Summer Trails in Little Falls

Jul 21, 2023Adventure Report, Biking, Water Trails

Last time my wife, Jen, and I visited Little Falls, the ground was covered in snow and ice and the world was frozen. We roamed around on skis and explored the area’s winter trails. With the snow gone, we decided to come back to see what the summer trails are like.

Johnny C’s Sports Bar was a bustling place on a Friday night. The after-work crowd had settled in for happy hour, the beer was flowing and the servers were seriously busy running burger baskets through a slalom course of tables. We found one off to the side and settled in. The large, street-facing windows let in the last of the sunshine that evening, and the open room was buzzing with the energy of people who had come here to cinch up the work week. The Twins were playing the Blue Jays on the screens in the bar. It was 0-0 on top of the second inning, but that wasn’t important. The key ingredients for a good Friday night were here: Friends, drinks and food.

We ordered ours and it came in a flash. The mac and cheese balls were first and just as we thought, they were crunchy on the outside and noodly-cheesy on the inside. The burgers were freshly ground from local butcher Thielen Meats. Jen thought the chipotle mayo was a nice twist on her patty melt and my JJs garlic burger came with an awesome sauce, “made by Suzie”, as the menu said. Well done, JJ and Suzie.
We turned in before the sun had disappeared completely behind the buildings on Broadway because the agenda for the next day was an ambitious one.

Little Falls’ farmers market on the west side of town was the place to be on an early Saturday morning. A dozen or so vendors were selling everything from handmade towels and honey to soaps and vegetable plants. Our plan was to source what we could for Sunday’s lunch here and we got lucky with some good-looking whole wheat bread and locally made hot mustard. We also found some pickled spruce tips, which we could use like capers, we were told.

Closeup of three plates of breakfast food with bacon, eggs, hash browns and pancakes

Our purchases in tow, we proceeded across the river for some breakfast. While we waited at our table at Little Falls Bakery and Deli, we went over the itinerary which included renting e-bikes and exploring the area, then capping it off with a pint at the local brewery. It was shaping up to be a grand day with mild temps and lots of sun, so we got moving immediately after we ate.

Dave and Susan Sperstad are the husband-and-wife team behind Touright Bicycle Shop, which they opened in 2015. Touright has since become a certified Bicycle Friendly Business and the two have also started Little Falls Bicycles, a non-profit with the goal of increasing bike ridership in the area by refurbishing used bikes and teaching people to maintain and ride them. We found Dave waiting for us, sitting on a chair on the sidewalk, coffee cup in hand. It didn’t take long for him to set us up, explain how the bike works and we were off. It was our first time on an e-bike and our first reaction was probably the same as everyone else’s. When we first stepped on the pedals there was a “whoa!” moment when the machine sprang into action and propelled us forward. After a few circles in front of the shop, we took off with our built-in tailwind. We still had to pedal, however, because when we stopped working, so did the bike.

Our first stop was the Lindbergh House and Museum across the street from Charles A. Lindbergh State Park. To get there, we briefly rode on the fledgling Camp Ripley/ Veterans State Trail. It’s only a mile long now, but will make a connection between the Soo Line Trail and the Paul Bunyan State Trail someday. The state park and the museum are on the grounds of what once was the Lindbergh family’s farm and the museum and historic summer home are now managed by the Minnesota Historical Society.

Just down the road, we stopped at the Charles A. Weyerhaeuser Memorial Museum. The Morrison County Historical Society has permanent exhibits here which tell the story of early life of Little Falls as a lumber town, but there’s usually one annual display. When we visited, we were treated to The Fabulous Fashion of Maude Moon Weyerhaeuser, which showed off some of the fancy dresses of the lumber baron’s wife. Designer dresses, handmade to order from New York-an unimaginable and exotic luxury in early 1900s Morrison County.

A woman rides her bike on a road in the summer past a sign that reads MRT

We had only ridden about two and a half miles with two stops and Jen was itching to see what that e-bike could do. Out of the parking lot, we turned south onto the Great River Road, one of Minnesota’s 22 Scenic Byways. It’s also part of the Mississippi River Trail Scenic Bikeway, a signed bike route following its namesake river from start to finish. Part of the 600-mile route through Minnesota passes through Little Falls.
It was a beautiful day for a bike ride with mild temps and plenty of sunshine. We had a natural tailwind to begin with, but with the boost from the motor the ride turned into a thrill. Jen and I were able to chat and keep a 17-mile-an-hour pace without breaking a sweat, and that just put a smile on our faces. When we came to a hill, Jen couldn’t take it any longer. She set the boost to the max setting and with a “See ya later”, she blasted up and waited for me at the top.

