This Minnesota River Valley Town Is a Perfect Day Trip for Bicyclists, Trail Wanderers and Flower Fanatics
Winter-weary and thirsting for color, my eyes drink in the hues of 39,000 tulips. Blushing pinks, blazing oranges, fringed yellows, siren reds and princely purples trumpet spring's arrival at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. The 1,200-acre public garden is also home to one of the country's top collections of crabapple trees. I find myself looking upward and slowly spinning beneath cascades of cotton-candy blossoms.
The arboretum sits on the edge of Chaska, a historic town in the Minnesota River Valley, about a half hour southwest of the Twin Cities. Bloom chasers like me will also find biking and hiking trails and a walkable downtown dotted with boutiques and a French bakery.
A gazebo anchors Chaska City Square, where corner burial mounds quietly attest to Native Americans known as Mound Builders gathering here centuries before the Dakota nation and later, German settlers, started arriving in the 1850s. Later, brickyards used the area's creamy yellow clay to build Victorian homes and storefronts. Former clay holes became spring-fed lakes, including Firemen's Clayhole, the showpiece of Firemen's Park, which also has a beach, playground and illuminated fishing bridges.
On the south end of downtown, Brett and Emily Geselle opened Tommy's Malt Shop more than a decade ago, drawn to Chaska's family-friendly small-town vibe. "We wanted to make this a place for families to connect without distractions," says Brett, whose four kids, ages 3 to 10, love to pitch in at the restaurant. Bicyclists coming from Twin Cities suburbs will order a Juicy Lucy—a burger stuffed with molten cheese—as their lunchtime reward. Families share an old-fashioned malt on the busy patio.
I opt to cross the river to find a Minnesota Valley State Recreation Area hiking trail threading through bottomland forest. Vines twine around elms and cottonwoods that cathedral overhead while woodpeckers drum territorially on trees. I breathe deep and listen as the trilling chorus celebrates spring's triumphant return.
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Start a day in Chaska at Red Bench Bakery. Early birds may score a Kouign-Amann (sounds like "Queen Amann"), a layered Breton pastry brushed with caramel and sea salt. Cinnamon rolls marry the moist density of fresh sweet rolls with the buttery layers of a croissant. Look for the daily quiche for lunch or picnic fare to go, including fresh baguettes, local Brie and charcuterie, and tangerine-chili marinated olives. Pints of Bebe Zito ice cream are churned on-site (including the vegan Marvelous Mrs. Hazel). Dolce Vita wine shop in the historic train depot next door can recommend a bottle of wine.
Slide into a family-size booth or circle a patio table at Tommy's Malt Shop for honey-drizzled grilled cheese, icy root beer in frosted mugs, or a salted caramel and walnut malt in a tall glass.
Order veggie tacos or a chicken sandwich slathered in beer-cheese sauce at Crooked Pint Ale House, where tiered seating overlooks the Chaska Curling Center. The sport boomed after the 2010 Winter Olympics in Canada, and Chaska claims one of the country's biggest curling clubs.
Schram Haus Brewery, perched on a bluff above downtown, brews local beers such as the Brickyard Blonde ale and the Cane Fighter IPA. Weekends include live music and the chance to sit outdoors with views of the Minnesota River Valley—you might just spot a bald eagle.
Discover spring floral scents, decor and clothing at Carver Junk Company, or let them curate a seasonal gift box with candles, soap and other finds. Browse antique picnic baskets and blankets, toddler clothing sewn from vintage fabrics, easy-to-frame floral illustrations, and fun local tote bags at Shop 501 and Company.
Follow the paved Minnesota River Bluffs Regional Trail from Chaska Athletic Park (home of Chaska Cubs amateur baseball) to Depot Parkin nearby Carver, a smaller historic town where you can cool off with an ice cream cone at The Carver Creamery. Bicyclists can also head north and east into the Twin Cities as far as Target Field on multiple regional trails.
Take a hike for spring birding through the Minnesota Valley State Recreation Area. Park on the southern side of the Minnesota River just south of downtown Chaska or at Riverside Park in Carver, which also rents a few rustic riverside campsites.
Chaska Town Course, designed by Arthur Hills, ranks as one of the best municipal golf courses in Minnesota. (And it's only 3 miles from the Hazeltine National Golf Club, which has hosted the prestigious Ryder Cup).