Photo by Caitlin Abrams
Doug Flicker's Sandcastle snack shack at Lake Nokomis
Minneapolis's Lake Nokomis, boasts Sandcastle, a revelatory spin on the lakeside snack shack.
There are some summer traditions we stick to out of duty (taking our kids to the Boundary Waters), family (hosting the in-laws for the 4th of July), or even pride (trying waterskiing tricks beyond our capabilities). But then there are the things we do out of pure summer-lovin' pleasure. Here are a few.
Canoeing the Chain of Lakes
You don't need a merit badge in canoeing to tackle the not-so-wild waters of Lake Calhoun and its sisters. All it takes is a little patience (a sunny Saturday can bring lines that are not to be underestimated), a slight sense of balance, $20, your ID, and (if you're smart) a cooler packed and ready to lug onboard. For an easy-on-the-arms ride, take a spin around Calhoun and then head over to Lake of the Isles. If you're feeling parched, aim your bow for the waterway between Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake—there's the occasional entrepreneurial youth on the shore selling lemonade to the weary oarsman. Now that you're reinvigorated, continue to Cedar Lake and pass right through to its lesser-known neighbor, Brownie Lake. The quiet will offer nice respite before heading back to the crowded and chaotic Lake Calhoun and the brilliant mass of humanity trying to squeeze every drop out of summer in the city. 3000 Calhoun Pkwy., Mpls., 612-230-6400, minneapolisparks.org
Taking the Kids to the Hyland Play Area
It's only June and the kids are already bored with the swing set—the one that cost as much as a Mediterranean cruise and was supposed to spare you ever having to take them to the park again. What to do? Go to the Hyland Lake Reserve in Bloomington. There's more than 2,000 acres of prairie land to explore, miles of bike trails, and canoe or paddleboard rentals (it's cheaper than Lake Calhoun rentals), but the real star is the Hyland Play Area, a playground to put all other playgrounds to shame. Regulars know it as Chutes and Ladders due to the huge climbers and slides, and it even has a section designed for children with disabilities. 10145 Bush Lake Rd., Bloomington, threeriversparks.org
Venturing to Minneapolis's Other Lake
While you were busy fighting the crowds at Isles, Harriet, and Calhoun (i.e., the cool kids of Minneapolis lakes) last year, Lake Nokomis was quietly becoming totally excellent. Doug Flicker, the mastermind behind southwest Minneapolis's Piccolo, won the bid to open Sandcastle, a revelatory spin on the classic lakeside snack shack. It's the only place in town perched on a real live beach, and this summer will see the addition of soft-serve ice cream to its offerings. Sandcastle's presence puts all of Nokomis's other intangibles—fewer people, more serene surroundings, less congestion, big beaches where you can almost always snag prime real estate—on their proper pedestal. 4955 Lake Nokomis Pkwy. W., Mpls., minneapolisparks.org
Never Saying No to Ice Cream
There's an unassailable rule that goes into effect on Memorial Day: Thou shalt not disregard any chance to eat ice cream. You only get three months to finish a meal with a stroll and some rocky road dripping down your face, so enjoy it. Here, some tried-and-true itineraries for doing just that.
