I would walk 125 miles, and I would bike 125 more

This year is the 125th anniversary of the Minnesota State Parks and Trails system, and they’re challenging Minnesotans to record 125 miles by hiking, biking, or boating. We are already participating in the state parks’ passport program (29 parks visited so far); why not add another goal or two?

It’s already April, so we decided it was time to get started and we headed to Afton, one of our nearest state parks, for our own kickoff. I admit that this has never been my favorite of the state parks, though we had been there many times in the three other seasons:

along the river's edge on a cloudy day
early summer three-hour hike – in the rain
the sun setting behind trees, with many sun rays streaking through clouds
late summer stargazing event, staying after the typical closing time to watch the sun go down and the stars come out
colorful trees in the distance, light brown grasses waving in the foreground
October hike through the autumn grasses with pretty trees in the background
red sumac berries in front of a blurred background of snow and brush
chilly hike on New Year’s Eve


I think I’m less-than-enthusiastic about Afton because we always seem to lose our way in the southeast corner, where the camper cabin driveway intersects the trail and it’s not clear where the hike should pick up again. I get frustrated and let that sour the rest of my experience.

Here’s an example: the map and the arrow show that the trail goes to the left, but a path clearly keeps going straight ahead. What trail is that?

signpost with a map at the top and a small arrow pointing left

This is not the only state park where I wish for better signs – Sibley also comes to mind. (Lebanon Hills Regional Park in Eagan sets the gold standard for trail markers, as far as I’m concerned.)

But we picked a trail that we hadn’t been on before – heading north along the St. Croix River, then west up the hill and back down to the parking lot.

The parking lots were full with hundreds of visitors who also decided to take advantage of the first really nice spring day.

wispy clouds in a bright blue sky, with a short foreground of grasses and trees in the distance

We took a “longcut” on a less-visited trail down through the woods, spying on a school of fish:

looking down into a murky stream with dozens of small fish

Then we rejoined the main trail and started up the first of three steep climbs.

a leaf-covered path at the left, a sign showing a steep incline and another sign forbidding horses

Two fallen trees along one of the paths:

a leafy, mossy path with two medium trees that have fallen from the left

The highest spot of our trip, a pasture at the top of a hill, where prairie restoration is in progress:

bright blue sky at the top half, light brown grasses at the bottom half, scattered leafless and pine trees at the intersection of land and sky

Leftover windmill and equipment from a long-ago farm:

the top of a windmill lying flat on the ground, with a plow in the background, both in a grassy lawn and marked off by boards on the ground

One of the trails took us right next to the bottom of a ski hill of nearby Afton Alps, which is still snowy but not ski-able:

empty chairlift ascending at the right, a big snow-covered bump at the left, with grass and more snow behind it

We even saw a butterfly! I worried about this days later, when the temperatures fell and it snowed again.

orange-and-brown comma butterfly on brown leaves at the edge of a dirt-and-rock path

And I must say that my perception of Afton is much improved after this lovely visit.

bright blue sky, light brown grasses, and four bare oak trees taking up most of the frame

This park gave us our first 4.1 miles toward 125 miles. We will try to get 125 miles by bike, too. And it would be fun to add some new stamps to our parks passport along the way. On my wish list: Lac qui Parle, Moose Lake, Glacial Lakes, Maplewood, Great River Bluffs, and Old Mill.


Date visited: April 3, 2016

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Monticello swans

wooden park sign with two swans, two cattails, and the words Swan Park

Swan Park is a small viewing area overlooking the Mississippi River in the middle of a neighborhood in Monticello. The water is relatively warm in this spot downstream from a nuclear power plant. We visited on Presidents Day, along with about two dozen other people, and we heard the sounds of the swans long before we saw them.

Trumpeter swans have made a terrific comeback in this area, thanks in part to the dedication of Sheila Lawrence. She was feeding ducks and geese in the mid-1980s when a few swans started showing up too, part of an effort by Hennepin County Parks (Three Rivers Park District) and the DNR to bring these native birds back from a Minnesota population of zero.

interpretive sign with Sheila Lawrence's story and a picture of her throwing corn to the swans

In an article for the Trumpeter Swan Society (PDF), she talked about seeing a tv report about a swan release: “I was amazed at such a sight and thought wouldn’t it be wonderful to work with those beautiful swans? You know the old saying, ‘Careful what you wish for, you just might get it.’ Little did I know then what fate had in store for me or just how much the Trumpeter Swans would change my life.” Now, about 2,000 swans reportedly visit Monticello every winter. Her husband has taken over feeding the swans since her death five years ago.

a man holding an orange bucket at the edge of the river, with dozens of swans watching him

A truck was there to refill the corn supply…

Munson Lake Nutrition truck and a man standing next to a large red bin

…which is carried down a pipe to the river’s edge.

thin pipe above a snow-covered lawn

There were some squabbles, but not as many as I thought we’d see for so many birds so close together.

