Make a day of it: Overlooked Minnesota destinations your family will love

After many winter months indoors, even soggy April feels like a welcome break. With warmer, wide-open days right around the corner, it’s time to make travel plans for the summer — or even next weekend. Here are some of our favorite budget-friendly destinations right in our own backyard.

Mystery Cave

Outside Wyckoff, MN
The pristine, miles-long Mystery Cave is a geological wonder that draws visitors of all ages to this state park.

Who should go
Families (who aren’t afraid of the dark) looking for a unique day or overnight trip that shows them a different side — namely, the underside — of Minnesota.

What to see along the way
Mystery Cave State Park is smack in the middle of sinkhole country — in fact, the nearby town of Fountain is nicknamed the “sinkhole capital of the world.” Driving around Fillmore County families can spot groves of trees in the middle of fields that are growing in deep sinkhole depressions. Caused when underground rock strata (in this case limestone) honeycombs and crumbles under the weight above, sinkholes are a trademark of this landscape (known as “karst” to geologists).

What you’ll see
This is a full-service cave: Visitors will see stalactites, stalagmites, an underground pool, and plenty of bats hanging from the ceiling.

What to do
Take a tour. When the state bought the cave in 1988, it made plenty of upgrades in hand rails, lighting, and steps to help families navigate the cool (the cave is at a constant 48 degrees year-round) terrain.

What you’ll love
Warren Netherton, the park’s naturalist and cave specialist for the past 20 years, is a wealth of knowledge about the Mystery Cave and the region’s topography — just try and stump him. His most-asked question: why is it called Mystery Cave?

Make it even cooler
Take a wild caving tour! This four-hour tour goes deeper into the cave than the more traditional family tours. Visitors ages 13 and older don jumpsuits and headlamps (there’s plenty of crawling) for in-depth spelunking through a large swath of the cave’s 13 miles of caverns. Those too young to spelunk will enjoy a trip to the park’s restored 1899 town of Forestville. Costumed interpreters bring the rural trade center to life so visitors can explore the Meighen family store, help a hired hand with the chores in the farm buildings, and check out what’s cooking in the family’s kitchen.

Where to eat
Ideally, around the campfire. Families should bring s’more and hotdog fixings for a DIY dinner, and daytrippers should pack a picnic to eat at one of the park’s bountiful picnic tables or on the grass along the Root River.

Where to stay

Camping at the park is plentiful, with 73 drive-in sites (several of which offer electricity) that include showers and flush toilets. Campsites run $16–$18 per night.

Contact information

Season, hours
The park opens for the season on April 18 for weekend tours. Daily tours are available Memorial Day through Labor Day. The first cave tour leaves at 10 a.m. each day and the last tour leaves at 4 p.m. in spring and fall and 5 p.m. in summer.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum and Dugout Site

Walnut Grove, MN
See the home of Half-Pint and the entire Ingalls family.

Who should go
It’s hard not to love the Little House books, no matter what your age. Fans of the pioneer spirit can get their fill of history, while bookworms will delight in reliving Laura’s stories from On the Banks of Plum Creek, which was set in Walnut Grove.

What to see along the way

At roughly three hours from the metro area, Walnut Grove can be a long drive for families to tackle at one crack. Take a break in New Ulm, where kids can stretch their legs at Hermann Heights Park, home of the 32-foot Hermann the German statue guarding New Ulm from atop a large cupola. Hermann is the third largest copper statue in the United States and cuts an imposing figure.

What you’ll see
Walnut Grove is all Laura Ingalls Wilder all the time. The museum has artifacts from Wilder’s time living in a dugout on Plum Creek as well as a staggering amount of paraphernalia from the nine-year run of the television series, which was set in Walnut Grove.

What to do
The museum is a must-see, and the outbuildings that surround the museum explain more of the history of the Ingalls family’s time in Walnut Grove. Give yourself plenty of time to wander throughout the grounds.

What you’ll love
Wilder’s dugout site is 1.5 miles outside of town and worth the short trek. For $4 families can see the site of Laura’s dirt homestead and wade into waters lined with the same plum thickets and black-eyed Susans described in her book.

