The Best Outdoor Activities in St. Cloud (Plus Food, Shopping & More!)
July 12, 2023
If you’re looking for all of the best things to do in St. Cloud, you’re in the right place! St. Cloud, located in Central Minnesota, is known as a college town and a place with a long history of granite production. Nicknamed ‘Granite City,’ the special St Cloud granite has been used in buildings across the world, reaching as far as Singapore.
I was most impressed with the variety of outdoor adventures to be had within the city and close by. You can swim in a former quarry, paddle a very peaceful section of the Mississippi River, enjoy gorgeous (and free) rose gardens with ornate fountains, and more! And after a day of adventure, it’s worth exploring the historic downtown area, where you can try delicious local eats, discover a hidden speakeasy and enjoy views of the Mississippi.
Use this guide to discover all of the best outdoor activities in St. Cloud, along with fabulous restaurants, a hotel with a view and unique shops in downtown St. Cloud. This fun city makes a perfect Minnesota weekend trip for anyone who loves spending time outside!
This blog is based on my experience visiting St. Cloud in summer 2023.
Full disclaimer – This is a sponsored blog post by Visit St. Cloud. As always, my opinions are unbiased and my own. I want to thank the Great St. Cloud tourism board for their generosity!
When to Visit St Cloud
St. Cloud is beautiful to visit year round! The summer months are perfect for swimming, paddling, attending festivals and warm weather. Temperatures in the summer tend to range from lows in the 50’s°F and highs in the 80’s°F. (That’s one thing I love about Minnesota - the summers are not unbearingly hot!)
The fall is also a gorgeous time of year, when you can enjoy stunning fall colors in Minnesota.
Spring in St. Cloud is a great time to spend time outside, see flowers start to bloom at Munsinger Clemens Gardens or visit a farmers market.
In the winter, you can enjoy cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and ice rinks. And if you really don’t like the cold, there are plenty of indoor activities too. Temperatures in the winter tend to have lows in the single degrees and highs in the 20’s°F.
Where to Stay in St. Cloud
The Best Western Kelly Inn is the perfect location in downtown St. Cloud. The hotel has an indoor pool, a variety of room types and is within walking distance of plenty of shops and restaurants. The best part? The hotel is right on the Mississippi River, and some rooms have beautiful views of the water!
I had a wonderful stay here and thought it was the perfect base for adventures in the area.
How to Get To St. Cloud
St. Cloud has a small regional airport that services a few destinations and airlines. However, the vast majority of visitors flying in will likely arrive in Minneapolis-St Paul (MSP). St. Cloud is located about an hour and 20 minutes from the MSP airport, so it’s not a bad drive. This means that St. Cloud is also the perfect distance for a weekend trip from Minneapolis!
If you’re driving, St. Cloud is also located 2.5 hours from Fargo-Moorhead and 2.5 hours from Duluth.
The Best Things To Do in St Cloud
Below are all of the best activities in St. Cloud, starting with some epic outdoor adventures!
The 5 Best Outdoor Activities in St Cloud
St. Cloud is full of outdoor adventures for everyone! Whether you're looking for an easy walk, a swimming hole or a kayak excursion, there is something for everyone.
1. Hike and Swim in Quarry Park & Nature Preserve
St. Cloud is known as the ‘Granite City’ due to the high concentration of red granite in the area. The first St Cloud quarry opened in 1863 and today there are over 30 different quarries in the area! Granite from St. Cloud has a reddish color and has been used in buildings all over the world.
With the many quarries in the area, it’s no surprise that several are no longer in use. This particular quarry was used until the 1950’s and then left largely untouched. Over the years, the land slowly returned to its natural state.
In 1992, Stearns County purchased the land and opened it as a public park in 1998. Today, Quarry Park and Nature Preserve is like heaven when it comes to outdoor recreation. You can enjoy fishing, swimming, biking, hiking, rock climbing and even scuba diving. Or in the winter months, you can participate in snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. There is truly something for everyone here!
The park has 20 quarries of various sizes, and two are available for swimming: Quarry 2 and Quarry 11. If you visit in the summer, it’s certainly worth it to swim.
Quarry 2 is the larger of the two and has some epic opportunities for cliff jumping. There is a restroom and picnic tables nearby, a dock and ladders to enter the water. The water is also not too cold and was refreshing during the summer!
Quarry 11 is a bit smaller and also has cliffs to jump from, but not as high as Quarry 2. However, Quarry 11 has a sandy beachy area that is great for families.
