Minnesota's Tiniest Towns Are Full of Big Surprises
By Brian Fanelli
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Like rainbow sprinkles on a cold scoop of vanilla, Minnesota’s small towns are both abundant and delightful. From well-known small towns like Ely, Pipestone and Nisswa, to the truly tiny towns highlighted below, there’s nothing quite like exploring a small Minnesota town with family, friends or even solo.
If there’s one presiding truth about vacation, it’s this: The worse your cell phone service, the better your mood. As your signal fades into nothing more than a distant memory, you’re free to bask in the simple pleasures found in your destinations of choice—in this case, Minnesota’s smallest towns.
Dorset (Pop. 22)
There are plenty of contenders for the world’s finest food cities—we happen to think Minneapolis and St. Paul can hang with the best of them—but according to Dorset’s 22 passionate residents and four restaurants, none can hold a candle to this tiny, self-proclaimed “Restaurant Capital of the World.” As in many Minnesota tourist destinations, a paved bike trail helps pull visitors away from the highway and into town. In Dorset’s case, the Heartland State Trail, which opened in 1977, is a constant source of hungry visitors.
The town has also made national news for its unorthodox mayoral elections. At the annual Taste of Dorset festival, visitors can spend $1 to enter the mayoral lottery with hopes of winning the coveted (and completely symbolic) “Mayor of Dorset” title. Previous winners have included Bobby Tufts, who served two terms as mayor at ages 3 and 4, and his little brother, James, who served just one term at age 3.
Whalan (Pop. 63)
Located on the banks of the Root River in the heart of Minnesota’s bluff country, the tiny town of Whalan is a dream come true for cyclists, pie enthusiasts, disc-golfers and all other aspiring relaxation experts. Whalan is perhaps most famous for the Aroma Pie Shop, whose “bluebarb pie”—a combination of blueberry and rhubarb—was named one of “America’s Best Pies” by Travel + Leisure magazine in 2010.
But Aroma is hardly the only standout in town. Work up your appetite for pie with a bike ride on the 42-mile Root River Trail, a mostly flat paved trail that meanders beside the river and connects Whalan with a handful of equally charming (but slightly larger) trail towns. Or come for the annual Stand Still Parade, where the parade doesn’t move—the spectators do!
Vining (Pop. 78)
Some towns are so tiny that all it takes is one unfortunately timed sneeze and you’ve missed them. But it’s nearly impossible to miss Vining despite its small size—just watch for the giant metal sculptures! Half an hour east of Fergus Falls, the massive metal sculptures at Nyberg Sculpture Park have helped transform this quiet central Minnesota town into a popular and unique tourist attraction. The man behind the metal, Ken Nyberg, has been crafting metal sculptures for almost 30 years and has work on display across the region.
In addition to a giant watermelon—an homage to the town’s annual Watermelon Day—Nyberg Park features about 10 other sculptures, including a giant coffee cup, an elephant made entirely out of lawnmower blades and an infamous "big foot" sculpture you need to see to believe.
Mendota (Pop. 211)
Found at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers—an area known to the Dakota people who originally inhabited this land as “Bdote Mni Sota”—Mendota is both a deeply sacred and painful place. It is sacred because for many Dakota people, Bdote is regarded as their site of creation and a place of great importance, joy and history; it is painful because of the area’s later use as a mass internment camp at Fort Snelling after the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. Visit the adjacent, 3,711-acre Fort Snelling State Park to see the wood and brick Dakota Memorial that serves as a somber reminder of this violent chapter of Minnesota history and as a testament to the ongoing resilience of the Dakota people.
Though Mendota offers a more introspective experience than some of the state's more jubilant small towns do, it remains an excellent place to take a family hike, respectfully commune with nature or delve into Minnesota history.
Tofte (Pop. 226)
As one of the many small, unincorporated communities dotting the North Shore, Tofte is proof that small towns can offer big adventures. It’s a popular jumping-off point for adventurers of all stripes: from people traversing the Superior Hiking Trail to “bikepackers” heading into the vast Superior National Forest and kayakers paddling through the beautiful sea caves found on the shore. Whether you’re an experienced adventurer or a complete newbie, the experts at Sawtooth Outfitters can give you route advice, set you up with equipment rentals and even offer guided kayak tours. After your big adventure, stop by the Waves of Lake Superior Spa at Bluefin Bay for a relaxing bookend to your trip. You’ve earned it.
Brian Fanelli is a writer and editor for Explore Minnesota. When he isn't writing about life in The North, you'll find him browsing the sci-fi shelves in a local bookstore, biking one of Minnesota's spectacular trails or walking his Chihuahua around Minneapolis.
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