The 10 best hidden places around Minnesota for road-trippin'
There's plenty to keep folks occupied on any given weekend in and around the Twin Cities, but sometimes you just need to get outta town. For those days when wanderlust starts taking over and daydreams of fresh air, adventure, and great hiking trails need to become a reality, we've got you covered. Here are some of our favorite hidden gems for road-trippin' in the Land of 10,000 Lakes (and nearby).
See also: 50 fun things to do in Minnesota
AtoZ Produce and Bakery
The Twin Cities has some really amazing pie shops, but AtoZ Produce and Bakery, known as the Pizza Farm, is well worth the drive. Located about 80 miles from the heart of Minneapolis in Stockholm, Wisconsin, the Pizza Farm is home to some of the best darn pizza you'll taste in the Midwest. From beetza (beet pizza!) to Italian sausage, they've got incredible topping combinations made with veggies plucked right from the grounds and baked in a huge wood-fire oven. While you wait for that cheesy, gooey, farm-fresh pizza, you can set up camp on the grass and hang out or you can explore the area — from the greenhouse to the cows, there's plenty to check out. Just make sure you heed the can't-miss-it sign on your way in: No Dogs. Wear Shoes. Fences Zap. Word to the wise: This place is BYO everything, except your own booze. That means you'll need to pack up your picnic supplies, including blankets to plates, in order to feast on that glorious 'za. Buying your booze at the farm (they sell wine and beer for reasonable prices) means that you have an excuse to guzzle some of New Glarus's goods, which are only available in the Badger State. The Pizza Farm is only open on Tuesdays from 4:30 until 8 p.m., so plan your drive accordingly, but make sure you stick around for the sunset. There's nothing quite like beetza and beer while the sky is painted brilliant pinks and oranges.
Distance from Twin Cities: 90 minutes
Soudan Underground Mine State Park
Who's afraid of the dark? If you are, you might not want to venture into Soudan Mine (same goes for the claustrophobic). But if you've got an adventurous streak in you, or if you're into My Bloody Valentine (the movie, not the band), then this is one place you should put on your greater Minnesota to-do list. Soudan Mine is actually a Minnesota State Park, home to the state's oldest iron-ore mine (opened in 1882). Now it's open to the public for tours. Put on your hard hat and get ready to go below the surface to the Cadillac of Mines. You'll descend a mile and a half beneath the ground with your tour group, first in a metal wire-cage elevator and then in a rail car to the deepest areas that were mined. Yes, iron ore might sound boring — there ain't no gold or sparkly stuff down there — but there is some dark matter at work. Literally. The mine is home to one of the coolest research stations exploring something you'll never see: dark matter. The U of M has an underground research facility dedicated to learning about particle physics that you can tour if you want to tap into your inner Neil deGrasse Tyson in the depths of a mine. Whether you play miner, scientist, or both, just remember to bring a sweater or a jacket, as you might be closer to the Earth's core, but it's chilly down there. Feel free to take wannabe-mole-people selfies, but don't bring your hiking gear along with you — there are no bags allowed.
Distance from the Twin Cities: 3 hours, 35 minutes
Glensheen Historic Estate
It's like Downton Abbey meets Clue on the north shore of Lake Superior. Built by the wealthy Congdon family in 1905, Glensheen is a Jacobean-style home that's pretty much got the best view of the lake in Duluth. There are sprawling grounds, a huge carriage house, a garden, and — of course — the mansion itself, which houses 39 rooms that are still decorated like they were decades ago (although there's some late-added shag carpeting). But the mansion is more than just a celebration of 1900s bourgeois taste, it's the site of some of the state's most infamous murders. The youngest Congdon daughter, Elisabeth, and her nurse, Velma Pietila, were found murdered in the home in nearly 40 years ago. Congdon had been smothered with a pillow and Pietila beaten with a candlestick. Even more gruesome was that Congdon's daughter Marjorie and her husband were suspected of planning the devious act in order to inherit several million dollars. (They didn't get the money.) These days, visitors can tour the main house and the grounds throughout the year, getting a taste of what the Congdons' lives were like. Glensheen also offers the "downstairs" experience of the Upstairs, Downstairs lifestyle, where you can explore the mansion by flashlight with a costumed guide and learn about the mansion's many servants. Lest you get worried about the kids getting bored (or scared), the guides are great at getting the little ones involved.