If swimming isn’t your thing, you can hike or bike between the various quarries and enjoy the views. It’s really neat to see all of the giant piles of granite stones piled up around the park.
Another special aspect of Quarry Park is the neighboring Scientific Natural Area (SNA). The SNA is a protected area where no pets or bikes are allowed, but you can still hike there. The area provides safe protection for red-shouldered hawks and tubercled rein orchid flowers.
Whether you visit for a walk, a swim or another activity, the Quarry Park and Nature Preserve is a must for your visit to St Cloud.
2. Hike the Beaver Islands Trail
The Mississippi River runs right through St. Cloud, making for great opportunities to take in river views. One of the best places to see the river is on the peaceful Beaver Islands Trail.
Just south of downtown St. Cloud, there are a group of 20 islands called the Beaver Islands clustered along a 4-mile stretch of the Mississippi River.
A trail runs along the shore and there are a few openings in the trees where you can see the islands. There is a wide, paved section of the trail that is perfect for biking. However, there is also a narrow section of trail for hiking that gets you a bit closer to the water. The trail is mostly flat but includes areas of uneven tree roots to navigate.
If you park at the parking area behind the City of St. Cloud Park Maintenance Service Center, you’ll also get to take in a view of the St. Cloud Hydro Dam from the boat ramp. Also keep in mind that even though the entire trail is about 4 miles, the best view of the islands (in my opinion) can be seen about a quarter mile from the parking lot, where there is a bench and a nice viewing platform.
Whether you choose to bike, hike, run or walk your pup, this is a great area for an easy outdoor adventure in St Cloud.
3. Kayak the Wild and Scenic Mississippi River
When you think of the Mississippi River, you may imagine large cargo ships and bustling development on the shores. However, this section of the Mississippi south of St. Cloud is quite the opposite. In fact, it’s one of the most peaceful places I’ve paddled.
The Mississippi River between St. Cloud and the city of Clearwater is designated as a “wild & scenic” section of the river. This designation by the US Forest Service protects areas of rivers that have remarkable scenic, fish and wildlife, recreational and historic value. In practice, it means that no homes or buildings can be placed along the shore and that this area is a peaceful place to paddle, spot wildlife and enjoy nature.
We rented a kayak and a paddle board from Clear Waters Outfitting Company and enjoyed an 8-mile paddle down the river. CW Outfitters offers multiple trip options or various lengths. They also offer different types of kayaks, paddle boards and canoes.
The 8-mile paddle was perfect. We went downstream, so the paddling was never difficult. Along the way, we saw several bald eagles flying overhead, a fox scurrying along the shore and hardly any other people. Several sections of the river were shallow, so you’ll need to watch out for rocks along the way.
One of the most unique aspects of this area is that there are islands where you can stop and even camp. This specific trip ended right next to one of those islands: Oak Island. We checked out the camping area and the site was equipped with a picnic table, a primitive toilet and a nice grill. And as you can imagine, the views of the river here are beautiful. Campsites are first come, first serve and this is something I would love to do in the future!
At the end, CW Outfitter’s picked us up in a shuttle and took us back to the rental office. If you enjoy paddling, this peaceful and fun activity is a must for your St. Cloud itinerary!
4. Take a Stroll Around Munsinger Clemens Gardens
Despite having visited some incredible botanical gardens all over the country, the Munsinger Clemens Gardens really blew me away. The gardens are made up of two parts - the Munsinger Gardens are right along the Mississippi River, while the Clemens Gardens are on the hill right across the street.
Before becoming the gardens we know today, the area where the Munsinger Gardens sits was a sawmill. In 1930, a vision unfolded for the gardens by Joseph Munsinger, the Superintendent of the St. Cloud Parks Department. He created a plan for the gardens (among other city parks) and brought in workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to bring it to life.
Later, in 1990, Bill and Virginia Clemens donated the land next door to the Parks Department. That area would become the Clemens Gardens.
As you walk around, you’ll see intricate fountains, a rose garden, a Perennial garden and much more. There is even a statue of Virginia Clemens in a wheelchair being pushed by her husband.
In the summer, there were so many flowers in bloom and I was awed by the colorful flowers and endless nooks to enjoy the flora and fauna.
Another aspect that makes these gardens so special is that they are completely free to enter! Simply find a place to park on the street and stroll around as much or little as you desire.
When you need a pick-me-up, be sure to stop in the Copper Pony gift shop and cafe. You’ll find souvenirs, gardening supplies and a selection of drinks and lunch items.
