10 great day trips from the Twin Cities
Within an hour's drive, you can cruise Lake Minnetonka, stroll on the St. Croix or climb a historic bluff.
As wonderful as Minneapolis and St. Paul are, sometimes you just have to get out of town.
Luckily, you only have to drive an hour or so to find a world of fun.
Minneapolis and St. Paul grew around the confluence of two rivers, and their favorite day-trip destinations are on rivers, too.
To the southeast, the port of Red Wing is curled into an elbow of the Mississippi.
To the east, Stillwater and its shops unfurl along the St. Croix, and there are more shops and restaurants across the river in Hudson.
To the north, Taylors Falls is a hub for hiking and paddling. To the south, historic Northfield straddles the Cannon River.
You can shop or stroll, cruise or catch a play. Here are 10 lovely little vacations that will take only a day.
And if you'd like to venture a little farther — say, up to two hours away — check out Lanesboro, Wabasha, Winona, New Ulm, Rochester, the Spicer-New London area, the towns of the Lake Wobegon Trail and Clear Lake, Iowa.
Red Wing / Boats and a famous view
Red Wing's picturesque setting on the Mississippi River has been inspiring comment for centuries; explorer Jonathan Carver called it "the most beautiful prospect that imagination can form."
He was standing atop Barn Bluff, a boxy mound that rises between Red Wing and the river. From its flat top, hikers can watch the traffic — barges, fishing boats, yachts, paddlewheelers.
That's the balcony of town; Bayfront Park is the front row. That's another good picnic spot and the center of action during River City Days the first weekend of August.
Many people know Red Wing for pottery, stoneware and a large stock of Victorian houses, built when the town was the nation's busiest grain-shipping center. The beautifully restored Sheldon, opened in 1904, was the nation's first publicly owned theater.
Get on Amtrak's Empire Builder at 7:50 p.m. in St. Paul and you'll have an even 12 hours to enjoy Red Wing.
It's 45 minutes southeast of St. Paul. And for more fabulous river views, see Mississippi panoramas.
Excelsior / Sightsee from a steamboat
This town on Lake Minnetonka first was frequented by wealthy tourists, then by the middle class, who arrived on the St. Paul & Minneapolis Suburban Electric Railway for a day of leisure.
Excelsior still is a small town, with bistros and boutiques occupying the brick storefronts of Water Street. Its Commons is the best public space on the lake, with a swimming beach, ball field and bandshell.
Nearby, sample craft beer on the patio of Excelsior Brewing.
Bicyclists will find it right off the the 15½-mile north corridor of the crushed-limestone Lake Minnetonka Regional Trail, which runs through Excelsior on its way from Hopkins to Victoria and Carver Park Reserve.
For nightlife, there are plays at the Old Log Theater, which specializes in slapstick comedies.
Watch for the resumption of cruises of the 1906 streetcar boat Minnehaha, which is looking for a new dock. Normally, it takes passengers on excursions around the lake, to free concerts in Wayzata and to see the mansions that line the shore.
It's 15-30 minutes southwest of Minneapolis.
Menomonie / A favorite bicycling destination
It's hard to beat the Red Cedar State Trail out of Menomonie, Wis. It's one of the best-maintained crushed-limestone trails in Wisconsin and also one of the most scenic; it would be rare to ride its 14½ miles without seeing an eagle, heron, hawk or wild turkey.
The trail ends in the Dunnville Wildlife Area, where the Red Cedar River runs into the bigger Chippewa.
But bicyclists can continue riding on the seal-coated Chippewa River State Trail, either 23½ miles east into Eau Claire or 6½ miles south into Durand. And if you're ambitious, you can bicycle AND paddle the river.
If there's time, visit three attractions along Wisconsin 25. The Eau Galle Cheese Factory is a mile and a half north of Durand, and the Caddie Woodlawn Home and Park, where the famous children's-books heroine lived, is just west of Dunnville (see The first American Girl ).
In Downsville, learn about the logging era at the Empire in Pine Lumber Museum.
To get to the Red Cedar, drive through Menomonie on Wisconsin 25 and turn west on Wisconsin 29. The trail starts on the west side of the river.
It's one hour east of St. Paul.
Northfield / Colleges and a famous crime
Northfield's quiet demeanor belies a fiesty past.
In 1876, it rebuffed Jesse James and the Younger Brothers when they tried to rob the First National Bank, sending the gang packing, minus two.
The economist who coined the term "conspicuous consumption" came from Northfield, and the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, champion of the little guy, taught a generation of students at Carleton College.
On the other side of town, St. Olaf College is world-renowned for its music program and offers free recitals and concerts to the public.
Browse in the shops on Division Street downtown. At the Northfield Historical Society Museum, learn about the infamous bank raid.
On the weekend after Labor Day, don't miss Defeat of Jesse James Days, especially the re-enactments.
It's 45 minutes south of the Twin Cities.
