Minnesota. The land where Mother Nature amuses herself by pushing her people to suffer ungodly frigid temperatures until they’re on the brink of insanity and then, POOF, she hands them sunshine. Virtually overnight. But don’t blink – you’ll miss it!
Summer comes and goes quickly in our lovely state. That’s why our family makes a little list of adventure options – our so-called “Summer Bucket List.” It’s not made to instill pressure or guilt. We just want to have a quick response to the first utterance of “I’m bored” coming out of someone’s mouth*.
*Being bored is a wonderful thing. Don’t get me wrong. Boredom happens a lot at our house. I like to pair it with buckets of laundry and a little healthy conversation. Now…back to the fun stuff…
So whether you’re a list-maker or a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pantser, you’re bound to find an idea or 20 in this handy dandy list of summer adventures for our boisterous, fabulous, winter-surviving Minnesota kiddos.
Happy summer, everybody! Now stick out your chest, look Mother Nature in the face and boast, “Only three months of sunshine? Hold my beer, girlfriend.”
1. GO STRAWBERRY PICKING
This is first because it happens fast. Strawberry season takes place in June and July. The warmer the spring, the earlier the berries are ready for picking. This is a fun and easy adventure for families of all ages, including the very young. Pick a sunny day, a favorite orchard and start Pinteresting some strawberry gloriousness. It’s a relaxing and delicious way to spend a summer morning with the kiddos. Some of our favorite orchards include: Afton Apple Orchard (Hastings), Pine Tree Apple Orchard (White Bear Lake), The Strawberry Basket (Monticello), and Pleasant Valley Orchard (Shafer).
2. VISIT FAWN DOE ROSA
Fawn Doe Rosa Wildlife Educational Park in St. Croix Falls has always been like pure magic in the eyes of my children. The big lake, the hyperactive goats, the deer that walk right up to you and nibble food out of your hand. It’s a childhood favorite that’s been around since well before our childhoods, so – just like crimpers and Joey McIntyre – you better believe this place will make YOU feel magical too. The road trip to Taylors Falls will be so worth it too. I have a full post on Fawn Doe Rosa and Taylors Falls if you want more info.
3. SEE A DRIVE-IN MOVIE
There is no better way to celebrate the rarity of a perfect summer night than by watching a movie OUTDOORS! We love visiting Vali Hi Drive-In in Lake Elmo for their $1 hot dogs and pre-show Frisbee tossing. Or visit Starlite Drive-In in Litchfield which has two screens (one is often dedicated to children’s movies). There’s also the Elko New Market Drive-In Theater. I believe they took a break during the pandemic, but might open back up soon.
Just remember: It’s still Minnesota so there will be bugs/mosquitoes. Our family blood is a mosquito’s favorite feast so we usually deck out our trunk and watch the movie with the doors closed. Whatever. It’s still novel.
4. COOL OFF AT THE SPLASH PAD
Gosh, I love a good splash pad. Just feels like there’s less anxiety than a pool with the same ability to cool off and the cost is lower (and many times, plain old FREE). Our family favorite splash pads are: Central Park (Maple Grove), Round Lake (Eden Prairie), Oak Hill (Saint Louis Park) and Nicollet Commons (Burnsville). My friends at Family Fun Twin Cities have an awesome list available with even more of these fantastic little water havens around the Twin Cities.
5. SLEEP IN A TENT
Who cares if it’s just in your backyard – sleeping in a tent is one of those memories that just stick with a kid. If you’re feeling ambitious, pack up the car and hit up a woodsy state park. Whitewater State Park is notorious for having very few mosquitoes because of their running waters. Father Hennepin State Park has a nice little beach. There’s just so many to choose from (see this list too). Also, consider renting a space from GlampingHub.com or HipCamp.com for some more unique destinations (some a little less “rugged” for, ahem, people like me).
Not into hauling your life away to make the memory? Cool. Put up a tent in the backyard, disconnect from electronics, play board games, sleep in a sleeping bag, pee in your own house, and tell ghost stories around a flashlight. To a kid, it’s all the same, man.
6. GET UP EARLY FOR THE FARMERS MARKET
Calling all early birds! Need a place to get out of the house before the rest of the house wakes up AND get your produce shopping done for the week? Or just want to be around fellow early birds who have the same love for the Farmers Market as you do? My daughter and I are the early risers who LOVE hitting up the Minneapolis Farmers Market near downtown (all days of the week, but most fun/fullest on weekend mornings) or the Market in the Linden Hills neighborhood in Minneapolis (Sundays only). Other popular choices we have loved in the past are the Mill City Farmers Market downtown Minneapolis (Saturdays only) and the St. Paul Market right near the Saints stadium in downtown SP (Saturdays and Sundays). A good list of east side markets can be found here.
