If there is one place in Minnesota that makes me feel insanely inadequate about my lacking green thumb, it’s got to be the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. From someone who can barely keep the nine flowers in my window boxes alive for three months of the year, this place never fails to reinforce my regret of not listening to my mother when she tried to teach me about pruning, watering and weeding. I always assumed this place was created solely for the viewing pleasure of folks like my mom – people who can truly appreciate the architecture of a ground’s landscape and understand how much hard work really goes in to its creation. These people would definitely NOT be children. That being said, I’ll be the first to admit when I’m wrong (unless my husband beats me to it). Just recently, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the Arboretum offers so much kid-friendliness (both hidden and not hidden) that we’ve ventured there twice in the past month. With a hedge labyrinth, a Japanese garden (complete with koi pond), a sculpture garden, fountains, trails, waterfalls and a Learning Center complete with outdoor play yard, this place provides just enough entertainment for the little ones to allow mom and dad time to genuinely soak in the beauty of their surroundings…and possibly even (gasp) each other!
What is it?
The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum is 1,000+ acres of beautifully-groomed greenery, flower gardens and sculptures. It is part of the University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences and is a top visitor attraction of the metro area. After paying at the gate, you can then choose to park your car and bike or walk the grounds, or cruise the Three-Mile Drive with your windows down, parking in random lots around the loop. More than 30 specialty gardens and 5,000 plants adorn this land where conservation is key. Come for a special event, like an art fair or family fun day, or simply visit on a random weekday to enjoy the bog, wildflowers, shrubbery, vegetation or the simple serenity of silent nature, accompanied by a waterfall or two. While the Arboretum is an obvious dream for fans of robust roses and plentiful peonies, children can also find giddy delight here. Keep reading…I’ll prove it…
Fit for what ages?
Fit for ALL AGES! Under 13 is free of charge, but regardless of age, everyone will find something they love here. Even babies strapped on to mama’s chest will have a sensory reaction to the fresh air of a crisp Fall stroll. Toddlers and preschoolers will find their joy at the Play Yard, school-age kids will really get in to the maze garden, older kids can find some relaxation on the forever-long hiking trails lined by bogs and willow trees. Pack a lunch and make memories dining near the waterfalls or in the sculpture garden on the hilltop overlooking acres and acres of rolling grass. With younger kids, I recommend either driving and stopping in the mini lots, or bringing a stroller to make the full jaunt. But don’t not go because you fear your children are too young. I promise you, they aren’t.
How much are we talkin?
This was the main reason it took me so long to take my kids here…the money. Admission to the Landscape Arboretum at full price is $15 for each person over the age of 13. Granted, that’s only $30 for two parents, but that can buy a whole lot of tokens at Chuck e Cheese, and at least there, I would be assured my kids’ entertainment value. But, now I see how worth it it really is and our kids really ARE fully entertained (and for much longer than they would be at Chuck e Cheese, might I add). A little bonus incentive added in 2012: Visitors can present their paid gate receipt for a free return visit within 30 days. It’s basically a BOGO deal!
Memberships are available, starting at $49/person. And, hey U of MN students, you’re FREE all the time (lucky little whipper snappers!).
The only items that can potentially lead you to pull out your wallet again once you’re within the gate are:
- The Arboretum Restaurant. We have eaten here both times and I’m always happy with my food. It has a cafeteria-meets-Damico & Sons-type feel, with hot and cold entree options and of course mac n cheese for the kiddos. Not the cheapest option (that would be packing your own), but if you feel like treating yourself after a long hike, this is a great place to do it!
- Tram Rides. For $5/person, you can hop aboard a daily narrated tram tour of the entire Arboretum. Never done it. Bet it’s cool, but avoided it with kids because it’s an hour long.
- The Gift Shop. I could spend all day here, which completely defeats the purpose of going to a nature arboretum. But, my goodness, the local options, the baby gifts, the book selections…I even love the aprons and I’ve never cooked a day in my life! Their store is worth a stop.
Want some tips?