These beautiful gardens are sure to put a smile on anyone’s face and make for a great place to take photos and enjoy the weather in St Cloud.
5. Escape the City at Lake George Park
Another beautiful outdoor spot located right next to downtown St. Cloud is Lake George Park. This city park is a hub for the community and you’ll likely see locals fishing, having a picnic, enjoying the playground or just taking a walk.
The Lake actually used to be larger than it is today, but it became shallow and swamp-like. In the 1920’s, the city undertook a huge project to dredge the lake and turn it into a city park. What was once a 23-acre swamp became a 7-acre lake whose depth reaches 35 feet.
When you visit, you can rent a paddle boat or canoe to explore the small lake. Also make sure to admire the Lake George Fountain, which is inspired by the city’s granite history. Several pieces of raw granite were selected from the Cold Spring Granite Quarry and are incorporated into the design.
Lake George Park is also a hub for events around the city. You can enjoy concerts every Wednesday during the summer and find all sorts of other events throughout the year. The park is even a destination in the winter, when you’ll find an ice rink and free skates you can borrow.
This city park is the perfect place to take a walk and get a feel for the personality of the city.
Attend a Festival in St Cloud
There are many fun events and festivals throughout the year in St Cloud! I was lucky to visit during the Granite City Days, which involved several events all over the city. Activities included a 5K run, a concert, a chalk the riverwalk event and more.
The Liberty Bank Block Party was particularly fun and I loved watching The Cowsill’s perform. They’re a band of siblings who have been playing together since 1965! Plus, the event had local food trucks and I enjoyed a delicious ‘Cheesecake in a Cone’ treat from Christine’s Cheesecakes.
I would certainly recommend visiting during the Granite City Days if you can! In 2023, they took place June 23rd-35th.
If you’re visiting at another time, here are some other events in St. Cloud throughout the year:
- St. Cloud Restaurant Week (May)
- Minnesota Quilt Show (June)
- Munsinger Gardens Art Fair (July)
- FireFest Country Music Festival (July)
- Benton County Fair (August)
- St. Cloud State University Men’s Hockey Games (Oct-Mar)
- St. Cloud Area Farmers Market (May-Oct)
Go Shopping in St. Cloud
Downtown St. Cloud has a variety of unique shops! My favorites are listed below.
If you love to read, Books Revisited is a must-stop during your vacation to St. Cloud. This sprawling bookstore sells gently used books in every category you can think of, from cooking to Minnesota history to romance. It’s the perfect place to find your next read.
Paramount Gallery Gift Shop
You’re sure to find the perfect gift at the Paramount Gallery! The Paramount Center of the Arts in St Cloud has a well curated gift shop attached where you’ll find ceramics, jewelry and more. The shop features items by over 80 artists!
While you’re here, it’s also worth seeing what shows are currently being offered at the Paramount Center of the Arts.
Spice of Life Tea Shop
The Spice of Life Tea Shop offers more than just tea. You can find home decor, mugs, stickers and more fun gift items throughout the store. But tea is what they do best, and they sell all types. You can select from blends to take home or enjoy a made-to-order drink.
Not only do they offer a large menu of tea varieties (I loved the raspberry green iced tea), but they serve matcha smoothies, coffee, bubble tea and even some food. This is a great place to visit whether you’re shopping for a gift or craving something hot or refreshing to go about your day.
Bella Vita Salt Caves
If you’re craving a relaxing spa experience during your time in St. Cloud, look no further than Bella Vita Salt Caves. They offer Salt Therapy, also known as Halotherapy. This relaxing treatment is said to help with ailments such as allergies, anxiety, the common cold and more.
Along with their classic Salt Therapy sessions, you can also find events where they offer sound baths and yoga sessions among the salt. This is a great way to slow down and take some time for yourself.
Copper Pony is the place to go for plants, home decor and fun gifts. Their large retail store in Sauk Rapids is well designed and full of unique items. They also have a kitchen serving sandwiches, soups, salads, pizzas and pastries. This is the perfect place to have lunch and browse all of their neat items.
The Best Food & Drink in St Cloud
St. Cloud is full of delicious restaurants! Check out the best food in the city below.
Beaver Island Brewing
Beaver Island Brewing Co is one of the best breweries in St. Cloud! Along with their classic brews, such as the Minnesota Classic Lager and the Axe Dragger IPA, they always have a new limited release to try.