When we reached Blanchard Dam, we turned onto the Soo Line Trail which crosses the Mississippi River on a former railroad trestle and has spectacular views of the hydroelectric dam and the downstream path of the river. This scenic trail starts at the northern end of the Lake Wobegon Trail between Holdingford and Bowlus at the Stearns and Morrison County line. The paved section ends at a trailhead at Highway 10 near Royalton, but continues unpaved to Superior, WI with another paved 11-mile segment between Isle and Onamia near Mille Lacs and Father Hennepin State Parks. Now on the east side, we made our way back to town following Hillton Road. This is where the e-bikes made a difference. Our natural tailwind turned into a headwind but the motor fought back and our average barely dropped.

Back in town, we parked our rides at the Minnesota Fishing Museum and Hall of Fame, where Executive Director Brenda Perlowski gave us the grand tour. The museum was founded in 1998 and has been in its current 10,000 square foot facility on the city’s west side since 2006. If it’s in any way connected to freshwater fishing, it’s probably in their collection of over 20,000 pieces. There are vintage boat motors, state record fish mounts, cases and cases of vintage lures, a tank with live fish, a fly-tying display and a mock fishing shack. Her favorite piece, Brenda said, was a colorful, striped lure fashioned from a piece of built-up spray residue from the finishing room of the former Larson boat plant in Little Falls, made by a former worker. Of course, we had to browse the O-Fish-L gift shop before we moved on.

It seemed silly to bike back into town for lunch when our next destination was just down the road, but we were on e-bikes and we were hungry, so we buzzed over to Little Fiesta Mexican restaurant. It was hard to choose from their extensive lunch menu with two dozen items and the chilled Mexican Cola put a little wind back in my sails. Before we moved on, we picked up more lunch items for Sunday at Thielen Meats, where they make a huge selection of meat products that beckon from behind a gigantic meat counter.

Back on the west side, our exploration of Little Falls continued with a visit to Pine Grove Zoo. If you want to see what the Little Falls area looked like before the lumber companies came, the stately, old growth white pines at adjacent Pine Grove Park will give you an idea. It was established in 1907 to preserve the grove and a random collection of animals on display attracted so many tourists, a more formal zoo took its place in the decades after. Today, the zoo is managed by The Friends of Pine Grove Zoo, who started modernizing and updating the facilities in 1999.
We strolled the grounds and spent quite some time watching the otters twirl and chase each other around in their glass-sided enclosure. Of course, I had to crawl into the underwater viewing tunnel to see them swim over the top of me.

We ended the day with a pint at Starry Eyed Brewing. When we visited there last February, we were desperate for sunshine and toughed it out for about a half hour at a picnic table on the patio before going in. This time, there was no toughness involved. It was nice and sunny and the big garage door was open. Our dinner came from Charlie’s Pizza, a long-time local pie joint. Capping of a day of riding with a cold pint and a hot pizza was all we needed.

We pulled up to Shirley Mae’s Outfitters on Sunday morning to explore the other, very obvious trail that runs through Little Falls, the Mississippi River. Owner John Carpenter drove us and two rental kayaks upriver where we put in at Belle Prairie County Park. It was another gorgeous morning with no threat of bad weather and we were looking forward to a relaxed float of about two hours on this scenic stretch. We really took our time and used our paddles only to steer. Right after the park, we went around a cluster of islands and hugged the western shore. It was peaceful paddling at its best with calm waters and no signs of development along the shore. After we rounded Island Fifty we got out at Little Elk Heritage Preserve. Archeological digs have found evidence of human activity dating back thousands of years near this confluence of the Little Elk and Mississippi Rivers. Though not connected, it is managed by Charles A. Lindbergh State Park.

Our human activity revolved around making coffee and having lunch. While I fiddled with my homemade ultralight beer can stove to boil water, Jen prepared one of the finest charcuterie boards on the river that day, with locally sourced ingredients from the farmers market and Thielen Meats. On the shaded picnic table at the river’s edge, we ate like kings and savored better pour over coffee than any big city barista can make. After that meal, we paddled up the Little Elk River for a bit until it became too shallow and rocky. We were in no hurry, but we eventually floated back to Shirley Mae’s and got out.

Before we went back home, we stopped at Lindy Scoop ice cream shop for one of their homemade waffle cones. In keeping with the river theme, Jen had the Mississippi Mud, aka mocha flavored ice cream with chocolate cookie chunks and fudge. Enticed by the sea salt caramel ribbon, I chose the Shipwrecked flavor. Our great summer weekend officially came to an end when we reached the marshmallow at the bottom of the cone and we hit the road. We’ll be back.

Click here to visit the Visit Little Falls website and start your own adventure

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About me

I’m Jan, the publisher of Minnesota Trails Magazine. I’m looking for that one trail, the next ride, a new discovery and other reasons never to sit still in Minnesota.

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