Mankato is a lovely river town only an hour and a half from the center of the Twin Cities Metro. Fans of Maud Hart Lovelace’s “Betsy-Tacy” series will enjoy picking out landmarks in the city straight from the pages of the books. Those with younger kids will want to add a children’s museum and a city park petting farm onto their must-see list. And there’s plenty in the way of natural beauty to explore in Mankato, including a state park meandering along the placid Minnesota River.
Topping the list of my kids’ favorite things to do in Mankato is the Children’s Museum. They loved the ultimate indoor treehouse, a mock quarry complete with sandbox, crane and conveyor; a farm-to-market setup and a sweet picket-fenced-in play porch just for the youngest visitor. Outdoors you’ll find a natural element playground and a seasonal garden and farmyard. Open Tues-Sun, $9/pp.
I was raised on author Maud Hart Lovelace’s chronicles of best friends growing up in Deep Valley, an idyllic fictional town based on Mankato, Minnesota. I followed Betsy and Tacy through childhood, envied their impossibly fun high school years and saw them off to raise families and see the world. Then, when I started to raise a family of my own, I handed down my worn copies of the Deep Valley books and brought the kids to see the town that served as setting. You, too, can visit the restored homes and town landmarks the author and her besties made famous in Mankato. House tours are $5/adults, $2/ages 6-16. Saturdays only, 1-4pm, early April through mid-December.
In Mankato with kids in tow, you absolutely must make a stop at Sibley Farm Park. Goats, alpacas, calves, peacocks, horses, lambs, and chicks call the big red barn home. Get up close to the residents and take a few moments to sit by calming koi pond.
The farm theme extends to the playground equipment. The climbing towers are barn and silo-shaped. You can hop in the seat of a big green tractor or a wagon. In this portion of the park, the animals scattered about the grounds are the ride-on variety. On our visit, we packed a picnic dinner and managed to snag a little covered pavilion next to the playground.
Visit Mankato during the month of December and you’ll find the park and farm illuminated by a holiday light display. It’s a magical backdrop to a gallery of ice sculptures and an ice skating rink. Admission is free.
There always comes that time during a road trip that you desperately need to be out of the car NOW. Not that Mankato is a slog from our home in the Twin Cities (it’s actually only an hour and a half) but these children just couldn’t take another minute of being cooped up. Fortunately, first stop on our trip’s itinerary was Minneopa State Park. All they needed was some unstructured time at the base of a waterfall and they were transformed back into the happy kids I know and love. Pick up a map at the park office to find the trails.
If you can manage to coax them back into the car, across the highway in the other section of the park roams a herd of bison. See if you can spot them!
Daily cost to enter Minneopa State Park is $7/vehicle.
My kids have yet to show signs of inheriting their mom’s intrigue with historic homes. The Hubbard House sympathizes with families such as mine by offering kid-friendly programming into the mix of tours that focus on architecture and the life of a milling magnate. Sprinkled throughout the year are special such as a Victorian Lawn Party, interactive Christmas tours and other living history events that appeal to kids. Open weekends, May-Sept, $7/adults, $3/ages 5-17.
Brought the bikes along? Jump onto the paved Minnesota River Trail at one of Mankato’s parks (Sibley Park, Riverfront Park – both offer parking lots) and hug the namesake river along the western end of the city. Along the way, it offers views of the river, limestone cliffs and the city of Mankato.
Within the History Center is the Children’s Discovery Lab – including a pioneer cabin and barn kids can play in, a diorama of 1880s Mankato, and exhibits relating to Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy children’s book series. Admission is $7/adults, $3/kids, under 5 FREE.
Sneak in another history lesson on a side trip to St Peter, a 15-minute drive north of Mankato. While learning about the 1851 Treaty of Traverse des Sioux and its impact on the local Dakota people, junior historians get hands-on with educational exhibits disguised as play. Wiggles can be worked out on the self-guided Traverse des Sioux interpretive trail. It quietly loops through a grassy space adjacent to the History Center where the historic treaty was negotiated. Open Tues-Sat, 10am-4pm. Admission is $4-$6/pp.
Also in St Peter, Jake’s is our pick for the best pizza joint between the Twin Cities and Mankato. Touring makes us a hungry bunch and nothing satisfies every last one of us like a hot, melty thin crust. Tradition calls for ordering up a frosty growler of 1919 root beer – brewed in nearby New Ulm, Minnesota.
Mankato’s annual family festivals
Visit Mankato during the summer months and hit up one of these family-friendly festivals.