On a blue-sky morning, we gently pushed a canoe into the Mississippi just below a thundering dam by St. Cloud State University. From this spot near the football stadium and hockey arena, it's a leisurely, pretty paddle in and around the 30-some Beaver Islands.
As we floated beneath an abandoned iron bridge, a Canada goose and her goslings honked from the riverbank and three deer splashed clumsily through the water about 200 feet away. They scampered to one of the islands, which dot the river for about 2 miles. The islands harbor a few rustic campsites but mostly offer a welcome sense of wilderness as the city of 70,000 residents fades with each easy stroke of the paddle.
The waning days of summer and early fall are a great time to enjoy St. Cloud's attractions, especially with a family in tow. Head to Lake George, encircled by prairie flowers. Historic St. Mary's Cathedral, yellow-domed Stearns County Courthouse and downtown provide the backdrop for kids running through expansive play areas.
Get on the water: With two operators now renting canoes, kayaks and even standup paddleboards, it's easier than ever to get onto one of the Mississippi's nicest stretches. It takes less than three hours to paddle to the landing in Clearwater about 15 miles away.
Make reservations for canoes, kayaks and return shuttles through SCSU's Outdoor Endeavors (1-320-308-3772; www.stcloudstate.edu/campusrec/outdoor endeavors) or Clear Waters Outfitting Company (1-320-469-1590; www.cwoutfitting .com). Clear Waters also offers guided fishing trips on the river, known for its smallmouth bass.
New paddlers also can practice their skills on Lake George, a man-made lake and renovated park that's become a re-energized hub in the last year.
Grand gardens: If you only have a few hours, beeline for the Clemens and Munsinger gardens, two of Minnesota's best (and most colorful) free attractions.
The gardens sprawl for several blocks across the river from St. Cloud State. Shady and serene beneath towering pines, the Munsinger Gardens were planted about 90 years ago. Hosta-lined paths meander past swaths of lush begonias and coleus, a gazebo, vintage log tourist cabin and an ox-head fountain symbolizing the city's spot on ox-cart trails.
Up the hillside, Clemens Gardens embrace full sunshine with formal themed gardens planted in the 1990s. They include a rose garden and a white garden modeled after England's Sissinghurst Castle. (1-320-257-5959; www.munsingerclemens.com).
The real Granite City: You'll find locally quarried speckled black-and-white or muted red granite throughout St. Cloud, long ago dubbed "The Granite City" (and also where the popular chain restaurant began). Look for polished or rough granite on the 1860s state prison and on buildings, homes, sculptures and fountains in the downtown and residential historic districts. Information on historic tours can be downloaded at www.startribune.com/a1706 or look for "Preserving St. Cloud History" on iTunes.
Cool spot on hot days: The best place to appreciate St. Cloud's rocky past? Quarry Park and Nature Preserve. This 600-plus-acre county park encompasses more than 30 water-filled quarries where you can fish for trout, jump into a 106-foot-deep extra-chilled swim quarry, find a serene place to picnic, stroll through woods and prairie, or check out giant remnants of the industry. It's also popular for scuba diving, rock climbing and mountain biking ($4 parking; 1-320-255-6172; www.co.stearns.mn.us).
Shopping or a show: With a newly expanded River's Edge Convention Center along the Mississippi, downtown has stirred up more things to do. Don't miss the elegant Paramount Theatre & Visual Arts Center, Pioneer Place on 5th Avenue for small-venue concerts and plays, or stores such as Books Revisited, Bumbledee's, and Northern Brights (1-320-257-8600; www.stcloud downtown.com).
With its French Second Empire mansard roof, widow's walk and wrought-iron railing on the roof, the 1891 Victorian Oaks B&B serves breakfast by candlelight for guests in its three guestrooms. It's an easy stroll to Lake George or to downtown ($90-$140/night; 1-320-202-1404; www.vicoaks.com).
The Heritage House B&B, an elegant brick 1904 Queen Anne Victorian, sits in St. Cloud's historic district not far from the St. Cloud State University campus and downtown. Four guest rooms are named for the area's English, Swedish, French and German heritage ($100-$145/night; 1-320-656-5818; www.heritage housebbMN.com).
Jules Bistro, a small, classy café, sits conveniently next to the Paramount Theatre, serving appetizers such as bruschetta with creamy goat cheese and a sweet dried fruit tapenade; a Caprese grill with fresh mozzarella, tomato and pesto on honey white bread; and wood-fired pizzas and evening pasta specials (1-320-252-7125; www.julesbistro stclod.com).
White Horse Restaurant & Bar has built a following with its ever-changing creative specials, from Senegalese peanut soup to misoyaki salmon or jaegerschnitzel. Summer desserts might be strawberry lemonade whoopie pies or maple bacon brownies (1-320-257-7775; www.whitehorsemn.com).
If you're a sucker for throwback places and in a hurry, Val's Rapid Service, a tiny 50-year-old institution, sits two blocks from Hwy. 10 at 628 E. Saint Germain St. Order and pay with automated machines in a tiny lobby, then wait for piping-hot grease-splotched bags of burgers and heaps of tasty fries (1-320-251-5775).
Reach the visitors bureau at 1-320-251-4170 and www.granite country.com.
St. Cloud-based Lisa Meyers McClintick wrote "Day Trips from the Twin Cities."