Before we had kids, my husband and I loved a good, long road trip. No real plans in hand, we’d set off with overnight bags and spend the weekend meandering through historic towns, discovering new restaurants and perusing antique shops.
Fast-forward a few years and a couple kids, and now our family road trips are a different beast entirely. “Meandering” has been replaced by “chasing after,” and restaurants that don’t offer chicken nuggets are off limits.
And yet road trips are still our family’s favorite way to travel — especially here in Minnesota, where winding scenic roads and family-friendly places are never in short supply.
Here are a few of our favorite road trips from the Twin Cities, perfect for young families seeking close-to-home adventures to cherish forever.
This wonderland of activities is just an hour northeast of the Twin Cities. And you don’t have to shoot straight up I-35 to get there: For the best scenery and a slightly longer drive, head east from the Twin Cities until you hit quaint and historic Stillwater (famous for its Teddy Bear Park playground), then point your wheels north and follow Highway 95 along the St. Croix River to charming downtown Taylors Falls.
With abundant outdoor opportunities, Interstate State Park on the St. Croix River is an absolute must. Best known as the home of the world’s deepest glacial potholes, the park is a geology fan’s dream with stairways that wind down into the Bake Oven Pothole and Devil’s Parlor, both carved over time by St. Croix currents. Our kids love the area’s panoramic river vistas and fascinating rock formations.
In the summer months, you can also explore the St. Croix courtesy of Taylors Falls Scenic Boat Tours (80 minutes) or visit the Wild Mountain Waterpark, overlooking the bluffs of St. Croix, featuring alpine slides as well as waterslides, a free-fall jump and go-karts.
Afterward, grab a meal and a milkshake at The Drive In Restaurant, a beloved old-school establishment with picnic table seating, hand-packed burgers, root beer floats and even a mini-golf course.
Another must-visit site in the area is Franconia Sculpture Park in Shafer, just five miles east of Taylors Falls. Here F is for funky. The 43-acre park features an “ever-changing exhibition of monumental sculpture” created by a rotating cast of artists-in-residence.
Franconia encourages kids to play on its 120-plus sculptures and run through the surrounding prairie. And because the exhibits change every year, trips to Franconia make for a wonderful yearly tradition.
This city of 85,000 (about 2.5 hours north of the Twin Cities) is synonymous with all things North Shore and really is amazing for kid-friendly attractions and epic outdoor excursions.
You can start at the impressive Great Lakes Aquarium, a fantastic collection of interactive exhibits, live aquatic animals and educational displays. If you want to be right on the water, you can charter a sailing or fishing boat as a family at visitduluth.com.
To bask in the glory of Lake Superior, we love driving an hour up the North Shore to visit Split Rock Lighthouse, a state historic site and National Historic Landmark, featuring beautiful hikes and a state park, too. Though you could spend weeks exploring the North Shore, this destination deserves a spot on your family’s bucket list for sure.
Back in town, check out the Duluth Union Depot, which houses four museums, including the world-class Lake Superior Railroad Museum, one of the finest railroad collections in the country. And while you’re there, you can book a train ride on the North Shore Scenic Railroad, which offers regular rides as well as special trips, including a 2.5-hour narrated Music and Pizza Train trip, featuring live local bands. Train-loving kids can ride a life-size Thomas or Percy this summer July 26–28 and Aug. 2–4.
Truly, you could spend a week in Duluth and not see all of what’s available for kids and families.
Situated on a wide, scenic section of the Mississippi River in southern Minnesota, this city’s historic downtown, breathtaking natural-bluff vistas and kid-friendly activities make it an excellent destination for families. (And it’s only an hour drive from the Twin Cities.)
The Red Wing Shoe Company Museum is a must-see. You can marvel at — but not climb on — the world’s largest boot, explore a variety of displays chronicling the company’s 110-plus years in business and maybe shop for a pair of Minnesota-made boots or shoes.
Just south of downtown, the river-adjacent Colvill Park houses the Red Wing Water Park, which has two large water slides, a zero-depth entry pool, an interactive play area for younger kids and a diving board. There’s also an awesome universal playground and sensory garden on the other side of the park.
If you have time, be sure to hit LARK Toys in the town of Kellogg, about 45 minutes south down Highway 61 along the river. Not only is LARK one of Minnesota’s largest toy stores, it’s also unique: They make wooden toys and puzzles on site. It also houses a large antique toy display, miniature golf, a children’s book store and an ice cream shop. There’s even a full-size, wood-carved carousel inside!
Whatever you decide to do, wherever you decide to go, don’t let having small kids stop you from enjoying road trips.
Hit the road and explore. True, you might not be able to shop for vintage china, but you’ll be making the kinds of memories that last a lifetime.
This article was revised and republished with permission from Explore Minnesota and Lorena Armstrong-Duarte, who lives in Minneapolis with her husband and their two boys. Learn more at tinyurl.com/lorena-duarte-mn. Find more family-friendly trip ideas at exploreminnesota.com/family.