Trail Pairings: Enjoying Winter in Little Falls
Charles A. Lindbergh State Park is named after Charles August Lindbergh, but most people will only know his son by the same name. The first man to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean spent his boyhood summers at the family farm in Little Falls, MN, while his father, a US Congressman, rarely visited. The house is now part of the historic site, which includes the 500-acre state park and the Lindbergh Museum on the Mississippi River.
We arrived at the park just when the sun started to think about retiring for the day. It was the first stop of an ambitious weekend of outdoor exploration in Little Falls, a Mississippi River town in central Minnesota. With snowshoes on our feet we headed into the miniature valley carved into the landscape by Pike Creek. The creek was open in a few spots and flowing fast, a sign of life in a very rigid landscape. Lindbergh State Park is one of the smaller parks in the Minnesota state park system, but it still packs in seven miles of hiking trails on both sides of the creek, as well as a campground, playground and a WPA water tower and shelter.
The light was turning orange and shadows were getting darker as we followed the trail along the frozen stream, occasionally stopping to listen to its waters gurgle under the ice. A certain, well-known rodent had forecast eight more weeks of winter not too long ago, but it felt like spring was in the air. By the time we had made it back to the parking lot, it was almost completely dark and what little warmth the sun had given us, was gone.
Our Little Falls destination, A.T. The Black & White Restaurant, glowed festively in the dark, casting a warm light onto the sidewalk. Three large display windows in front were decorated with Valentine’s Day flowers and hearts. Owners Amanda and Tomas Zimmerman, Cordon Bleu-trained chefs have updated the offerings of what used to be The Black and White Hamburger Shop, established in 1931. It now includes fine dining options like maple ginger glazed salmon, but the burgers have not disappeared from the menu.
To pay respect to the restaurant’s history, Jen ordered the Olive Burger and my BLT could have been on the menu in 1931, too. One thing the original place probably didn’t have was the extensive craft beer and wine list. We leaned back and watched the busy Friday night dinner scene. Servers hustled from table to table, juggling glasses and plates, taking orders and refilling drinks. The bell in the kitchen rang every few minutes when a new order was up and, like clockwork, a waitress emerged with a full tray and disappeared into the crowd. The place was hopping and full of life. It was a respite from the cold and dark outside. Our food came quickly and didn’t stand a chance. It disappeared just as fast, pickle and all. There was no room for Crème Brûlée, but because we asked nicely, our server turned on the cool, green Airport neon sign for us. We turned in early to get ready for an eventful Saturday.
The cases at Little Falls Bakery and Deli were filled with sweet goodies of any imaginable shape. Baked, fried, sugared, frosted, sprinkled, stuffed, dipped, dusted and chocolate-chipped, they called out from behind the gleaming glass. There were donuts, macaroons, rosettes, long johns, fritters and other delectations and because we were in that magical week that has both the Super Bowl and Valentine’s Day, there were plenty of heart and football helmet shaped cookies, too.
The perfume of the donuts melded with the bouquet of freshly baked bread and that was enough to wipe out my synapses. I stared at the case blankly, standing in everybody’s way. I know the girl behind the counter asked me something, but I didn’t hear it. I felt a drool pool form behind my lower lip when Jen took my hand and led me away from the counter. We didn’t come here to play. We came here to have a good old-fashioned breakfast in the deli part of the bakery. When I came to, I was sitting in a booth with a menu in my hand. It wasn’t a donut, but the sausage and egg sandwich on a croissant from the bakery was fabulous. Jen felt the same way about her Hearty Breakfast with a thick slice of their white bread.
We then headed out to Green Prairie Fish Lake for a very special event. In 2022 the Zwilling family of Little Falls created the world’s largest ice carousel. It’s essentially a large circle cut in the ice and made to turn with the help of outboard motors. Last year, their 1,324 foot and nine-inch diameter creation was officially recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest of its kind in the world.
Marc Zwilling, whose brother Chuck started the event in honor of their father Sunny, told us the goal for this year wasn’t to recreate the largest ice carousel, but making the largest carousel within a carousel, spinning in opposite directions. It has since been certified that they made it with their 366-foot circle inside of an 820-foot circle. Zwilling said that improvements to their equipment has reduced the time it takes to cut the ice. What used to be a 23-hour task with chainsaws, now is accomplished in just about two hours with custom built walk-behind saws on wheels.
The Annual Sunny Zwilling Memorial Ice Carousel Extravaganza, also known as I.C.E. Fest has grown into a community event with hockey games, curling demonstrations, human foosball, dog sledding, ice bowling and many other activities. Jen and I jumped right in and mingled with the crowd. Stepping on and off a moving ice carousel is an experience not unlike getting on and off a people mover at the airport, but standing on the small circle, spinning one way, and looking across the big circle, seeing people go the other way, is quite the trip. And, without moving a muscle, you can make a full rotation and travel half a mile.
