Al Fresco, Refreshed

Twin Cities purveyors make it easy to reinvent the picnic

Once you've got the goods, Lake Harriet is just a skip away and is loaded with things to do: bike and walking paths, beaches, tennis courts, and a bandstand that hosts performers of every type, including classical, bluegrass, and local rock acts (check online for their complete summer schedule). There's a Peace Rock Garden, which includes stones from Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and the second-oldest public rose garden in the U.S., as well as a playground. Parking is pretty much the same deal as at Minnehaha Park and Falls: Free spots aren't too hard to find if you're willing to do some walking between activities.

 

Como Park
Midway Parkway and Lexington Parkway, St. Paul; 651.632.5111
www.stpaul.gov/depts/parks/userguide/comopark.html

Whole Foods
30 S. Fairview; St. Paul; 651.690.0197
www.wholefoods.com

For this trip you'll want to swing by Whole Foods on Grand Avenue, where you'll find loads of quality cheeses, artisan bread, organic fruit, and vegan and vegetarian deli items like fried tofu and tabouli salad. The staff here will make sandwiches at the deli and wrap them up to go. Plus, they're generally very knowledgeable about ingredients, so if you have any unique dietary issues they can help you out.

Head east on Grand and then hang a left onto Lexington for the pleasant drive to Como Park. There's tons of free parking, including a giant lot by the conservatory and plenty of street parking. More to the point, there are many picnic-friendly spots throughout, some shaded by large trees, others open, grassy patches by streams. After eating, you can work off a meal with a stroll inside the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory, which has four rooms filled with flowers, ferns, fruit, trees, fountains, sculptures, and benches for casual chatting or reflection (if you're looking for a quiet afternoon, check online first to avoid flower show weekends, when the conservatory is unusually packed). Outdoor gardens include the Enchanted Garden (loaded with flowers that attract butterflies) and the Japanese Garden.

 

Afton State Park
6959 S. Peller Ave.; Hastings; 651.436.5391
www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/afton

Kowalski's Woodbury Market
8505 Valley Creek Rd.; Woodbury; 651.578.8800
www.kowalskis.com

Unless you live on the eastern fringe of the metro area, this picnic trip involves a journey of 45 or so minutes east on Interstate 94. On your way to Afton State Park, make a pit stop in Woodbury, home to the ultimate Kowalski's, about the size of a department store, yet still primarily pushing fresh produce, local foodstuffs, and specialty items. It's conveniently easy to lose track of time--and your budget--in what must surely be acres of tasty items.

For picnicking purposes, there are hundreds of cheeses, including an impressive selection of local artisan rounds, fresh bread of the crunchy and chewy varieties, and an olive bar. The deli is loaded with picnic-friendly salads (including both the unusual, such as Thai-inspired selections, and classics such as potato salad and coleslaw), wraps, and dips (spinach and hummus are always good bets). If you're hankering for something on the unconventional side, bring a cooler stocked with ice and pick out some sushi and two bottles of all-natural iced green tea. When you're done, hop back onto I-94 and you're on your way.

The longest drive I'm suggesting, Afton State Park, is also probably the most versatile in what it has to offer nature-wise. There are woodlands, restored prairie fields and grassy patches, and bluffs with deep ravine drops (some of more than 300 feet) and amazing views of rocky terrain and the St. Croix River Valley. Wildlife can also be spontaneously viewed in this thriving ecosystem, including deer, fox, and badgers. Bird fanatics will want to keep their eyes out for hawks, waterfowl, bluebirds, meadowlarks, and various migratory birds cruising the skies. Those who just can't get enough squirrels in the city--I know you freaks are out there--will be glad to hear that there are several varieties out here as well, in all their jittery glory. Afton's wildflowers are particularly lovely, and different varieties bloom throughout the spring, summer, and fall months.

There are swimming beaches, volleyball, and horseshoes (pick up equipment in the office), plus several different trails, including a 20-mile hiking trail, a four-mile paved bike trail, and, for the really ambitious, a five-mile horse trail. As for where to dine, many spots will probably suit your fancy, but actual picnic benches are located by the visitor center. Better yet, take the half-mile walk by the river to the more secluded picnic area. Remember to bring cash for parking: A vehicle permit for the day will set you back $7.

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