By Trent Jonas
Minnesota is the Land of 10,000 Lakes (about 12,000 actually). It's also blessed with rugged Great Lakes shoreline, historic rivers and valleys, broad expanses of wild forest and sweeping prairies. So, shouldn't we celebrate all these great things? Of course we should! These are our favorite outdoor festivals in Minnesota.
Aquatennial, as the name implies, celebrates the lakes in the Twin Cities—a metro area renowned for its green spaces. The festival takes place in July, just as the weather is making folks think about splashing around in a lake. In addition to parades and one of the nation's biggest fireworks displays, you can get down and dirty in the Torchlight 5K and enjoy lawn games and activities. On the water, there will be canoe rides and historically, there has been a milk carton boat race, in which participants build a vessel and then attempt to complete a course before it sinks. CenterPoint Energy and Hennepin County Medical Center are sponsors of the event.
Folks in the historic logging town of Stillwater—the oldest city in Minnesota—also take to the streets and water in July during the annual Lumberjack festival. In addition to enjoying live music and tasty food, participants can join in lumberjack-inspired events like log rolling, race in the Downhill Derby—a soapbox car race for adults—or one of the running races that take place during the festival.
The biggest annual event in the little town of New London is its near-weeklong Water Days Celebration. In addition to the usual, awesome small-town festival fare—fireworks, a parade, a hog roast, community breakfast—there is usually a full slate of events like a tennis tournament, a bean bag tournament, a fishing tournament and even yoga classes. Cool down in the evenings at Goat Ridge Brewing Company.
The Bike Duluth Festival, sponsored by Kraus Anderson, is annual event that celebrates the area's superb mountain bike opportunities. The August festival includes adventure rides, several races a kids course, bike games and a kids bike parade. Stroll through Expo Village with a local craft brew and check out product demos and booths from vendors like Trek, Specialized, the Ski Hut and Spirit Mountain.
If you find yourself on in the Brainerd Lakes Area during August's dog days, then grab something to paddle—SUP, kayak, canoe—and hit the water for PaddlePalooza. The event is a five-mile, supported group paddle from Nisswa Lake to Zorbaz on Gull Lake. Stops are scheduled along the way—such as a barbecue and beverage break at Point Narrows Resort—and of course, there will be an end-of-paddle party at Zorbaz. Bent Paddle Brewing is usually on hand with some tasty beverages. Shuttles are available from Zorbaz to the put-in site. Need a rental? Hit up 46° North Adventure Co..
In September, when the weather has started to cool off a bit, mountain biking enthusiasts in the Twin Cities area head to the Wild Ride Mountain Bike Festival at Lebanon Hills Regional Park near Apple Valley. It’s a family-friendly event suitable for all levels of riders. You can demo bikes, build your skills, bone up on the latest gear, learn DIY bike repairs—and ride. Both competitive and relaxed rides are available to participants. Awesome food and beer are always on hand, as well.
Fall colors are a big deal in the North Star State. And some of the most spectacular colors in the state pop in the hardwood forests of the Mississippi River valley. Bluff Color Fest celebrates this foliage every October with five, 10, 15 and 20-mile trail runs, a five-mile hike and a disc golf tournament. Merriment ensues.
Minnesota is home to some spectacular megafauna, of which the moose is one. And every October, the fine folks of Grand Marais and greater Cook County celebrate moose mating season with the Moose Madness Family Festival. In addition to activities like a medallion hunt, runs and kids events, you can also get out into the great North Woods to try and get a moose of the festival’s namesake beast.
Another favorite participatory fall festival is Stillwater’s Harvest Fest, which is centered around huge pumpkins. But in addition to growing and weighing giant gourds, you’ll find a pie eating contest, kids activities, a chili cook-off and—the highlight—a pumpkin regatta. Folks square off in the Battle to Paddle to earn the privilege of paddling a giant, hollowed-out pumpkin in a race on the St. Croix River. And yes, by mid-October, the water is cold. Very cold.