Our family recently moseyed down a dimly lit trail, cradling warm beverages, surrounded by over 5,000 intricately carved pumpkins at the Minnesota Zoo’s 2nd Annual Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular. The 1/4 mile trail of glowing pumpkins features dizzying details and creatively carved designs. The Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular runs through November 3rd. Tickets are sold online for specific entry times. I suggest purchasing in advance as times will sell out. We arrived about 45 prior to our ticketed time allowing a few minutes to use the restrooms, grab a warm beverage (they come with or without Schnapps, you decide) and play a quick game of pumpkin tic-tac-toe. The zoo’s Central Plaza also has various snacks for purchase, a small straw maze and pumpkin bowling and bean bags.
The queue to the trail may look lengthy, but moves quickly and once to the trailhead people fan out for a more comfortable meander through the display. The 2019 theme is Around the World and features scenes from across the globe, each set to music. The pathways and even trees were decorated with carved creations, no duplicates. The Asian scene featured a pagoda, the English scene a castle and a Leaning Tower of Pisa accompanied the Italian scene.
We spent about 40 minutes on the trail. Along the way each of us pointing out details not to be missed or questioning how carvers were able to put such precise detail on a pumpkin. The Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular runs for 33 nights and carvers will create around 20,000 pumpkins during that time, swapping out wilting designs for fresh illuminated faces throughout the event. The video below from the Travel Channel gives a behind the scenes glimpse into how a similar trail was constructed.
Come prepared to wait and to walk. The Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular is along the zoo’s Northern Trail, which is a 10 minute walk from the main entrance. The pumpkin trail is another 1/4 mile. Wheelchairs/strollers/wagons are a must have if your group includes young ones or those with difficulty walking. We went on a weeknight when crowds were fewer and lines were shorter. Organizers say that on weekends, guests can expect to wait up to 2 hours in line. Yikes. This is probably why they serve those beverages mentioned above. The Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular was a great experience for our family. Our boys loved the displays and the morning after their faces are still lit up.
Ice cream is the currency of summer. There is no better treat on a hot summer day than a stop at a ice cream shop for a drippy, double scoop cone. Our family set out to sample sweet treats at seven different ice cream shops this summer. We tried a few new flavors as well as ordered some tried and true favorites.
Stop #1-Dairy queen
Dairy Queen is a summer staple in Minnesota, which meant it had to be stop number one on our ice cream tour. Plus the folks at DQ developed an attention getting marketing campaign; a flight of mini Blizzards. Bring on the Blizzard buffet. Our three picks were Brownie Dough, Cotton Candy and Cookie Dough. The first two flavors were new for summer so we dabbled with a couple different choices and the Cookie Dough we were confident was a good pick. Brownie Dough was our favorite. It was not overly chocolatey and the brownie bites were soft. It turned out Cotton Candy was a crowd pleaser as well. The boys love anything with sprinkles and this Blizzard delivered in that category. Ice Cream Experience Rating: 8/10 scoops. If the flight would be been presented on a little tray with placards like beer then….10/10 scoops. Location: Monticello, MN
stop #2-Wonders ice cream co.
