Search for some cephalopods
You’re practically guaranteed to find fossils at Quarry Hill’s two eponymous quarries. Keep your eyes peeled for tiny, ancient marine critters on the ground. And if you can hold it in the palm of your hand, you can take your new buddy home. The most-commonly visited quarry is located a short walk from the Nature Center. And then there’s the less visible quarry on the park’s northern edge. (Park on the west side of the park, where Ninth Street ends, then follow the trailhead back by the pavilion and into the woods.) And, some pro tips from QHNC: Pick up a fossil guide at the nature center to help you identify what you’re looking at. Look for patterns like stripes and spirals in rocks. Look for fossils in rocks that you can split apart or flake. Best time to look for fossils? After a heavy rain.
Hold your own brewery tour
Last fall, several Roch Mag staffers took a tour of the city’s many breweries. Today, you can hold your own by ordering a crowler (or two) from every place in town, then bringing them home and sampling to your heart’s content. Here are a few suggestions: Kinney Creek (our oldest brewery) offers a nice Sunny Days. LTS Brewing Co.’s Strawberry Wheat is a favorite. Little Thistle Brewing Co.’s Brave Woman ale has a nice backstory. Thesis Beer Project’s Key Lime 3.14159 is delightful (and punny). And from Forager Brewery, even our marketing director—dedicated Budweiser-drinker Tessa—liked the Forager Gold.
Catch a (virtual) concert
When venues closed, musicians got creative. And this summer, instead of cramming into an outdoor venue (hot! sweaty! expensive drinks!), you can catch some top-billed touring acts from the comfort of your home. Keep an eye on 507 magazine’s Facebook (facebook.com/pb507) for shows from local songsters, and The Current (thecurrent.org) for a “virtual gig list” of statewide acts.
Plenty of Rochester businesses offer take-home art kits (sometimes with a video lesson included) so you can work off some creative energy. Neon Green in the Castle offers “mystery kits” or small, kid-friendly crafts. Art on the Go and Canvas & Chardonnay have take-and-make painting. Clover & Rose is a great go-to for things like embroidery. And amaramaart.com has some REALLY therapeutic needle-felting (where you stab cloth with a big pokey thing until it looks like a flower or animal or whatever else your heart desires).
Go on a treasure hunt—for real
Dig out that metal detector in the back of your closet (or borrow a friend’s!) and search for buried coins and other artifacts in your neighborhood park. Need help? The Zumbro Valley Treasure Hunters Club meets monthly, sponsors group metal detecting hunts—and has an active Facebook page for those interested in digging up (literally) the area’s history.
Climb more steps than you ever imagined you would climb
Built as a CCC project in the mid 1930s, the views from the 110-foot high Elba Fire Tower are worth the climb. And they’d better be: You’ll hike a 634-wooden-step trail just to get to the base of the tower, which sits on a 320-foot bluff. Then you climb the 110 feet of switchback stairs to get to the top of the tower (which is capped by a seven-by-seven foot landing complete with walls and roof ). Once you do get to the top, though, you’re met with one of the best views in southern Minnesota with a 360-degree panoramic of the Whitewater River Valley. And the chance to see all three branches of the Whitewater River converge. The tower is open to the public to climb. From Rochester, take Highway 14 (or 9) east, then head north on 74. Follow that past Whitewater State Park into Elba, then take a right on County 26. The parking lot is on 26, about one-third mile east of the 26/74 intersection.
Eat your way through our Best Restaurants issue (the carry-out version)
Every year, Rochester readers like you vote for their favorite restaurants and meals. We’re inviting you to look back at those winners (like that Banana Cream Pie from Chester’s. Or the lasagna from Victoria’s. Or, uh, anything from Bleu Duck) and carry out some meals from your new favorites.
Take a scenic drive. An official scenic drive.
Don’t take our word for it—these drives are officially designated as America’s Scenic Byways. We found four within an hour or so drive.
The drive: Historic Bluff Country National Scenic Byway
The official description: “Follow the lush Root River Valley and wind your way through what feels like a landscape painting of woodsy hills and dramatic dolomite bluffs, marked with the tranquil silhouette of a lone Amish buggy. Explore the Root River Trail by bike, stopping for pie or lunch in a trail town along the way. Or, enjoy the same route on the river; the main towns and campgrounds have outfitters for kayak, canoe and tube rentals, as well as bike rentals.”
The details: Bluff country is also a great place for fishing, with many trout streams winding through the area. Amish buggies are a common sight on these country roads.
The directions: The Historic Bluff Country Scenic Byway follows MN 16 from La Crescent west to Interstate 90. You can also take US 52 into Harmony and over to Preston as an “Amish Byway” with buggy lanes provided in the roadway shoulders.
The drive: Hiawatha Apple Blossom Drive Scenic Byway
The official description: “This rolling farmland and bluff-top route travels high above the Mississippi River, offering dazzling views of the river valley below. Stop for a picnic at Great River Bluffs State Park, where short paths lead to scenic overlooks with panoramic views. Each end of this thoroughfare connects with Highway 61, which is Great River Road, another scenic drive.