7. HOST A LEMONADE STAND
Who doesn’t love a heavy piggy bank, am I right? Get your mini entrepreneurs set up on their curb to make some summer dough! A pitcher of lemonade, a plate of cookies, a toy cash register for change, and the joy of making the signage…that, plus the obvious cute factor of kids selling lemonade that no one can resist, is all you need to pull off one of time’s most trusted summer adventures: The Lemonade Stand. (This year, we tried something new and turned our piggy bank profits into a charity drive for the local Humane Association – let your kids choose the charity and go to town making money and a difference!).
8. TRAVEL TO THE NORTH SHORE
I lived in Duluth for five years and have always enjoyed revisiting…in the summer. The kids get a kick out of the lake, the boardwalk, Park Point Beach, Canal Park, Enger Tower, Glensheen Mansion, and the lift bridge. Even more, they seriously LOVE hiking Gooseberry Falls, Jay Cooke State Park, or Split Rock Lighthouse and Pebble Beach. Then they can get rewarded for a job well done with a stop at Betty’s Pies, Portland Malt Shoppe, Great Lakes Candy Kitchen, or Sweet Kismet Candy Store. Of course there’s a million more stops you can make in the vast “North Shore” – I wrote all about how to jam-pack a day full of adventures there in my blog post here. It’s worth a day trip. Or a weekend. Or, heck, a full week. Why not?!
9. SPEND A DAY AT A UNIQUE POOL
There will be hot, hot summer days in Minnesota and I’m not the kind of mom who loves to throw money at expensive swimming pools when most beaches and lakes are free (yup, I’m a cheap-o and summer is long). But every once in awhile, we splurge and just do it! Some of our very favorite and more unique swimming pools in and around the metro area include: St Louis Park Aquatic Center (waterslide, kids area, giant sand box), Edina Aquatic Center (surfing, zip line, kiddie area), SandVenture Aquatic Park in Shakopee (a sandy pool, drop slides, waterslide) and the Grove Cove in Maple Grove (lily pads, lazy river, kiddie area, waterslide).
10. SPEND A DAY IN STILLWATER
The cutest and quaintest city in Minnesota: Stillwater. We just love spending a day here with the kids. There is plenty to do along Main Street (including Leo’s Malt Shop, MN Nice Cream, Candyland), but let’s not forget Teddy Bear Park, Pioneer Park, the Arcola Bluffs, the St. Croix Boom Site, the Stillwater Trolley and the Lift Bridge. Up for even more adventure? Pack your bikes and do the Brown’s Creek State Trail or St. Croix River Crossing Loop Trail (goes across the bridges with beautiful scenery).
I have a post about Teddy Bear Park and the rest of Stillwater here.
11. DINE ON A ROOFTOP
For some weird reason, my kids all went through phases where they wouldn’t stop talking about dining on an outdoor rooftop. Believe it or not, Minnesota has a ton of rooftop options, and many are relatively kid-friendly. I took three kids under six to Stella’s Fish Cafe years ago and we didn’t get kicked out or anything. We ate among the birds and they loved every second of it. Other fine choices for sitting skyline with kids in tow include Brit’s Pub in downtown Minneapolis, Graze Provisions in the North Loop (gotta get some Soul Bowl), LynLake Brewery in downtown Minneapolis (mmm…burgers), or Cossetta’s Italian in St. Paul (get the cannolis). If you want something unique, but isn’t on a rooftop, you could always give Sea Salt Eatery, Tiny Diner, or Bread & Pickle a try.
12. RUN FREE AT TAMARACK NATURE CENTER
Oh, White Bear Lake, you’ve done it again. With your super-clean, water-flowing, all-natural nature center, you’ve created a place that is so very worth the drive for us west siders! A wonderful place to cool off, get wet and dirty, learn about nature, climb rocks, build a fort with sticks and just be young, Discovery Hollow is the perfect choice on a hot day.
Read all about it in my review from a couple years ago. Yes, we are definitely due to go back.
13. DO SOME UNIQUE MINI GOLFING
My kids think mini golf is the greatest excursion known to man, so my family goes abnormally above and beyond to find a variety of courses throughout this great state. While our favorite is definitely Can Can Wonderland in St. Paul, that’s not outdoor, so we save that one for the cold months (but DO go – it’s incredible – you can read about it on my blog here). We’ve enjoy Adventure Falls in Taylors Falls, Big Stone Mini Golf in Minnetrista, and Lilli Putt in Coon Rapids. Some not-so-unique options are Centennial Lakes in Edina, the Links at Dred Scott, and Malt-Tees in Richfield. If you want mini golf to be a small part of something bigger, consider a day trip to Lark Toys in Kellogg for golf, toy shopping, carousel riding, and more.