31 swans, three of them flapping their wings, plus geese and mallards

Lots of wing-stretching.

closeup of one swan stretching in shallow water

Canada geese and mallards also take advantage of the free food.

a dozen mallards on the snowy shore, plus a mixture of geese and swans at the edge and in the water

I’ve always thought of Canada geese as really large birds – but compared to swans, they’re tiny.

wide photo of dozens of big white birds, plus many smaller darker birds

A pair of swans coming in for a landing:

two swans banking to the right a few feet above the river

straightening out and gliding a foot down

just touched the water and it looks like they're standing up

one swimming swan with a water trail behind it, and the other already lost in the crowd

We visited the park in the morning, on our way to Sauk Centre. At that point there were hundreds of each bird.

cloudy view downriver, with many birds

On the way back to the Cities, about four hours later, the sun had appeared but there were no more swans in the water, though some of the ducks were still around.

sunny view of the same spot, with ducks barely visible at the far right

We did spot several pairs and groups of swans flying in the area.

two swans flying against a pale blue sky

More information about Minnesota’s trumpeter swans

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Split Rock and Gooseberry in winter

Split Rock Lighthouse is said to be one of the most photographed spots in Minnesota, as well as one of the most photographed lighthouses in the U.S.

The lighthouse on the cliff from a spot to the south, with lots of trees on the rocks

Split Rock is a Minnesota State Park as well as a Minnesota Historical Society historic site.

The back side of the lighthouse, on the walk in from the parking lot

Two years ago, we decided to take a day trip to the North Shore. I had applied for a position with MNHS and with that organization on my mind, I wanted to see one of the historic sites that’s not in the Twin Cities – and it was a good excuse to add two stamps to our state parks passport. (And to visit Betty’s Pies on the way.)

Construction of Split Rock began in 1907 after several deadly shipwrecks on Lake Superior, including a late November 1905 storm that killed dozens and damaged or destroyed more than 20 ships. This map shows 29 wrecks.

Sign detailing the Gales of November and the wreck of the Madeira

The lighthouse itself is closed during the winter, so we didn’t get to climb up to the beacon, but we were able to get up-close outside…

Dark blue sky behind the beacon viewed from below

…and to see a beautiful, sunny view of Lake Superior.

The snowy shoreline south of the lighthouse

We left the lighthouse and started off on a very cold hike through the park.

Bare popple trees along a snowy foot path

Being January, the rocks were frozen and snow-covered, although the lake wasn’t iced over.

Rocks covered in snow covered in ice

And then we were treated to a gorgeous view of the lighthouse and the lake.

The lighthouse on the cliff, with the calm lake to the right

I was enchanted by this island to the south, with a pastel sky in the background as the sun went down.

A small island with lots of pine trees, close to the snow-covered shore

Now, switching back to the first park of the day, Gooseberry Falls, which was completely frozen over.

Looking up at the icy falls from immediately below, on the iced-over river

A view from the top of the falls, looking down:

Foreground disappears and the background is far below

The Highway 61 bridge over the Gooseberry River:

Steel arch bridge over a snow-covered river

Ice climbers:

Two people watching a climber who has just started

We didn’t stay long at this park, pretty as it was, because we wanted to leave plenty of time for Split Rock. Since then we stopped here once again but only as an afterthought and only for a quick hike out to see the unfrozen falls. Soon, we need to plan a real visit and explore the rest of this popular park.

Date visited: January 25, 2014

More photos

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Christmas decoration road trips

I love road trips in December because of the vintage Christmas decorations in small-town Minnesota. This year I took two trips just to see the lights – the first heading west along Highway 12 to Dassel, then north to 55 back to the Twin Cities (though it was too dark for pictures for the journey back), and the second south on 35 to Owatonna, back to Faribault, and then west to Waterville and New Prague. These were my favorites from the adventures (along with a couple extra photos from shorter trips).