- If you're on the west side of the metro, head to Excelsior's Licks Unlimited and walk down to the water. 31 Water St., Excelsior, 952-474-4791
- In Minneapolis, if you're coming off a ramble 'n' climb at Minnehaha Falls, stop by Mosaic Café for fresh custard with sassy add-ins. 3019 Minnehaha Ave., Mpls., 612-746-1504
- After a day at Lake Como in St. Paul, head to Conny's Creamy Cone for a sweet spot of soft-serve. 1197 N. Dale St., St. Paul, 651-488-4150
Photo by Stephanie Colgan
Catching a Saints Game
Don't get us wrong: We love the Twins. And we really love Target Field, in the same way we love hot dish, a day at the State Fair, and our collective ability to forget the 234 straight days of subzero temperatures this winter. But here's the thing: Nothing says summer more than a St. Paul Saints game, especially this season, the team's last at Midway Stadium. Yes, the place is a dump, games are interrupted by freight trains, and we haven't the foggiest notion who's on the team—or if they're any good. No matter. The Saints are synonymous with summer for one profoundly simple reason. In an era when everyone from soccer-playing 6-year-olds to ESPN anchors act as if athletic achievement is akin to sequencing the human genome, the Saints—with their brilliantly goofy promotions, live pig mascots, and affordable prices on everything from tickets to beer—are a reminder that some things are just meant to be fun and that we need not take sports (yes, even professional sports) all that seriously. 1771 Energy Park Dr., St. Paul, 651-644-3517, saintsbaseball.com
Road Trip to Taylors Falls
Everybody wants photo albums chock-full of cute pictures of the kids doing wholesome and adorable summer activities, and nowhere—and we mean nowhere—provides better photo ops than Taylors Falls. Start out at Interstate State Park, where trails along the bluff allow for striking portraits on the bluff tops overlooking the Grand Canyon of the North. Then, move on to those excellent hand-pattied burgers and homemade root beer floats at the forgettably named (but unforgettably good) Drive-In in downtown Taylors Falls (572 Bench St., Taylors Falls, 651-465-7831).
Now that the kids are full of sugar, it's time to go big! (Pro tip: Think about packing a second shirt for this, as the first will now be full of root beer float.) Jump back in the car and zip across the river to Wisconsin to Fawn Doe Rosa (2131 U.S. 8, St. Croix Falls, Wis., 715-483-3772), the private petting zoo where $4 buys a pony ride and $1.50 will get you a bag of animal treats to feed the little mischievous goats, big-eyed llamas, fragile fawns, and quivering baby bunnies.
Trust us: You'll need more than one bag. Actually, you might need more than 10 bags. But while you may feel silly slapping down $20 for dog kibble and carrots, the pictures you walk away with might just be family heirlooms forever. Interstate State Park, 307 Milltown Rd., Taylors Falls, 651-465-5711, dnr.state.mn.us
Photo by Becca Sabot
Listening at Lake Harriet
With its sailboats, streetcar, and sunrise yoga, Lake Harriet recalls a bygone era, a sort of vacationland idyll. But what really sets the family-friendliest of Minneapolis lakes apart can be summed up in two words: the bandshell. The building has become such an icon that there was a brief hubbub a couple of years ago when volunteers painted the building's formerly sky blue exterior to its current sandy brown. The passion isn't hard to understand. Enjoying a night of music at the bandshell—often from the same kind of bands who've been playing outdoor concerts in Minnesota for more than 100 years—isn't just a night out for parents who feel the fatigue of summer schedules and kids who are running on sugar and too much TV. It's a way to soak up the simplicity of summer at its best. 4135 W. Lake Harriet Pkwy., Mpls., 612-230-6400
Smell the Roses (and Everything Else) at the Arboretum
It doesn't take long for summer to hit a frenetic, demanding pace. And when it's time to regroup, there is simply no better way, and no better place, to collect yourself than at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. Whether it's the blooms, the birds, or the miles of paths meandering through more than a thousand acres, the arboretum manages to evoke something new every time you visit, no matter how often you've been there before. And if all that fails, take a quick trip through the shrub maze—it's a perfect way to bring out the kid in you. 3675 Arboretum Dr., Chaska, 952-443-1400
Visit Franconia Sculpture Park
It's fun to live in a town where you can stand barefoot in the grassy shade while gazing at the "Spoonbridge and Cherry" on your lunch break. This summer kick that artsy outdoor experience up a notch by taking the hour-long drive just past Taylors Falls for a day at Franconia Sculpture Park. The artists aren't quite as high-buck as the Sculpture Garden, but their creations are wondrous and playful: cast iron carrots in a stack of wooden boxes marked "Acme Iron Carrots," a floating house that looks like it blew in from The Wizard of Oz, a monolith made of old record players. Plus, many of the sculptures are made for play, so you and your brood can climb a rooftop that emerges from the ground, walk on a mirrored path that reflects the sky, or swing on a Willy Wonka-ish playground. The kids won't want to leave. Neither will you. 29836 St. Croix Trail, Franconia