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Whenever I feel the urge to sneak in a summertime day trip, my internal compass aims toward Taylors Falls. Or, rather, the area within 10 miles or so of the little St. Croix River town.

It's only an hour-ish trip from the Twin Cities, it's rarely overtaken by tourists, and catching a panorama of the river cutting through a valley of tree-topped sandstone bluffs alone feels worth the drive.

But Taylors Falls is more than just a pretty view. My husband and I have camped in Interstate State Park and hiked among ancient glacial potholes carved into the valley bedrock. I've taken my kids to nearby Fawn-Doe-Rosa to feed the animals and to Franconia Sculpture Park, where they tired themselves running the mown paths between giant sculptures. I've lingered with other moms at the 1956 Drive In restaurant, while our then-preteens played mini golf and the giant retro root beer mug twirled overhead. I keep coming back. Taylors Falls keeps delivering.

Last month, it was just me and a dear friend on a stolen midweek day, with the promise of a few area gems I'd yet to uncover.

A sculpture in the open-air Franconia Sculpture Park near Taylors Falls.
A sculpture in the open-air Franconia Sculpture Park near Taylors Falls.

Berit Thorkelson, Special to the Star Tribune

Franconia revisited

Learning that my friend had not yet been to Franconia Sculpture Park made selecting the first stop easy. We left early, with full travel mugs of coffee, and took Hwy. 8 in, zipping past stops I sometimes work into the trip — the Sven Clog Factory Outlet Store, Lindstrom's Swedish Inn, etc. I'd decided to backload the trip this time, and even the promise of Eichten's fresh cheese curds couldn't deter.

We arrived at 9:30 a.m. to an empty gravel parking lot, twice the size of the one I remembered, and a new visitors center. Well, new to me. C. Fuller Cowles, of the philanthropic publishing family, is a park founder, and he donated a family farmhouse to Franconia in 2018. Two years later, it opened as a visitors' center and community space, classic white clapboard meeting modern window-lined museum, bearing a clear directive on its facade: Start Visit Here.

But it was a directive we had no choice but to ignore, as it wasn't open yet. So we reverse-engineered our time, no problem, wandering in the direction of whatever massive artwork pulled our attention across 50 acres. Prairie grasses alive with birds and bees, plus puffy clouds wafting gently across a royal blue sky, played key artistic roles in the experience.

After an hour, we returned to an open visitors' center and a parking lot that was filling up. The public space's cement floor contrasts against the original farmhouse wood in the little gift shop, with handmade earrings and candles and roll-on oil blends, plus Franconia swag including stickers, T-shirts and kids' coloring books. There's a one-room gallery that hosts rotating shows, too. It's a welcome and welcoming addition.

River Alley Shoppes in Taylors Falls sells vintage housewares, handmade gifts and artisan foods, with a giant yard sale out front.
River Alley Shoppes in Taylors Falls sells vintage housewares, handmade gifts and artisan foods, with a giant yard sale out front.

Berit Thorkelson, Special to the Star Tribune

The epicenter

Back in the car, we rolled down the valley into Taylors Falls (pop. 1,200) and parked on Bench Street (part of the St. Croix Scenic Byway), a few blocks of which make up downtown.

There are a handful of stores here, including a gift shop stocked with local artists' creations and the popular Taylors Falls Bead Store. We lingered at River Alley Shoppes, with affordable vintage housewares, handmade gifts and artisan foods inside, and a giant yard sale out front with shelves stocked from spring until the snow flies. "It's a small town," the shopkeeper shrugged when we asked about this trusting tactic.

Look underfoot when standing at River Alley's corner location and you'll notice the sidewalk shift to a sort of orangeish, rock-studded path. Follow that behind the shop and you're on the Taylors Falls River Walk, designed to better connect town to river.

It's aptly named — more walk than hike — with a tall set of wooden stairs leading to a crushed-rock riverside path that wanders through a covered bridge and past overlooks before ending at the bridge to Wisconsin. From here, it's another brief (and paved) riverside walk to the main entrance to Interstate State Park, where proper hiking trails, paddlewheel boat cruises and canoe rentals await.

It was nice and quiet at the River Rock Patio here, connected to Taylors Falls Scenic Boat Tours, save for the group that staked out a parent table and a separate kids' table, with a pizza table buffer between. Considering the unbeatable river valley view, it was tempting to grab a red umbrella-topped table of our own.

But I was committed to finally trying downtown's Juneberry Cafe, specializing in "grab-and-go meals and snacks for local adventures." It turned out to be a solid move. With sandwiches (one deli turkey, one hot pressed mushroom and swiss) and cold drinks (Arnie Palmer and passion fruit lemonade) in hand, we took inspiration from Juneberry's map of suggested picnic spots and had lunch with a view of the dam in St. Croix Falls, Wis., just across the river.

The large rotating root beer mug that spins slowly over The Drive-In in Taylors Falls was installed in 1963. Photo taken June 26, 2014.
The large rotating root beer mug that spins slowly over The Drive-In in Taylors Falls was installed in 1963. Photo taken June 26, 2014.

Dml - Special To The Star Tribune, Star Tribune

Ending on a high point

The Wisconsin side of the river held our interest. We had a feeling we'd hit the road-trippers' jackpot the moment we drove into Osceola (pop. 2,750), fewer than 15 minutes from Taylors Falls. The main street's potted plants and civic-boosting banners hung on old-timey lamp posts, intimating the community cares about itself and its visitors. The Cascade Falls Trail was closed due to flooding, but we tracked down the connected Eagle Bluff Trail, tucked behind the BP gas station, and set out.

The landscape trailhead gives way to stone-filled railroad-tie stairs, then a set of steeper rocky ones, then a narrow dirt path that winds about a mile up the bluff. My friend and I were past cursory catchups with each other and on to deeper thoughts and conversations, stopping whenever the trees naturally parted to admire those river valley panoramas.

After tracing the trail back down, we headed straight for the Watershed Cafe, an upscale cafeteria-style restaurant that relies on local, sustainable and seasonal ingredients for breakfast through dinner. We sat on the back deck, surrounded in riotous green, sipping ice-cold drinks. Our hummus arrived, dressed in oil and spice, with a selection of veggies cut on the bias, served on mismatched handmade pottery. We shared it, along with that sense of happy weariness that comes after a long hike and a full day.

Someone at a neighboring table commented, "That breeze is so nice." And I thought, "I wish this on everyone." Then, as I tuned in to the sound of water rushing from the nearby falls: "I can't wait to come back."

Berit Thorkelson is a St. Paul-based freelance writer.