If you’re looking to squeeze in a family trip before the snow flies, catch the spectacular show of fall color with a trip to Mankato. Getting there is part of the fun.
From the Twin Cities, take Hwy. 169 south — with pit stops at the corn maze at Sever’s in Shakopee, the pumpkin-picking patch at Emma Krumbee’s General Store in Belle Plaine and the seemingly endless aisles of Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store in Jordan. Let the kids burn off some steam searching for those hard-to-find classics like wax lips, Bit-O-Honey and Atomic Fire Balls.
The next leg of the trip is for the parents. At Belle Plaine, venture off 169 to Hwys. 6 and 93 to Le Sueur. Known as one of the “Rainbow Routes,” it follows the Minnesota River and gives you a big, sweeping view of the valley drenched in ruby reds and glittering golds.
To entertain the troops for the rest of the day, Mankato offers a bounty of free and nearly free activities for families and even hard-to-please tweens.
Fall in love
Minneopa State Park (54497 Gadwall Rd.) southwest of Mankato is home to southern Minnesota’s largest waterfall, which drops 45 feet across a sandstone ledge and into a lush, wooded ravine. Picturesque any time of the year, the park is best in autumn, when a canopy of hardwoods burst into color.
You can view the falls from above (make sure to walk beyond the bridge to see the second, even more impressive drop), but the hike to the bottom is worth it. There you’ll see where thousands of people have carved their names in the soft sandstone.
Play and learn
The small-but-mighty Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota (224 Lamm St.) lets kids time-travel, to get a sense of what life was like in southern Minnesota in the 19th century.
The museum, opened in May with financial backing partly from the charitable trust of Glen Taylor, who owns the Star Tribune, features a giant tree fort, a pretend garden, an engineering explorers lab, a farmyard and a cafe. The Harvest Festival goes through the end of the month and coincides with the opening of the museum’s outdoor learning spaces.
The new 12,000-square-foot area includes live farm animals, a water play feature, planter beds, a pumpkin patch, corn pit, and toddler hay-bale maze.
“We are trying to be the go-to fall destination for families with kids,” said the museum’s executive director, Peter Olson.
One of the museum’s more impressive installations is TapeScape 2.0, a play exhibit/art installation that uses more than 10 miles of packing tape stretched over steel frames to create tunnels and walls. You’ll never look at tape the same way again.
Snap a selfie
A classic piece of Minnesota nostalgia, a towering Happy Chef along Hwy. 169 can’t be missed. Take a family selfie in front of the 36-foot, spoon-hoisting statue. The Happy Chef restaurant (2100 Hwy. 169) was the first of 56 to open throughout the Midwest and is the only one still in operation. The iconic eatery is for sale, so you’d be wise to visit now.
Warm up with soup
When you’ve worked up an appetite, stroll Old Town. The stretch of N. Riverfront Drive includes Mom and Pop’s Ice Cream Shop (629 N. Riverfront Dr.) and Friesen’s Family Bakery and Bistro (515 N. Riverfront Dr.), which helped Mankato become Minnesota’s first Fair Trade Town.
All of Friesen’s goodies are made from scratch and the business is big on using locally sourced ingredients (no margarine here). On Saturdays in October, try the 12 Mile Soup, made only with ingredients found within 12 miles of the shop. Or opt for the Spokato soup (sausage, potato, kale, cream sauce). For dessert, there’s the Spapple cake, an apple pie baked inside a spiced carrot cake. It is as delectable as it sounds.
Visit ‘Deep Valley’
Voracious readers and history buffs will want to see the Betsy-Tacy Houses (332 and 333 Center Streets). Deep Valley was the name Maud Hart Lovelace gave her hometown, Mankato, in the 10 Betsy-Tacy books she published between 1940 and 1955. The Betsy-Tacy Society now owns “Betsy’s House” and “Tacy’s House,” where Lovelace and her real best friend lived as children. The homes, which have been designated national literary landmarks, are worth the visit even if you didn’t read the books. Tours are on Saturdays from 1 to 4 p.m. Call to arrange for a private tour.
Drive a tank
Rev it up a notch — or a hundred — with a visit to Drive a Tank (550 W. Cherry St., Kasota). At this military theme park you can pilot surplus military tanks and other armored vehicles around an old limestone quarry and smash junk cars.
This original experience will cost you. Packages range from $199 to $3,599. (Kids have to be at least 11 years old and 4 feet, 6 inches tall to be a passenger, and at least 14 years old and 5 feet tall to be a driver.) Open Saturdays and some Sundays through the end of October.
Walk in the park
Families gather year-round in Sibley Park (900 Mound Av.) on the banks of the Minnesota. The old-style park boasts a playground filled with red and white farm-themed equipment, walking paths and landscaped gardens. There’s also a big red barn where kids can pet and feed animals, through next weekend.
For the holidays, the park is draped in more than 1.5 million LED lights for the Kiwanis Holiday Lights (Nov. 27-Dec. 31) show, which also features live reindeer, horse-drawn wagon rides, ice skating and visits from Santa Claus.
Bring your bikes
Greater Mankato has more than 50 miles of paved trails and is becoming a hotbed for mountain biking enthusiasts. So load up the bikes for a leisurely loop from downtown’s Riverfront Park to Sibley Park or Minneopa State Park.
For a bigger challenge, take the 13-mile Red Jacket Trail, which traverses railroad trestles (including one that’s 80 feet high) to the Rapidan Dam.
An even bigger challenge? The 39-mile Sakatah Singing Hills Trail that stretches to Faribault.