It was time for lunch, so we headed back to town. Donna Beto has been the woman behind the counter at Donna’s Big John’s for almost thirty years. There are no gluten free or near-meat options here, just griddled and deep-fried classic diner fare, all spelled out on the peg-letter menu board. She likes to joke with her customers from inside the tiny kitchen. I stepped up to the counter to order and said “Are you Donna?” “Depends. Does she owe you money?” she answered. While we waited for our order, we heard the story of how the place got its name. Big John, she told the dining room over the sound of the sizzling grill, was the brother of the previous owner. When she took over, she bristled at the price tag for a new sign. “I told the guy from the sign company ‘Just go up there and put Donna’s in front of it and call it good,’” she said.
Our food arrived, a Big John burger with fries for me and a patty melt with onion rings for Jen. “There’s a dollar charge if you squish the burger,” Donna said with a grin. It was the perfect meal.
We worked it off with a stroll around town. At Bon Jo’s boutique Jen perused the seemingly endless array of clothing racks.
Across the street, at Great River Arts, we took in the Blair Treuer exhibit. What at first glance appeared to be paintings, were indeed, textile arrangements sewn together from pieces and shreds of colored fabrics.
Just a short walk away, the Shoppes of Little Falls is a vendor and maker space in two adjacent, historical buildings. The large, open space houses over eighty different vendors offering anything from wood turnings, to jewelry made with spider webs to musical instruments turned lamps.
We walked on and had it not been for the sandwich board on the sidewalk, we would have missed a little store hidden away in the former Victor Mall building on Broadway. In a tiny, tiny room at the end of a hallway, Jen found Pink Zebra candles. With help from owner Nicki Osborne, she went mad scientist and turned a variety of scented wax beads into a one-of-a-kind candle blend that even she didn’t know how to describe. There was a lot of flavors to choose from.
Our last stop was at the toy section of Baby’s on Broadway where we found lots of goodies for the children in our lives, including ourselves.
After that shopping spree we needed to cool our heels and recount the events of the day. We picked up dinner at Sanchez Burrito and set course for Starry Eyed Brewing. This brewery serves a mind-boggling 40+ beers, seltzers and ciders and that’s not even counting what they call Tapfoolery-a random assortment of their flagship beers blended with fruits and spices. The ceiling of the former machine shop is covered in grain bags and rumor has it, there’s only one that does not have a pair.
The west facing glass garage door let in lots of sunlight and the tap room was buzzing with people on a beautiful day. It was so nice we decided to take flight and have our dinner outside on the patio. Jen was obviously thinking spring and chose the Pomegranate seltzer as her favorite. I was still in winter mode and stuck with the Whisky Kyst porter, a dark, slightly sweet winter warmer.
Spring was still seven more weeks away, according to Punxsutawney Phil. After another eventful day we again turned in early.
On our last day we ventured out to the hamlet of Bowlus, just south of Little Falls. It’s home to the Soo Line Trail which brings bicyclists to town in the summer and snowmobiles in the winter. Our destination was Jordie’s Trailside Café, right across from the community center, which serves as the trail head. The restaurant is run by a three-woman, three-generation team with matching tie-dyed jerseys. Mother Jordie Stay and daughter Sonya run the day-to-day operations and grandmother Rosella Keeler makes sure there’s at least three soups on the menu at all times. The good thing about a breakfast buffet is instant gratification and we were the first ones in line. Sonya, whose specialty is making pies, highly suggested her new creation, cinnamon rolls with strawberry icing, and we were glad we tried them before we hit the road.
The rolls gave us enough energy to ski the Platte River Trail at Crane Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. The 3.7-mile trail is groomed for cross country skiing in the winter. It comprises three loops through the diverse landscape of the 2,000-acre refuge. Starting from the kiosk near the entrance it takes you through prairie, oak savannah, woods and wetlands along the Platte River. It was another fabulous, crisp morning but the sun was strong. The trail was still firm this early, but by the time we returned to the car, we had taken off hats and gloves and unzipped the coats.
Before we left town, we stopped for lunch at Tavern on First. The long and narrow space gave off a friendly, neighborhood vibe with its wood floors and a bar counter that zig-zagged almost the entire length of the room. We were in a soup mood and ordered the tomato bisque and the chicken wild rice. They arrived promptly on square charger plates, nonetheless. Paired with some fresh, hot pretzel bites it was the perfect amount of food for the way home.
We’re already looking forward to our next visit when the snow is gone and the bike trails are calling.