Downtown main street Park Rapids

5 Minnesota Small Towns that are Big on Family Fun

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Downtown main street Park Rapids / Lisa McClintick
Family Fun // List

5 Minnesota Small Towns that are Big on Family Fun

Just as Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes extend across all regions of the state, so too does its charm.

While the Twin Cities get plenty of attention for their globally renowned food scenes and performing arts centers, small towns nestled throughout Minnesota each deliver their own distinctly delightful offerings for the whole family. Boasting everything from outdoor recreation to shopping and local eats, here are five inviting Minnesota small towns to consider visiting this fall.

  1. Explore the Mighty Mississippi’s Headwaters in Park Rapids
    kids crossing the mississippi headwaters itasca state park

    Kids crossing the Mississippi Headwaters at Itasca State Park

    Explore the Mighty Mississippi’s Headwaters in Park Rapids

    The most fun-to-spell river in the world has to start somewhere, and that somewhere is just 20 short miles from the picturesque town of Park Rapids. Surrounded by lakes and dense forest, the town of 4,000 boasts a vibrant Main Street, packed with cafes and independent shops, as well as a walkable waterfront. Browse The Tin Ceiling for vintage North Woods curiosities and stop by Minnesoda Fountain for a retro malt shop experience (or try their curbside pickup or takeout). North of town, you’ll find the sprawling Itasca State Park where the Mighty Mississippi River begins. Your gang can even hop across rocks to stand in the exact spot where the lake flows into the river. Pitch a tent at one of the park’s more than 220 campsites or reserve a rustic log cabin. 

  2. Go Hiking in Lake Country in Perham
    Sunrise on Big Pine Lake near Perham

    Sunrise on Big Pine Lake near Perham

    Go Hiking in Lake Country in Perham

    On the western side of the state lies a small town gem that’s rich in lakes even for the state famous for its abundance of them. Perham is the starting point for the Otter Trail Scenic Byway, a 150-mile loop connecting more than 1,000 pristine lakes that are punctuated by wetlands with trails and historical sites sprinkled throughout. On the southern end from the loop, Inspiration Peak in the Leaf Hills is a can’t-miss stop. Rising 400 feet above the surrounding dappled countryside, your gang will take in sweeping views of lakes and wildlife, as well as prairies and forests in all their autumnal glory. As you continue on the byway, keep an eye out for large wildlife sculptures along the roadside. When you return to Perham, check out local favorite Brew Ales & Eats, a cozy restaurant and pub with a spacious beer garden and inventive takes on comfort food classics. Cap the day off with a sunset stroll around Little Pine Lake. 

  3. Relax Into North Woods Charm in Grand Rapids
    Chippewa National Forest fall colors

    Fall is fantastic in the Chippewa National Forest

    Relax Into North Woods Charm in Grand Rapids

    With the Mississippi River running right through the middle of town and more than a thousand lakes within a short drive, Grand Rapids is loaded with opportunities for recreation. Positioned at the gateway to Chippewa National Forest, the town is a popular hub for hiking, biking and fishing. Rent a kayak or canoe at Paddle Hoppers and get the lay of the land—err, water—with a guided tour of the Mississippi’s many coves and bends. Save energy for exploring the area’s diverse terrain on two wheels. Rent mountain bikes from Itasca Sports, then ride the historic Simpson Creek Trail. The 13-mile route follows century-old roads that roll alongside lakes and glaciated ridges. For a hearty local lunch, order a variety of pasties (think: hearty meat hand pies with all sorts of tasty fillings) from Pasties Plus and enjoy a picnic on the nearby riverfront.

  4. Shakopee: One Foot in the City, One Foot in the Outdoors
    Bike trail Minnesota River Valley in Bloomington

    Fall biking in the Minnesota River Valley

    Shakopee: One Foot in the City, One Foot in the Outdoors

    Looking for small-town vibes without straying far from the city? Shakopee, just 30 minutes from the Twin Cities, has what you’re looking for. Head over to the Minnesota River Bottoms for some exciting singletrack mountain biking along the 27-mile Minnesota Valley State Trail. Once you’ve worked up an appetite, swing by Mr. Pig Stuff, a much-loved roadside BBQ joint that’s family-friendly and beyond filling. While a Shakopee visit could be all fun and games, don’t miss the enriching historical offerings. Along the Minnesota River, The Landing is a living history museum featuring costumed interpreters who transport visitors to what life was like in the Minnesota River Valley during the 1800s.

  5. Fill Up on Food History in Quaint and Quiet Austin
    Greetings from Austin mural

    Take a selfie with the "Greetings from Austin" mural outside the Spam Museum / Jessica Brouillette

    Fill Up on Food History in Quaint and Quiet Austin

    There’s a four-letter word that’s synonymous with Austin—but don’t worry, it’s rated G. We’re talking about SPAM, of course. The town is home to the iconic product, its company headquarters, North America’s largest SPAM factory, and most exciting of all, the SPAM Museum. For health and safety reasons, the museum is taking special precautions like temperature checks and asking visitors to wear face coverings. Give them a ring or check their website before your visit for the latest information. After feasting on the history of the oft-misunderstood tinned meat, stop by the Tendermaid for one of their signature loose meat burgers. The checkered tablecloth diner (complete with outdoor seating) has been loved by locals for more than 80 years. Austin also boasts plenty of space for the kiddos to let off steam, with 28 city parks and 13 miles of bike trails that wind through the surrounding lakes and rivers.

    With endless lakes, fall foliage galore, space to roam wild and free and enough attractions to fill an epic road trip, Minnesota deserves a spot on your family’s autumn bucket list. Start plotting your trip today—memories are waiting to be made!