14. HIKE, HIKE, and HIKE SOME MORE
My husband is obsessed with reading hiking blogs, so we have been turning some reading into reality these past few years. Plus, don’t forget Covid, when hiking seemed like one of the only safe and healthy options. Some of the best hikes we’ve taken as a family (meaning, good for little legs, ease of convenience, and high on the beauty scale) are all documented in my blog post about wide open spaces and they include: Willow State Park (Hudson), Jay Cooke State Park (Carlton), William O’Brien State Park (St. Croix), Lake Maria State Park (Monticello), Arcola Bluffs (Stillwater), Hawk’s Ridge in Maiden Rock, and Interstate State Park (Taylors Falls). Bring bug spray , snacks, and your patience…but I promise, hiking with your littles makes for some of the greatest stories.
15. FIND A DELICIOUS PIZZA FARM
Pizza is hands down the greatest way to my heart. And when you add wine, the outdoors and a gorgeous farm as the backdrop, that’s it. I’m done! My heart will explode with happiness. Taking a day trip to a pizza farm is an absolute MUST for this mama every summer. There are a small number of them surrounding the Twin Cities, family-friendly (some dog-friendly) and woodfire-grilled deliciousness (a lot of it straight farm-to-table style). They are worth the drive and the price. My absolute favorite is actually in Nelson, WI, called Nelson Stone Barn. Seriously, BE-AU-TI-FUL! We also hit up Red Barn Pizza Farm in Northfield and that was equally as yummy and pretty. Others I’ve been wanting to try include Two Pony Gardens (Long Lake), Pleasant Grove (Waseca), and Fairhaven Farms (South Haven). If you go, bring me some leftovers, yo!
16. GET MUDDY ON THE QUAKING BOG
Get the kids muddy! Just do it. Throw your hands up in the air (and pack extra shoes) and let the kids hike freely through Theodore Wirth’s Quaking Bog in Minneapolis. This park is nature tucked directly inside the busy city, but you’d never know it. The bog sits underneath the coolest floating boardwalk and jumping on it is guaranteed to make your kids giggle. If you have time, head across the pond to check out the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and cruise along the winding paths surrounded by beautiful flowers, tall trees, and even snapping turtles or snakes (if you get lucky). If you want a hike that won’t bore them, this is the personal favorite!
Check out my full blog post on the Quaking Bog here.
17. PADDLE BOAT AT CENTENNIAL PARK
Not everyone can live on a lake (I should know – thanks, St. Louis Park) but everyone should have access to the water and the sports that come along with it. So every once in awhile we will find a spot to rent a kayak, canoe or paddleboat. My kids’ favorite is paddle boating, which we have done at Centennial Lakes in Edina ($20/45 minutes) and Firemen’s Park in Chaska ($10/30 minutes). Centennial Lakes has a nice summer Farmer’s Market and some great live music in the park throughout the summer as well. The serenity is really soothing and a walk around the lake is not painfully long nor complicated. You’ll see ducks, fish and turtles and can drive up France Ave. when you’re done for a treat at Cone Brothers or Shake Shack.
18. CATCH SOME FISH
While I won’t touch the fish nor the worm that you must first have to catch said fish, I LOVE watching my kids fish. Good thing they have an Uncle Lance! Find a great fishing spot, pick up some cheap poles then sit on a bucket and have a conversation with your kids. If you don’t have a boat, there are some sweet fishing piers at Fireman’s Park (Chaska), Fort Snelling Lake (St. Paul), and Bass Lake (Plymouth), and Lake Como (St. Paul), Lions Park (White Bear Lake) and Wirth Lake (Minneapolis)…….and the 9,994 other Minnesota lakes that I’m sure are wonderful for catching a yummy dinner.
Need some pointers for how to start fishing with your kids? Read my blog on that here. Or just call Uncle Lance.
19. DISCOVER THE BEAUTY OF THE ARBORETUM
What’s that you say? The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum won the Readers’ Choice 2017 Botanical Garden of the Year Award? You betcha it did! While you may not hear the words “botanical garden” and think “perfect for my KIDS,” I guarantee you’ll be surprised. They have koi fish, a Japanese garden, fountains, waterfalls, a Green Play Yard (tucked away, so be sure to look it up before you head there) and a super fun (and semi-complicated) hedge maze. All of that, on top of just the sheer beauty of the place, definitely makes it #1 award winning material. One change since the pandemic, you DO need to make a timed online reservation before visiting now. You can do so on their website.