Make it even cooler
Every summer the city hosts the Wilder Pageant, a family-oriented drama derived from On the Banks of Plum Creek. The live performance takes place nightly in a hillside amphitheater alongside the creek with the Laura narrating the story of quaint Walnut Grove in the 1870s. This year’s pageant takes place July 10–11, 17–18, and 24–25. Girls ages 8–12 can also compete in the Laura-Nellie Look Alike contest!

Where to eat
Why, on the banks of Plum Creek of course! Pack a picnic and dine next to the creek’s gentle flow just like Laura did more than 100 years ago.

Where to stay
At Plum Creek Park campers can choose from 70 sites on 205 acres, with playground equipment and a disc golf course. You’re just a dugout away from being a pioneer.

Contact information

Season, hours
The museum is open April–October every day (hours vary by month and day as the season ebbs) and the dugout site is open during daylight hours May through October, weather permitting.

Train sites around the Twin Cities

Trains and preschoolers — need we say more? Throw in a doting grandparent who never outgrew a love of trains, and you’ve got a great day out right in the Cities. These are our top picks.

Museums and rides Como-Harriet Streetcar
Queen Ave. S. & 42nd St. W., Minneapolis, 952-922-1096,
A 15-minute ride from shady Lake Harriet to sunny Lake Calhoun in a vintage streetcar is enough to excite train-loving toddlers and relax foot-weary parents.
Opens for the season May 1. Check web site for days, hours, and admission.

Excelsior Streetcar
Water St. & 3rd St., Excelsior, 952-922-1096,
The Twin Cities streetcar lines once stretched from Stillwater in the east to Excelsior in the west. Families can ride one of four restored streetcars along the shores of Lake Minnetonka.
Opens for the season May 1. Check web site for days, hours, and admission.

Hennepin Overland Railway Historical Society, Inc.
2501 38th St. E., Minneapolis, 612-276-9034,
Members maintain a meticulous HO-scale layout that is fully 65 feet long. Watch tiny trains chug under tiny mountains, past tiny towns.
Open most Saturdays and Sundays 1–4 p.m.

Jackson Street Roundhouse
193 Pennsylvania Ave. E., St. Paul, 651-228-0263,
This operating roundhouse — like a turntable for trains — is one of the last of its kind in the country. Learn about local rail history and watch people at work restoring vintage equipment.
Open Wednesdays and Saturdays, 10 a.m.–4 p.m.  Saturdays (includes caboose or classic bus ride)

The Minnehaha Depot
Minnehaha Park, near Hwy. 55 and Minnehaha Pkwy., 651–228–0263,
No trains here, but plenty of pictures of them. This tiny building in Minnehaha Park is worth a quick stop on a Sunday afternoon, or a peek in the windows on a trip through the park.
Open Sundays, Memorial Day to Labor Day, 2–6 p.m. Free.

Osceola & St. Croix Valley Railway
114 Depot Rd., Osceola, WI
Trains travel north from the Osceola Depot to Dresser or south to Marine on St. Croix. Enjoy the scenery on one of the regular rides, or watch for scheduled brunch, dinner, and lecture trips.
Open weekends, holidays, and special events, May–October.

Twin City Model Railroad Museum

1021 Bandana Blvd. E., St. Paul,
This O-gauge track combines the wonder of tiny trains with the delight of familiar Twin Cities landmarks. A good choice for the tiniest train-lovers.
Open Tuesday–Thursday 11 a.m.–3 p.m., Friday 11 a.m.–5 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m.–5 p.m., Sunday noon–5 p.m. Closed Monday.

Train Events

A Day Out With Thomas, The Hero of the Rails Tour
Ride a real train pulled by Thomas the Tank Engine and meet conductor Sir Topham Hatt. Plenty of other family entertainment — like face painters and music — round out the day. Buy tickets in advance. Coming to Duluth:

Model Railroad Toy Train
Railroadiana Sale
Minnesota State Fair Grounds, 1265 Snelling Ave. N., St. Paul, 651-647-9628,
More than 200 vendors will sell collectibles, toys, tools, antiques, and new and used models of all scales.
May 16, 9 a.m.–3 p.m.,

Train Shop

Choo Choo Bob’s Train Traveling Train Store
A store that’s great for serious hobbyists and for toddlers just learning to grasp their wooden tracks. Fun to shop and fun to visit.

Upcoming Events

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