The Shape of Water: Five Surprising Minnesota Side Trips 

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During the pandemic, Americans stayed home in historic numbers. Car insurers sent us refunds because we cut our driving miles in half, a cataclysmic shift that Bob Pishue of the INRIX analytics company stated had not been seen since the onset of travel reporting.

I was no different. Whether it was shopping, exercise or getting out into nature, my orbit was close to home. And as I began to venture out into the great outdoors again, I found that much had changed during my COVID hibernation. In fact, I stumbled onto five exciting adventures to some of Minnesota’s most refreshing destinations.  

Minneapolis’ Newest Park Delivers Rare James Beard Award Winner and Explosive Views

One of the attractions I missed was the grand opening of the city’s newest park, the Water Works, an intriguing public space and long-awaited expansion of the Mill Ruins Park near 1st Street and Central Avenue. The modern brick and stone pavilion features panoramic views of the river and one of Minnesota’s first Beard Award-winning restaurants – Owámni by The Sioux Chef. Their Indigenous, creative menu of fish, game and corn dishes is one-of-a kind.

The pavilion’s second story pours onto a mezzanine lawn while the lower patio and its fire pits draw in lazy walkers with tantalizing views of the riverfront. The Water Works is an excellent jumping off point for a stunning rendezvous with Minneapolis history and spectacular views of the St. Anthony Falls — that propelled the city to national prominence. The careful excavation of the Water Works site uncovered stone walls dating back to the Occidental, Bassett and Columbia mills of the late 1800s (see photo).

From the patio, I can hear the rumble of the falls. The landmark Gold Medal Flour sign and the Pillsbury A Mill tower over the river like silent sentinels of the city’s halcyon flour-milling past. By heading southeast on the spacious bike and walking path toward the Stone Arch Bridge, I am rewarded with the money shot—a head on view of the falls. After a week of rain, the wide torrent is so violent that I can feel and taste the river spray misting around me. And I learned there is nothing more tranquil that to grab a bench and listen to the crashing falls for a minute or even thirty.

The goal of my educational hike is the Pillsbury A Mill which at one point was the largest flour mill in the world. The seven-story limestone monolith was a modern marvel and one of five mills that John Pillsbury owned along St. Anthony Falls. The success of his Pillsbury Company enabled him to amass a vast fortune and unlike many tycoons of the era, he became a key benefactor of charity and saved the University of Minnesota from bankruptcy.

My brisk walk to the Pillsbury A Mill and back (to the Water Works) yielded 1.4 miles and a truly memorable afternoon.

Hidden in Hastings

And while we are tracing the historic building blocks of the state, why stop there? We’re just a short 40-minute drive away from Vermillion Falls Park, a cozy Hastings retreat right around the corner from the hubbub of Highway 61. I have read many reviews by Minnesotans that said they lived in the area their whole life and never knew it was there.  

Parking is close and easy. As I walk toward the din, the sound is unlike other parks—a loud whirring drone. The Hastings Mill structure that soars above me is running and contains preserved sections of the first Minnesota flour mill, built in 1853. When I reach the first overlook, I am blown away by a fierce chaotic cascade pinched in tightly to the retaining walls of the mill. I never expected the Vermillion Falls to be this compact and explosive. The turbulent waters fall over 75 feet on their inexorable path to the Mississippi. You can feel the power of the falls and sense how Hastings was born from this natural wonder.

Boom Island Hub  

It seemed like just yesterday that Mississippi Paddle Share launched its innovative self-serve kayaking program in the Twin Cities. Now in its seventh year, the company launched a new route late last year—the Gorge Route. This relaxing 3-mile paddle traverses the river’s only gorge on its way from Boom Island Park to the Minneapolis Rowing Club on Lake Street.  

Executive Director of the Mississippi Park Connection Katie Nyberg said: “It’s just totally gorgeous. You go through a little bit of the U of M campus. There’s great wildlife. And it’s really central to many people who live in the Twin Cities.”

“Central’ is the watchword.  The new route presents a myriad of entertaining add-ons. There is a convenient Nice Ride bike kiosk near the Longfellow Grill at the end of the run (that can be used to bike back to your vehicle). Back at the Boom Island complex, its only few blocks to Prye’s Brewing Company. Its river side beer garden is a great spot to refuel with an award-winning craft beer, appetizers or a weekend concert.  

And along the way, I can’t help noticing that the Minneapolis Water Taxi docks on the Boom Island River bank. The innovative electric boats cruise from St. Anthony Falls through downtown Minneapolis and as far as the Lowry Avenue Bridge. At $80 for a one-hour tour, your group of 2-6 can absorb beautiful views of the city and even anchor at Psycho Suzi’s for one of their signature Polynesian drinks.

Ever-Changing Como Conservatory and Sunken Gardens

The Marjorie McNeely Como Conservatory was an effervescent elixir during the depths of COVID. Wandering through the palm trees, dense jungle fauna and bubbling fountains immediately transported me to a magical happy place. The intricate glass building is celebrating its 107th birthday. And it’s time to go back to see the completely restaged summer flower show! I like to take in the Conservatory and then wander the adjacent Como Zoo to get in a healthy 40-minute walk. And did I mention that both attractions are free?    

The Other Side of the Tracks in Mankato

Minutes from Mankato, the approach to Minneopa State Park underwhelms: an industrial park littered with fabricated warehouses and crowded by freight train traffic. Thankfully, Minneopa Falls is literally on the other side of the tracks.

Once inside the state park (fee required), the terrain changes dramatically. The flat paved path to the falls is surrounded by steep wooded hills that foreshadow an exciting change in the landscape. I am the only one in the park on a crisp spring morning and I don’t need directions. I follow the sound of the falls. When I reach the first overlook I am stunned by the fury of the dual falls and the precipitous drop over the railing. The upper and lower falls descent of 50 feet is the largest in southern Minnesota.

It’s an easy walk to the second overlook which lines up perfectly for photo taking. There is a cool mist wafting from the falls which is invigorating during warm weather.  This shady, refreshing oasis makes it hard to believe the park is carved into the farming landscape of southern Minnesota.

And the park is not a one trick pony. Every day (except Wednesday) you can drive right through the Bison enclosure, gaining unprecedented access to one of the only herds in the region and its recent baby bison boom.   

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About Author

Tony Randgaard

Retired after more than 20 years in marketing with United and Northwest Airlines, Tony has been published by the Star and Tribune, Minnesota Monthly, MinnPost, Minnesota Connected, Air Cargo News, The Forward, CNS Air Cargo Focus and the TC Daily Planet. As a result, he has been a regular guest on the CBS-Entercom Radio ‘Jordana Green Show’ in the Midwest. His cold case mystery novel Unpremeditated: A Murderous Caribbean Travelogue — is available now on Amazon.

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