Learning about Charles Lindbergh — Minnesota hero, ace aviator and one of the world’s first mega-celebrities — would alone be worth the visit to Little Falls.

It’s one of state’s best family field trips with a chance for kids to sit in a replica of his Spirit of St. Louis plane. They can picture Lindbergh, son of a U.S. congressman, spending his summers south of town, taking apart engines, and fearlessly exploring the Mississippi River before making headlines in 1927 with the world’s first solo transatlantic flight.

Even without Lindbergh’s legacy, Little Falls shines as an apple-pie slice of Americana, a laid-back destination perfect for younger children. Historic homes from the logging boom line its shady streets, trains whistle and chug past its historic Cass Gilbert-designed depot, and the Mississippi River thunders across a dam and lures fishermen to calm spots along the banks.

Just a block or two from the river, an old-fashioned downtown beckons with a sweet bakery, an independent bookshop, toy store, classic movie marquee, and an arts co-op.

It’s an ideal stop to get the wiggles out on the way to Brainerd or a relaxing place to spend a weekend peppered with history and family fun.

 

WHAT TO DO

Learn about Lindbergh: Tag along on a seasonal guided tour of Lindbergh’s boyhood home at the Charles A. Lindbergh Historic Site, 2 miles south of downtown ($6-$8; 1-320-616-5421; www.mnhs.org/lindbergh). Interpreters share what fueled his hunger for adventure and how quirks such as sleeping on a cold screened porch toughened him for freezing temperatures while flying.

The adjacent visitor center chronicles the Lindbergh family, including Lindbergh’s marriage to author Anne Morrow (who often flew with him while mapping Pan Am routes), the kidnapping and murder of their son, Lindbergh’s controversial World War II stance, his medical inventions for cardiac surgery and transplants, and work for environmental groups in his later years. The historic site is open Thursday through Sunday, Memorial Day through Labor Day.

Roam the state park: Charles Lindbergh used to explore woods near his home and build bridges across Pike Creek, which flows through what’s now the 436-acre Charles A. Lindbergh State Park. The aviator donated the land in memory of his father, U.S. Rep. Charles Lindbergh Sr. You can hike along the creek, watch for spring wildflowers and songbirds, enjoy the WPA picnic grounds and playground, or go geocaching with boxes stashed throughout the park. The park has 38 campsites (1-320-616-2525; www.startribune.com/a2220).

Celebrate anglers: If you can’t get onto a lake, a trip to the Minnesota Fishing Museum will net a nostalgic look at Minnesota’s favorite sport. The often playful exhibits cover Larson boats, which were made in Little Falls, a fishing camp, spearfishing, ice-fishing, fly fishing, artsy homemade lures, wildlife art, and a look at the biggest catches across the state including a legendary 40-pound muskie that anglers faithfully caught and returned to the Mississippi until its death (1-320-616-2011; www.mnfishingmuseum.com).

Greet big cats and bears: Nicely sized for ages 8 and under, the Pine Grove Zoo features tigers, wolves, elk, bobcats, bears and more. It’s easy to see it all in about an hour, but leave time for the free Pine Grove picnic area and vintage playground tucked beneath some of the most impressive pines you’ll see. Watch for an impressive trillium bloom in May. Open mid-April through mid-October ($6 ages 4 and up; 1-320-616-5595; www.pinegrovezoo.com).

Amble through downtown: Head down E. Broadway and 1st St. SE. to find the best boutiques, including Gumdrop Tree for kids’ toys and gifts, Bookin’ It for recommended reads, Ambiance@53 for housewares, clothing and gifts, and Great River Arts Association for pottery, photos, paintings and sculpture by area artists.

Explore Fort Ripley: The 53,000-acre Fort Ripley offers an intriguing glimpse of military might and soldiers’ lives from its early pioneer days to the National Guard’s modern global role. At its Minnesota Military Museum, stroll past tanks and jeeps or head indoors to see uniforms, photos, weapons, awards and other artifacts. Open May-September ($2-$5; free to active military; 1-320-616-6050; www.minnesotanationalguard.org/camp_ripley/museum).

Take a ride on the Soo Line: Hop onto the Soo Line Trail, a former east-west railroad route, for a memorable ride across a trestle bridge high above the Blanchard Dam and Mississippi River south of Little Falls. The views are spectacular, especially in the fall. Access the trailhead just off Hwy. 10 and head west toward the small town of Bowlus. Hard-core bicyclists can connect with the 46-mile Lake Wobegon Trail in Holdingford (www.littlefallsmn.com/Recreation.php).

 

where to eat

One downtown spot built its reputation on burgers for more than 75 years before it became A.T. The Black and White and moved toward a more eclectic upscale menu. It might include crab omelets for breakfast and almond-crusted walleye with risotto or chicken roulade for dinner. It’s worthy of date night, but also family-friendly and features décor such as vintage Little Falls photos (116 1st St. SE.; 1-320-632-5374; www.attheblacknwhite.com).

Pete and Joy’s Bakery would be worth a stop for the baked goods alone, but it ups its appeal with a homey, affordable café, too. You can fill up on soup, sandwiches and specials such as Polish dumplings with sausage. Polish pottery, kolaches and other pastries also reflect the area’s heritage. Goods to go may include fish-shaped cookies, nutty wild rice bread with cranberries, big fritters, sticky orange blossoms and even homemade dog treats (121 E. Broadway; 1-320-632-6388).

where to stay

The gracious Waller House Inn B&B lets visitors soak in Little Falls’ Victorian legacy with five guest rooms, many with stained glass windows. Feast on breakfasts such as stuffed apricot French toast or a wedge of crispy cheesy hash brown pie flecked with bacon locally smoked at Thielen Meats (1-320-632-2836; www.wallerhouseinn.com). There also are several hotel chains in Little Falls.

IF YOU GO

Little Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau, 606 1st St. SE., 1-320-616-4959, www.littlefallsmn.com. Guests are welcome to walk upstairs in the 1903 Classic Revival Burton-Rosenmeier House to see a few rooms furnished with period furniture and art.

 

St. Cloud-based Lisa Meyers McClintick wrote the “Day Trips From the Twin Cities” guidebook and Minnesota Lake Vacations mobile travel app.