This year, an out-of-state trip may not be doable, so consider staying close to home and exploring the St. Croix River towns of Stillwater, Hudson, Afton, and Prescott. If you’re starting your journey in the south metro, consider heading to Prescott first and moving north. If you’re coming from any other part of the metro, start in Stillwater and travel south from there. Whether you choose to make a weekend out of it, stick to a one-day road trip, or mix-and-match your stops, these river towns offer everything you need for a weekend vacation.
Stillwater has been a favorite day trip destination for years thanks to its boutiques, picturesque location, and bustling foodie scene. In fact, Stillwater was recently named one of the 10 Best Small Town Food Scenes in the country by USA Today, ranking No. 5 on the list.
Start your morning off with brunch at the Main Café, a Stillwater staple for home-cooked meals for more than 30 years. Afterward, take your time walking along the historic Main Street. Most of Stillwater’s shops are open for business on the weekends, including long-time favorite Tremblay’s Sweet Shop and specialty shops such as Cooks of Crocus Hill, Valley Booksellers, and Modern Roots. Shop business hours may be more limited this summer due to COVID-19, so make sure you confirm times if you aren’t going over the weekend.
During your visit, you’ll probably notice that Main Street looks a bit different due to the makeshift patios along the way. These extended patio spaces allow restaurants and customers to better adhere to social distancing guidelines. (Tip: If the restaurants on Main Street are a little too crowded for your comfort, consider grabbing takeout and eating it at Lowell Park. You can also go to a smaller restaurant off Main Street.)
For a nightcap in Stillwater, visit Papa’s, the new rooftop bar that can be found above the renovated Water Street Inn, overlooking the Lift Bridge and the St. Croix River. The recently opened Forge and Foundry Distillery is a great place for a cocktail, too, as Stillwater’s first legal distillery since the Prohibition.
For a river excursion, book a ticket for a Stillwater River Boats public cruise (you can view their COVID-19 policy here) or, for less of a crowd, opt for renting a paddle board or kayak from St. Croix SUP instead. For more outdoor activity, you can also experience the recently opened Lift Bridge, ready for pedestrians and bicyclists alike.
Across the St. Croix River and 9 miles south of Stillwater is Hudson, home to the bustling St. Croix Marina, the popular LoLo American Kitchen, and many waterfront parks—perfect for enjoying river views and warm summer weather.
If you’re traveling with kids, make sure to pack a swimsuit and towels for this stop—across the Hudson Pier walking bridge is a good-sized beach with trees for shade and enough room to socially distance. Lakefront Park also offers a swimming beach and a full-time life guard, and there are plenty of benches great for watching the boats cruise by while eating ice cream from the nearby Dairy Queen or Knoke’s Chocolates and Nuts.
For lunch, dinner, or a mid-afternoon refreshment, consider choosing a restaurant with patio or rooftop dining like Pier 500 (completely with nice views of the river and the Hudson Pier), Smilin’ Moose (its lower-level patio is dog friendly!), or Mallory’s (the restaurant is closed on Labor Day, FYI). Each of these restaurants also offers takeout if you would rather order food to-go and enjoy it picnic-style.
To get out on the water, book a cruise with St. Croix River Cruises (come back in October for a tour of the fall colors). For more of a hiking trip, head a bit north of Hudson to Willow River State Park, a 3,000-acre riverside park with waterfalls, a swimming beach on Little Falls Lake, good fishing spots, camping sites, and over 13 miles of hiking trails.
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Afton may be small (pop: 2,886), but its charm is unparalleled. While booking a room at the Historic Afton House Inn won’t happen on such short notice, you can still plan for a shorter visit to the downtown area and enjoy restaurants, riverside views, and Selma’s Ice Cream Parlor, the best shop in Afton. Current flavors include blueberry cheesecake, butter pecan, plus mint chip plus carrot mango and raspberry lemon Italian ice, which are both non-dairy and non-fat. You can also order family sundae kits, pints or quarts of ice cream, and ice cream cakes for pickup. While Selma’s does have some outdoor seating, your best bet for social distancing is to take your ice cream to-go and enjoy it down by one of the marinas.
If you’re visiting Afton over the lunch or dinner hour, book a reservation for the patio at Swirl Wine Bar, the Current Restaurant at the Historic Afton House Inn, or a bit further north, the Lumberyard Pub. (All three restaurants offer takeout and curbside pickup in some capacity, too.)
With two marinas in town, this section of the St. Croix River is always busy, but grabbing some food and then hitting the parks can keep you out and about while being socially distanced. To the south are both Afton State Park and St. Croix Bluffs Regional Park, which sits on 3,800 feet of shoreline along the St. Croix River.
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If you start your trip in Prescott, make sure you book a reservation for the Kitchen Table nice and early in the morning. Located downtown on Broad Street, the Kitchen Table embraces a farmhouse vibe with wood-top tables and bars and homey decor, which makes it that much cozier. The restaurant opens at 6 a.m. everyday (including weekends, if you’re hoping to beat some of the crowd), plus you can have a mimosa alongside your morning coffee.
Besides the Kitchen Table, Broad Street is home to a ton of other restaurants, so picking out a place for lunch or dinner will be a breeze. A long-time favorite is Muddy Waters Bar & Grill with its main-level indoor seating (currently limited) and Backwaters—Muddy Waters’ outdoor bar overlooking the St. Croix River, which is open every weekend from 11 a.m. to close. Almost every restaurant along Broad Street offers takeout, too, if you would rather take your food to-go.
For an afternoon by the river, check out the Prescott City Beach or Point Douglas Park, located just above the St. Croix’s confluence with the Mississippi River. The park offers a fishing pier, swimming beach, picnic area, and trail access to Point Douglas Regional Trail for walking or biking.