Explore Minnesota by Train

By James Riemermann

Amtrak train in St Paul - Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority
Amtrak train in St Paul, photo courtesy of Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority

If you love adventure in comfort, visiting Minnesota by train might be for you. One of America’s most legendary and beautiful train rides—Amtrak’s Empire Builder—bisects the state from the scenic southeast corner to the fields and prairies of the northwest. The grand train follows the banks of the mighty Mississippi much of the way, with stops in a half-dozen Minnesota towns well worth exploring for a few days or longer.

Train travel, and particularly the Empire Builder, is about as comfortable as travel gets, with wide, reclining seats, plenty of legroom, freedom to walk the length of the train, and big windows for admiring the scenery. If you’re on the train during meal times, there are full-service meals in the dining car, or you can bring a picnic basket.

The train runs daily in both directions, with many of the Minnesota stops happening in the wee hours, shown below. That can work just fine as long as you back up your love of adventure with solid plans for transportation and lodging. A good first step is to contact visitors bureaus in towns you plan to visit along the route, also shown below.

Bicycle enthusiasts have a major advantage here. The Empire Builder recently installed bike racks in its luggage cars, reservable when you buy your tickets. That way you have the option of biking to your reserved lodging at any hour, whether that’s a few blocks or a few miles from the train station. Plus, all of the towns have lots of trails and options for recreational biking while you’re in town. (Make sure you have lights, reflectors and other safety equipment for your bike, doubly important if you’re arriving at night.)

Alternatively, with prior arrangements, most towns along the route have options for hotel shuttles to and from the train station, car rental nearby, or taxi service. Bike rentals are easy to come by; again, the visitors bureaus listed by each town below can fill you in on how to make those arrangements.

Detroit Lakes

Detroit Mountain Biking Trail - Justin Miller
Detroit Mountain Biking Trail, photo by Justin Miller

This is lake country, with hundreds of lakes and many lakeside fishing resorts, plus a popular sandy mile-long beach on a city park on Little Detroit Lake, right in town. Other popular parks nearby include Dunton Locks County Park with biking and hiking trails and picnic areas, and Sucker Creek Preserve, with more than a hundred acres of woods, prairie, swampland and a trout stream.

Miles of great mountain biking trails can be found at Detroit Mountain Recreation Area, 3 miles east of town, and Mountain View Recreation Area nearby. Summer festivals include the Street Faire at the Lakes with art, music and food, and the White Earth Reservation Celebration, both in June. The biggest event of the year is the Northwest Water Carnival in July, with 10 days of concerts, parades, beer, food and activity tents, games, sports, a water ski show, and all manner of celebration.

St. Cloud

clemens---munsinger-gardens---st-cloud_1293478_ty-miller_600x400.jpg
Clemens Munsinger Gardens, St. Cloud

St. Cloud is a thriving city on the Mississippi River, blessed with beautiful parks and gardens, arts and entertainment, historic attractions, and great shopping and restaurants. Just across the river across from St. Cloud State University, Munsinger Clemens Gardens is two gardens under one name, the first being 14 acres of flower-lined paths under tall pines, with a lily pond, fountain, greenhouses and more. The adjacent Clemens Gardens has six sections covering 7 acres with perennials, more than 1,000 rose plants, a long trellis, and one of the tallest outdoor fountains in Minnesota.

Beautiful spots for biking and hiking include the Beaver Island Trail, the 46-mile Lake Wobegon Trail, and the 684-acre Quarry Park and Nature Reserve, with dramatically deep granite pits filled with clear water, reminders of the area’s importance as one of the nation’s most productive sources of granite. The park features hiking trails, mountain bike routs, trout and bass fishing, and scuba diving sites.

St. Paul-Minneapolis

Historic Union Depot overlooks the Mississippi River in the Lowertown neighborhood of St. Paul, Minnesota’s capital city, where it serves as a ground transportation hub for the metro area and the state. Reopened as Amtrak’s Twin Cities station in 2014 after extensive renovations, the neoclassical building’s grand facade, concourse and waiting room are historically and architecturally impressive, earning a place on the National Register of Historic Places.

Right in front of the building is the eastern end of Metro Green Line light rail, running frequently between the downtowns of two vibrant cities, St. Paul and Minneapolis, and the homes of Minnesota’s two favorite baseball teams. On the St. Paul end is CHS Field, home to the beloved minor league St. Paul Saints, with home games running from May 15-Aug. 30; on the western end is Target Field, home to the Minnesota Twins, with home games running April 3-Oct. 1.

There’s plenty of comfortable, convenient lodging near both ends of the Green Line, as well as near the University of Minnesota campus, with fun, charming neighborhoods on the east and west banks of the Mississippi. Union Depot is also a hub for extensive local and intercity bus service, from Metro Transit going to all areas of the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, plus service to many Minnesota cities via Greyhound Lines, Jefferson Lines and Megabus.

Another option right in front of Union Depot is the Nice Ride bike-rental service, which has self-service kiosks where you can check bikes in and out at numerous locations throughout St. Paul and Minneapolis. The Twin Cities has been frequently ranked as one of the most bike-friendly metro areas in the nation, with countless trails and dedicated bike lanes.

Red Wing

Red Wing Boot
World's largest boot, Red Wing

Perhaps best known for the pottery and boots that bear the town’s name, Red Wing is also home to the classically historic St. James Hotel with 67 distinctly decorated rooms, plus many charming bed and breakfast inns and motels. Right in town, Barn Bluff offers a short but steep hike to some of Minnesota’s most magnificent views of the Mississippi River valley. Other recreational highlights include the 19.7-mile Cannon Valley Trail, great for bicycling, running from Red Wing to Cannon Falls; the beautiful Colvill Park on the riverbank, with a water park, one screened-in and several open-air picnic pavilions, a marina, and a walking trail.

Red Wing Stoneware, first opened in 1877, offers tours of the facility where they make classic Red Wing pottery, and a separately owned Pottery Museum in town has thousands of examples of Red Wing pots over the years. The Red Wing Shoe Company Museum, inside the large shoe store, features the world’s largest boot, and a variety of displays from the the company’s 110-plus years in business.

Popular festivals include the Prairie Island Indian Community Pow Wow on a weekend in early July; the Plein Air Art Festival in late June, and the Summer Celebration of the Arts in early July.

Winona

Orchestra in the Park at Lake Winona
Orchestra in the park at Lake Winona

The last Minnesota stop on the eastbound train, Winona is one of state’s most scenic river towns, nestled between high, lushly wooded limestone bluffs and a beautiful, island-studded stretch of the Mississippi. Parks include Garvin Heights with magnificent views of the town and river valley; Lake Winona with a 5.5-mile paved bike path around the lake; Levee Park and Prairie Island Park on the riverfront; and three fine Minnesota state parks within 25 miles of town.

 It’s a college town, which helps support a fine arts scene, including the renowned Minnesota Marine Art Museum with works by masters such as Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh and others. In June and July, the Great River Shakespeare Festival present  works by the Bard with concerts on the green, symposiums, conversations with the theater company, and more. Winona State University offers theater and music performances, as well as two art galleries: the Paul Watkins Gallery features national and regional artists; and the Weber Gallery features student work.

The summer’s biggest festival is Winona Steamboat Days in mid-June, with entertainment, food, concerts, crafts, parades and fireworks.