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Five cheap or free travel destinations around Southeast Minnesota for the summer

Wanting to find a place to get away this summer but not at the high cost of current gas prices? Here are five spots in Southeast Minnesota that are affordable and fun day trips for this summer

Pelican Lake City (copy)
A pelican takes flight over Lake Pepin near the Lake City Marina. The birds migrate along the Mississippi River.
Post Bulletin file photo
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Rochester — Looking to get out of the house for a summer day trip but don’t want to spend too much money on gas? Here are five destinations around Southeast Minnesota that are cheap or free, offering getaway choices for almost any budget.

Ohuta Park, Lake City 

The birthplace of water skiing is only a 40-mile drive away from Rochester. In addition to great shops and restaurants in the city's downtown area, the newly renovated Ohuta Park, located three and a half blocks north of downtown, offers a new splash pad for kids and upgraded playground equipment, and some of the most scenic views of Lake Pepin. The park and all its amenities are free to all visitors and is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

Other free parks for visitors of Lake City include Hok-Si-La, Roschen, and Gold Star parks. Or just stroll along the walking trails along Lake Pepin.

LARK Toys, Kellogg 

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About 50 miles from the Med City is one of the Midwest’s most famous toy shops and museums, LARK Toys. Located in Kellogg, LARK Toys is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily and provides a variety of options to keep any visitor entertained for a day.

From their museum exhibits to their mini-golf course, carousel, bookstore and cafe, a whole day’s worth of fun can be filled for any visit to LARK Toys.

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Guests ride a hand-carved wooden carousel Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020, at LARK Toys in Kellogg. LARK Toys has received an outpouring of support after posting to their Facebook page about an exchange that happened when a couple and their children tried to enter their business earlier in the week without protective masks.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin file photo

In addition to these options are the handmade toys that LARK Toys have been producing for over 30 years with at least one new toy design showing up every year. The majority of these toys are carved out of wood and made safe for the use of children of all ages and visitors can watch these toys be made in the LARK workshop.

Step outside and meet Irving, George, Meg and Calvin, a quartet of miniature llamas, on the observation deck.

The Memory Lane Antique Toy Museum tours are free for all visitors, carousel rides cost $3 per ride and cafe menu items cost $6.50 combined with a carousel ride.

Oxbow Park and Zollman Zoo, Byron

Just north of Byron – watch for detours due to construction – and less than 20 miles from Rochester is one of the hidden gems of Southeast Minnesota: Oxbow Park and the Zollman Zoo. Open year-round, with the exception of some holidays, Zollman Zoo is free for any visitors and offers over 45 different species of animals in their exhibits.

No food and drink are allowed into the zoo nor are any recreation vehicles. There are also programs at the park throughout each season. All programs are also free to the public.

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In addition to Zollman Zoo, Oxbow Park offers open campgrounds from May 6 to Oct. 23, which can be reserved on their website. There are also several trails that connect through the park, picnic areas and playgrounds throughout the 634-acre park. The park itself is open daily from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m.

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Jenna Baumgartner, an intern at Zollman Zoo, puts out frozen corn for goats chickens Saturday, July 3, 2021, at Oxbow Park and Zollman Zoo near Byron. Frozen enrichment treats were given to some of the animals at the zoo to help keep them cool Saturday afternoon.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin file photo

Shooting Star Trail, LeRoy to Austin

Just want a day in nature away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life? Shooting Star Trail may be the place to go.

Stretching from the town of LeRoy at the Minnesota/Iowa border all the way to Austin, this trail covers 30 miles of southern Minnesota that can be trekked in a day. The trail is free to use and the only payment necessary is parking at Lake Louise State Park north of LeRoy, if people choose to start their hiking or biking from there.

The trail passes through other towns such as Taopi, Adams, and Rose Creek with dining options available in Adams and Rose Creek’s downtown areas for those needing to catch their breaths.

Shooting Star Trail
Cyclists enjoy the Shooting Star Trail in this undated photo. The trail runs from near LeRoy to Austin.
Post Bulletin file photo

Forestville State Park and Mystery Cave

Only 47 miles south of Rochester, Forestville State Park offers a checklist of things to do in one day for any traveler. The most notable parts of Forestville State Park are Mystery Cave and the ghost town of Forestville.

Mystery Cave is the longest known cave in the state of Minnesota covering 13 miles of known passages. There are many types of tours of Mystery Cave for people to sign up for, the most popular of which is the scenic tour, which has tours starting as early as 10 a.m. and late as 4 p.m. on weekdays and 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends.

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The scenic tour lasts around an hour and costs $15 for ages 13 and older, $10 for ages 5 to 12, and free for kids under 5, but a ticket is still required. The scenic tour is also handicap accessible.

The last two summers for Mystery Cave had restrictions on tours available for people due to COVID-19. This summer has more tours to offer as lantern, geology, and wild caving tours are once again available.

Mystery Cave
Lights, walkways and ladders are part of the tour at Mystery Cave near Preston, Minnesota.
Contributed

Already making the trip to Mystery Cave later in the week? Why not make time for the nearby ghost town of Forestville as well.

The Minnesota Historical Society operates the abandoned town that still resembles its original look from the 1800s. Guided tours are available from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and until 3 p.m. on Sundays, but visitors can also embark on their own self-guided explorations of the ghost town. Admission cost $10 for adults and $8 for kids, college students and seniors.

Not interested in a tour and want a real ghost town experience? That is also an option as visitors are encouraged to explore Forestville at their own pace at dusk or dawn. If visitors want to make the nighttime visit, no buildings are open for access outside of tour hours.

Forestville’s ghost town will be open for tours on July 4 from 11 a.m. - 3 p.m.

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The old settlement of Forestville makes a great trip to the past.
Contributed

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Theodore Tollefson is a business reporter for the Post Bulletin. He is originally from Burnsville, Minn., and graduated from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls with a bachelor's degree in journalism in December 2020. Readers can reach Theodore at 507-281-7420 or ttollefson@postbulletin.com.
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