Now that my kids are both pretty much grown-up, I thought I’d share with all my friends who still have little ones some of my favorite trips that are close by and won‘t break the bank. Partially, I am just feeling nostalgic.
1. Lanesboro/Harmony: I am not one to go to the same place over and over again, but I definitely made an exception here. I took my niece Keisha with us once, and Arianna’s best friend Qahlia with us once. We stayed at Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park the first time, and then at a small family-owned campground nearby the other times where my kids called the woman who owned it “Grandma Doris” (Maple Springs Campground). Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park in of itself is a great place to explore. It has both a cave and a historic “town” with people dressed up in time period clothing, which the girls have always loved. Then there is the town of Lanesboro itself with B&Bs, a community theater, restaurants, the Root River for tubing (we never went tubing as they were little and I did not feel comfortable yet with their swimming abilities in a moving river), and the Root River Trail for walking and biking. They have a community pool and a really nice farmer’s market on Saturdays, which is mostly filled with Amish families selling fruits, veggies, quilts, and other homemade goods. We did take a tour out to some Amish farms as well. We also headed down to Harmony to go to Niagara Cave which is a privately-owned cave.
2. Lake Okoboji/Arnold’s Park: This is the type of place I can picture my mom in the 50’s or Grandma in the 30’s going to on vacation. It is small resorts, campgrounds, and an old-school amusement park right on the water. There was a mini-golf place, lots of ice cream, lots of random little places to explore. We went to the Iowa Great Lakes Maritime Museum, we swam in the lake, went on a glass bottom boat ride, and of course went to Arnold’s Park Amusement Park. Do not expect Disney or Cedar Point level amusement, but if you just want to relax, unwind, and have a fun family weekend I highly recommend!
3. New Ulm: New Ulm is also a place we went to more than once when the kids were little. I like the town layout, with a Center Street and then 1st street North, 2nd street North, 3rd Street North, etc. to the North of Center and 1st Street South, 2nd Street South, etc. to the South which makes navigating the town super easy. The town is very German, we went to the Glockenspiel Clock performance, we tried to go to Kaiserhoff Restaurant which looks super cool but was closed because it is family-owned, and they were on vacation. We climbed to the top of the Hermann the German statute. The one time we stayed at Flanndrau State Park which is a very “urban” park right in town with a great little beach. Outside of town is the Harkin Store which is a historic little general store. This was back when we were members of the MN Historical Society so we always went to any and all historic sites we possibly could (I HIGHLY recommend being Historical Society members, especially if you have kids. They have so many great sites, museums, events, etc.) We also took a trip to Fort Ridgely State Park the one time we went here and that was a great place to visit as well. They do have several vineyards and breweries in the area as well if you do an adult trip and, from what I’ve heard, a great Oktoberfest.
4. The North Shore: Seriously pick any state park or any lakeside resort and you will have a blast. Please, go further north than Gooseberry Falls, the entire North Shore is worth exploring. We took my mom camping for the first time for her 60th birthday at Judge C.R. Magney State Park and she fell in love and started going camping in Grand Marais either solo or with other grand kids. I could draft an entire article on this, but if for some crazy reason you have never been beyond Duluth there is an entire, magical world beyond that. Split Rock Lighthouse, hiking in Tettegouche State Park, Illgen Falls, Temperance River State Park, the chair lift at Lutsen even if you don’t ski (and great music at Lutsen as well), Cascade River State Park with easy to access waterfalls and a hike to a mountain lookout, and the Devil’s Kettle which is quite a hike but worth it and still a natural mystery (they have no idea where the water in the Kettle drains to).
5. Custer State Park: Not nearly as close or as cheap and I think requires a 1-week minimum. But if you are going to go to the Black Hills, I highly recommend Custer State Park!!! It is not like any of our state parks, it is more comparable to a National Park but even better than some of those. If you stay in Custer State Park you have to drive the Needles Highway at least once. It is faster to take other roads most of the time, but you have to take Needles Highway at least once. I have also hiked to the top of Harney Peak, since renamed Black Elk Peak, twice. The last time was with my two girls and my ex-boyfriend’s daughter and accomplishing it together, just us 4 girls, was pretty spectacular. I think we took the Sylvan Lake Route up, but I am not 100% sure. Within the park we stayed in the Blue Bell Campground in a camper cabin on the edge of the campground. We had a buffalo that liked to roam the campground that was nicknamed “Fred the Friendly Buffalo” – but stay away from buffalo, they are wild and can get to you faster than you would think. There were stables near our campground, there are historic lodges throughout the park. I really want to go back someday for the annual Buffalo Roundup. Since Custer is south of Rapid City, we pretty much explored all things South, so we did not go up to Sturgis, Deadwood, or Spearfish. But we did go to Keystone, Hot Springs (Evan’s Plunge, Wooly Mammoth site), Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave National Park, and a chuck wagon show at Fort Hays (a site used during filming of Dances with Wolves). We did check out Mt. Rushmore one day, I don’t’ recall doing anything actually IN Rapid City. On the way there we stopped at Badlands National Park which is gorgeous, but Emma gave me a heart attack getting too close to some deep drop-offs. You also have to watch-out for rattlesnakes here, although the girls ended up being disappointed that we did not see any. If you have already seen most of the touristy stuff out there, Custer State Park could just be a vacation in of itself, you would not necessarily HAVE to leave the park. https://fullsuitcase.com/custer-state-park/