On a lovely day in fall, few places show off this region better than the St. Croix River Valley between Minnesota and Wisconsin.
The 52-mile stretch from Taylors Falls to the St. Croixs confluence with the Mississippi at Prescott has everything a tourist could want shops, historic houses, theaters, train excursions, boat cruises.
But mostly, it has scenery scenery I wanted to show my nieces Alissa and Livia, who had left Florida to start careers in the Twin Cities. As it turns out, the St. Croix looks awfully good to people raised in Florida.
Theres only one place in the Midwest where potholes are a tourist attraction instead of a nuisance.
Standing at the bottom of the 35-foot-deep Bake Oven, touching walls as smooth as vinyl, its easy to imagine the scene 10,000 years ago, when sheets of water from a melting glacier roared past Taylors Falls, into what now is the St. Croix River Valley.
They came with such fury that whirlpools laced with sand and gravel drilled cylindrical holes into solid rock potholes, the worlds deepest.
From the beginning, the St. Croix River has shaped Hudson's identity.
The first settlers came by canoe on the fur-trade highway. The first steamboat docked in 1847, and soon logs were floating down the St. Croix to sawmills in Hudson and its neighbor on the Minnesota side, Stillwater.
Hudson's 1913 toll bridge became a landmark on the St. Croix, fattening town coffers after the lumber boom ended. The bridge closed in 1951, but its raised bed still stretches partway over the river, giving residents and visitors a place to stroll on warm summer evenings.
After more than 150 years, this Minnesota river town's unrefined early days are history.
Once, legions of unkempt lumberjacks mobbed the streets of Stillwater, spending their wages at saloons and bordellos. Now, mobs of weekend tourists roam through town, sipping cappuccinos, sampling wine and shopping for gifts and antiques.
Stillwater has come a long way since the days when King Pine ruled. Reminders of the era are everywhere, however, in mills that now house antiques malls and splendid Victorian houses.
In western Wisconsin, St. Croix Falls has become a destination for people who want to go places.
It's the western terminus of the 1,000-mile Ice Age National Scenic Trail, which traces the last glacier as it began to melt and retreat northward, leaving a marvelously lumpy patchwork of rock, rubble and river gorges.
It's the southern trailhead of the 48-mile Gandy Dancer State Trail, a scenic crushed-limestone bicycle trail named for the rail workers who rhythmically swung pickaxes and hammers made by the Gandy Tool Co.
For some people, Interstate 35 may as well be a pneumatic tube linking the Twin Cities to Duluth and the North Shore.
But those willing to stop and get off the beaten track are rewarded.
In four state parks, skiers, snowshoers and snowmobilers glide along miles of trails on the St. Croix, Kettle and St. Louis rivers, once plied by lumberjacks and quarrymen.
In the middle of Minnesota's Wild River State Park, a skis length from 35 miles of groomed trails and a 10-minute trek from the St. Croix River, sits a cozy little house surrounded by forest.
For one winter night, the two-bedroom, carpeted house, a private residence built not long before the park was established in 1978, belonged to me and my children.
We arrived at dusk, and my children swarmed over it as only children can do, giving a running commentary: "Boy, this is a nice cabin, said my son Peter. "Wow, a nice shower. Isnt this great? And oh, look he peered out the window at a big thermometer "you can tell the temperature.
Walking around Lindström, it's not hard to guess where the area's first settlers came from.
If the multitude of umlauts don't give it away, the herds of Dala horses and straw goats will. Factor in the giant white coffee pot in the sky, and you can be pretty sure this is Swedish country.
In the 1850s, poor Swedes came pouring into the lakes country west of Taylors Falls. It wasn't the best farmland, but it was cheap, and it looked like Sweden lots of water, lots of trees and, unfortunately, lots of rocks.
Most people think bicyclists ride for exercise. But really, its for the ice-cream stop.
In western Wisconsin, the Stower Seven Lakes between Dresser and Amery, has everything youd want on a bicycle trail. Its got scenery. Its got beaches and picnic spots.
And in Amery, it has the soda fountain of your dreams. Just look for the place with all the people.
When spring is a tease and days are gray, only one sport always comes through: Shopping.
And where better to shop than Stillwater? The little village on the Minnesota side of the St. Croix River has a Main Street thats chockablock with antiques, books and bibelots from around the globe, filling every inch of storefronts once occupied by the blacksmiths and haberdashers and apothecaries of the logging era.
In summer, its streets are clogged with tourists, out to enjoy the riverside ambiance as well as the merchandise (See Summer in Stillwater).