before you leave home do some research. The Great River Road is a designated National Scenic Byway that runs along both sides of the Mississippi River from its headwaters at Lake Itasca State Park all the way to Venice, LA south of New Orleans. There are 70 designated interpretive centers along the route on both sides of the river located in museums, welcome centers, historic sites and parks with loads of ideas for places to explore. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website provides ideas for camping, hiking, fishing and other outdoor activities. The Explore Minnesota website lists festivals, happenings and musical events from all over the state.
Remember, you don’t have to spend a lot of time or money to have a great vacation practically right in your own backyard!