Rolled ice cream is trending right now, so we jumped on the fan bus. Wonders signature flavor menu was extensive and we were a bit overwhelmed by all the choices. After lengthy consideration, we chose the Raspberry Berry, the Sour Tang and the Hella Chocolate. So many yummy flavors were scraped, rolled and creatively placed into these little paper cups. Aside from the yummy flavors, we liked the light and smooth texture of the ice cream. Our seemingly complex creations took just a few minutes to make. Watching these ice cream artists work their hibachi style ice grill was almost as great as the ice cream itself. Ice Cream Experience Rating: 9/10 scoops. If our three small signature creations would have been less expensive than our lunch….then 10/10 scoops. Location: Maple Grove, MN
stop #3-santa lucia’s
While DQ and Wonders offer vast selections of mixed ice cream creations, Santa Lucia’s keeps it simple with good ole hard scoop offerings (and plenty of them). Four large cases display a dizzying number of flavors, some of which are hard to find. I struggled to choose between the huckleberry and the rhubarb. Despite the fact I could have had a scoop of each in my cone, I went with the huckleberry and was more than satisfied. A small cone or dish here could feed a family of four as scoop sizes border on obscene. Ice Cream Experience Rating: 7/10 scoops. If only the scoop size wasn’t so big that I didn’t scrape some into the garbage just because I wanted to eat the cone then….10/10 scoops. Location: Milaca, MN
stop #4-lost lake creamery
Street side seating in front of this old fashioned ice cream parlor just adds to the experience at Lost Lake Creamery. Its another simple ice cream shop with generous scoops. This time we licked up raspberry sorbet and Pirate’s Bounty, which was a creamy blend of caramel ice cream with chocolate candy and cookies. There are also 24 other flavors and doggie dishes for four legged friends. Ice Cream Experience Rating: 7/10 scoops. Add more outdoor benches and tables as well as trash cans to this seasonal shop then….10/10 scoops. Location: Mound, MN
stop #5-schoony’s malt shop
All camping trips require a stop for ice cream. Schoony’s Malt Shop was just the spot on our visit to Interstate State Park and the Glacial Potholes. Schoony’s has a wide variety of flavors, even coconut. We opted for strawberry, Super-Man and chocolate chip cookie dough. We also ordered a vanilla malt, since the place is a malt shop after all. The malt was hand made with real ice cream and topped with whipped cream. So good. Ice Cream Experience Rating: 7/10 scoops. Refresh the shops interior and spruce up the seating options then…10/10 scoops. Location: Taylor’s Falls, MN
stop #6-MinNesota NIce Cream
We opted not to add the edible glitter to our specialty waffle cones at Minnesota Nice Cream. Our stop here was a break for the hard scoop shops, to try soft serve cones with creative toppings. The boys both ordered the Dirt ‘n’ Worms with chocolate ice cream, Oreo cookies, gummy worms and sprinkles. I had the Berry Nice with vanilla ice cream, lemon confetti cake, berries and you guessed it…sprinkles. If you’re looking for lactose free ice cream options, Minnesota Nice Cream has loads. Ice Cream Experience Rating: 8/10 scoops. If parking was more plentiful then….10/10 scoops. Location: Northeast Minneapolis
stop #7-Milkjam creamery
Milkjam Creamery offered the most unique and fun flavors of any of our ice cream tour stops. Flavors like Thai Tea, Uma Thurman and Pikachu were some of the most interesting. In addition to dishes and cones topped with creative scoops, the creamery also offers sundaes and ice cream sandwiches as well as boozy floats and shakes. The boys ordered the Ridin’ Duuurty; Oreo milk with Oreo chucks and hunks of salted peanut butter. I opted for the Raspberry Lambic float made with hibiscus lemonade Italian ice. Scott sucked down a Milkjam shake (caramelized goat’s, cow’s and sweetened condensed milks) with a shot of Irish Creme. The ice cream was so very good and the overall atmosphere was vibrant. Ice Cream Experience Rating: 9.9/10 scoops. Go there. Now. Location: Minneapolis
bonus stop: Brigg’s lake general store
We consider ourselves regulars at Brigg’s Lake General Store. It’s our family’s mission to keep this gas station, bait shop, hardware store and liquor store in business with frequent visits for everything from a frozen pizzas to a sheet rock screws. We’re obligated to drop in multiple times each summer for single scoop cake cones. Our order is fairly consistent; one mint chocolate chip, one cotton candy, and one bubble gum; extra napkins. Brigg’s Lake General Store has recently upgraded the seating situation with new picnic tables plopped right outside the entrance. Well played marketing strategy, Brigg’s Lake. Well played. Couple their marketing genius with the clever sizing display and Brigg’s Lake takes home the prize for best stop on the Minnesota Ice Cream Tour. Ice Cream Experience Rating: 10/10 scoops. Location: Palmer, MN
My husband grew up spending almost every weekend of his summer vacation camping or at the lake. I did not. Part of loving him as meant learning to love the things he is passionate about. As parents, we also think it’s important to share our passions with our kids and give them as many experiences as possible. Their first camping trip was when they were just 3 years old and 7 months old. We drove about three hours north of our home to Minnesota’s North Shore for 2 nights of camping at Gooseberry Falls State Park and a day trip to Split Rock Lighthouse State Park.
The bestest part about camping is everything camping.
Paxton Ament, age 3
We packed our camping gear and a ton of patience for this adventure. Our baby camping survival kit included; toys, sunscreen, bug spray, clothes for all types for any type of weather, oodles of snacks and a positive attitude. The Gooseberry Falls State Park campground afforded us easy access to the falls area. From the campground, the River View Trail is 1.25 miles one-way to the lower and middle falls.