Lake Pepin / Eating and exploring
Since the first explorers came, saw and spread the word, Lake Pepin has been known for scenery. But these days, many people are going just to eat.
In Red Wing, pick up sandwiches to go at Wisteria Twig tea room on Old West Main and take it up to Barn Bluff for a picnic with a view.
At the north end of Lake City, the Pearl of the Lake paddlewheeler gives cruises on the lake.
Across the bridge in Wisconsin, the Nelson Cheese Factory always is worth a stop for its ice cream, imported delicacies and, now, a wine bar.
In Pepin, there's the very popular Harbor View Cafe (it doesn't take reservations).
In Maiden Rock, the Smiling Pelican Bakeshop is famous for pies, tortes, bread and cookies.
It's one hour southeast of the Twin Cities.
Stillwater / Cruising on the St. Croix
There's cruising of all kinds in Stillwater. Shoppers troll Main Street for bibelots and antiques; the Stillwater Trolley Co. prowls residential streets to give passengers glimpses of elaborately painted Victorians.
On the river, a gondolier rows folks up the St. Croix in a real Venetian gondola, providing song from a real Italian, Luciano Pavarotti, as well as picnic baskets full of goodies.
The paddlewheelers of the St. Croix Boat and Packet Co. also cruise the St. Croix from their moorings near the Dock Cafe.
Stillwater's streets become crowded with tourists on summer and fall weekends, so go early.
It's 30 minutes east of St. Paul.
Hudson / Shopping and strolling
In summer, this Wisconsin river town is a good place to stroll in the sun.
There's shopping in the historic downtown, with antiques at Abigail Page Antiques, art at Seasons on St. Croix, chocolates at Knoke's and gifts at La Rue Marche and Lavender Thymes, among many other shops.
From downtown, visitors can migrate a block down to Lakefront Park, which has a beach and playground, and walk out onto the 1913 Old Toll Bridge, which now reaches only partway over the St. Croix.
On Thursday evenings in summer, bands play in the park.
Afterward, stop for a bite at one of the cluster of restaurants on Second Street — the San Pedro Cafe, the Winzer Stube, Barker's Bar and Grill or Bricks, for pizza.
It's 30 minutes east of St. Paul.
Mantorville /Melodrama on the Zumbro River
Highbrow it's not. But the theater housed in the 1918 Opera House is as endearing as an old quilt.
Since 1973, the Mantorville Theater Company has been having a swell time putting on melodramas, some of them original, in this tiny village on the Zumbro River, 15 minutes west of Rochester.
Audiences are encouraged to boo the villains, who are always dastardly, and cheer the heroes, who are always true and strong.
The town, once a stagecoach stop on the route from the Mississippi to the western plains, is on the National Register of Historic Places, including the 1857 Hubbell House. The restaurant has been visited over the years by such celebrities as Gen. U.S. Grant and Mickey Mantle and still a popular dining destination.
It's 1¼ hours south of the Twin Cities.
Taylors Falls / Potholes and paddlewheelers
Along the St. Croix River, the last glacier left a playground for young and old alike.
On both the Minnesota and Wisconsin side, there's an Interstate State Park. Just south of downtown Taylors Falls, the Minnesota park includes a jumble of rock, jutting up in slabs and plunging down into potholes, drilled by swirling bits of glacial debris.
Kids love to explore it (but keep an eye on them). Their elders like to take a relaxing cruise on the paddlewheelers that leave from the park's edge, taking their passengers past the famous Dalles of the St. Croix.
In the Interstate State Park across the river, easily reached by walking across the bridge, the half-mile Pothole Trail marks the start of the 1,000-mile Ice Age National Scenic Trail.
It follows the top of the cliffs, so this is where you'll find spectacular views of the valley.
It's 45 minutes northeast of St. Paul.
But the Stower Seven Lakes State Trail, which starts in nearby Dresser, is much more scenic. For more, see Savoring the Seven Lakes.
Grantsburg / Paddling and wildlife-watching
Not far from the St. Croix River in northwest Wisconsin, native plants and animals have reclaimed wetlands and brush prairie once drained and used by settlers.
The land resisted taming, and today, the 30,000 acres of Crex Meadows Wildlife Area once again belong to osprey, otters, sandhill cranes, trumpeter swans and all kinds of migrating fowl.
Wildflowers bloom, wild rice flourishes and visitors are invited to come out and see nature at its most robust.
A self-guided 24-mile auto tour takes visitors through wetlands, lakes, prairie and sedge marsh, where the Crex Carpet Co. harvested grass for rugs from 1912 to 1933. Dawn and dusk are the best times to see wildlife.
Nearby, rent a canoe from Wild River Outfitters and paddle down the St. Croix.
There's also a great hiking trail just five miles west on Wisconsin 70, in Governor Knowles State Forest.
The trailhead for the Sandrock Cliffs Trail is right off the highway before it crosses the St. Croix River, and the bluff-top trail gives hikers views of the river as they walk through a fragrant forest of red and white pines.