Destination – Northfield, MN
Picture this: you’ve been working from home for months. The dining room has now become the conference room, and the stresses of work are beginning to meld into the stresses of daily life. You and your family are itching to be outside, giddy to explore somewhere new, to stretch your bodies and refresh your senses with a change of scenery, to work up a sweat and then sit back satisfied with a hot drink or a cold beer. Perhaps flying is too much of a risk or too much of a hassle, and you are looking for a quick getaway to a quintessential yet often overlooked American gem—perhaps you are just looking for a getaway to anywhere.
For the adventurous family eager to get outside, see some sights and find a little homey comfort away from home, the greater Twin City area in Minnesota might just have you covered. As a state with a thriving outdoor activity scene, Minnesota is rich in fun and unique ways to experience nature and enjoy some quality time with either yourself or your family. In the winter months especially, cross country ski centers and the various activities and outings they offer can serve as excellent focal points for your next excursion—and even in the summer, such centers easily pivot to fulfill all your hiking and biking needs.
Though it rarely gets referred to as such, the Twin City region has long been a quiet Nordic ski mecca, producing and attracting some of the country’s –and even the world’s—top skiers. Several current Olympians, including Gold medalist Jessie Diggins, hail from the Land of 10,000 lakes, and (before a certain pandemic decided otherwise) Minneapolis was slated to hold the 2020 FIS Cross Country World Cup. Though the World Cup could not come to the Twin City area and liven up the trails with some serious skiing, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t!
In fact, The Twin City region—whose central geographic location makes it an easy stopping point for those crossing from coast to coast, or a drivable weekend getaway for those in the Midwest—offers a unique mixture of urban sights, rural comforts, and world class skiing for outdoor adventurers and vacationers alike.
One small Minnesota city, on the outskirts of Minneapolis-Saint Paul, exemplifies this blend of urban and rural, of natural serenity and sophistication: Northfield, the land of cows, colleges, and contentment. A breezy forty minutes south of the extraordinary cross country terrain at Theodor Wirth regional park,
Northfield nestles its two local colleges—Carleton and St. Olaf—in miles of rolling forest and plains. Between the colleges runs the formidable Cannon River, along which the city has built an almost European Riverwalk, complete with pedestrian bridges and spacious waterside patios home to several excellent bars and pubs—Froggy Bottom’s and the Contented Cow are local favorites. Standing grandly up from the Riverwalk are several blocks of late 19th century brick buildings, whose Old West style facades give the main street a historic, frontier-town feel. And Northfield does not feel wild-west-esque for nothing: it was on that very street that Jessie James and his gang of bandits were famously stopped by a crowd of heroic locals.
Especially given the constraints of urban living in Covid times, making Northfield the quaint-yet-classy home base for your Minnesota getaway will give you the freedom to explore the state without the pressures of the big city.
First, you can check in to one of Northfield’s fine hotels: The Archer House is a quaint and historic waterside Inn with several restaurants on its first floor and lovely views of the Cannon and Carleton’s Campus, while the Fairfield Inn boasts an in-house bar, pool and spacious suites, also overlooking the River from the opposite bank. If you’re in Minnesota to ski, then pack up the car or hop on a Northfield Lines bus up to the south edge of Minneapolis, where Theodor Wirth Park and The Loppet Foundation will give you entrance to 20 miles of pristinely groomed trails through over 700 acres of forest and field, along lakes and over vistas.
Alternatively, if you are content stay in Northfield and explore some less maintained terrain, both Carleton and St. Olaf have their own expansive arboretums with beautiful meandering trails that are often groomed for both classic and skate skiing, and are always perfect for snowshoeing, hiking and biking.
Whether you travel to Minneapolis for the Loppet Foundation’s top-notch trails, or you stick down south and make your own ski adventure, this area of Minnesota will not disappoint. Get your engines started with an impeccable cup of joe from the offbeat College café Goodbye Blue Monday, or by sipping a carefully frothed cappuccino from the slightly more refined Hideaway Coffee and Wine Bar down the street. Both serve excellent hot and cold breakfasts and fresh pastries that are sure to please.
After whatever outing you choose, be sure to wind your way back to downtown Northfield, where the pub-lined river, two superb breweries and a smattering of inviting restaurants are waiting to welcome you.
Imminent Brewing on the East side of the cannon offers a staggering lineup of foamy beverages, ranging from their takes on classic brews to their own delicious innovations, plus a handful non-alcoholic kombuchas and sparkling ciders—all served in the chic comfort of their spaciously renovated former auto shop. Be sure to check Imminent’s website to see which fantastic food truck will be parked in their beer garden to accompany your pint. Across the river, Tanzenwald Brewing maintains a rotating list of European classics brewed in massive vats right there in the beer hall! Behind the bar, Tanzenwald’s restaurant crew cranks out irresistible German pub fare with an infusion of American staples—the fried brussels sprouts are a surprisingly awesome beer snack, while the locally-sourced Bratwurst is sure to set you right.
After a post-adventure beer or two, perhaps you are hungry for a more serious sit-down dinner; if so, wander over to The Ole Store on the St. Olaf side of town for a carefully prepared midwestern standards with serious modern flair. Or, perhaps you are in the mood to keep the party rolling. Head down to the riverside Contented Cow for a few drinks in their cozy English style pub, then work your way either East a block for drinks and dancing in Reunion’s 2,000 square foot bar and event space, or West across the river for Froggy Bottom’s lively dance floor, which overlooks the Cannon. When it comes to an unwinding night after a day of exploring, you can’t go wrong in this vibrant college town.