Split Rock Lighthouse State Park is about 7 miles from Gooseberry Falls. On our second day, we drove to the lighthouse for foggy views of the lake and a misty trail hike.
Though it required more gear and we didn’t do any long hikes, our time at both Gooseberry Falls and Split Rock Lighthouse gave us the confidence to continue to explore the natural world with our young boys.
One pack. Just one pack crammed with all you need to survive in the wilderness for a couple nights. It’s liberating and empowering if you’re willing to tolerate the latrine situation.
About two hours north of Duluth, MN on the North Shore sits a secluded and less visited state park called George H. Crosby Manitou (just Manitou for short). While most visiting the North Shore explore Gooseberry Falls, Split Rock Lighthouse and Tettegouche, a short journey off the highway led our family on our first backcountry backpacking experience.
We arrived at the park around 10:30am and set out on a 1.6 mile hike to the cascades area via the Humpback Trail. The Humpback Trail is a narrow, rugged trail up and over a variety of landscapes. Look for orange diamond markers to ensure you’re still on the trail. At one point, we found ourselves navigating a very rocky, dried river bed and got off course. It took us just over 2 hours, including the time it took to retrace our steps when we lost the trail for a bit, to reach the cascades. Here we found a flat rock and sat down for a little lunch of cheese, crackers and sausage and sliced apples. Tummies satisfied, we took the Middle Trail (0.8 miles) back to the Benson Lake Area where we would collect our packs for the short jaunt to our backcountry site.
We chose to camp for just one night, since this would be our boys’ first brush with remote wilderness camping. This was also the reason that we chose a backcountry site that was no more than a half mile from the parking lot. Our oldest son is 9-years- old so we purchased a 40L hiking backpack from him. This allowed him to carry his sleeping bag and clothes, all four camping pillows, our hammock, and a few odds and ends. For our 6-year-old, we stuffed his school backpack (he’s a bit small for a hiking pack and will likely inherit his brothers in a couple years anyways) with his sleeping bag and his clothes. Both boys carried water and a new stuffed friend we bought them at the state park visitor center where to bought our vehicle permit.
An early afternoon arrival at our camp site allowed all of us time to unwind and disconnect. No phones or tablets. We chilled in the hammock, read and snuggled a new friend (Bridger only).
The remote camp sites on Benson Lake are located up on a ridge just above the lake. We find camp sites with access to water give the boys another venue to explore and typically make for nice evening strolls or sunset views.
Even though our trip was just one night, we opted to make dehydrated meals and test the boys’ taste buds. We made a couple different entrees; sweet and sour rice and chicken, mac’ n cheese and chicken alfredo. One boy liked the meals and asked for more, the other survived on trail mix and Clif bars. I think we’ll still chalk it up as a win.
Overall, our boys say they enjoyed and experience and are looking forward to the next time we strap on backpacks and trek into some less traveled territory.
Backpacking is better than car camping because you’re just trying to survive.
Every summer our family packs up a tent and several tubs of gear and finds a state park to explore. This year we chose Interstate State Park near Taylor’s Falls, MN on the St. Croix River. The idea of exploring glacial potholes and floating in a canoe appealed to us and was just a short drive from home. Away we went.
We arrived at our campsite about 2pm to set up our tent and make ourselves comfy. We reserved campsite #6 because it was on the river allowing the boys easy access to skip rocks or explore.
After getting settled we hit the River Trail to the Glacial Potholes Area of the park. It was an easy, 1.25 mile hike to the potholes with scenic views overlooking the river.
A mere 10,000 years ago melting glaciers made up of swirling sand and water carved out hundreds of potholes in the park. The boys enjoyed that they were able to walk down into one of them.
We hiked back to our site via the Railroad Trail, a paved path that follows an old railroad bed and then connects with the Sandstone Bluffs trail back to the campground.
We capped off our evening with s’mores and a sunset over the river.
We went into town for a big breakfast at Chisago House Restaurant in Taylor’s Falls. We wanted full bellies before we set out on our seven mile canoe venture. Just around the corner from our campsite was Taylor’s Falls Canoe and Kayak Rental. Our $50 rental included the canoe, life jackets, paddles and a shuttle pick up from Osceola back to the campground.
