There is So Much to Do in Mankato
I’ve been to Mankato a few times during different seasons, and it seems there is always something unique and fun to experience. Located just over an hour from the Twin Cities and Rochester, Mankato is an easy day trip, or an overnight visit if you want to experience more.
The town of Mankato is at the confluence of the Minnesota and Blue Earth Rivers. The city’s original name was “Mahkato,” which is a Dakota term meaning “greenish-blue earth.” An early spelling error, which was never corrected, is what led to the town being called Mankato.
I was recently in Mankato and was able to experience so many wonderful things, even with the cold temperatures! We were very lucky to have the sun shining all weekend. Read on for some of the best things to do in Mankato.
Visiting Minneopa State Park is a Must
Keep an Eye Out for the Bison Herd
Mankato has so many great parks, and while we were able to visit many of them, Minneopa is easily the most interesting park in Mankato, and the surrounding area. One side of the park allows you to see bison up close, and the other side of the park offers an impressive waterfall.
The herd of 20 bison freely roam 331 acres. Once you enter the park, you’ll need to drive slowly as you search for them. For such a large animal, they can be surprisingly difficult to spot. There is a dirt road that makes it easy to drive through the park. You must remain in your car the whole time and keep a safe distance of at least 75 feet from the bison.
Pro tip: it is much better to experience this in winter. We only saw a few other cars and were able to drive through the park at our own pace until we saw the bison. We then sat in the car for a while observing them, and we had a great view! When my husband and I went in October, it was so crowded and there was a massive line of cars. It took us an hour and a half to get out of the gridlock and we didn’t even get a great view of the bison because of all the cars. I highly recommend visiting this park outside of peak season for a less crowded and more personalized experience.
Hike Around the Other Side of Minneopa for the Waterfall
After checking out the bison, drive over to the other side of the park and take a short walk to Minneopa Falls, a beautiful double waterfall. Just a five-minute walk from the parking lot you’ll get to see this powerful waterfall completely frozen still. It’s pretty remarkable to see such a powerful water source grind to halt. When it’s not frozen, the lower falls drop 40 feet and the upper falls drop 7 feet.
Everything was frozen solid when we went and there was no movement around the waterfall at all. If you wish, continue on through the park for more hiking. Know that the stairs and trails are not cleared at all so be careful and bring yaktraks so you don’t slip.
Take a Stroll Through Spring Lake Park
Stop by Spring Lake Park for a quiet break in the day. This park has 52 acres, a lake, and a walking trail .82 miles in length, which winds around Spring Lake. Walk onto the dock and enjoy views of the lake. Bring food and have a picnic by the gazebo. Currently, there is an ice skating rink, and in warmer weather, you can enjoy an outdoor waterpark, volleyball courts, and playgrounds. Parking is free.
Enjoy the Gardens at Sibley Park
Established in 1887 and named after Minnesota’s first governor Henry Sibley, this park is massive with over 100 acres to explore. The city of Mankato originally purchased this park for $13,088, which is more than $371,000 today. In warmer weather, this park has beautiful gardens, and for us, it offered quiet snow-covered paths. When we visited, it was 10 degrees outside and many people were sitting in their cars sipping coffee while enjoying the sparkle of ice-covered trees glistening in the sun.
Enjoy the Impressive Silo Art
The silo art is a must-see during your time in Mankato. Painted on the 135-foot-tall silos by artist Guido Van Helten, the project began in 2019 and was completed in 2020. Nine months and $250,000 later, the mural was complete. Inspired by real children in the surrounding communities, the artwork brings together the shared ideals of community, diversity, and inclusion. It is a beautiful tribute to Mankato’s history.
Pro tip: While it’s visible from several points around town, the best view is from Riverview Park, not to be confused with Riverfront Park, which is on the opposite side of the Minnesota River.
It was a little difficult to find Riverview Park with our GPS. You’ll feel like you’re mounting a curb to get into the park, but it is the correct way to go. The stairs are not shoveled as you can see in my photo, but the short walk up the steps allows for an incredible view of the painted silos, so it’s well worth the adventure! Read more about the artist and watch a short video from Kare 11 about the mural and its impact on the Mankato community here.
Reconciliation Park Honors Lives Lost in U.S.’s Largest Mass Execution
It’s a dark part of Minnesota’s history, but one that needs to be taught. In 1862, 303 Dakota men were sentenced to death by the U.S. government. 38 of those Dakota men were hanged in Mankato, making this town the home to the largest mass execution in U.S. history. President Abraham Lincoln later commuted the sentence of the remaining men.
