Rochester — Looking to get out of the house for a summer day trip but don’t want to spend too much money on gas? Here are five destinations around Southeast Minnesota that are cheap or free, offering getaway choices for almost any budget.
Ohuta Park, Lake City
The birthplace of water skiing is only a 40-mile drive away from Rochester. In addition to great shops and restaurants in the city’s downtown area, the newly renovated Ohuta Park, located three and a half blocks north of downtown, offers a new splash pad for kids and upgraded playground equipment, and some of the most scenic views of Lake Pepin. The park and all its amenities are free to all visitors and is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
Other free parks for visitors of Lake City include Hok-Si-La, Roschen, and Gold Star parks. Or just stroll along the walking trails along Lake Pepin.
LARK Toys, Kellogg
About 50 miles from the Med City is one of the Midwest’s most famous toy shops and museums, LARK Toys. Located in Kellogg, LARK Toys is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily and provides a variety of options to keep any visitor entertained for a day.
From their museum exhibits to their mini-golf course, carousel, bookstore and cafe, a whole day’s worth of fun can be filled for any visit to LARK Toys.
In addition to these options are the handmade toys that LARK Toys have been producing for over 30 years with at least one new toy design showing up every year. The majority of these toys are carved out of wood and made safe for the use of children of all ages and visitors can watch these toys be made in the LARK workshop.
Step outside and meet Irving, George, Meg and Calvin, a quartet of miniature llamas, on the observation deck.
The Memory Lane Antique Toy Museum tours are free for all visitors, carousel rides cost $3 per ride and cafe menu items cost $6.50 combined with a carousel ride.
Oxbow Park and Zollman Zoo, Byron
Just north of Byron – watch for detours due to construction – and less than 20 miles from Rochester is one of the hidden gems of Southeast Minnesota: Oxbow Park and the Zollman Zoo. Open year-round, with the exception of some holidays, Zollman Zoo is free for any visitors and offers over 45 different species of animals in their exhibits.
No food and drink are allowed into the zoo nor are any recreation vehicles. There are also programs at the park throughout each season. All programs are also free to the public.
In addition to Zollman Zoo, Oxbow Park offers open campgrounds from May 6 to Oct. 23, which can be reserved on their website. There are also several trails that connect through the park, picnic areas and playgrounds throughout the 634-acre park. The park itself is open daily from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Shooting Star Trail, LeRoy to Austin
Just want a day in nature away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life? Shooting Star Trail may be the place to go.
Stretching from the town of LeRoy at the Minnesota/Iowa border all the way to Austin, this trail covers 30 miles of southern Minnesota that can be trekked in a day. The trail is free to use and the only payment necessary is parking at Lake Louise State Park north of LeRoy, if people choose to start their hiking or biking from there.
The trail passes through other towns such as Taopi, Adams, and Rose Creek with dining options available in Adams and Rose Creek’s downtown areas for those needing to catch their breaths.
Forestville State Park and Mystery Cave
Only 47 miles south of Rochester, Forestville State Park offers a checklist of things to do in one day for any traveler. The most notable parts of Forestville State Park are Mystery Cave and the ghost town of Forestville.
Mystery Cave is the longest known cave in the state of Minnesota covering 13 miles of known passages. There are many types of tours of Mystery Cave for people to sign up for, the most popular of which is the scenic tour, which has tours starting as early as 10 a.m. and late as 4 p.m. on weekdays and 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends.
The scenic tour lasts around an hour and costs $15 for ages 13 and older, $10 for ages 5 to 12, and free for kids under 5, but a ticket is still required. The scenic tour is also handicap accessible.
The last two summers for Mystery Cave had restrictions on tours available for people due to COVID-19. This summer has more tours to offer as lantern, geology, and wild caving tours are once again available.
Already making the trip to Mystery Cave later in the week? Why not make time for the nearby ghost town of Forestville as well.
The Minnesota Historical Society operates the abandoned town that still resembles its original look from the 1800s. Guided tours are available from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and until 3 p.m. on Sundays, but visitors can also embark on their own self-guided explorations of the ghost town. Admission cost $10 for adults and $8 for kids, college students and seniors.
Not interested in a tour and want a real ghost town experience? That is also an option as visitors are encouraged to explore Forestville at their own pace at dusk or dawn. If visitors want to make the nighttime visit, no buildings are open for access outside of tour hours.
Forestville’s ghost town will be open for tours on July 4 from 11 a.m. – 3 p.m.