So much lies within an hour's drive of the city, we hesitate to select one destination over another. We thought about Lake Maria State Park near Monticello, where we like to meander through the last stand of maple and basswood forest that once covered the region. Any of the Hennepin County parks is an excellent choice for swimming, hiking, and educational nature programs. Swarms of summer tourists make their way up to Stillwater and Taylor's Falls. But for our money (which we like to hang on to), Hastings, just a hop down Highway 55, is the best destination around. At the junction of the Mississippi, St. Croix, and Vermilion rivers, this little water town is one of the best kept secrets of the region. In particular, the Vermilion offers some of the most scenic vistas around. The rugged landscape follows the small river past a series of rapids and miniature waterfalls until, deep in the green forest, visitors come upon the ruins of an ancient flour mill built by Alexander Ramsey in 1857. The mill was destroyed by fire in 1894, and is now a little-known Minnesota Historic Site. Great pillars of limestone ascend three stories. Saplings grow around the charred foundation. The river sings nearby. It's sublime. Eat at the modestly upscale Cafe Riprap, or at the local favorite, the Bierstube (good hamburgers), or picnic in the grassy ruins of the old mill.


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