Best Of :: Sports & Recreation
"A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou," a poet once said. That'll work in a pinch, but it doesn't make for a great picnic. When you're considering the best place for an open-air lunch in the Cities, you're also going to want scenic beauty, lots of open space, an absence of crowds, and plenty of amenities, whether tables and a grill for a cookout or a big lawn and shade for a blanket-and-basket affair. In the Twin Cities, no spot meets all of those conditions quite as well as Hidden Falls, nestled along a crook of the Mississippi River in St. Paul. The park is nearly as old as the city of St. Paul, dating back to 1887. Sheltered by the surrounding bluffs, the riverside park is gorgeously picturesque. The area is carved into two parts. The park's north entrance features plenty of tables, many with grills and a dozen covered by roofs for big groups or in case of bad weather. At least a few tables are in prime river's-edge locales. The south entrance is mostly a wide-open lawn and trees, perfect for a blanket and a game of Frisbee. Hidden Falls also has horseshoe pits, two fire rings, and a lovely shaded hiking path through bottomland woods. So besides the food, the only thing you'll need to bring is the thou.
As comfortable as life can be in the Twin Cities, we all occasionally need a getaway, a place that feels like a real escape from urban life but is close enough that we can get back for chores or work the next day. Interstate State Park, just outside of Taylors Falls, makes a spectacular day trip to a postcard-pretty basalt gorge along the St. Croix River, and it's just an hour from Minneapolis and St. Paul. The park is among the oldest in the state, established in 1895 (it has a sister park across the river in Wisconsin, hence the name). The area has a fascinating history: The basalt rocks were formed from immense lava flows a billion years ago, the land was covered by a shallow sea a half-million years ago, and the St. Croix River gorge itself was carved from the torrential runoff of melting glaciers 10,000 years ago. Giant, sand-laden whirlpools from those running waters scoured the signature potholes that dot the area. You can read all about it at the visitor's center, or you can just play. The Minnesota park has nearly 300 acres and more than five miles of trails that wander among towering white pines, through eerie rock formations like the Devil's Parlor and Bake Oven Pothole, or along the blufftops, offering truly stunning views of the river below. If you want to see the gorge from water level, take a boat tour or rent a canoe or kayak. In one day you can get exercise, education, and scenic beauty and still be back in plenty of time for dinner.
Want to get away for a weird weekend? Set your sights southeast down I-94 and pull off the interstate at the Wisconsin Dells. As you look around you may ponder, "Why in the world is this tourist trap here? And how did it come to possess the world's largest collection of circus wagons?" Well, it all makes perfect sense, actually. Originally founded in 1857, the Dells area is at the confluence of several rivers, so it had easy water transport. It also had trees, which brought the lumber industry, which brought the railroads to ship lumber out and people in. And with people, of course, came a desire to view the World's Largest Pink Flamingo, a museum dedicated to torture devices, an "Indian Trading Post," and a tacky wedding chapel. Oh, and the circus wagons? Nearby Baraboo was once the winter home and headquarters for the Ringling Brothers Circus, so the town now boasts not only the largest collection of circus wagons in the world but also a library of circus information and the largest group of original circus structures in North America, dating back to 1897. So don't look on the Dells as the "Waterpark Capital of the World," though it is. Check into one of the Dells' kitschy mid-century motels and imagine a time when folks piled into the family car and headed to destinations like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite, when half the fun was in the journey. And where the only amenity you sought in your roadside inn was a cheery neon sign advertising "Heated Pool" and "Color TV."
Let's face it: Between injury-plagued underperformance and a handful of integral players lost to free agency, last season's 99-loss Twins squad might appear a bit short of strong nominees for this category. But Glen Perkins wasn't the best player by default — he earned it by being the only sure thing in a nightmarish bullpen. Perk put up excellent numbers, with a better ERA (2.48), ERA+ (162), and strikeout-per-nine-innings ratio (9.5) than any other pitcher on the roster. Being an upper-tier setup man might not sell a ton of jerseys or earn high-profile nods to the All-Star Game, but it's a role that teams can live or die on. If Perkins keeps this up, he'll be one of the crucial components that helps get the Twins back on track.
Thank god for Jared Allen. When the guy isn't writing cookbooks, he's the heart and soul of the Vikings defense. Much like Adrian Peterson was to the offense before going out with an injured knee, Allen was the one undeniable star on defense, a relentless competitor with a sixth sense for finding the ball. Of course, what old Rodeo really seems to enjoy most is going after the passer, which explains why he came within half a sack of breaking the all-time season sack record — and that was in spite of the Vikings' conservative play-calling and otherwise weak pass rush. Case in point: Late in the year it looked as if Allen had burned out, but once coach Leslie Frazier let him loose, he picked up three and a half sacks in the last game of the season. Watching Allen tear up the league was almost enough to make you forget that whole Donovan McNabb fiasco. Almost.
Perhaps Kevin McHale wasn't quite the knucklehead exec many people thought he was. After all, McHale did engineer the 2008 post-draft trade that, at its core, sent O.J. Mayo to Memphis and Kevin Love to Minneapolis. In the four seasons since, Love has made himself into one of the NBA's top players and has become the Timberwolves' most identifiable baller since Kevin Garnett whined his way out of town after the 2007 campaign. In the 2010-11 season, Love's first as an all-star, the forward rolled 53 consecutive double-doubles, the longest streak since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976. His season-ending marks of 20.2 points per game and league-leading 15.2 rebounds per game made him the first player to average 20 and 15 since Moses Malone in 1982-83. Recognized as the league's "Most Improved Player," Love made a stellar segue to this season that translated to double-doubles in his first 15 games, his second All-Star selection, and an unlikely crown in the NBA's "Three Point Shootout" contest at All-Star weekend in Orlando. With the arrival of Ricky Rubio, the vastly improved inside presence of Nikola Pekovic, and a head coach sporting an actual C.V. in Rick Adelman, Love has the Wolves on the brink of their first winning season since 2005 and their first playoff appearance since 2004. Hoop heads rejoiced when the 23-year-old star signed a four-year, $62 million contract extension in January. Yet those reading the fine print winced at the deal's opt-out clause after the third year of the new agreement.