Distance from the Twin Cities: 2 hours, 25 minutes
International Wolf Center
Wolves are the badasses of the forest. There's a reason that there are plenty of fairy tales that extoll their greatness — if only those meddling red-hooded girls, grandmothers, and house-building pigs would get out of their way, right? Just kidding. But it's pretty well-known by now that wolves are actually a positive force in nature, despite their rep. The International Wolf Center in Ely is out to prove just that while helping the world's wolf population thrive in the wild. Anything you ever wanted to know about wolves, they've got it covered (or they're researching it right now). Watch these incredible creatures at the center's live ambassador wolf exhibit and see how they hunt, communicate, and play. If you want to understand canis lupus even better, folks 18 years and older can register for a weekend of "Workin' for Wolves," assisting the staff with projects for the animals onsite. While you're in Ely, make sure you stop by the Dorothy Molter Museum, too. Molter (a.k.a. the Root Beer Lady) lived in the BWCAW for half a century as a nurse and resort owner before her cabins were transported into Ely as a museum. It's sort of a hokey little place, but it gives you a glimpse of wilderness living (as done by a pretty cool lady), and there's some amazing root beer. Fun fact: Julia Roberts visited Molter way back in the day when she was at Camp Birchwood.
Distance from the Twin Cities: 4 hours
Split Rock Lighthouse State Park
There's no doubt about it, the area around Split Rock Lighthouse offers some of the most picturesque views of Minnesota's north shore, including the historic lighthouse itself jutting from a 130-foot cliff and the silhouette of the forest on the shoreline. You'll definitely want to spend more than just the day near Split Rock Lighthouse. Reserve one of the state park's cart-in campsites in advance for some of the best camping in the Minnesota. Yes, you'll have to haul your gear inland to your campsite, but you won't regret waking up to the sunrise shimmering across the lake in the morning or hearing the rustle of wind in the trees. Plus, there's plenty more to do than just visit the ol' lighthouse and hang out at camp. Search for agates on the beach or skip stones (there are plenty of smooth skippers on the shore, thanks to the waves) on the crystalline water of Lake Superior. Paddle your way out onto the lake on a kayak or even plunge beneath the water and scuba dive to the Madeira ship wreck. Break out those hiking shoes and head out on the trails — such as Gitchi-Gami and the Superior Hiking Trail — as there's no shortage of spots to explore. Better yet, you can visit in the fall (leaf-watching galore!) or the winter (cross-country skiing anyone?) for year-round fun. Pro-tip: Remember to take the scenic route out of Duluth on Highway 61 for some incredible views all the way to Two Harbors.
Distance from the Twin Cities: 3 hours, 15 minutes
Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society
Forget about 200-year-old houses. The Jeffers Petroglyphs date back thousands of years. The 160-acre historic site features a series of mysterious carvings into the smooth Red Rock Ridge. Although the origin date of these works isn't completely known, it is believed that most were created between 3000 B.C. and A.D. 1700. So what do they mean? We're not entirely sure. Some carvings may have been used as directional tools for hunters and travelers, while the bears, dragonflies, shamans, thunderbirds, and other illustrations may have been used for storytelling, history preservation, ritual, and spiritual purposes. The visitor center is open May through September, offering hands-on activities, information on the flora and fauna to be found on the prairie, and more. The site also offers nature trails to explore, and some even still have wagon trail ruts still in the ground from when the site was well-traveled on by stage coaches making their way to or from New Ulm, Minnesota and Sioux Falls, South Dakota. —Jessica Armbruster
Distance from the Twin Cities: 2 hours, 28 minutes
For a town of only 1,300 people, Grand Marais has a whole lot of heart. Nestled in the northeastern tip of the state right along Lake Superior, this place is the perfect outstate getaway. Stop by Sven and Ole's Pizza for 'za and their famous joke book, take the kids to the Ben Franklin for cheap old-school toys (pop-pop guns!), or stock up on frontier gear and souvenirs at the Lake Superior Trading Post. Don't forget to stop by World's Best Donuts for a sweet, delightfully doughy breakfast. Take a picnic and hike out to Artists Point, a rocky finger of land jutting out into the middle of the lake, or trek further inland on the Gunflint Trail. If you make it out to Grand Marais during the last weekend of July, you can catch the annual Dragon Boat Festival on Lake Superior, where dragon-shaped boats (duh) manned by 20 people race each other. If you register in advance, you can even bring your own team of paddlers or compete on your own. The very next weekend (the first one in August), Grand Marais has another huge weekend festival: the Fisherman's Picnic. It's good old-fashioned small-town fun that harkens back to the city celebrating its logging and fishing trades with a shoreline picnic of lake-caught herring. There's still herring these days, but now the picnic has expanded into a town-wide celebration and carnival with musicals, tennis tournaments, log rolling, loon-calling contests, and even a fish toss (which is exactly what it sounds like).