Before you go, be sure to check online deal sites, such as Groupon and LivingSocial. We have made multiple purchases off LivingSocial to get two admissions for $12 (half price). Once you pay, you can enter the grounds and either park and walk the three-mile loop or drive it, parking randomly throughout in one of the many available mini lots. With smaller kids, I advise doing the latter. You can cover more ground, stop closer to the places that will actually keep their attention, and still (technically) SEE everything sans the whining about hurting feet or tired legs. Bigger kids might enjoy biking the grounds, but do be careful since bikers (and walkers) need to share the same one-way narrow path as drivers. Bathrooms here are located in the Visitor Center, the Learning Center and there are a few strewn about on the drive, but not many. There is a free shuttle that does drop-offs and pick-ups at various locations throughout the loop (this is different from the narrated tour tram).
Our plan of action is usually to hit the Maze Garden first, then take the Three-Mile Drive at our own pace, stopping at whatever looks pretty and interesting. Our kids like when we go under the shaded trees, pretending they are in the “spooky woods.” We usually run around at the sculpture garden for a bit and then loop back around to the beginning and park in the main lot. We bop up behind the restaurant and check out the waterfalls and Japanese Garden, plus I usually squeeze in a quick visit to the rose gardens while the kiddos are playing in fountains or chasing butterflies. After that, we grab lunch at the restaurant if we didn’t pack one, and get in the car to drive to the Learning Center/Green Play Yard. It is a trek from the main lot. With children, I strongly advise you DRIVE there. We play here until tiredness sets in and that half hour drive home is completely silent. Mission. Accomplished.
The Summer and Fall (especially Fall) get very busy on the weekends, but weekdays are peaceful and serene and can really sooth a chaotic mind even with children. This place is so huge and open, kids can run and climb steps and walk trails virtually anywhere until their heart’s content. But definitely don’t forget to steer them to these Top 3 spots for kiddos:
- The Japanese Garden: This garden is one of the first stops along the three-mile drive, located across from the Visitor Center side door. The stone path lies just inside a cute wooden door, leading you past a small house, Japanese flora, and a pond – complete with waterfall – containing tons of koi fish. And what kids don’t love koi fish?
- The Maze Garden: The maze garden is a literal labyrinth (minus David Bowie…bummer) made of hedges, trees and even some fun little tubes through which to crawl. Let your kid be the leader while you try to avoid dead-ends on your trek to the lookout tower at the maze’s end. The good news is, you’ll never remember which way you came from, so you can maze and remaze and remaze again!
- The Green Play Yard: This small outdoor play area is located next to the Learning Center, which is hidden down the road in the opposite direction of the Three-Mile Drive. Intended for kids five and under, children will use natural elements and their own imagination to create some fun! There is no commercial playground equipment, but rather a wooden house, a play stage (with curtains and everything!), a huge sand pit, and logs laid out to represent canoes, bridges, and cars.
Inside the Learning Center on weekends from noon-4pm, you can enjoy a family fun activity. Check out the full agenda of upcoming family activities here. The Learning Center also has some interactive games about horticulture. They offer preschool programs, summer camps, and guided adventures for your kiddos, all details listed online. This place is constantly filling its calendar, so check online for events in the worlds of yoga, music, acting, arts and crafts, food and wine, and so much more!
If you visit the Arboretum in the Fall, first of all, you’re lucky and smart, but secondly, don’t forget to visit the Applehouse (open late-August through mid-October). Located one mile west of the Arboretum, the little wooden house sells all the U of M apple varieties – and there are many – plus specialty gifts and baked items.
Want to check out the Arboretum free of charge to see if it’s your cup of tea? The third Thursday of every month has free admission after 4:30pm. (between April-October) as well as free every Thursday all day admission (between November-March).
Hours and Location
3675 Arboretum Drive | Chaska, MN 55318
Amazingly, the Arboretum is open year-round, only closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas days. The hours vary by season, but during the peaks of Summer and Fall the grounds are open from 8am – 8pm seven days a week. The Visitor and Learning Centers and restaurant do close earlier. Check the most up-to-date hours here before heading out on your adventure. Getting there is easy, since it’s basically right off Highway 5, just a short ways past Chanhassen.
Follow MN Landscape Arboretum on Facebook where they announce events and programs, new exhibits and garden displays, Family Fun Weekend activities, or just to see some gorgeous photography.