Water thunders over St. Cloud’s dam, harnessing the power of the Mississippi River while also flowing toward one of its most serene, scenic and accessible stretches to explore. Here, on the city’s south side with St. Cloud State University along the shore, the river burbles and calms, flowing in and around approximately 30 wooded Beaver Islands that polka-dot a two-mile stretch.
Kayakers, stand-up paddleboarders and a few boaters seeking smallmouth bass can access the river just below the dam and often feel like they have the Mississippi all to themselves. Except for the occasional airplane or whistle of a train, the feeling of being in a city slips away as geese with goslings honk from shore and a trio of deer splash along the riverbank.
Outfitters provide equipment and even guides for the laid-back 13-mile stretch from St. Cloud’s dam to Clearwater—a section that’s also designated as wild and scenic by the state.
Besides its location along the Great River, the St. Cloud area’s also known as Granite Country. Rocky outcroppings throughout the region have been quarried for more than 130 years, providing red and speckled black-and-white granite that graces buildings and monuments across the country.
Best bet for rock-solid fun? It's got to be Quarry Park and Nature Area (pictured above), with 684 acres in the adjacent city of Waite Park. Hiking trails loop past close to 20 former quarries that have filled in with spring water, creating peaceful pools that reflect surrounding rocks walls and piles of granite chunks. The quarry areas are ideal for a romantic picnic, trout fishing, scuba diving and rock climbing.
If you hear whoops and big splashes, you’ve reached the park’s summer hot spot—Melrose Deep 7—where swimmers and a few daredevils launch themselves off rock ledges and into the super-chilled water of this unique 112-feet-deep swimming hole.
A few minutes away, the Stearns History Museum offers quick lessons in granite with a re-created two-story quarry operation among its exhibits. The gift shop offers granite souvenirs and books that highlight the area’s German-Catholic roots. Among its early settlers were Benedictine monks and nuns who established the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University, which exhibits hand-scribed, illuminated pages from the world-renowned St. John’s Bible in its Hill Museum & Manuscript Library.
EXPLORE HISTORIC DISTRICTS
History and recreation blend with a stroll around Lake George, St. Cloud’s new concert venue and gathering place, with downtown as the backdrop. You can see St. Mary’s Cathedral inspired by an Italian basilica, Stearns County’s iconic yellow courthouse dome, concerts and plays lit up on the 1921 Paramount Theatre marquee and Victorian-era buildings where you can find cafes, boutiques, a spacious bookstore and plenty of nightlife.
From downtown, the Mississippi River flows past the historic homes and St. Cloud State University’s campus on a high bank above the river until it reaches the dam. Don’t miss crossing University Bridge to the east side, which is anchored by the vibrant, elegant—and free—Munsinger Clemens Gardens.
A trail parallels the shore and leads from the gardens to Riverside Park, where you can disc golf on oak-canopied hills, let kids run through the playground and playful splash pad, throw in a fishing line below the dam, or simply sit back and take in the beauty of the mighty river making its way across America.
Lisa Meyers McClintick is a prolific travel writer for outlets including USA Today, Midwest Living, the Star Tribune and her website lisamcclintick.com. A mom of three, she especially enjoys family travel, hands-on learning vacations, local food and farms, living history and outdoor adventures.
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