Woman hiking along red leaves on Hallaway Hill

5 Things to Do in Central Minnesota

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Hiking Hallaway Hill near Pelican Rapids / Micah Kvidt

5 Things to Do in Central Minnesota

By Ashlea Halpern

Migratory birds aren’t the only ones flocking to Central Minnesota. Beyond its array of protected nature reserves, the area is known for world-class golfing, dazzling flower gardens, incredible fall hiking and some of the Upper Midwest’s most exhilarating mountain biking trails.

Here are five suggestions for making the most of the state's heartland....

Mountain biker, Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area

Hugging the curves at Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area

1. Shred the red 

The north-central Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area is on the bucket list of many mountain bikers — and with good reason: It boasts more than 50 miles of single track trail riding. Ranked a silver-level Ride Center by the International Mountain Bicycling Association, the dirt trails are spread over 800 acres and target a variety of skill levels. Beginner runs are suitable for families and novice cyclists with gentle gradients of 0 to 5%, while expert trails are packed with technical switchbacks, white-knuckle jumps and bone-jangling terrain with gradients of 15% or more.

Adventurers come here from spring through fall to “shred the red,” a nod to the iron-rich soil that cakes their tires an inch thick, and return in winter armed with fat bikes. (If you don’t have your own, you can always rent a set of wheels from Red Raven Bike Café in Crosby or Cykel in Ironton.) Some routes — like Miner’s Mountain Rally Center or the Croft and Sagamore trailheads — are plowed in winter, so hardy fat bikers share the course with snowshoers and cross-country skiers. Consider that testament to the views: With or without a bike, the overlook at Miner’s Mountain is a jaw-dropper.

Flowers at Munsinger Gardens

A patch of pink flowers at Munsinger Gardens / Andrew Parks

2. Stop and smell the flowers 

Located on the Mississippi River, opposite St. Cloud State University, the enchanting Munsinger Clemens Gardens bloom with more than 150,000 annuals and perennials. Visitors stroll through 14 acres of flower-lined brick pathways beneath a shady canopy of Scotch and Norway pines. The meandering trails were constructed by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s and refurbished 50 years later. Clemens, by contrast, was built in the ‘90s and features six classical European designs with all-American flora.

The centerpiece of the seven-acre escape is the rose garden — an impressionist palette of beautiful hybrid tea, floribunda, grandiflora, mini and shrub roses. A monochromatic white garden, inspired by the all-white grounds at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, England, is another feast for the eyes, as are the all-yellow, -blue, -red, and -purple plantings surrounding the Bridgerton-worthy trelliage garden with its 24-foot central dome. A Renaissance-style fountain decorated with cranes is one of the tallest in the state — and the most idyllic place to take a break.

The gardens are open spring through fall, and the Munsinger Clemens Botanical Society hosts special events throughout the year, including a beloved Music in the Gardens concert series.

Nyberg Sculpture Park, Vining

Nyberg Sculpture Park / Kvidt Creative

3. Leaf peep along a scenic byway and look at surreal roadside sculptures

In a state known for its lakes, the fact that Otter Tail County can lay claim to 1,048 bodies of water — more than any other county in the United States — is no small brag.

One of the best ways to experience them is along the Otter Trail Scenic Byway. The 150-mile drive loops past two state parks, fantastical roadside sculptures (Nyberg Sculpture Park in Vining) and one of the tastiest breakfast joints in Minnesota (that’d be Nootzi’s on Main in Dent, where the ooey-gooey caramel rolls are the size of Frisbees).

The heritage fishery at Glendalough State Park draws anglers in search of crappie, walleye and bass; everyone else can rent a canoe, kayak paddleboat or stand-up paddleboard from the park to make their way around Annie Battle Lake.

The Prairie Wetlands Learning Center in Fergus Falls

The Prairie Wetlands Learning Center portion of the North Country National Scenic Trail  

For an explosion of fall colors, make your way up Hallaway Hill in Maplewood State Park; the summit rewards hikers with sweeping views of Lida Lake and crimson-colored woodlands. Another fine autumnal lookout is 1,750-foot Inspiration Peak, just west of Urbank, which earned its name when Sinclair Lewis declared it a place of “enchanted peace and seclusion.”

Flatter terrain awaits at the 330-acre Prairie Wetlands Learning Center in Fergus Falls, where nature photographers will drain their camera batteries wandering 3.5 miles of trails, and nearby Grotto Lake in Adams Park, home to a bustling egret rookery and the 15-foot-tall Otto the Otter statue.

Madden's on Gull Lake

Aerial View of Madden’s on Gull Lake / Brad Thornberg

4. Sharpen your golf swing 

The biggest golf magazines in America have raved about the 450 holes and 20-plus top-ranked courses scattered throughout the Brainerd Lakes Area. The best architects in the game — Joel Goldstrand, Dye Designs, etc. — have left their mark here.

Among the most acclaimed courses are the Classic at Madden’s Resort on Gull Lake, which Golfweek named one of Minnesota’s best public offerings thanks to its forced carries and tree-flanked fairways, and the two Robert Trent Jones, Jr.-designed Legacy courses at Cragun’s Resort.

The Dutch Legacy plays around an Audubon International Signature Sanctuary and blends par 3s, 4s and 5s with a minimum five tees per hole, earning it a rare five-star rating by Golf Digest. Deacon’s Lodge, the Arnold Palmer-designed par 72 championship course at Breezy Point Resort, was ranked third in the state by Golfweek. You’ll understand why when you get an eyeful of its manicured greens and dramatically contoured fairways dotted with sparkling lakes.

Not exactly the next Patty Berg or Lee Janzen? The region is also home to 20 disc golf courses with no tee-time reservations or greens fees required.

Sandhill cranes at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge in Zimmerman

Sandhill cranes at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge in Zimmerman / Mark Nicholson

5. Experience birding bliss

The sheer variety of habitats found throughout Central Minnesota make it a birder’s paradise. With oak savannah, forest, sedge meadow and marshland, Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge in Zimmerman has been designated as an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society. Head there in October to see thousands of sandhill cranes converging on the refuge’s marshes.

In spring and summer, the Pigeon Lake Important Bird Area in Dassel presents ideal conditions for nesting waterbirds such as egrets, herons, cormorants and pelicans. (The scenic overlook off Highway 15 is the best spot to observe them.)

Cliff jumping off rocks at Quarry Park

Go cliff jumping into the pristine, water-filled quarries at Quarry Park near St. Cloud / Paul Vincent

For a glimpse of majestic bald eagles, elegant trumpeter swans and dozens of other fowl, look no further than the 760-acre Long Lake Conservation Center in Palisade — the northwoods bosom of Aitkin County and home to some of the darkest skies in the state (get excited, stargazers!).

And don’t miss Quarry Park and Nature Preserve in Waite Park, a 683-acre sanctuary with sandy beaches and miles of trails winding through open prairie, dense forest and 20 former granite-mining quarries. The area is popular with swimmers and cliff divers, but observant birdwatchers may be treated to the rare sighting of an Acadian flycatcher or red-shouldered hawk.

Ashlea Halpern

Ashlea Halpern is a contributing editor at Condé Nast Traveler and a writer for Dwell, New York Magazine, Bon Appétit, AFAR, Airbnb, Midwest Living, Artful Living, and Minnesota Monthly. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @ashleahalpern.