Lisa Meyers McClintick, travel writer & photographer

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Find the best views of Minnesota's fall colors

The maple leaves are starting to flame into shades of red and gold, making it a great time to plan fall drives. Whether you seek a daytrip or a weekend, here are some of my favorite fall destinations in Minnesota. Don't forget to check the Department of Natural Resources fall color report for the best timing.

Aim high for a fall hike:
Lutsen Mountains

While colors along the North Shore can be pretty, they get more vibrant as you head inland. Best view we've ever seen? Standing on Moose Mountain, facing a brilliant Magic Mountain. The experience is escalated by the ride there. The ski resort's mountain tram glides across the burbling Poplar River before heading up into the steep Sawtooth Mountains. It was enough to give a three-year-old the willies one year.

There's the Summit Chalet at the top where you can warm up with a light meal and hot coffee or cocoa while facing the sapphire blue expanse of Lake Superior. There's a great loop hike around Moose Mountain. Back at the resort, the alpine slide offers another thrill. Like the mountain tram, it's open Thursdays through Sundays until Oct. 24.  If you love golf, splurge on a round at nearby Superior National, one of the state's premier courses. Its advantage: elevation, the rugged Poplar River, and Superior scenery.

Phelps Mill near Fergus Falls.
There are lots of inland forest roads throughout Cook County. Check with location attractions for designated fall color routes and make sure you've got a good Minnesota atlas, as well. GPS is nice, but we swear by DeLorme maps first and foremost.

Prairie Pothole country:  
Otter Trail Scenic Byway
If you want to ditch the leaf-peeper crowds and enjoy gently rolling roads, this 150-mile route rolls through the surprisingly beautiful prairie pothole country. The best introduction to this unique western Minnesota terrain can be found at the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center on the outskirts of Fergus Falls. Created through the National Wildlife Refuge service, it explains the importance of these lakes to the thousands of birds that flock to this section of Minnesota and into the Dakotas.
Near Glendalough State Park
One of the prettiest scenes in the area has always been the 1889 Phelps Mill, a pretty red-and-white structure reflected in its own mill pond. You can walk right in to view displays and a film on the area's wheat boom.

Keep heading north for a sweeping view of fall color at Maplewood State Park. Atop its Halloway Hill Trail, the view encompasses hillsides of sumac and hardwoods, South Arm Lake, Lake Lida and Pelican Rapids.

In the spirit of Oktoberfest: New Ulm 

Fall is an ideal time to climb up to "Hermann the German," a monument high above New Ulm where the view  encompasses the Minnesota River Valley Scenic Byway. (You'll have to use your fall color imagination with the photo on the left, taken in the spring.)

New Ulm boasts several historic bed and breakfasts, tasty restaurants and the beloved Schell's Brewery. The brewery, Schell mansion and historic gardens (pictured below) naturally complement autumn with tours and tastings. Even better: It celebrates its 150th anniversary this year--a huge accomplishment for a small company that survived the U.S. Dakota war, Prohibition and competition of corporate breweries. It's something to think about while hollering "Prost!" at Oktoberfest the first two weekends in October. It's certainly cheaper (and less crowded) than a trip to Munich, and you can get your fill of lederhosen and oom-pah-pah music.

Even without the festival, the town's German heritage  is beautifully reflected in its shops, architecture and food. The chamber rents well-done and free walking tour podcasts of its historic downtown. Leave time to explore its curvy, wooded Minnesota River byway and detour into the countryside to sample wines at Morgan Creek Vineyard. It will be livelier than usual on Oct. 2, when visitors come from across the state to squish grapes through their toes at the Cambria Grape stomp.

For more fall festivals and scenic drives, check out

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Northern Lights Resort: A parting shot at summer

Every parent should have the chance to launch their child on a family vacation. It's deeply, deeply cathartic. It somehow equalizes things like broken windows, moldy laundry and barfing on new carpet. 


Minnesota family resorts: Lake vacations with old-fashioned fun

Hydro-biking at Northern Lights Resort
It's a little embarrassing to admit, but we haven't had the chance to enjoy a true lakeside resort before--not the neighborly family-run variety where kids roam freely, movie rentals are on  the honor system, potlucks are spontaneous, and the resort dog shows up when she gets the first whiff of pancakes.

Flexible schedule saves money
Northern Lights Resort near Voyageurs National Park.
Most family-run smaller resorts require weeklong commitments during peak summer weeks. That can be beyond many budgets or more than you can spare from work or kids' activities. Some resorts are so popular, families book the same cabin and the same week each summer, making it tough for newcomers to get reservations. If you fit into any of those categories, consider the first two weeks of June or last two weeks of August when planning for 2011. You'll find more flexibility for shorter stays plus better rates if you're willing to risk the more unpredictable and chillier temps. 

Our gamble paid off with gorgeous weather and a relaxing three-night stay at Northern Lights Resort. Yes, the lake was cold, but we toughed it out and got used to it. Needless to say, the kids had a blast. With paddleboats, hydro-bikes, canoes and kayaks, fishing galore, an ice cream social and pontoon rides, there really was something for everyone. 

Look for resorts with the best water toys
Launching into Lake Kabetogama
Many of the best resorts have wonderful lake toys: trampolines, inflated log rolls, slides and swim rafts. We were lucky enough to have a Rave Aqua Tower at Northern Lights. You climb to the top and slide down or you jump down to "the blob" and wait for someone to jump on the other end and launch you. That was hands-down the best entertainment possible. Really. We couldn't decide what was better--seeing them go for height records or distance. Even a great sunset can't compare to the thrill of seeing a 11-year-old fly flailing into the air. Good stuff.

