Unique Road Trips: Where Art Meets Nature in Minnesota

In prairies, along shoreline, among nature trails, you can find works of art worth a stop
Touch the Sky Prairie is home to 120 species of native plants and grasses, as well as a secluded waterfall.
Touch the Sky Prairie is home to 120 species of native plants and grasses, as well as a secluded waterfall.

Photo by Jim Brandenburg

For those of us who like to travel, 2020 was—to put it mildly—kind of a letdown. Our family’s 13-person multigenerational trip to Disney World vanished faster than the Cheshire Cat from Wonderland. Fortunately, Minnesota is rich with under-the-radar attractions that make in-state trips both novel and rewarding—including places where natural wonder beautifully intertwines with art.

National Geographic photographer Jim Brandenburg is synonymous with the Northwoods and its many wonders. Boundary Waters visitors can view stunning photographs of wolves and wilds at his gallery in downtown Ely.

But Brandenburg also has strong ties to his birthplace of Luverne in Minnesota’s southwest corner. Located at the Rock County Veterans Memorial Building, the nonprofit Brandenburg Gallery not only showcases southwest Minnesota’s native prairie, but its proceeds help promote, protect, and expand it.

Through his foundation and other benefactors, Brandenburg has turned 1,000 acres of heavily grazed land nearby into the Touch the Sky Prairie. Its 120 species of native plants and grasses include a federally endangered flower known as the western prairie fringed orchid. Three mowed out-and-back trails take visitors through the wildflowers and native grasses along the quartzite bluffs, one of which leads to a secluded prairie waterfall. Blue Mounds State Park, with its bison herd, hiking trails, and tipis for camping, is also within reach.

The Minnesota Marine Art Museum
The Minnesota Marine Art Museum

Provided

About four hours due east, the Minnesota Marine Art Museum is dedicated to arguably our state’s most precious natural asset: water. You might expect to see works by Winslow Homer, Claude Monet, Georgia O’Keefe, Edward Hopper, Emanuel Leutze, Pablo Picasso, and Edgar Degas at the Louvre or the Guggenheim. But in Winona, Minnesota? If it features water, it can be featured here. Culled from auctions, private collections, and long-term loans, this impressive array includes Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, which was displayed at the White House for 35 years before it arrived in Winona in 2015.

The museum’s natural setting, overlooking the Mississippi River and surrounded by 3.5 acres of gardens, is as carefully curated as the artwork inside. Special exhibitions planned for 2021 include a traveling showcase of more than 100 mixed-media pieces, brought in by the American Society of Marine Artists (June 18-October 3).

A sculpture at the Caponi Art Park
A sculpture at the Caponi Art Park

Photo by Kelly Mroczek

Beyond Minnesota’s best-known sculpture parks—the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and Franconia Sculpture Park—another formidable outdoor art collection is tucked away on 60 acres of rolling woods in Eagan. Founded by long-time Macalester College art department chair Anthony Caponi, Caponi Art Park’s integration of metal and stone sculptures into the land is a work of art itself. Caponi died in 2015, but his legacy lives on in the nearly 30 sculptures he designed and crafted. Also boasting a labyrinth, nature trails, and an outdoor amphitheater, the park, open May 1 through October 31, offers free admission, although donations are welcome.

Leaning quirkier is Big Stone Mini Golf in Minnetrista—one part sculpture exhibition, one part farm, and one part mini-golf course. All 14 holes are interactive works of art. Take the Instagram-friendly Holey Ship, an upside-down boat dotted with brightly colored porthole windows. Other sculptures scattered throughout take on animal and human forms, and there’s an oddly familiar big metal spoon surrounded by cherries.

Sometimes nature is the art. In St. Cloud, the Munsinger and Clemens Gardens sit along the Mississippi River across from St. Cloud State University. Combined, the two gardens display close to 80,000 annuals, perennials, tropical plants, shrubs, and other flora. Shady and serene, the Munsinger’s paved paths meander through beds of colorful blooms and past a lily pond, a stone wishing well, and a log cabin that was part of a campground here until 1933. Across Riverside Drive, the more stately Clemens portion has six formal gardens separated by brick paths and ironwork fences, and accented by big stone fountains and ornate planters.

And what’s more naturally artful than a waterfall? Two lesser-known gems, accessible by land or water, are part of the Kettle River about an hour north of the Twin Cities in Sandstone. The first is Big Spring Falls, just south of town. Rushing over a 5-foot wall of sandstone, the falls span the width of the river and make for some fast-flowing rapids when the water is high. You can either park right next to it, or hike 1.5 miles downriver from Robinson Park, a former sandstone quarry which becomes a premier ice-climbing destination in winter.

Take an unmarked trail about three-quarters of a mile upriver from the park to find Wolf Creek Falls, in Banning State Park. The journey along the rocky, rugged trail is half the fun; once there, you’ll be rewarded with 360-degree views of the 12-foot falls and calm pool below. Local outfitter Hard Water Sports can rent you a canoe or kayak, and it also leads rafting trips between mid-April and September.

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