Let the snowy recreation begin at Mount Kato Ski Area
photo by evan taylor
The Minnesota Vikings have rolled up the turf one last time in Mankato, moving training camp to Eagan. There are still many reasons to visit this delightful town 90 miles southwest of the Twin Cities—including a ton of wintry activities. And if you’re headed there on Highway 169, don’t miss two perfect pit stops: Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store in Jordan and the charming Emma Krumbee’s Restaurant and Bakery in Belle Plaine.
First, about 45 minutes in: the emporium of otherwise-hard-to-find sweets. South Dakota has Wall Drug, but Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store is better. You can’t miss this huge yellow barn, about the size of an airplane hangar. I grabbed some Bit-O-Honey, a bag of Sugar Babies, and a bottle of bacon-chocolate cream soda.
With a candy stockpile, 10 minutes farther you’ll reach Emma Krumbee’s, selling comfort pies made from fresh apples and seasonal berries. Even after apple-picking season ends in October, the restaurant continues serving homemade meals, with signature pecan-caramel croissants.
Breakfast at Wagon Wheel Cafe
photo by wagon wheel cafe
With my sugar high in full throttle, I rolled into Mankato for breakfast. A few solid recommendations landed me at Wagon Wheel Café, in the heart of the city. This old-school spot has classic vinyl booths and a horseshoe-shaped breakfast counter, where I got their breakfast special, the Hog Pile—a stick-to-your-ribs number consisting of one egg and a generous serving of breakfast potatoes covered in bacon bits, country gravy, tomatoes, onions, and cheddar cheese for $9.49. This meal will carry you through lunch.
One of the local residents at Minneopa State Park near Mankato
photo by jordan mileski
For some nature and history, visit Minneopa State Park. You’ll find a herd of 20 bison roaming the enclosed 330-acre park. This herd is unique: They’re purebred, rather than crossbred with cattle, descended from the same type of bison that explorers Lewis and Clark saw back in the 1830s. If snow’s on the ground, consider snowshoeing the five miles of trails around the state park, where you can also check out the scenic Minneopa Falls.
Digital Extra: Homecoming on the Range
See genetically rare, purebred bison as they’re reintroduced to Minneopa State Park in Mankato—a “living laboratory.”
Skiers, snowboarders, and snow tubers looking to avoid the long lines for city slopes should visit Mount Kato Ski Area. Its 19 runs and eight chairlifts keep guests moving. (Kids 12 and under ski free December 10-16.)
In from the cold, the Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota offers hands-on discoveries for kids. The annual north woods winter exhibit features a cabin that the museum constructs to recreate indoor and outdoor activities, including ice fishing and snowmobiling. There’s even an area for friendly indoor snowball fights.
For a dose of the holiday spirit, the Kiwanis Holiday Lights display in Sibley Park runs from November 23 to December 31. More than 1.5 million LED lights put on a show timed to music. There are also horse-drawn wagon rides, live reindeer, a skating rink, ice sculptures, and a chance to visit with Santa. And on the first weekend in December, costumed guides take over the R.D. Hubbard House, a Victorian mansion downtown, to recreate how the wealthy Hubbard family used to celebrate.
The pie from Rapidan Dam Store
photo by katie adelman
To add to your list of “worth the drive,” Rapidan Dam Store is about 20 minutes outside of town, and I must admit, I just about turned around more than once—but thank goodness I didn’t. This tiny diner, located near the Blue Earth River dam in the one-horse town of Rapidan, has been around since 1910. The family-owned staple serves up about 20 pies per day. In 2004, Food & Wine magazine even featured this wee pie palace. How to decide on a slice? I consulted the regulars indulging next to me and selected top sellers: the banana cream pie and the raspberry rhubarb pie. Unequivocally the best pie I have ever had.
WYSIWYG Juice Co.
photo by WYSIWYG Juice Co.
If you’ve had enough sugar plum fairies dancing through your head and you need a healthy detox, check out WYSIWYG Juice Co. (“what you see is what you get”) for a handcrafted, cold-press juice. The owners’ energy was infectious, and the chia peanut butter poppers were delicious. Raw juices here are 100 percent certified organic, non-GMO, and gluten free. When resolution time comes in 2019, this place might just call you back.
Not that you need any more reason to return. With activities running into December, Mankato is a dream town for that cozy Minnesota fantasy we all start to itch for this time of year.
Eat, Play, Stay in Mankato
This family-owned American/Mediterranean restaurant is in the Hilton Garden Inn. On a recommendation, I ordered the shwarma pizza, and this heavenly creation did not disappoint. I ended up leaving with a jar of shwarma sauce, and let’s just say it may have been opened on my way back to St. Paul.
Chankaska Creek Ranch & Winery
Plan to visit the tasting room, where you can stay warm by the fire while enjoying a glass of wine and a pizza from the wood-fire oven. For a bit of exercise, rent snowshoes and traverse the 13 vineyards on the 25-acre property.
This elegant boutique hotel is in the nearby town of St. Peter. The quaint option has a limited number of rooms, but each holds its own sense of charm and character.