Best places to eat wild rice

Since it's wild rice season in Minnesota, here are a few of our favorite places to enjoy this nutty grain also known as Mahnomin:

Clearwater Travel Plaza's fritter French Toast and wild rice sausage.
Savory wild rice sausage
Clearwater Travel Plaza, Clearwater, Minn.
This bustling, impressive pit stop on I-94 south of St. Cloud built a huge fan base with its homemade fritter bread French toast. It's accented beautifully with plump, savory wild rice sausages made down the road at McDonald Meats in Clear Lake. You can grab a to-go package at the plaza or at the meat market.

Sweetest bowl of wild rice
Hell's Kitchen, Minneapolis, Minn.
Owner Mitch Omer serves hand-harvested wild rice in a bowl with dried blueberries, craisins, real maple syrup and cream. He found inspiration for Mahnomin Porridge reading through fur traders' journals. Hell's makes tasty, zippy and creative soups and sandwiches, but we lust most for the breakfast menu's lemon ricotta hotcakes and toasted bison sausage bread made with coffee, currants and pie spices. Sadly, they no longer serve breakfast at Hell's in Duluth's Canal Park.

Cozy Red Paddle Bistro at Gunflint Lodge
Wild rice on pizza? You bet.
Coho Cafe & Bakery, Tofte, Minn.
Get ready for an earthy, savory and unforgettable blend of shitake, button and portabella mushrooms with locally made wild rice sausage on the cafe's Call of the Wild pizza. There are plenty of surprising and tasty twists on familiar foods in this hip, kick-back gourmet cafe nestled along the Lake Superior harbor.

Best wild rice soup
Red Paddle Bistro, Gunflint Lodge on Minnesota's Gunflint Trail
I've had plenty of good creamy wild rice soups over the years but one of the most delicious and unexpected ones was here. The colorful walleye chowder blends nutty wild rice with tender bits of walleye, sweet corn and tangy sun-dried tomatoes. The setting--a warmly glowing wood-paneled restaurant overlooking the indigo blue of a winter's night--doesn't hurt.

Quivey's Grove
Tastiest wild rice side dish
Quivey's Grove, Madison, Wis.
One of my all-time favorite meals was at this historic stone carriage house on the outskirts of Madison, Wis. Steeped in history, the owners let historic meals influence their entrees such as trout, tender beef and pork chops. What I remember most was the complex savory-sweet nicely textured wild rice side dish. It blends sage, coriander, celery, red pepper, chicken broth and tangy bits of dried cherries.

There are surely more amazing wild rice meals across the state. Please feel free to comment and share your favorites.

Read other wild rice posts:

Monday, September 6, 2010

Minnesota's Wild Rice Season

Wild ricing on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation.
The Bois Forte Heritage Center, a wonderful and overlooked Native American museum near Tower, Minnesota, beautifully tells the story of how their band of Ojibwe came to Minnesota. After being forced from the East Coast, a guiding spirit told them to go where food grows on the water.

That food--wild rice that thrives in the shallows of Minnesota and Wisconsin lakes--sustained them and remains a cherished part of their culture.

Celebrate the Wild Rice Moon
In late August and early September--the time of the Wild Rice Moon--tribal members and others head across the state to ricing lakes.

Raw wild rice from the Crow Wing lakes.
They pole through through the grasses, rhythmically using cedar ricing sticks to sweep the grasses over the canoe and gently knock the ripened grains into the bottom. I was fortunate enough to ride along with Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe conservation officer, Frank Bowstring, a few years ago. During his childhood, kids could get out of school to help with the rice harvest which could pay for school clothes.

We watched a few ricers head onto Nature Lake. They expertly captured wild rice grains with skills passed through the generations. Later, we watched water-rich green rice meticulously parched in iron drums that rotated over wood fires in Cass Lake. Once it dried and chaff was removed, bags of processed rice piled up with the name of the ricer written across burlap bags.

Hand-harvest wild rice vs. cultivated
The thick, plump mottled earth tones of hand-harvested wild rice is clearly a different product than cultivated rice. Cultivated rice, with its shiny, thin ebony grains are bred to be machine-harvested. With the tough hulls, it takes 45 minutes to cook. True wild rice takes only 20 minutes. The White Earth Band of Ojibwe has long fought to highlight the differences and to maintain this sacred crop.

Green wild rice ready for processing
I consider myself a harvest junkie, but will leave wild ricing to the experts. And I'll more gratefully invest in bags of wild rice knowing the labor that's involved.

Wild rice across the state
Anyone can rice, and many people do it as a seasonal passion. A license is required through the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which can also help you find accessible rivers and shallow lakes. (Only tribal members can rice on reservations.) Following waterfowl helps, too--the rice is their equivalent of an energy bar for the long migration south.

Wild rice on a stalk.
The DNR estimates there are more than 60,000 acres of wild rice among more than 700 lakes --the most of any state in the country.

When you're out and about this fall, look for authentic Minnesota wild rice at gift shops, grocers, and up-north convenience markets. Buying a bag or more helps support this $2 million crop and celebrates one of the state's best culinary treasures. Add wild rice's rich, nutty flavor to salads, casseroles, side dishes, breakfast entrees and Minnesota's famous wild rice soup.

More on wild rice: Best places to dine on wild rice plus two excellent wild rice recipes for the holidays.