I wrote all about the Arboretum with kids a couple years ago. Read that post here.
20. TRY OUT A MOUNTAIN BIKE SKILLS COURSE
Never tried on a mountain bike before? Scared to jump in headfirst? You can do some testing (although you BYOBike) at a small skills course, and there are plenty to choose from in the area. Good news – they’re ALL awesome! Our kids totally dig mountain biking and skills courses and all of them – from kindergarten to middle school – think it’s a blast because they pick and choose the obstacles of difficulty based on their personal level of bravery or insanity of the day. My two oldest kids fly around every turn, and my youngest uses it as a learning tool for the bigger trails we hit up when we go “actual” mountain biking. Best skills courses we’ve found around here are: Cottage Grove Bike Park, Carver Lake Park, Lebanon Hills Bike Park. If you just want to dive in, start with some of the easy green rides at Bethel Haunted Trail, Xcel Energy Mountain Bike Trail (Shakopee) or go all in and take the family to Cuyuna up in Crosby. Read all about that adventure in my Cuyuna blog post here.
21. GO OUT FOR BREAKFAST
When school’s in session, the mornings are a rush out the door. And while working parents don’t necessarily get summers off, it’s fun to treat the weekends more special because everything just feels more carefree in the summertime. That’s why my family enjoys a leisurely breakfast at a slow-moving restaurant with greasy eggs and a zillion types of pancakes a couple times a summer. Occasionally we will bike out for breakfast. Other times, we will wear our pajamas (yup, we’re that family). Even if you technically don’t get out the door until nearly lunch time, many of our tried-and-true favorites serve breakfast all day. Try the Original Pancake House (many locations), Good Day Cafe (St. Louis Park), Colossal Cafe (St. Paul), Uptown Diner (Minneapolis), Fat Nat’s Eggs (Crystal), or Hi-Lo Diner (Minneapolis). Don’t have the time or patience to sit? You can always just head out for some quick donuts! Mmmmm, donuts.
22. CLIMB DOWN GLACIER HOLES AT INTERSTATE PARK
I love a good geological adventure…one that has some history to it and looks cool too. That’s why I really enjoy road tripping to Taylors Falls every summer and taking my kids to Interstate State Park to climb rocks, hike the paths, and walk deep down into the glacial potholes. It’s such a unique discovery and children will ask a gajillion questions about it if they’re anything like mine. “Where do the potholes come from?” “How come they’re so deep?” “What if it caves in on us?” And if you’re anything like me, you have absolutely no idea what the actual answers and dodge the questions with a “Hey, look! A squirrel!” — Heights are high at this park though – a word to those with tiny runners —
Be sure to stop at the Taylors Falls Drive-In for cheese curds and root beer, ya know, if you love yourself.
23. ROAD TRIP SOMEWHERE GORGEOUS
Sometimes it’s fun to just throw a dart at a map and go for it. A road trip is what you make of it, and we make them often (check out my Road Trip Tips here). With kids, we’ve driven to Chicago, Kansas City, the North Shore, Sleeping Bear Dunes, Madeline Island, the Badlands, Traverse City and this year, we are heading to Marquette, Michigan. For inspiration, follow travel bloggers, play on Pinterest, follow your heart, and most importantly, don’t be afraid to just do it! Kids fight in the car. Kids cry in the car. Heck, sometimes kids even puke in the car. But the journey is sometimes more entertaining than the destination, and that’s what life is all about. Just go, man. Pick somewhere pretty and just go.
24. DISCOVER A NEW ICE CREAM JOINT
My kids freaking love ice cream. I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that yours do too. Instead of auto-piloting to your local Dairy Queen (no offense, DQ), try heading out for some of the good stuff, surprise your kiddos with a new, amazing spot! We’ve traveled near and far for good ice cream in these parts. In fact we love it so much, we decided to round up all the local ice cream shoppes for you and organized them onto a Google Map. Click here to find our massive round up of Ice Cream. For a quick recommendation, here are a number of our top spots: Nelson’s (Stillwater and St. Paul), Bebe Zito (Minneapolis), Milkjam Creamery (Minneapolis), Sebastian Joes (Minneapolis), Grand Ole Creamery (St. Paul), Honey & Mackies (Plymouth) and MN Nice Cream (Minneapolis and Stillwater). Ice cream is what summer was made for. Want to find ice cream easy and fast? Use our ICE CREAM GOOGLE MAP and check out our blog post on 40+ ice cream places throughout the area.
