Little Falls, Minn: Best things to do in Land of Lindbergh

 Charles Lindbergh’s boyhood home on the Mississippi. Photo by Lisa Meyers McClintick

Small-town charm, Lindbergh home, a small zoo, fishing and military museums all thrive along the Mississippi River

By Lisa Meyers McClintick

Learning about Charles Lindbergh–Minnesota hero, ace aviator and one of the world’s first mega-celebrities—would alone be worth the visit to Little Falls.

The Soo Line Trail crosses the Mississippi.

But Little Falls also sparkles as an apple-pie slice of Americana and a laid-back destination perfect for younger children as a family field trip or a welcome stop on a drive to northern resort towns. Our son loved sitting in a replica of Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, pretending to start the engine over and over. He also loved seeing trains chug past the historic Cass Gilbert depot and hearing the whistle echo up and down the Mississippi River.

You can bike or walk past the thundering dam and read about the logging boom and catch retired anglers (maybe still with a German or Polish lilt in their voice) on trails along the river. Just a block or two from the river, an old-fashioned downtown beckons with a sweet bakery, an independent bookshop, toy store, classic movie marquee, and an arts co-op.

Here are our top reasons why this is such a nice family destination:

Find inspiration via Lindbergh

Pike’s Creek at Lindbergh State Park
Any kid who’s a dreamer can relate to a young Charles Lindbergh, who grew up in the home that’s now part of the Charles A. Lindbergh Historic Site two miles south of downtown ($6-$8). They can picture Lindbergh, son of a U.S. Congressman, spending his summers taking apart engines, and fearlessly exploring the Mississippi River before making headlines in 1927 with the world’s first solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean.Interpreters share what fueled his hunger for adventure and how quirks such as sleeping on a cold screen porch toughened him for freezing temperatures while flying. You can even see the hiding spots in the walls where he stashed his toys.
Aquarium at the Minnesota Fishing Museum.
While kids are jumping into the Spirit of St. Louis at the adjacent visitor center, adults can appreciate stories of the Lindbergh family, including Lindbergh’s marriage to author Anne Morrow (who often flew with him while mapping Pan Am routes), the kidnapping and murder of their son, Lindbergh’s controversial WWII stance, his medical inventions for cardiac surgery and transplants, and work for environmental groups in his later years. The historic site opens Thursday through Sunday, Memorial Day through Labor Day.

Roam the state park

Charles Lindbergh used to explore woods near his home and build bridges across Pike Creek, which flows through what’s now the 436-acre Charles A. Lindbergh State Park. The aviator donated the land in memory of his father, U.S. Congressman Charles Lindbergh Sr. You can hike along the creek, watch for spring wildflowers and songbirds, enjoy the WPA picnic grounds and playground, go geocaching with boxes stashed throughout the park or camp at one of 38 campsites. 

Fishing museum’s fish camp
This is where we made our first foray into family camping. Lucky for us, it’s only 30 minutes from home. That’s handy when you forget the tent poles. We also needed to buy another sleeping bag at Wal-Mart (a quick trip into town) when late-summer temps dropped unexpectedly.

Commemorate fishing

Fishing museum lures a-plenty
If you can’t get onto a lake, a trip to The Minnesota Fishing Museum will net a nostalgic look at Minnesota’s favorite sport (and trigger memories of crusty great-uncles and grandpas). The often playful exhibits cover Larson boats which were made in Little Falls, a fishing camp, spear-fishing, ice-fishing, fly fishing, artsy homemade lures, wildlife art, and a look at the biggest catches across the state including a legendary 40-pound muskie that anglers faithfully caught and returned to the Mississippi until its death. There’s an aquarium, too.

Greet big cats and bears

Nicely sized for kids 8 and younger, you can get through the Pine Grove Zoo in an hour or two. Look for tigers, wolves, elk, bobcats, bears and more, then leave time for the free Pine Grove picnic area and vintage playground tucked beneath some of the most impressive pines you’ll see. Watch for an impressive trillium bloom in May (or June in the case of 2013 and the winter that wouldn’t quit). Open mid-April through mid-October ($5).

Pine Grove

Amble through downtown

Bookin’ It
Head down East Broadway and First Street Southeast to find the best boutiques, including Gumdrop Tree for kids’ toys and gifts, Bookin’ It for recommended reads and an adorable kids’ area, Ambience@53 for housewares, clothing and gifts, and Great River Arts Association for pottery, photos, paintings and sculptures by area artists. 

A.T. dinner
Keep an eye out for the historic murals throughout downtown. They can be fun backdrops for family photos.

Dine in style at the A.T.

This downtown spot built its reputation on malts and burgers for more than 75 years before it became A.T. The Black and White and moved toward a more eclectic upscale menu. It might include crab omelettes for breakfast, and almond-crusted walleye with risotto or chicken roulade for dinner. It’s worthy of date night, but also family friendly. While on a mother-daughter date, I scored big points with my then 7-year-old thanks to their delicious chicken noodle soup and the “Wow!” factor of Bananas Foster night with real flames. She still talks about it. 
Pete & Joy’s Bakery

Indulge in your sweet tooth

Pete and Joy’s Bakery is worthy of a stop just for the sweets, but it’s also a homey, affordable café. You can fill up on soup, sandwiches and specials such as polish dumplings with sausage. Polish pottery, kolachys and other pastries also reflect the area’s heritage. 

Goods to go may include fish-shaped cookies, nutty wild rice bread with cranberries, big fritters, sticky orange blossoms, homemade dog treats and a dizzying array of bars and all things sweet and gooey (1-320) 632-6388). 

Explore Fort Ripley
Military families in particular will appreciate a glimpse at soldiers’ lives at Fort Ripley north of Little Falls. Its Minnesota Military Museum covers early pioneer days to the National Guard’s modern role in recent wars. Stroll past tanks and Jeeps or head indoors to see uniforms, photos, weapons, awards and other artifacts. The fort sprawls across 53,000 acres, which has made the area attractive to wildlife–even wolves and bears. Open May-September. ($2-$5; free to military in active service. 
Trails run alongside the Mississippi

Take a ride on the Soo Line

Hop onto the Soo Line Trail, a former east-west railroad route, for a memorable ride across a trestle bridge high above the Blanchard Dam and Mississippi River south of Little Falls. The views are spectacular, especially in the fall. Access the trailhead just off Highway 10 and head west toward the small town of Bowlus. 

Here’s a little secret from the locals: Take a strainer to the bottom of the dam and sift through the dirt. You might get lucky and find a staurolite, also called cross rocks or fairy rocks.
The Waller House when it was lavender.

Need a place to stay?

The gracious Waller House Inn B&B lets visitors soak in Little Falls’ Victorian legacy with five guest rooms, many with matching stained glass windows. Feast on breakfasts such as stuffed apricot French toast or a wedge of crispy cheesy hash brown pie flecked with bacon locally smoked at Thielen Meats (another great place to visit–especially with a cooler in the mini-van).  There also are several hotel chains in Little Falls.
More information
Stop by the Little Falls Convention and VisitorsBureau, 606 SE First Street. You can walk upstairs in this 1903 Classic Revival Burton/Rosenmeier house to see a few rooms furnished with period furniture and art.

(Note: Little Falls is included in the guidebook, Day Trips from the Twin Cities). It was also featured in the Star Tribune Travel section.

For more reviews of the destinations included here, check out Midwest Living‘s online travel reviews. Search for Little Falls and the location such as Pete & Joy’s).