Plus, they host a comedy show in the brewery twice monthly! I attended the Silly Beaver Comedy Show and enjoyed watching several stand up comedies including Lily Meyer and Matt Dooyema. Meyer is a former data analyst turned comedian from the Twin Cities, and Dooyema is a stand up comic, bartender and podcast host. The show is a great way to spend an evening if your trip aligns with their schedule!
Jules Bistro is a must-visit in St Cloud for anyone who loves handmade foods made from scratch. The atmosphere is cozy and the walls are full of works by local artists. This is a great spot for breakfast, lunch or dinner and conveniently located in the heart of historic downtown St. Cloud.
I enjoyed the pesto and tomato grilled cheese, and it was perfectly cooked and very delicious. The perfect elevated comfort food! The atmosphere and food combined made this my favorite dining experience in St. Cloud.
Blue Goose Speakeasy
Blue Goose Speakeasy is a new addition to downtown St. Cloud and provides quite the experience! It’s a ‘secret’ speakeasy in the basement of the Veranda Lounge.
The bar is themed as a prohibition style speakeasy straight out of the 1920’s. There is an extensive cocktail menu that includes some fun and unique options. They also serve food that looks really good.
Despite the secret location, a host greeted us inside the building and added us to a waitlist before we could go downstairs. We had the option to order drinks upstairs as we waited.
When we were sent downstairs, we had to figure out how to open a locked door and gain entry. I won’t give it away, but finding your way in is half the fun!
Inside, the atmosphere is dimly lit with cool decor like a chandelier, moody blue curtains and an ornate ceiling design. Some of the cocktails come with smoke bubbles, which made for a fun addition. Our favorite from what we tried was the Bourbon Old Fashioned.
If you enjoy cocktails, the Blue Goose Speakeasy needs to be on your St. Cloud itinerary. It’s such a fun establishment that is perfect for a date night or a night out with friends.
I’ve heard the Pickled Loon gets wild with college students on weekends during the school year, but it was easy going and casual during the summer. It still feels like a bar, but they have a full menu with delicious food and table service.
I ordered the fried avocado tacos along with an incredible strawberry spicy margarita. The margarita had the perfect amount of spice. With patio seating outside and colorful hanging lights inside, this is the perfect place to spend an evening catching up with friends.
Bravo Burrito is a delicious, local spot to enjoy hearty burritos (and other items) with great flavors. The restaurant was established in 1985 after the founders lived in San Francisco for many years and traveled extensively through Mexico.
I really enjoyed my vegetarian burrito, which was super filling and flavorful. If you’re looking to get your Mexican food fix in St. Cloud, this is the spot to visit.
Brigitte’s Cafe offers the perfect classic diner setting. I’m talking about delicious breakfast food, friendly staff and many locals that you can tell visit weekly or daily.
The origin of the cafe began with Brigitte herself in 1970. She was famous for her bold personality and had a strong attention to detail when it came to running a cafe. Today, her grandkids still operate the restaurant and have fond memories of their grandmother.
The interior feels like a classic diner with simple blue tiles throughout the space. But I really loved the addition of artwork depicting local Minnesota natural areas.
I enjoyed a classic breakfast with eggs, hashbrowns and toast, which paired perfectly with the entire coffee carafe they left at our table. This gem is a gem you should certainly make time for if you love breakfast food (although they serve lunch and dinner too!).
Kinder Coffee Lab
Kinder Coffee Lab is well-known around town for high-quality coffee beans and delicious coffee. The space is bright and draws you in with a colorful exterior and a clean, monochromatic interior.
We loved their coffee and savored their breakfast sandwiches made on a panini press and served with hot sauce.
This might be a temporary thing, but the space was also full of tiny rubber ducks when I visited. Apparently they were left by an unknown visitor, but it made for a fun game of hide and seek to discover them in random places throughout the space.
Rubber ducks or not, this is the perfect place in town to enjoy your morning coffee, work on a laptop or catch up with friends.
I hope this guide helps you plan the perfect trip to St. Cloud, or get some new ideas of unique activities and gems around the city! From hiking through a former quarry to watching live music at Lake George, this city is full of adventure and a great place to enjoy during a Minnesota summer.
For more Guides on Exploring the Midwest, check out these blogs:
- The Perfect Michigan U.P. Itinerary
- How to Spend 3 Days in Madison, Wisconsin
- The Best Hikes in Indiana
- The Best Things To Do in Hocking Hills, OH
- The Best Things To Do in Cuyahoga Valley, OH
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