Hastings offers the best of both worlds for weekend vacationers -- it's only about a 30-mile drive from the Twin Cities, but its geography and history have shaped its identity as a river town with abundant recreational attractions.
Located along the Mississippi River, and bisected by the Vermillion River, Hastings takes advantage of its proximity to water. Public boat launch and dock areas make boating and fishing accessible, and a 15-mile loop trail routes runners, walkers and bicyclists past the city's notable attractions, including the Federal Lock and Dam No. 2, the Vermillion Falls and the LeDuc Historic Estate. (A trail map can be found at: www.startribune.com/a1561.)
You can access the trail at Jaycee Park, just northwest of downtown. The park also is a great place to watch the progress of the $120 million Hwy. 61 bridge that's being built across the Mississippi. The old bridge, which remains in use during construction, replaced an iconic spiral bridge that was demolished in 1951.
Jaycee Park adjoins Lake Rebecca Park, a popular spot for canoeing and kayaking. Continue northwest along the bike path or along Lock and Dam Road until you reach the lock and dam operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It's the second in a system of 29 locks on the Mississippi River between Minneapolis and St. Louis. An elevated observation deck near the parking lot gives visitors a better view of the lock and dam and any barge and boat traffic.
To explore sights along the Vermillion River, head southeast of downtown. At Old Mill Park, on the river's north side, a short paved path leads to the ruins of a mill once owned by Gov. Alexander Ramsey. A pedestrian and bicycle path that passes over a former railroad bridge offers scenic views of the gorge and leads to the Vermillion Falls, where water plunges 30 feet into a limestone ravine.
The falls is next to the ConAgra Mill and is conveniently close to the best deal in town, $1 chocolate shakes from the Hastings Dairy Store (1701 Vermillion St.; 651-437-9414; www.hastingscreamery.com). The store is operated by a farmer-owned cooperative that's been in business for more than 90 years.
North of the creamery you'll find the home of one of the city's influential early families, the LeDucs. William and Mary LeDuc began construction of their 15-room Gothic Revival mansion in 1862, and they moved in with their children in 1865 after William returned from the Civil War. Two of the LeDuc daughters later operated a nationally known needlework business out of the home. The LeDuc Historic Estate (1629 Vermillion St.; 651-437-7055; www.dakotahistory.org) was restored by the Minnesota Historical Society and given to the city in 2005. It's now operated by the Dakota County Historical Society. Guided tours are offered Wednesday-Sunday from late May through late October ($6 adults; $3 ages 6-17). The estate also hosts free outdoor concerts on Sundays in August starting at 7 p.m. It will host a Civil War weekend Sept. 8-9, commemorating the 150th anniversary of William LeDuc's appointment as quartermaster in the Union Army. Cost is $8 per person.
Visitors can appreciate history of a different kind by attending a classic car cruise-in, held downtown every other weekend through September from 5 to 9 p.m. Remaining dates for 2012 are Aug. 11, Aug. 25, Sept. 8 and Sept 22.
Summer's the time to enjoy free weekly jazz concerts at the Alexis Bailly Vineyard (18200 Kirby Av.; 651-437-1413; www.abvwines.com) while sampling wine and playing bocce ball. The concerts are on Sundays from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. through Aug. 26.
If you're looking for a quick dine-in lunch or the fixings for a picnic, stop at Emily's Bakery & Deli (1212 Vermillion St.; 651-437-3338; www.emilysbakerydeli.com) for made-to-order sandwiches, tempting doughnuts and a variety of bars.
For sit-down dining in a casual atmosphere, head downtown to the Onion Grille (100 Sibley St.; 651-437-7577; www.theoniongrille.com). Recommended items include fish tacos and the seared scallop salad. The restaurant makes its own ice cream.
Another friendly downtown spot is Karl's Red Rock Cafe & Espresso Company (119 2nd St. E.; 651-437-5002, www.karlsredrockcafe.com), which serves breakfast and lunch, plus homemade malts and espresso drinks.
The Hastings Chamber of Commerce & Tourism Bureau (1-888-612-6122; www.hastingsmn.org) has maps and information about recreational activities and events.
Joy Riggs is a Northfield-based freelance writer.