Outside in MN

10 easy ways to spend summer outside without big crowds, athletic skill or gear

Wordplay Festival 2019 Book sales
Bookselling at Wordplay Festival.
Courtesy of Anna Min | 2019

Summer is officially here and with it is sunny, hot, sweaty weather. On days that are not tornado warnings or thunder storming, people often wonder what to make use of the brighter weather. Some people go all out and use the sunshine to the fullest, filling their days with intense outdoor activities and big festivals.

Then there are other folks who just want to use a teaspoon of a sunray and don’t want to put up with athletic gear or big crowds. (I, the writer, am one of them.) What do fellow Minnesotans like this do? Here are some ideas!

Hobbies and social outings for poetic souls

Sometimes we just want to read a book on the porch. Other times we are looking for inspiration off the porch. Watch the birds during the Minnesota summer and even join one of the Minnesota Audubon chapters or Urban Bird Collective based in the Twin Cities.

Learn what kind of trees and plants birds make use of by joining the Minnesota Native Plant Society. After learning about the plants around you, grab a few flowers to press and craft into a bookmark for the next book you read. If you want to draw inspiration only as far as your backyard, hang up bird feeders and bee hotels by the favored window you read by in your reading nook.

Sometimes the goal is to expand the libraries and collections in our homes. To meet up with another artist friend and stop one another from buying too many trinkets. 

Minnesota has several “arts in the park” festivals around the state, where you can find fine arts like jewelry and lawn and garden ornaments. The two upcoming are Art in the Park at The Draw with the city of Ramsey, in Anoka, Minn., on June 29, and Arts in the Park, in Brainerd, Minn., on July 2.

Wordplay Festival 2019 children crafting
Children crafting at Wordplay Festival 2019.
Courtesy of Anna Min

There’s also the Wordplay Festival on July 8 at The Loft in Minneapolis, with several authors, books, and discussions surrounding this year’s theme of “narrative power.” 

Maybe you want to consume stories in a new way. If so, watch Shakespeare in Our Parks: Much Ado About Nothing outside at one of their more than a dozen park venues, including the lawn of the Minnesota Humanities Center in St. Paul on July 16.

Vicariously being athletic by watching other people be sporty

Generally, baseball, softball and soccer games are where big crowds of people attend. If you want to watch time zoom by, then check out Brainerd International Raceway, also known as BIR. Some of their events are the music festival Lakes Jam, performance driving, drift car racing and more.

There are also Minnesota Rodeo Association events in Minnesota to check out. The next rodeo is July 7 at the South St. Louis County Fair in Proctor, Minn. Both BIR and rodeos provide that sense of sport comradery as you cheer on and root for participants in automotive and horse competitions.

OK, this recommendation did involve some crowds. But they’re not that big!

Contained wilderness adventures

What about visiting a controlled version of the wilderness? Consider Como Park Zoo and Conservatory in St. Paul; Lake Superior Zoo in Duluth; Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley, Minn.; Hemker Park and Zoo in Freeport, Minn.; and the small Zollman Zoo near Byron, Minn.

There is also the Wildlife Science Center in Stacy, Minn. The center has onsite learning, private photography experiences, after-dark programs and wildlife handling classes for professionals and students in related backgrounds that need hands-on training.

Eating outside, thus enjoying the outside

Several food trucks gather annually at one of the three Minnesota Food Truck Festivals.

One of the newest trucks featured is a former fire truck, and another one you can watch people grill Spanish paella, and you can even eat Maine lobster rolls, explained Jess Fast, one of the organizers of Minnesota Food Truck Festivals. Each festival has over 50 vendors, craft brewers and is pet-friendly. The festivals are:

  • June 24 in Hopkins

  • July 22 in St. Paul

  • August 18 in Anoka

Food Truck Festival 2017
People eating and in line for food at Minnesota Food Truck Festival in 2017.
Tom Broich. Courtesy of MN Food Truck Festival

Minnesota also has a few seasonal ice cream shops that only open for summer. The blog Thrifty Minnesota has an entire collection of over 30 seasonal ice cream shops, stating the first day when they open and where they are across the state. From Duluth to Minnesota, a seasonal ice cream shop is probably closer to where you live than you think.

