Southern Lakes

Dive into Southern Minnesota’s region on the water

Outside the Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota.
Spam Museum, Austin

photo by explore minnesota

Southern Lakes: Rich in History

Unique museums, historical sites and tributes preserve the past and allow visitors to experience it for themselves throughout the Southern Lakes region of Minnesota.

Farming has long been the backbone of Minnesota, feeding the state and beyond. Several agricultural interpretive centers reside throughout the region, including Heritage Acres in Fairmont, a 40-acre agricultural interpretive center designed to tell the past and future story of farming. Farmamerica in Waseca spans 360 acres, complete with a genuine 1850s settlement, a one-room schoolhouse, a 1930s farmstead and much more.

In Austin you will find a breadth of historical attractions, including the Hormel Historic Home, once the home of food industry maven George A. Hormel. Self-guided tours are available year-round, and regular summer concerts are a local favorite. While in Austin, be sure to stop at the Spam Museum to learn about the food’s significance during World War II, play Spam trivia and more.

If you’re hungry for more food history, head west to Blue Earth for a free tour of the Giant Museum. Featuring Jolly Green  Giant memorabilia, this museum is down the road from the town’s 55-foot Jolly Green Giant statue.

In 1859, Dr. William Worrall Mayo built a home in Le Sueur. Mayo, who would later go on to found the Mayo Clinic, opened his first medical practice in an upstairs room in the home, and years later, a founder of Green Giant Co. took up residence there. The W.W. Mayo House stands as a historic site where visitors can take tours to learn more about the Mayo family, their clinic and Green Giant Co.’s history.

Northfield also boasts an iconic past—the infamous Jesse James and his gang of outlaws narrowly escaped an attempted robbery of the Northfield First National Bank in 1876. You can bear witness to a re-enactment of the fateful day during the Defeat of Jesse James Days every September. If your travels don’t coincide with this annual event, Northfield offers a self-guided Outlaw Trail Tour that includes 13 stops along the gang’s escape route.

Head south to downtown Owatonna, which was recently named to the National Register of Historic Places. There you will find the National Farmers’ Bank. Now operated by Wells Fargo and built to resemble a jewel box, this bank was built in 1908 and designed by Louis Sullivan, an American architect who mentored Frank Lloyd Wright. Its exterior is hard to miss, adorned with blue and green tiles and intricate stained glass windows, while the ornate interior is something to behold as well.

Several more opportunities to take a step back in time exist in Owatonna, including the Minnesota State Public School Orphanage Museum. The campus holds memorabilia from the years that more than 10,000 orphaned or neglected children were sent to the town to live.

Sisseton Lake, Fairmont.
Sisseton Lake, Fairmont

photo by greg abel

Southern Lakes: Outdoor Exploration

A straight shot south of the Twin Cities metro takes you into lake and prairie country where more than 50 lakes dot the landscape. Miles of biking and hiking trails unravel throughout the region, and there are plenty of water activities to enjoy.

The Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail is a 39-mile blacktop trail that connects the towns of Faribault and Mankato. The route winds through both urban and rural landscapes, passing through towns such as Waterville, Elysian, Madison Lake and Cannon Lake. It also coincides with Sakatah Lake State Park, which covers more than 800 acres of fields, wetlands, forests and lakes.

Straight south from there is Big Island, a forest-covered island in the middle of Albert Lea Lake in Myre-Big Island State Park. A few miles west is Fountain Lake, where you can enjoy the acrobatics of the Bayside Water Ski Shows every Thursday throughout the summer. If you are looking to hit the trails, begin in Albert Lea on the Blazing Star State Trail, a 6-mile paved biking and hiking trail that leads east to Myre-Big Island State Park. The trail has undergone a sizeable expansion, extending the picturesque route 14 miles further east to Austin.

Austin is also the home of Jay C. Hormel Nature Center, a 500-acre preserve open year-round that features remnant prairie, hardwood forest and wetlands. There you will find the Sola Fide solar system observatory and a new Interpretive Center opened in 2017.

For more year-round adventures, visit Nerstrand Big Woods State Park in the northeast part of the region. With blooming spring wildflowers, gorgeous fall foliage, and over 10 miles of trails fi t for summer hiking and winter snowmobiling, the park has something to offer during every season. Located in Nerstrand, it is one of the last large-scale expanses of what French explorers deemed the “Big Woods” region of Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Get out of the woods and into the water in nearby Dundas, where you can make a pit stop at The Gear ReSource Outfitters before you cast away on a day of paddling. The outfitter is conveniently situated on the banks of the Cannon River, a prime spot for kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding and canoeing. You can rent equipment for these activities, as well as snowshoes in the winter.