My new favorite scene is in Montgomery, a city that celebrates its Czech heritage. These 3-D Christmas trees are paired with a blue banner that says “Peace” and “Joy” in both English and Czech.

tree decoration with a banner that says Pokoj Radost

The town also has two other styles:

garland and an antique streetlight, and a wreath with three red candles

Its neighbor, Lonsdale, has many design variations on the Season’s Greetings lights.

three drawings on white oval lights surrounded by garland

Antique street lights share a pole with the regular city spirit banners in Delano:

Share the Road with Bicycles banner next to a streetlight hanging from garland

Owatonna’s Central Park has trees in each corner, including a picturesque spot across from the historic National Farmers’ Bank:

tall tree with a gold tinsel star, in front of the historic bank, and a lightpole with garland and a wreath

Snowflakes in Northfield:

blue Welcome to Northfield banner next to a white snowflake

Simple wreaths in North St. Paul:

wreath on the left side of a lamppost with two lights

New Prague has candle wreaths like many other towns, and this jeweler added its own tree:

wreath on a utility pole next to Marquardt Jewelers sign with a tree made from green light strings

Grocery stores are painting their windows in New Prague…

painted words The Simple Joy of Food with painted cookies

…and Farmington:

painting of two elves and a skating snowman

Garland crossing the intersections in Cannon Falls:

four garland strands at the street corners, meeting at a wreath in the middle

Cannon Falls also has wreaths on its lampposts – an effect that is somewhat muppet-like when viewed up close:

two light bulbs with dead bugs that look like eyes above a large narrow wreath that looks like an open mouth

Snowflakes on lampposts that look like candles in Faribault:

white snowflake decoration on a light pole wrapped with red tinsel

This was the second time I drove through Morristown and Waterville, and I have a hard time keeping their names straight. I can remember the “Morris” and “Water” but never remember which is a town and which is a ville, so I usually end up saying Morrisville and Watertown. I reached these two just as the last light was fading, and the snowflakes were blinking on in Morristown:

lighted snowflake on a pole in front of a business with lighted decorations in the windows

Shooting stars in Waterville:

lighted star decorations on both sides of a quiet street

Skinny wire in Medford:

candle and Christmas tree

A variety in Rockford, including curly trees I haven’t seen anywhere else:

lighted set of bells, reindeer, and curly tree one one side of a busy street

Darwin had the most shapes of one style of decoration – in this case, white wire.

white wire shapes - snowman, angel, bells, candle, shooting star, horn, wreath

Waverly has two styles, the white-wire along Highway 12…

Welcome to Waverly banner with a dove, and a bell

…and “tinsel” style on Main Street.

colorful tinsel - candle, white snowflake with blue lights, a triangle-shaped tree, and a three-tiered tree

Montrose wins my Most Variety Award for 2015. Many different banners and tinsel shapes along Highway 12, snowflakes on the south side of County Road 12…

Peace banner, Season's Greetings oval, white wire snowflake, tinsel candles, candy cane, and tree

…and my second-favorite of the season, these ornate vintage street lights on the north side of County 12.

red streetlight circled twice by garland, more swirled above, Happy Holidays sign hanging on bottom

Other small-town Christmas trips

Categories: Dakota County, Goodhue County, Le Sueur County, Ramsey County, Rice County, Steele County, Washington County, Wright County | Leave a comment

A weekend in Grand Marais

Grand Marais has been high on my list of Minnesota places to visit for years, and with a birthday to celebrate, we headed there the first weekend of October. Even before we went, I was sure we’d need to plan a weeklong vacation for next summer because there were more restaurants than there were meal opportunities!

Since we took a long time driving to “America’s coolest small town,” the sun was already starting to set when we reached Grand Marais. Immediately went to the public access park to get our first up-close look at Lake Superior:

wavy Lake Superior with a pink sky

Then we turned around and took a short walk down “Main Street” – actually, Wisconsin Street – for dinner at Sven & Ole’s. Their menu isn’t posted on their website, and though you order at a counter, there isn’t a menu board on the wall, so we didn’t know the options. I was nervous that we’d be on the spot with a long line behind us, but both the man taking the order and the people who were waiting were very patient. We settled on the “shicken and vild rice” pizza, which was good – though I didn’t really notice the wild rice. It wasn’t very crowded for a Friday night, though the counter was always busy, often with people who were taking their pizzas to go.

restaurant with local memorabilia on the walls, Twins game on the tv

We then explored the area in the dark, planning what to visit the next day, and reached Pie Place as they were closing; we were able to buy two slices to go. The pie was good and it wasn’t cheap.

