My husband and I sit at Big River Kombucha’s taproom sipping cans of fermented tea. I like Paddleboat Peach; he prefers Driftless Ginger Lime. Our three kids dance and play nearby to the music of the Sawtooth Brothers, part of a free concert series.
Time seems to stand still. Just 60 miles southeast of the Twin Cities, we’re surrounded by sweeping green valleys and rolling bluffs overlooking the wild yet graceful Mississippi.
And for our little family, life has transformed, too.
After relocating from St. Louis Park to Wabasha — about two hours to the southeast — we’ve spent the past two years exploring Southeastern Minnesota and Western Wisconsin, seeking out some of the area’s most unique spots.
If you’re ready for a fall adventure, I recommend you explore this wonderful area, which is geologically known as the Driftless Region.
Farmers and artists come together in a unique partnership to deliver this fabulous festival every year in Wabasha, featuring 3,000 pumpkins and 5,000 cornstalks turned into creative displays. Part pop-up play park, part pumpkin festival — and part boutique heaven — this event showcases the oldest city on the Upper Mississippi River like no other.
Rent a bike or surrey from River Rider Cycle & Specialty, weave through a straw maze in Heritage Park and listen to local bands perform at Music Under the Bridge. And because it’s happening Sept. 6–Oct. 26, you’ll have plenty of chances to check it out. See wabashamn.org for a full schedule.
We love our pizza farms here in the Driftless Region, where they’re considered agricultural and culinary treasures.
Parents get a night off from making dinner; the kids get to tour a real working farm; and you all get to dine in a remarkable outdoor setting with the freshest foods of the season — agritourism at its finest.
Our two favorites — The Stone Barn in Nelson and Suncrest Gardens Farm in Cochrane — are both on the other side of the river in Wisconsin. And both offer gluten-free crust upon request. Matt and Marcy Smith, owners of The Stone Barn, teach at the local high school during the school year. But come May, they trade in their curriculum for a wood-fired brick oven. Wait times during the weekend can be lengthy, but a field adjacent to the outdoor patio is the perfect place for a pick-up game of soccer or kickball.
Plenty of indoor and outdoor seating is provided along with plates and utensils.
We have two favorites — the Alaskan (smoked salmon, onions, dill and capers on a cream cheese base) and the Modena (balsamic chicken, onions, mushrooms, sugar snap peas and feta cheese on a garlic olive oil base).
Meanwhile at Suncrest Gardens Farm, Heather Seacrist has worked hard to make the destination family friendly with live music, yard games and a playground. While you wait for your pizza, you can snack on chips with homemade rhubarb salsa, a crowd favorite.
Our favorite pizza is the BBQ — a tasty crust topped with mozzarella, roasted onions, sweet peppers, chicken and a drizzle of barbecue sauce.
Bring your own lawn chairs or blankets as outdoor seating is limited. Bring utensils if you want them. Napkins are provided and the pizzas are served in a “green” pizza box; the lid is perforated and can easily be torn into four “plates,” while the remaining box can be converted into a take-home container.
See the websites above for fall pizza nights!
National Eagle Center
There’s a good chance you’ll see one — or several — eagles during your time in Wabasha. But, just a few years ago, this wasn’t the case. There was only one active bald eagle nest along the 261-mile stretch of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. Today, there are more than 300 active nests.
That’s at least partly thanks to efforts that started in Wabasha. In 1989, a group of local birders pooled their resources and founded a nonprofit organization, Eagle Watch, to raise awareness about bald eagle endangerment. That small nonprofit has transformed into the National Eagle Center, a modern, 15,000-square-foot riverside destination that features hands-on eagle exhibits.
But what really sets the center apart are the four live ambassador eagles on permanent display in an open-air exhibit — Angel, Columbia, Donald and Was’aka. The eagles, three of them bald eagles and one a golden eagle, were each rescued and deemed unable to survive in the wild. They’re the stars of the center’s daily, 45-minute educational programs taught by on-site naturalists.
The AmericInn Lodge and Suites in Wabasha features a pool and hot tub, themed suites and a free breakfast — all perks of a great hotel. But, if you’re up for a bit of an adventure, check out Bending River Cove, a tiny-home resort between Wabasha and Lake City. Just above Lake Pepin along Highway 61 sit six lakefront tiny homes, including a cottage and studio apartment. Between 200-400 square feet each, each structure is handcrafted with local and reclaimed materials.
LARK Toys, just five miles down the road, is no ordinary place. Situated below the picturesque bluffs in the town of Kellogg (population 453, also offering its own SeptOberfest attractions), this 21,000-square-foot utopia is one of the largest independent specialty toy stores in the world.
Owners Miranda and Scott Gray-Burlingame along with Miranda’s parents, Kathy and Ron Gray, encourage all ages — hello, adult-sized scooter! — to play and imagine. A train table, dollhouse, toy kitchen and a variety of developmental toys are all fair game for hands-on exploration.
Near the dollhouse is the iconic workshop. Here sits toymaker Tim Monson. He’s been at LARK for 31 years, helping dream up and handcraft the store’s trademark wooden pull toys, like the Bilberry Bear — a bear riding a tricycle.
Before you make your way to the full-sized, hand-carved carousel featuring hand-stained animals, you’ll be transported back in time through an antique toy museum full of displays, including vintage action figures, old-fashioned dolls and tin cars. The hall opens up to a candy store, food court, gift shop, fudge counter and llama-viewing area (yes, llamas!).
Then there’s the magical carousel. Running every half hour each day, both kids and adults are welcome to ride on animals such as a white bird with a fish in its mouth or a dragon with a wizard sitting at the base of its neck.
And the fun’s not over! Just outside is an 18-hole mini-golf course featuring waterfalls, ponds and a play-through mountain. See larktoys.com.
Maybe you’ll love your visit to Southeastern Minnesota so much that, like us, you’ll decide to move here! But, if you don’t, fear not. We’ll be here — hiking in the bluffs, boating on the river or eating magical pizza at a local farm.
Maggie Sonnek and her husband, Eric, decided to move their family from St. Louis Park to Wabasha in 2017. After living in a church rectory for a year, they purchased a home just a few blocks from the river, with a view of the bluffs. Learn more at millcitycreativempls.com.