In a tiny cabin next to Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area, floor-to-ceiling windows framed a forest of maples and oaks. On the mini-deck, I sipped coffee from an Adirondack chair while gazing at the falling leaves. My sleek Scandinavian-style cabin offered a peaceful retreat from the city for a recent weekend of kayaking and hiking.
Friends made the two-hour drive on their own and rented a separate 215-square-foot cabin, giving us our own spaces, kitchenettes and bathrooms. In the crisp fall air, we met up outside to grill burgers or sit around a fire pit.
For recent getaways in central Minnesota, I found the mini-cabins and a room in a grain silo well suited for our times — private escapes away from crowds with easy access to the restorative power of nature.
Kelsey Braun and her husband, Chris Austin, opened Cuyuna Cove in July in the mountain biking mecca of Crosby, Minn., 120 miles north of the Twin Cities. The pandemic hit the state just as the couple were putting the finishing touches on the luxury cabins, and they feared COVID-19 would scuttle hopes of attracting tourists. The opposite happened: Twin Cities residents snatched up bookings.
“I think COVID helped in the way that people just need to get out of the cities ... a lot of people just need a reset during this time of incredible stress,” Braun said.
The five minimalist-style cabins nestled in woods with queen beds, modern bathrooms and kitchenettes are stocked with utensils, spices and organic coffee beans to freshly grind. During my stay, a path carpeted with crimson maple leaves glowed under white lights strung up along a pond and through the woods, a magical trail leading to a fire pit.
Braun and Austin were inspired by glamping spots, such as a Texas campground they visited with yurts, tepees, retro RVs and safari tents.
The 33-year-olds, who grew up in St. Cloud, reconnected four years ago and shared a vision. Drawn to Crosby by friends and the affordable living, they renovated a 30-foot RV and a former mining house for themselves and bought 3 acres of wooded land, one of the last pieces in Crosby connected to the state recreation area. Braun, who started a cleaning business, and Austin, a physical therapist, did most of the two years of construction themselves for Cuyuna Cove and spread the word on Instagram.
The couple plan to add canvas safari tents with queen beds next spring.
Cuyuna, which became a state recreation area in 1993, has been reinvented as a mountain biking destination. My friends and I explored on foot and by boat instead, hiking Milford Mine Memorial Park, which honors 41 miners who died in the state’s worst mining disaster. Two scuba divers waded in one of the 15 former mining pits filled with crystal clear water as we kayaked past orange and yellow trees on the shoreline, stained in its signature red dirt.
Night in a grain bin
A week before, I had embarked on a solo trip to Alexandria, Minn., about 130 miles northwest of the Twin Cities. There, the landscape flattens into cornfields — a fitting place for grain bin silos revamped for lodging. Last year, Anne Larson and her husband, David, transformed four silos from a family farm into eight minimalist rooms.
I arrived, no other person in sight, unlocking my room with a keycode and collapsing into bed, staring at the circular wood-paneled ceiling overhead. Windows overlook trees and a little lake.
Some farmers shake their heads at grain bins turned into bedrooms, but Larson said most people are intrigued. She grew up on a nearby turkey farm and after reading an article about converting grain bins into living spaces, she embraced the challenge of creating stylish rooms in the unusual space. “It’s just not a normal build ... most builders build in squares,” she said of the 13-sided bins, at one of the two event venues she runs in Moorhead and Alexandria. She began offering them on Airbnb this year when she’s not hosting events (mostly in the winter and Sundays through Wednesdays).
“So many people, especially couples ... have just found a little refuge there,” Larson said of guests, about half of whom are from the Twin Cities.
I stopped for a pint and pizza at Carlos Creek Winery, which opened a viking-themed brewery, 22 Northmen, last year. Later I visited the Runestone Museum, which houses the controversial slab of sandstone said to have been left by eight Swedes and 22 Norwegians in 1362. Next door, the Legacy of the Lakes Museum showcased Minnesota’s lake resort and boating history.
Then I retreated back to the woods, exploring the trails at Lake Carlos State Park, relishing the serene woodland and the empty path away from the crowds.