If you’re a parent, it’s a good bet you’ve said it: “Get outside and play, already!” But let’s be honest. It’s not just the kids who could use a little fresh air. Good thing Minnesota’s full of fun, family-style outdoor opportunities for all styles and skill levels, from river paddling to cave exploring to techno treasure hunting. Go ahead. Pick an activity. Then take your own advice, and get out and play—together.
Ride a Bike
Minnesotans love biking, and it shows in our bike trail system. We’ve got somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000 paved trail miles sprinkled throughout the state. Plus, we lead the country in converting old railroad beds into paved bike trails, which are great for all ages, as they tend to be flat.
Among the many family-friendly rails-to-trails projects worth checking out are the Central Lakes State Trail near Alexandria and the Paul Bunyan State Trail near Brainerd (at 112 continuous paved miles, it’s one of the longest in the country). Another standout: the Root River State Trail, one of the state’s first rails-to-trails success stories, connecting a chain of adorable small towns in southeastern Minnesota near Lanesboro. “It was easy. Very flat, with no hills to go up,” reports Jeremy Ricker, age 7, of Minneapolis, who biked the trail with his dad, Dave, last year.“I liked the bridges and stopping to take breaks by the river.” For more info, order the Explore Minnesota Biking Guide or read it online.
Tour a Cave
Just how cool are southeastern Minnesota’s tourable caves—Niagara Cave, near Harmony, and Mystery Cave, near Preston? A chill 48 degrees, even mid-summer. A few other things you can count on here: fossil-spotting, marveling at water features and learning, first-hand, the difference between stalagmites and stalactites during guided tours.
The Packer family of Inver Grove Heights has hit both underground wonderlands in the last couple of years and found plenty of surprising discoveries. “At Mystery Cave, there was this small lake, and the water was blue and you could see the bottom,” says 12-year-old Monique, who explored with her younger brothers, Wyatt and Cody. “I didn’t expect it to be so clear.”
Visit a Farm
Classic red-and-white barns, cows grazing in wide-open pastures, tidy crop rows leading off into the horizon—all are familiar sights here in the heartland. Plenty of our family farms welcome curious visitors with a range of opportunities.
Tour a buffalo, yak or alpaca ranch. Pick raspberries, strawberries or blueberries. Feed the animals, weed the garden and sleep amid the country quiet at one of the state’s handful of farmstays. Or, simply wander farm grounds a bit before buying some farm-fresh goods. All levels of involvement are here for the harvesting. For more info, check out MinnesotaGrown.com.
Thousands of geocaches across the state help ease your little technophiles from navigating a gaming unit on the couch to a GPS (Global Positioning System) unit in the great outdoors. Think of it as a treasure hunt for modern-day explorers. Plug the coordinates into the GPS and off you go, in search of the hidden container, a.k.a. cache. Usually, it’s stocked with trinkets left by previous geocachers that you can trade out. Some are even trackable online.
Interested, but not ready to shell out for a GPS unit? Twenty-six state parks across the state offer free loaners to explore the two hundred-some caches within the parks system. That’s how the Edwards family of Hudson, Wisconsin, first geocached, at Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park. Seven-year-old Jack loved the hunt, while his mom, Sarah, enjoyed the view. “We got to experience a part of the park we wouldn’t normally see,” she said. “We’d do it again in a heartbeat.” For more info, check out the DNR geocaching website.
Take to a Trail
When it comes to trails, Minnesota is number one, and that’s no exaggeration. American Trails magazine declared it so, citing “thousands of miles of the best quality recreational trails in the country.”
With so many fabulous city-, county-, region- and state-run options, it’s a good chance there’s one nearby no matter where in Minnesota you are. Each delivers its own unique terrain and scenics. Two diverse options: the flat Chase Point Trail in Scenic State Park in northern Minnesota, just north of Grand Rapids, thick with loon calls and 200-year-old pines. And Great River Bluffs State Park near Winona in southeastern Minnesota, where little legs don’t have to work too hard for stunning Mississippi River Valley views. Find state trails at the DNR website.
Thousands of miles of rivers, plus Minnesota’s storied 10,000 lakes, equals canoeing opportunities galore. There’s no shortage of rental options, either. Over 30 state parks rent canoes, and the DNR also keeps a list of canoe and kayak outfitters on their website.
While rapids await the seasoned paddler, there are plenty of tamer trips for newbies and kids. Tackle family-friendly rapids on the Cannon River in southern Minnesota. Paddle Lake Itasca, the source of the Mississippi River, up north. Or, navigate the scenic St. Croix, as the Meisinger family of Eagan did last year. Despite not having canoed in years, Tom and Chris piled four children, ages 4 to 9, and a new puppy into two canoes rented at Interstate State Park. They stopped at a sand bar for a picnic lunch and swimming, and, by all accounts, had a blast. “You should do it because you get to see a lot of stuff, like rock walls and swirly water, and spend a lot of time with your family,” recommends Frank, age 8.
Stay at a Resort
Perhaps the quintessential Minnesota outdoor adventure is a string of days unfolding at one of our 850-plus resorts—most situated lakeside. Plenty cater to families with scheduled activities such as fishing clinics, sandcastle building contests, kickball games, scavenger hunts, s’mores sessions, bonfires and more.
Such customized family-friendly relaxation, as well as affordability and convenience, brings the Kegans family of Des Moines, Iowa, back to Minnesota resorts year after year. “Each of us is looking for something different from a vacation. Kelly wants to relax and read. I want to kayak and take pictures. And, like most kids, Evan wants to spend every minute in or on the water, swimming, fishing and boating,” dad Mark says. “Minnesota lake resorts keep us all happy.”
I Can! State Park Programs
Interested in family camping, but intimidated by all the expensive gear? Want to try rock-climbing with the kiddos, but nervous about your know-how? The Minnesota State Parks’ I Can Fish! programs take equipment, expense and skill worries out of the equation for would-be campers and rock climbers, as well as archers, anglers and paddlers. The host park provides the gear (or the bulk of it) and the patient professional. You and the family just show up. Programs take place across the state and are either free or low-cost.