The details: “Pick up some fresh apples, apple cider, and pumpkins along the route. Minnesota orchards have some of the most distinctive apple varieties in the country, thanks in large part to the University of Minnesota research center (responsible for introducing the popular Honeycrisp apple, among others).”
The directions: To reach the Apple Blossom Scenic Drive from US 61 (which is a good start), take Winona County Road 3 (located half a mile north of O.L. Kipp State Park) to Winona County Road
12 across I-90 and through Nodine to County Road 1. You can follow Winona County Road 12 back through US 61 in Dakota, or turn right on Winona County Road 1 which becomes Houston County Road 29 before ending in LaCrescent.
The drive: Great River Road National Scenic Byway
The official description: “The Mississippi begins in Itasca State Park as a small wilderness stream. By the time the Mississippi winds through the heart of the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, past both downtowns and through a wooded ravine, it’s lined by walking and biking trails, and there are major museums and a theater complex along the banks as well. In the south, the Mississippi widens as it flows through a valley below tall, wooded bluffs. There are charming river towns along the way, including Red Wing, Lake City, Wabasha and Winona. From north to south, there are historic sites,scenic parks and interesting towns to explore along Great River Road.”
The details: The drive itself is worth it just for the riverside and railside stretches that run you right alongside mile-long trains and 5,000-horsepower, twin-prop tugs (the “mud churners and stump chewers”) shoving 1,000 feet of barges loaded with coal or concrete. And, if you loop over to the Wisconsin side, the blufftop views of the Mississippi, especially Buena Vista Park, 500 feet above Alma, offer some of the river’s best scenic overlooks.
The directions: We’ll actually recommend a modified route: Take 14 east to Highway 61, then north to Red Wing. Then take the bridge to the Wisconsin side and south along Highway 35 and cut back across at either Nelson or just south of Fountain City.
The drive: Shooting Star Scenic Byway
The official description: “This official Scenic Byway is one of the state’s first designated wildflower routes. The Minnesota Departments of Transportation and Natural Resources collaborate to manage wildflowers and native grasses along the route. The route passes through rich agricultural regions and small rural towns with historic buildings of national significance. Lake Louise State Park is located on the route. This is a 32-mile drive along Highway 56.”
The directions: The Shooting Star Scenic Byway simply follows MN 56. To reach this road, take exit 187 on I-90 easterly, or from State Highway 63, take the exit at Chester that will take you west on MN 56.
Do go chasin’ waterfalls
Minneopa State Park, 507-389-5464
The description: The Dakota word Minneopa means ‘water falling twice,’ a reference to the upper and lower falls of the Minneopa Creek. A short walk from a nearby parking lot will take you to an overlook, but we recommend following the well-marked trail that encircles the falls, and leads down a limestone stairway to the valley below. Ascend the opposite side and enjoy a panoramic view of the valley, which reveals the underlying geology of this area. Visit Seppmann Mill, a wind-driven grist mill fashioned in German style from native stone and lumber, or hike through oak savanna and native prairie grasslands overlooking the scenic Minnesota River Valley.
Get there: Minneopa Falls State Park is five miles west of Mankato on State Highway 68 and U.S. Highway 169.
Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park, 507-333-4840
The description: If you can find the hidden falls, it’s worth the effort. (And you can find the hidden falls.) Sure, it’s only about 10 feet high with a 30-foot crest, but Hidden Falls is worth the half-mile hike, since this is a park that is worth a quick hike any season of the year. This park doesn’t attract the publicity other state parks in the region do because it doesn’t have an interpretive center or a big geological attraction like the nation’s longest river, a cave, or fishing lake. Still, it’s one of our favorites for watching wildlife. Nerstrand is in a heavily forested region of southeastern Minnesota just south of Northfield. The DNR’s traveler’s guide lists it as the “largest remaining high-quality tract” of what the French explorers called The Big Woods. The park’s massive hardwoods provide cover for everything from warblers and whip-poor-wills to white-tailed deer and the mourning cloak butterfly.
Get there: Take I-35 to State Highway 19 east into Northfield. Go south on State Highway 3, east on State Highway 246, and then turn right onto County Road 29.
Bike the Douglas Trail. Finally.
There are tons of ways to traverse the 12-1/2 miles, starting in Northwest Rochester, continuing through the town of Douglas, and ending in Pine Island. You could try hiking, biking, rollerblading, or horseback riding. And, yes, it’s wheelchair-accessible. Though you may want to have someone pick you up. Because you’ll have to get back. 12-1/2 miles.
Picnic in a park
Sure, Soldiers Field’s ample parking space, playgrounds, and pavilion seem like the obvious choice. But Essex Park (5455 W. River Rd. NW) is a lesser-known gem, while Cooke (722 7th St. NW) has some nice walking trails stretching across downtown. And Kutzky (213 13th Ave. NW) offers access to volleyball courts and basketball hoops.