The water was claim and the paddle effortless (at least for our son, Bridger). About 3 hours later, we met our pick-up van and were back at the campground. Time for ice cream!
Time to tear down, pack up and head home to plan our next adventure
Not into shopping and spas, gather some gal pals and set off for a day at a few unique and fun places that will have you and your friends talking for years to come. As a busy mom of two boys sometimes an entire weekend away gives me more anxiety than joy. It’s one of the reasons Girls Day Away has been such a pleasure. Here are a couple of adventurous ideas.
#1 Ax Throwing
Sort of a cross between darts and bowling, ax throwing venues have popped up across the state offering introductory sessions as well as league play. We found ourselves at Victoria Burrow https://victoriaburrow.com/on a recent girls outing. Lanes are reservable and on weekends especially, I’d recommend it. We got a quick tutorial from our guide on technique and mechanics and then we were free to throw as we pleased. It took several attempts, but after a few rounds we were sticking the blade in the wooden target more regularly. Victoria Burrow also has arcade games and a mini golf course as well as food and drinks. Maybe it would have been wiser to drink the jar of moonshine AFTER our ax throwing session.
Like ax throwing, curling is sort of a cross between darts and bowling as well but this time on ice. Before stepping on the sheet I was like, “How hard can this be? I mean I don’t have to wear skates and all I have to do is coax this hunk of granite to the target. Piece of cake.” Hardly. John Shuster and team make it look easy. I was sweating trying to polish the ice in front of the rock convincing it to land on the button. Even though its challenging and a work out, it was a blast. Look for a Learn to Curl event at a local curling club and try your hand at the other game invented by the Scottish.
#3 Ice Castles
When the temperature dips it doesn’t mean your level of adventure has to. Look for an Ice Castle near you https://icecastles.com/. Makers of these millions of gallons of frozen water creations have erected castles in six locations across the United States and Canada. And they are popular. Book tickets in advance and bundle up for an icy adventure. The Ice Castles are built on site by “growing” tens of thousands of icicles each day, placing and watering them into frozen arches, tunnels and slides. It’s super cool. Our girls adventure was to the castle in Excelsior, MN for an after dark experience. One of the staff at the castle told us the best time to come was about an hour before dark so you can experience the castle during the daylight was well as under the lights. Ice Castle inventor, Brent Christensen, first made the castles for his kids to get them outside in the winter. As a middle-aged, mom who believes in embracing all four seasons, I’m glad he did.
#4 Dog Sledding
Nothing says, “I love winter” like mushing through the snow behind a team of Siberian huskies. On a Sunday afternoon, a friend and I ventured to Long Lake and Birch’s on the Lake Brew House for a brunch buffet and a sled dog ride put on by Silent Run Adventures. The food was tasty and the short sled ride offered us a taste of darting over the snow covered lake behind a team of dogs. We’d definitely do that again.
#5 Brews with your Crew
Taprooms and craft breweries are trending and so are events at these locations that get your gang together to try something new. I’ve made wreaths, painted pallets and done yoga while sampling artisan beers and connecting with friends. These events, though just for a few hours, leave me with a full heart as I’ve had time away from the daily grind to enjoy the company of others and a shared interest (sometimes that interest is just beer),
#6 Grape Stomp
I recently spent a sunny Sunday afternoon at Carlos Creek Winery at the annual Grape Stomp Festival. We hiked up our shorts and crushed it in the grape stomping competition, or at least we tried to. We didn’t stomp the most grapes the fastest, but we did sample some excellent wines and had a blast building stronger friendships. If you want to stomp grapes, you’ll have to plan ahead and reserve a time. Most time slots will sell out. If you just want to sample wine and eat cheese curds and pork nachos under the pergola while listening to live music, that’s an option as well.
#7 Sweat it Out
Friends that sweat together, stay together. That’s a saying, right? If not, then it should be. Our local community center hosted a Cardio Drumming sampler course to get people moving and introduce this work out trend. Several of us are hooked. A plastic tub, an exercise ball, some drumsticks and a good beat and we were banging out the rhythm of good health and good times with friends. If Cardio Drumming is not available where you live, how about Zumba? The point is to find an activity you haven’t done before and gather your gals to give it a try. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.
Inexpensive, quick and packed with fun these seven Girls Day Away ideas will hopefully leave you feeling refreshed and you might even find a new hobby participating in one of them.