Distance from the Twin Cities: 4 hours, 20 minutes
House on the Rock
How to describe House on the Rock? Kitsch heaven on Earth. But really, there's no doing justice to this insane landmark with words alone. This is seriously a destination that you need to see to believe. The place started out as (wait for it...) a house built on top of a rock, but over a few decades, owner Alex Jordan Jr. began to expand it into a veritable maze of rooms and hallways filled with memorabilia of every kind, including coin-operated orchestras, a huge Rube Goldberg machine, antique cars, suits of armor, an "infinity room," and a replica of an early 20th-century town, among thousands of other things. There's even a terrifying (and breath-taking — trust us, we couldn't breathe) life-sized model of a squid and a whale duking it out in the ocean. House on the Rock is also home to "the world's largest indoor carousel" — which, oddly enough, has not a single horse. (It's got pretty much every other creature, real or fake, crammed onto it, though.) Does this all sound familiar? Fans of Neil Gaiman might remember that House on the Rock makes an appearance in his 2001 novel American Gods. If you like Gaiman, you should definitely make the pilgrimage. There's so much stuff to see that there are three tour segments you can take, but our advice is to go all-out and do the whole thing. If you're intrigued enough to explore the place, you'd better do it whole-hog — but remember to bring some good walking shoes, because it's going to be a long trek. Lastly, since you're already going to Spring Green, Wisconsin, you might as well take a tour of the other house this city's famous for, too: Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesen.
Distance from the Twin Cities: 4 hours, 15 minutes
The Apostle Islands went viral last winter when their spectacular ice caves became accessible to the public again. Thousands flocked to the area to get a glimpse of the ice formations and icicles that seemed more like something out of Narnia than real life. But there's way more to the place than just winter fun. This Wisconsin hotspot is also for folks who want to canoe and camp on the wide expanse of Lake Superior and 18 of the 22 islands that make up, well, the Apostle Islands. Just like the area near Split Rock Lighthouse, folks can go scuba diving in Lake Superior and scope out underwater rock formations and shipwrecks. If you're not into the DIY lake experience (see: kayaking or canoeing), you can take in the sights day-trip-style and hop onto the Madeline Island Ferry Line. Snap photos of the islands as the ferry navigates the channels before heading back to shore and noshing on some local fare at one of the town's many super-cute eateries. While you're in the Bayfield area, make sure you stop at a local orchard or berry-picking farm. There are plenty of 'em, you just have to pick one.
Distance from the Twin Cities: 4 hours
The SPAM Museum
SPAM is the Twinkie of the meat world. How it's made and what it's made of may be a question best left to the imagination (according to SPAM lore, it's actually cooked in-can on the assembly line), but for many it's a treat that offers simple, salty delights once sliced up and served or added to things like hash browns. The folks at Hormel, makers of SPAM, obviously had a sense of humor when creating its homage to the notorious canned meat. "Few experiences in life are as meaningful and meaty-filled as those you'll have at the magnificent SPAM Museum," the website promises. "Referred to by some meat historians as the Guggenham, Porkopolis or M.O.M.A. (Museum Of Meat-Themed Awesomeness), the SPAM Museum is home to the world's most comprehensive collection of spiced pork artifacts." Those artifacts include awesomely campy vintage advertising, including Slammin' Spammy, a bomb-throwing, meat-schilling war-time mascot; SPAM cooking demonstrations featuring a variety of cuisines (SPAM is sold in over 40 countries, after all); an assembly line simulation that visitors are encouraged to partake in (who doesn't love simulated labor?); and exhibits exploring how the food industry has changed over the years. Yes, it's the ultimate ironic road trip, but it's rare that you find something that offers an experience this surreal. Be sure to pick up some cans in the gift store, and don't worry about the meat going bad on the ride home: SPAM doesn't require refrigeration, after all. —Jessica Armbruster
Distance from the Twin Cities: 1 hour, 41 minutes.
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