We stayed at one of the cabins that are part of the MacArthur House B&B – two bedrooms, living room, and furnished kitchen, a great setup for a long stay (though this time we only stayed two nights).

blue cabin with red trim and green window and door

Saturday morning we noticed the county courthouse, nestled in the neighborhood kitty-corner from the cabins.

Classical Revival style building with eight flagpoles on the southwest corner

Our first breakfast of the weekend was at Blue Water Cafe. It was busy but organized: just when one table would empty, a new group would arrive to take their place, though I never saw anyone waiting. Bill had the fishcake special, which turned out to be a fish-infused pancake, complete with tartar sauce on the side. I enjoyed the “Welcome (Canadian) Neighbours” signs in this restaurant and lots of other places in town, and I really liked the Lake Superior mural on the mall.

restaurant building, closeup of breakfast plate, cash register, wall mural

Since we were just blocks from the lake, we walked out again to take a look at the big waves. Friday and Saturday were very windy.

Lake Superior waves with Artists' Point in the distance

And later we enjoyed a mid-morning snack at World’s Best Donuts – a chocolate glazed donut, a cinnamon sugar donut (I photographed it with the lake in the background, which is apparently the thing to do these days), and a “skizzle” (basically an elephant ear) to save for the next day. They really might be the world’s best.

closeup of the sign, the courtyard with a picture of Cook County map, doughnut

Then it was time for a walk across the breakwater to the lighthouse…

narrow concrete walkway with a rope handrail

…and back to Artists’ Point, made of basalt from ancient lava flows.

rocky shoreline with trees turning colors

I was enjoying watching and filming the big waves at Artists’ Point when one surprised me:

With all the wind, it didn’t take long to dry off as we walked back to go through the shops downtown…

Eight Broadway art gallery, with a mural on the side wall

…including a stop at the famous Joynes Ben Franklin: cribbage boards and other knick-knacks, Gunflint Trail scrapbooking supplies, a wire bookshelf with local and Minnesota books. Good thing we went on Saturday, because we found out the next day that they’re closed Sundays.

There were many outdoor paintings around town, like this one of the America, which sank in Lake Superior in 1928, by Lyle Sathre:

painting with hand-lettered details of the last voyage

I was intrigued by this blacksmith shop, which we later learned opened in 1911, was owned by three generations of Ballys, and is on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s now owned by the Cook County Historical Society, which is in the process of preserving and redeveloping the building and grounds with help of a fundraising campaign and a legacy grant from the Minnesota Historical Society.

false front of Bill Bally Blacksmith & Welding Repairing shop

In the afternoon we headed north on 61 to Naniboujou Lodge for a late lunch, then a hike to the Devil’s Kettle waterfall at Judge Magney State Park (more about the park in a future post).

After a short rest back at the cabin, we decided to walk down the few blocks to the Angry Trout for dinner. I thought that even though it was a Saturday, it probably wouldn’t be too busy because it was so late in the year – but I was wrong. Harbor Grill across the street had a long line, too, so we headed back to grab the car and venture out, and we ended up at My Sister’s Place on the north end of town. There was a line there, too, but we waited for only about 15 minutes.

menu with a cartoon of two fishermen in a boat

South of the Border Cafe menuWe were tired after our long Saturday adventure, so we slept in the next morning and had a late breakfast at South of the Border Cafe, with its charming menus. (Apparently some online reviewers are confused about which border they’re referring to. Grand Marais is only about 50 miles from the Canadian border – so it’s not Mexican food but diner food, cheap.)

The wind was much calmer on Sunday. We took one more trip to the lake, where I collected a few rocks and watched (and listened to) the waves pulling rocks back into the water:

One more walk through town, and we stumbled across an art exhibit showcasing works from the plein air festival at the Johnson Heritage Post art gallery.

Early afternoon on Sunday was a much easier time to get into Angry Trout Cafe – no waiting.

empty deck chairs in front of the restaurant

As we were leaving, we picked up smoked trout to go at Dockside Fish Market next door.

Though our vacation was coming to an end, we weren’t quite ready to leave yet, so we spontaneously started driving the Gunflint Trail…

curve in the road next to the Grand Marais / Gunflint Trail water tower

…and stopped at the scenic overlook.

pine trees and yellow trees in the foreground, sparkling Lake Superior and Grand Marais in the distance

And then it was time to head back to the Cities. Here’s my favorite picture of the weekend, showing the lake and the town and the hill.

buildings next to big rocks along the shore, lake in the foreground, mountain with fall trees in the background


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