I have driven by St. Cloud at least 100 times in my life — maybe more.
For those of us who take I-94 into “The Cities” — for some reason, I never call the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro “The Twin Cities” — St. Cloud is the almost-there mile marker, the spot where my mom would turn around in her seat and say “Only about an hour more!”
This weekend, I finally pulled off interstate and checked out what the city had to offer.
The most interesting cities capitalize on what makes them unique and don’t worry too much about comparing themselves to others. St. Cloud’s calling card is its location along the banks of the mighty Mississippi River.
Confession alert: I’ve visited the Mississippi headwaters in Itasca State Park half a dozen times and photographed the river often, as recently as just few days ago in St. Paul. And I never gave how it got from one place to the other a single second of thought. For a travel writer — and a native Minnestoan — that’s kind of embarrassing. Even the best researchers and the most curious ones have blind spots, an apparently St. Cloud sits smack dab in the middle of one of mine.
I wanted to fix that as soon as possible.
Derrick had to work late on Friday, so we pulled into AmericInn just off of I-94 around 10:30 at night. Eli’s pack and play was waiting in our room when we arrived (it pays to call ahead!) so we cracked open a couple beers, threw the rest in the fridge (craft beer fans come prepared!) and planned out the most basic of itineraries for Saturday.
Luckily, many of Saint Cloud’s signature attractions are nestled along the Mississippi and within easy walking distance of each other, so you can easily fill a morning or afternoon with outdoor activities, but never feel too busy. We spent the morning at two of the city’s most striking spots, Clemens Gardens and Munsinger Gardens.
Clemens Gardens is a love letter in flowers. When this plot of land came up for sale, Bill Clemens, who lived across the street, bought it and created a spectacular garden for his wife, Virginia. She adored roses and flowers and all kinds, but suffered from multiple sclerosis and couldn’t work the land herself. The gardens expanded over time, so Mrs. Clemens was able to watch all this beauty, her husband’s ongoing gift to her and her city, bloom and grow over the years.
It’s a carefully curated garden space, with manicured paths in a more formal garden space, a rose garden and a soothing fountain. Curious gardeners will appreciate how many of the flowers are labeled. Only some of the roses have a scent, but those that do make the summer air delicately fragrant.
While Clemens Gardens maximizes the short Minnesota growing season by opening itself to the sun on the crest of a hill, Munsinger Gardens is tucked under a canopy of towering evergreens along the low banks of the Mississippi. It was hot on the day we visited (91 by noon) but the gardens were lush and cool, with a refreshing breeze coming off the water.
I could have sat there all day.
There are quiet paths for strolling, bubbling brooks and softly misting fountains and a moss covered gazebo. There are smooth benches for resting, secluded picnic spots and swings every few feet so everyone can sit down and take in the calming river views.
I really liked how people-friendly and soothing the space is. New little garden scenes opened up everywhere I looked and tree-lined paths ushered me down to the water. When I wanted shade, I found it. When I glanced around for a place to sit, I found two or three options. (The gazebo and some of the original walking paths were actually constructed as a WPA project and its been expanding since then.)
That accessibility made it a friendly place for kids and people with limited mobility and comfortable gathering spot for the community. I saw several matriarchs strolling arm in arm with children and grandchildren and a few locals getting a little exercise or grabbing lunch in a scenic spot alongside travelers like us.
I like to walk and explore more than the average person and my three year-old usually runs several steps ahead of me. But we happily spent 20 minutes (an eternity in toddler time) watching other visitors amble along the river path, staring at the boats on the water and listening to birds call to each other from the trees.
We spotted ducks paddling upstream and Eli squealed when Derrick showed him a duck dozing off while standing up. He was a big fan of the squirrels scampering around the grounds as well.
We heard the soft “plunk” of jumping fish, but we never did see any. There must have been plenty though, because a handful of fishermen tossed lines in the water and settled into their perches on the shore to wait for a bite. The Mississippi is known as a pretty hot fishing spot — especially for smallmouth bass.
In fact, the city landed the Governor’s Fishing Opener next year (May 11-14), so I’m guessing there will be a whole lot more lines in the water at this time next year, once the secret’s out. And that means the town is going to be booked solid before and after those dates, so if you want to see St. Cloud for yourself, you should book your hotel for next summer, stat.
Munsinger and Clemens Gardens
1515 Riverside Drive SE
St. Cloud, MN
Dawn to 10 p.m.
Street Parking is available
What about you?
What do you love in St. Cloud?
What kinds of activities do you look for when planning a family vacation?
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