MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

10 great day trips around the Twin Cities

Within an hour's drive, you can cruise Lake Minnetonka, stroll on the St. Croix or climb a historic bluff.

Barn Bluff frames Red Wing on the Mississippi.

© Beth Gauper

On a bend of the Mississippi River, Barn Bluff rises behind Red Wing.

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, 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 antiques: 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.

The Archer House in Northfield.

© Beth Gauper

In Northfield, the 1877 Archer House River Inn is the place to stay downtown.

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.

The 1906 streetcar boat Minnehaha once again is scooping up passengers and taking them on excursions around the lake, to free concerts in Wayzata and to see the mansions that line the shore.

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.

Go on the Fourth of July, when there's a free sunset concert by the Minnesota Orchestra and fireworks (but don't get caught in the traffic jam after the fireworks).

You can also see a play at the Old Log Theater, which specializes in slapstick comedies.

Or bicycle on the 15-mile north corridor of the crushed-limestone Southwest Regional LRT Trail, which runs through Excelsior on its way from Hopkins to Victoria and Carver Park Reserve.

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 14 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 23 miles east into Eau Claire or 6 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.

The entrance to Hudson's Lakefront Park.

© Beth Gauper

The 1936 Hudson arch draws visitors into Lakefront Park.

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.

Hike in Carleton's Arboretum, or "Arb,'' on the floodplain of the Cannon River, or at  nearby Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, famous for its displays of spring wildflowers.

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.

The steamboat Minnehaha on Lake Minnetonka.

© Beth Gauper

In Excelsior, the restored steamboat Minnehaha gives tours of Lake Minnetonka.

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 at Smokey Row Cafe and take it up to Barn Bluff for a picnic with a view.

In Lake City, Nosh has a view of the lake and marina. Next door, Rabbit's Bakery serves pastries and sandwiches. At the north end of town, 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 (it doesn't take reservations or credit cards).

Stockholm is tiny but overflows good things from the Stockholm Pie Company, Bogus Creek Cafe and Bakery and Stockholm General Store.

In Maiden Rock, the Smiling Pelican Bakeshop is famous for pies, tortes, bread and cookies.

It's one hour southeast of the Twin Cities.

A trail in Wisconsin's Interstate Park.

© Beth Gauper

In Interstate State Park in St. Croix Falls, the Pothole Trail follows the cliff top.

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.

Go on a Tuesday for Summer Tuesdays: Market, Music, Movies in Lowell Park on the river. Families with young children love the fanciful climbing equipment at Teddy Bear Park near downtown.

Stillwater's streets become crowded with tourists on summer weekends, so go early.

It's 30 minutes east of St. Paul.

The Pearl of the Lake cruise boat.

© Beth Gauper

From Lake City, the Pearl of the Lake paddlewheeler gives tours of Lake Pepin.

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 1 hours south of the Twin Cities.

Canoeing at Crex Meadows.

© Beth Gauper

At Crex Meadows in Grantsburg, paddlers see birds and wildflowers.

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.

Bicyclists have two trails to try. Wisconsin's Gandy Dancer State Trail heads north from the Polk County Information Center, at the foot of the park.

But the new Stower Seven Lakes State Trail, which starts in nearby Dresser, is much more scenic. For more, see Savoring the Seven Lakes

Eating ice cream in Stillwater.

© Beth Gauper

Tourists love to stroll and shop in downtown Stillwater.

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, visit Trade River Winery. 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.




Last updated on April 12, 2013

Sign up for our free weekly newsletter

Get our weekly stories, tips and updates delivered a day early — directly to your Inbox. Wondering what you'll get? Take a look at our newsletter archive.

* indicates required