This space, which was dedicated in 1997, is the site of that mass execution. The memorial has a 2-ton bison sculpture carved from limestone. There is also a memorial that lists the names of the 38 Dakota men who were hanged. The most moving part for me was a bench that had the words “Forgive Everbody Everything” carved into it.
Take a Self-Guided Sculpture Walking Tour
There are a ton of unique sculptures scattered around downtown Mankato. They aren’t hard to find, so keep your eyes open and you’ll likely see a sculpture on many of the street corners. The sculptures are for sale. For more information on the artists, sale prices and exact locations check out this city art walking sculpture tour map.
Spend Time in Mankato’s Gift Shops
There are a number of charming gift shops with jewelry, clothing, and home decor throughout Mankato. We enjoyed spending time in the Union Market, which is a cute gift shop offering items made by local artists and makers. They also had a cool photo wall with a polaroid camera, which you can see in my picture above.
We also enjoyed walking around Better World Books, a used bookstore store covered from floor to ceiling with paperbacks. There was also a friendly cat inside who was either sunbathing in the window or looking for some belly rubs. Check out this link for a full list of Mankato’s shopping experience.
There are So Many Restaurant Options
There are a ton of food choices in downtown Mankato and it can be hard to choose! Mankato has a strong local food scene with places offering New York-style pizza, burgers, bakeries, BBQ, Chinese cuisine, and much more. Click this link for an extensive list of restaurant options in Mankato.
We had dinner at Nolabelle Kitchen, which offers locally sourced ingredients from farmers across Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Iowa, and Wisconsin. We shared a fried goat cheese appetizer and flourless chocolate cake for dessert. I had the chili for dinner and my friend, Erikka had a salad. The restaurant was at 50% capacity due to the current COVID restrictions and we felt we had plenty of space between us and other visitors.
The following morning we stopped by Tandem Bagels for breakfast. Tandem Bagels has a location in Mankato and a second location in Northfield, which I’ve been to. We ordered coffee, tea, and bagels to go. It was all delicious.
Sip Local Ale at LocAle
You’ll definitely want to stop by LocAle Brewing for a really exceptional experience. We were fortunate enough to spend time chatting with the owners, Lauren and Jim. A married couple from Minnesota and Wisconsin, they opened LocAle two years ago in 2018. They’re also microbiologists, Jim teaches at Gustavus and Lauren teaches at Mankato State, and they are parents to a sweet young daughter who was at the brewery as well.
Their logo celebrates the bison at Minneopa State Park, just down the road from their brewery. They offer a wide range of beer styles including crisp lagers, roasty porters and stouts, juicy pale ales, tart, and fruity sours, and hefty strong ales. You never know what will be on tap when you visit, so you can always expect a new experience. My friend tried all four sour beers, and I tried a variety of beer styles. The Bygone Brown and River Bramble Sour were my favorites.
Enjoy a Wine Tasting at Chankaska
Just ten minutes North of downtown Mankato is the Chankaska Creek Ranch and Winery. We’ve been here many times before and love their ambiance. In warm weather, you can sit outside and enjoy their large patio. Walk around the property and listen to the babbling Chankaska Creek. Walk across a small footbridge, which leads into a secluded wooded area. Often during the weekends in the summer and fall, we’ll see a wedding taking place at the winery.
We were able to enjoy a tour of the winery and learn about their vine-to-table process. Chankaska Creek Ranch and Winery has its own vineyard stretching over 13 acres. Recently, they moved beyond wine and began distilling whiskey, gin, vodka, rum, bourbon, and brandy. After our tour, we enjoyed a wine tasting, which includes three samples of your choosing. We also shared pizza and a charcuterie board, which had a great variety of cheese, crackers, cured meats, grapes, olives, and cashews.
Stay Overnight and Enjoy the Whole Weekend
There are a ton of options for places to stay in Mankato. We stayed at the Country Inn and Suites, which is a short drive from the downtown area. They offer free breakfast, a pool, and free parking. The rooms were clean and the staff was very friendly.
The Visit Mankato website has an extensive list of hotels and campgrounds here. And, of course, Airbnb.com is always a great option if you’re looking for something a little homier. For more inspiration, check out my post on what do to in Mankato in warmer weather, or spend a day checking out hidden gems in Northeast Minneapolis.
This trip was sponsored by Shrpa Explore Local and Visit Mankato. All thoughts and opinions are my own.