25. ATTEND THE STATE FAIR…AND AGAIN…AND AGAIN…
You live in Minnesota. To show your loyalty to your state, it’s almost mandatory to attend the Minnesota State Fair. Loyalty aside, you could also go BECAUSE IT’S AWESOME! Our State Fair is quite literally one of my favorite places on earth. Laugh it up, but man, when it comes to people watching, unique concoctions and memories that will last a lifetime, our fair tops the charts. I’ve gone while I was pregnant (that got expensive), when I had a newborn (that was a short visit), and with three small children in tow (also…expensive). My point is, it’s always possible. But if you want some tips on how to family-friendlify your state fair experience, be sure to check out my post here.
Our State Fair is the BEST State Fair. And I firmly stand behind that…while holding Mouth Trap cheese curds in one hand and a Lift Bridge mini donut beer in the other. My family and I make this a crazy tradition and we like to go multiple times a summer…because we’re nuts. And hungry.
So there you have it. My Summer Bucket List Top 25. See? Not at all overwhelming, yet thorough enough to keep us on our toes. The sunshine is so good for the soul, so enjoy it when it rears its gorgeous head. Kids will be back to school before you know it – MAKE EVERY DAY COUNT!
In case you need some additional ideas, our list also includes:
- Watch airplanes fly overhead near the airport
- Visit a llama farm (Carlsons or Eagle Eye)
- Paint rocks and leave them on trails
- Wade in Minnehaha Falls
- Visit the waterfall in Osceola
- Head to Mankato to see bison and play in the waterfall at Minneopa Falls
- Bike around downtown Minneapolis
- Road trip to Hemker Zoo just past St Cloud
- Dance at a concert in the park
- Visit a lighthouse
- Go horseback riding and go-karting
- Jump on a trolley and just ride
- Build sand castles at any local beach
- Look up a 5K run and train for it together
- Look up “playgrounds” on Google Maps and just go
- Kids Choice Day (these can be dangerously ridiculous – come with some parental parameters, but try saying “yes” more than “no”)
Ryan06/20/2017 at 8:06 am
Wow, epic post! Makes me tired reading through everything!
Kelsey06/20/2017 at 8:43 am
The drive in you mention is elko versus elk river. Good list! A few things I’ve never heard of before!
Nate06/20/2017 at 10:24 am
Thanks! Got that updated.
Ben Dietz07/01/2019 at 9:33 am
Great post but really wish you wouldn’t include zoos especially private zoos. I would love to see something on volunteering at an animal sanctuary for farm animals or these horrible zoos that get treat the animals as they deserve.
Sherryse06/20/2017 at 9:47 am
Great post! I love these ideas and love even more that I can count on you to plan my summer for me. :). Just wanted to let you know that the Elko Drive in is not in Elk RIver. It’s in Elko New Market. Have a great summer!
Nate06/20/2017 at 10:25 am
Thanks! I’ve updated the Elko link now.
Lauren06/20/2017 at 2:53 pm
The link in #15 for Nelson Stone Barn (nelsonstonebarn.com) is incorrect the correct site is thenelsonstonebarn.com
Sent the link to my SO right away, I’ve never heard of a Pizza Barn before!
Nate06/20/2017 at 3:17 pm
Thank you fixed it! Oh you MUST go to Nelson. It’s simply incredible.
Michaela06/21/2017 at 10:26 am
These are all SO GREAT! I think I will be doing them all. I really want to get to the pizza barn, so thank you for that reminder!!!
Jamie07/16/2017 at 8:26 pm
i think Goony Golf is closing. 🙁
IRis02/24/2018 at 12:40 am
I just started to plan a summer vacation to MN from Kansas city! This posting is very very helpful! What a beautiful family!
Thank you for all the great info! Can’t wait to be there with my kiddos 🙂
Tania05/25/2018 at 8:53 pm
Try the pump house in Minneapolis for fabulous ice cream!!!
Diana07/02/2019 at 5:57 am
Another great ice cream place is St. LUCIA’S in Princeton! They did have licorice ice cream!
Cassie07/10/2018 at 4:10 pm
I read your blog every summer for inspiration! Thanks for all the ideas and tips!
cheryl larimer05/30/2019 at 6:54 am
Thanks for the great list and some new ideas. The Elko Speedway ‘Eve of Destruction’ nights are fun – the school bus races are a gas.
Julie Parks06/03/2019 at 10:08 am
Go to Nelson’s Ice Cream in Stillwater, MN http://nelsonsicecream.biz/index.html
The child size cone or cup is bigger than what most people can handle. WHOA!
Meagan06/06/2019 at 4:19 pm
Crystal Cave just across the border.