Lake George ice rinks
photo by fines aerial imaging
Just an hour west of the Twin Cities on Interstate 94 sits Minnesota’s 10th-largest city, St. Cloud. Many know the college scene—St. Cloud State University, St. John’s, the College of St. Benedict, and St. Scholastica—which included my own collegiate years. But during my time at St. Cloud State, I discovered a side of the community beyond the textbooks, kegs, and hockey.
For one, the parks and recreation. By the end of my senior year, I had moved just south of Lake George—about 10 blocks west of campus. During the summer, the area is a hotbed for weekly festivals and concerts, but once frozen, the lake becomes one of the city’s 11 skating rinks, with a warming house on site. For snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, the 683-acre Quarry Park is a must. The ski trails’ outdoor lighting is turned on every night until 10 p.m., and the park hosts its annual Moonlight Ski event on January 4. Located about a 15-minute drive from downtown, Quarry Park’s 4.2 miles of ski trails wind through woods, prairie, and granite cliffs—remnants of the area’s mining past.
Quarry Park fat biking
photo by fines aerial imaging
Speaking of local history, it was 100 years ago that St. Cloud’s Pan Motor Company produced its first car—though the company was permanently stalled when president Sam Pandolfo received a 10-year prison sentence the next year for mail fraud. What remains of the city’s brief automotive foray is the Pantown neighborhood in western St. Cloud, which includes a walkable historic district featuring homes built specifically for factory workers. Nearby, Pantown Brewing Company has just joined the region’s burgeoning craft beer scene.
The greater St. Cloud area—Waite Park, Sauk Rapids, St. Joseph, and other small towns—offers a variety of food and drink spots, and not just for college shenanigans. As the owners would say, the White Horse in downtown St. Cloud “drinks like a bar and eats like a restaurant.” Between the burgers, melts, and, my personal favorite, the grass-fed ribeye, you won’t leave hungry, and the drinks—with plenty of Surly on tap, plus wine and other local brews—will keep your thirst quenched.
Over on the Sauk River, Anton’s is a log-cabin establishment brimming with comfort food and enough scotch to keep you warm all winter. Fancier fare can be found at the Old Capital Tavern in Sauk Rapids, which is ideal for a sit-down dinner of smoked beer-can chicken, beef brisket, or mac and cheese with pulled pork and bacon. Or you can just pony up at the bar.
Feeling adventurous? There’s the Martini Lounge inside the Red Carpet—a multi-floor establishment featuring many bars—or, at MC’s Dugout, try a Hairy Buffalo cocktail, named after a cherished piece of taxidermy on the wall. Neither place will stiff you on a cocktail. The Veranda Lounge, located inside Pioneer Place on Fifth, has excellent service and eclectic wines, drinks, and beers. It’s also a destination for live, mostly acoustic music. Meanwhile, Pioneer Place features live theater and stand-up comedy by local artists and performers, and the Paramount Center for the Arts provides year-round, weekly live music—from rock to country and jazz—in addition to visual arts exhibits, dance, and theater, as in its productions of A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker Ballet playing November through December.
Annual holiday traditions in the area include the Winter Wonderland celebration on December 8, which takes over Lake George’s municipal complex for an afternoon of activities geared for all ages—from hay rides around the lake to the Touch-a-Truck exhibit especially for kids. The Winter Nights and Lights Parade takes over downtown in the evening. Downtown, there’s also the Weihnachtsmarkt, an outdoor German Christmas market on December 6 with fire pits, crafts, music, traditional food, and hot, spiced glühwein.
Coming up January 19 is the annual St. Cloud Craft Beer Tour at the River’s Edge Convention Center in downtown St. Cloud. It brings together St. Cloud’s own Beaver Island Brewing Co.—which has about 10 brews ready to pour at its pup-friendly downtown taproom—with other big-name breweries from around the state.
Val’s Rapid Service burger
photo by explore mn tourism
Before heading home after your central Minnesota sojourn, you must stop in at Val’s Rapid Service, the old-school burger joint located right near Highway 10. Simple, affordable, with burgers that are just the right amount of greasy, plus some of the best fries you’ll find. Not feeling a burger? They have about 10 different flavored milkshakes, too.
Eat, Play, Stay in St. Cloud
photo by scsu athletic communications
Herb Brooks National Hockey Center
St. Cloud State’s men’s and women’s hockey programs are both Division I—making the recently renovated, 5,000-plus capacity Herb Brooks National Hockey Center an exciting place to catch a game. During the busy weekend of November 16-18, the men’s team hosts the Bemidji State Beavers, and the women’s squad takes on the University of Minnesota.
The Local Blend Coffee Shop & Wine Bar
Over in St. Joseph, this coffee shop has the best cup of Joe you’ll find in the area—locally roasted, by the way—along with a full menu, including tasty treats courtesy of Collegeville Artisan Bakery.
Courtyard by Marriott
Yes, it’s a chain. I’ve stayed in just about every hotel in the downtown area, and the Marriott reigns supreme. The building was recently renovated, and the rooms are modern and up to date.