Times are tough, but there's no need to drive far or spend much to escape to beauty.
Minnesota has a treasure trove of outdoor opportunities -- from the famed Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, to the stunning North Shore of Lake Superior, to the bluffs and coulees of southeastern Minnesota. There are thousands of lakes and rivers to explore, scores of scenic hiking trails and ribbons of paved bike trails. Parks, beaches, campgrounds, fishing holes? We're surrounded by them. The hardest decision is deciding what to do and where to go. But with the economy still gripped by recession and many folks pinching pennies, Twin Cities residents don't have to travel far or cough up big cash to find outdoor fun. Here are 10 mini-adventures you can do this summer on a shoestring budget:
"I've paddled all over the country, and there's very few places that you can drive an hour or less to and feel like you're in the Boundary Waters. The St. Croix is one," said Dan Raedeke, who owns a canoe rental business on the river. "It's just beautiful." The St. Croix offers 250 miles of exquisite paddling, from the intimate upper reaches near Gordon, Wis., to the lake-like lower river south of Stillwater. Sandstone bluffs, lush forests, pristine waters and wildlife make it a mesmerizing paddle. There's also excellent fishing and swimming. Two stretches are especially popular with Twin Cities residents: from Wild River State Park to Taylors Falls, and from Taylors Falls to Osceola or William O'Brien State Park. Paddle for a few hours or all day, then catch a shuttle back to your vehicle.
Bike beneath a canopy of trees, through meadows and past bluffs and ravines alongside the Cannon River on the Cannon Valley Trail -- a 19.7-mile paved former railroad grade between Cannon Falls and Red Wing, just south of the Twin Cities. It's one of my favorites. And I'm not alone. The trail attracts almost 100,000 visitors yearly. Bike to Red Wing for lunch or dinner, then head back to Cannon Falls. A perfect day trip. A pass is required.
More info: www.cannonvalleytrail.com.
Hike five minutes into Lebanon Hills Regional Park in Dakota County and you'll have a hard time believing you're still in the heart of the suburbs. This place is wild. Roam 28 miles of trails through lovely woods and meadows, skirting tranquil lakes, ponds and wetlands. I've hiked the trails, run them and cross-country skied there in the winter, and every time I'm amazed at the splendor of this rugged, unspoiled 2,000- acre park so close to home. What a treasure.
Stroll through magnificent gardens and landscaped grounds once home to Grain Belt Brewery founder Frederick Noerenberg and his family, then relax in a cool gazebo overlooking Lake Minnetonka and watch the fancy boats cruise past. Picnics and swimming aren't allowed (weddings are). Check out the view from the former homesite on the hill overlooking the lake. Don't miss this gem.
More info: www.threerivers parkdistrict.org/parks/noerenbergmemorial.cfm.
There are zillions of places to fish in Minnesota, and you don't need a $30,000 boat to find a good one. The state has more than 350 fishing piers and thousands of miles of shoreline to fish. Here's one spot to consider: Island Lake in Shoreview. The Ramsey County park provides shore-fishing opportunities, and there's a pier and boat launch. Sunfish, walleyes, bass and even catfish are catchable at this popular fishing spot.
Minnesotans love camping; just check out the jammed campgrounds any summer weekend around the state. But you don't have to go far to find a scenic campsite. One of the neatest is Lake Auburn Campground at Carver Park Reserve near Victoria. "It gives you that up-north feel close to home," said Tom Knisely of Three Rivers Park District. We're talking rustic tent camping here; 54 sites, plus two hike-in sites on pretty Lake Auburn. No electricity, so it's not ideal for RVs. There's a swimming beach, fishing pier, a boat landing on the other side of the lake, nearby hiking trails, birding and the Lowry Nature Center. Don't forget to bring the s'mores.
More info: www.threerivers parkdistrict.org/reservations/resprocedure.cfm; 952-443-2911.
Historic Fort Snelling State Park, at the scenic confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, is a perfect picnic destination. Set out your basket on Picnic Island, or fire up the grill at the picnic area near the sand swimming beach of spring-fed Snelling Lake. There are picnic shelters for large gatherings, and hiking and biking trails, too.
One of the most popular trails in the Twin Cities area, the Gateway is 18 miles of bliss that runs from St. Paul to Pine Point Regional Park near Stillwater. "The wonderful thing about it is you can start in the city and end up in the country," said Dorian Grilley, former head of the Parks and Trails Council. The old railroad grade is flat but cuts through some beautiful country and connects to other trail networks.
An expansive sandy beach in a picturesque setting with clean water -- for a cool dip it's tough to beat. Even when there are lots of people, there's plenty of elbow room. Bring hot dogs and make a day of it. Don't forget the sunscreen. It's also one of the best fishing lakes around.
More info: www.threeriverspark district.org/parks/park.cfm?pid=1.
This is a 150-acre natural area in the heart of Richfield next to Interstate Hwy. 35W. Three miles of trails and boardwalks wind through the park. "It's a great place to visit -- you're guaranteed to see birds," said Jim Williams, a longtime birder who writes his Wingnut birding blog for the Star Tribune. "There's good parking, the paths are flat and wide and handicapped accessible. For citizen birding, you can't beat it." You might see tree swallows, bluebirds, barn swallows, lesser bitterns, egrets, great blue herons and waterfowl such as mallards, coots and Canada geese. No pets, bikes or in-line skates are allowed.
More info: www.woodlakenature center.org.