Amateur treasure hunting

Now that the lakes are unfrozen, the rocky and sandy shorelines will reveal treasures. The hobby of “rockhounding” is about finding rocks. In Minnesota, it’s popular to look for Lake Superior agates — despite their name, they can be found all over the state. Just be considerate about where you’re looking: Collecting rocks is not allowed in state parks, or in state scientific and natural areas, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

People also look for agates in gravel pits. The website Rockhound Resource has a Minnesota location guide map to help know what areas are relatively good to look for agates and what else can be found besides agates.

There is also the Minnesota Geocaching Association, where you can join and search for small containers with a GPS receiver. It is modern-day treasure hunting, but the people who hide it want it to be found.

Wanting to enjoy being outside at night, but not all night

Some of us are not drawn to camping and that is okay. But some night owls want to enjoy themselves outside, just when the sun is gone. Besides staying inside and snacking throughout the night, what is there to do when the night begins?

Minnesota has a few drive-in movie theaters people can attend. A car is needed, since radio stations host the movie audio. Some are even dog-friendly. The Starlite Drive-In 5 in Litchfield, Minn. shows two movies for one ticket so choose beforehand which screen you want because you can’t switch after the first film finishes.

Another way to enjoy the summer nights is by attending the Firefly Viewing Nights hosted by the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. This is where you can spot fellow creatures of the night from 8:30 to 10:30 p.m. This year they are hosting nights themed by animal: Bats, owls and frogs.

Gourmet meals in the middle of nowhere

Maybe you want a wilderness adventure, but the desire for a warm meal and good drinks are stopping you from taking a long hike in the woods. Pizza farms and wine vineyards are the places that combine the two experiences.

Eater Twin Cities has a list of 14 pizza farms to choose from. Life in Minnesota has a top 10 wineries list to explore. Depending on the place, it may offer more food than wine and vice versa, but equally provide a place “in the middle of nowhere” to enjoy the summer forests and prairie views Minnesota offers.

Pizza Farm
Children pet a horse at the Red Barn Farm near Northfield, Minn. as their families wait for their pizza order.
Jim Mone | AP 2015

Going to see animals, with a chance of seeing no animals

Maybe zoos are too contained, but the deep woods are too intimidating. Instead, try taking a walk on trails through wildlife refuges, bird sanctuaries and nature reserves.

Minnesota has several across the state. The Audubon Society has a list of “Important Bird Areas” of Minnesota. Some of them are the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary, the Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve, and Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. The Star Tribune wrote a guide for 13 national wildlife refuges in Minnesota.

On a smaller scale, with just the interest of seeing an occasional rabbit or chipmunk, there are rose gardens and arboretums to choose from, such as the Lyndale Park Rose Garden near Lake Harriet, Duluth’s Rose Garden and Bailey’s Rose Garden in Woodbury.

Not interested in roses? Visit the Munsinger Clemens Gardens in St. Cloud, the Ellsworth Rock Gardens in Kabetogama, Minn., or Cowling Arboretum in Northfield, Minn. Smell several floral fragrances, watch bees pollinate and pretend the garden you visit is of your own making.

Planting native species
Horticulture intern Caitlin Bergh, left, and Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary curator Susan Wilkins plant Common Witch Hazel on July 7 at the garden in Minneapolis.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News 2012

Enjoying the farm without going to a farm

At a county fair you will see cows, pigs, chickens, rabbits and more displayed. Typically there are competitions for best livestock. Textile and fiber arts like quilting, embroidery, leatherwork, and even Lego contests are exhibited. Along with street food and theme park rides, county fairs are like miniature versions of the state fair. Find when and where your county fair is at the Minnesota Federation of County Fairs.

Attend and enjoy cultural celebrations

Some people who have never gone to a powwow and are not part of the Native community might assume it’s a closed event. Powwows, also called wacipis, are open to the public for families to enjoy. Alcohol and drugs are prohibited.

Explore Minnesota covered a story about powwow etiquette and a list of annual powwows in Minnesota. There is dancing, or you can watch people dance. The drumming is loud enough that it thrums in sync with your heart, so bring earplugs if you need them. Some powwows have a theme or specific reason to celebrate, like the Two Spirit Powwow on June 24 which honors the two-spirit community.

Some upcoming powwows are The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Veterans Powwow and Prairie Island Indian Community Summer Wacipi both beginning July 7.

Wiidookodaadiwag “We Are Helping One Another” Powwow in Brainerd
Dancers participate in the Wiidookodaadiwag “We Are , 2019, Helping One Another” Powwow on April 18 at Central Lakes College in Brainerd, Minn.
Kelly Humphrey | Brainerd Dispatch 2019