A short jaunt west in Le Center is Traxler’s Hunting Preserve, which operates August through April for pheasant hunting season—a favorite Minnesota pastime. Hunker down in one of their furnished lodges, grab dinner at the on-site restaurant and make a weekend of it.

Artworks Festival, Austin.
Artworks Festival, Austin

photo by discover austin, minnesota

Southern Lakes: Eat, Shop, Play

The perfect vacation is rounded out by memorable dining, shopping and entertainment, and this region makes it happen. Explore small-town eateries, downtown boutiques, and breweries and wineries throughout.

For waterside dining in the Southern Lakes region, tie up your boat alongside Channel Inn in Fairmont for their signature Channel Burger—topped with a fried egg—and a side of onion rings. The restaurant overlooks the channel that connects Budd Lake and Hall Lake, part of a chain of five lakes that are teeming with boaters during the summer.

North on Highway 169 is Amboy Cottage Cafe, your ticket to home-cooked meals. From fresh bread and breakfast pastries to regional meat and potato dishes, you be er come hungry.

If you’re in the mood for a drink, your chance for a glass of Minnesota wine is at the new tasting room of Three Oak Vineyards and Winery in Albert Lea. While you’re in town, take in a performance at the Marion Ross Performing Arts Center as it celebrates more than 50 seasons of community theatre.

A trip further east to Austin requires a stop at The Tendermaid, a no-frills sandwich shop famous for loose meat hamburgers and classic shakes. For upscale ambiance and a tender prime rib, make a reservation at The Old Mill overlooking Austin’s Ramsey Dam.

For a true farm-to-table dinner—or farm-to-picnic-blanket, rather—pack up and head to Pleasant Grove Pizza Farm near Waseca. Bring your own utensils and drinks and leave the cooking to them.

Not far is downtown Owatonna where you can shop for consigned home goods at The Rustique, followed by a taste of El Salvador at La Pupuseria La Paz. For more shopping and dining that is uniquely Minnesotan, visit the Riverwalk Market Fair in Northfield every Saturday between June and October. Dozens of vendors sell local produce and hand-crafted gifts alongside talented area musicians. While in Northfield, also check out The Contented Cow for British pub fare and the chance to see live music on one of the restaurant’s three stages.

Wash down your Southern Lakes adventure with a cold brew at the new F-Town Brewing Co. in Faribault. Sample from 12 rotating tap beers, then be sure to visit The Cheese Cave where you can purchase 40 different artisan cheeses— including AmaBlu, America’s only cave-aged blue cheese made right in Faribault.

Built in 1901, the Fairmont Opera House is an icon of the town’s history. Since its preservation in the early ’80s, the venue has continued hosting live performances year-round. Another classic space is the Paramount Theatre in Austin, which has served many purposes since opening in 1929, including a movie theater, disco bar and a comedy club. The 620-seat theater was renovated in the early 2000s and now serves a bustling performing arts community.

A map of Southern Minnesota divided into different regions.

Historic Highlights: Southern Lakes

1. W.W. Mayo House – Le Sueur

Tour the former home of Mayo Clinic’s founders; those of the Green Giant Co. also resided here once upon a time. The house is open for tours with costumed guides who have innumerable stories to tell.

2. Northfield Historical Society – Northfield

Head east for about an hour to a town whose claim to fame is the site of a shoot-out with outlaw Jesse James. See artifacts from the raid and the very bank that the James-Younger Gang attempted to rob. You can also tour the Outlaw Trail that led the infamous gang to and from the town.

3. Minnesota State Public Sschool Orphanage Museum – Owatonna

Travel south along I-35 to this unique museum that preserves the history of more than 10,000 orphaned and abandoned children between 1886 and 1945. Take a self-guided tour or schedule a group tour of the institution.

4. Farmamerica – Waseca

Less than 30 minutes west is this enormous interpretive center dedicated to Minnesota’s rich agricultural history, an educational experience for both children and adults.

5. Fairmont Opera House – Fairmont

Head south on Highway 169 and west on I-90 to catch a concert or theater performance at Minnesota’s oldest opera house. The venue is worth a visit even if you can’t stay for a show.