There is So Much to Do in Mankato
Located just over an hour from the Twin Cities and Rochester, Mankato is an easy day trip, or an overnight visit if you have the time. I’ve been to Mankato a few times during different seasons, and it seems there is always something unique and fun to experience.
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.
1. Visit Minneopa State Park
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. One side of the park allows you to see bison up close and the other has 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, and you’ll remain in your car the whole time. Be sure to keep a safe distance of at least 75 feet from the bison at all times.
Hike to a Double 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 see this powerful waterfall completely frozen still. It’s pretty remarkable to see such a forceful water source grind to a 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. 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 yak tracks so you don’t slip.
Pro tip: It is much better to experience this park in winter. We only saw a few other cars and were able to easy check out 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 obstructing our view. I highly recommend visiting this park outside of peak season for a less crowded and more personalized experience.
2. Take a Stroll Through Spring Lake Park
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. It’s a large space where children can run around and parking is free.
3. Enjoy the Gardens at Sibley Park
Established in 1887 and named after Minnesota’s first governor Henry Sibley, this park has over 100 acres to explore. The city of Mankato originally purchased it for $13,088, which is more than $371,000 today. In warmer weather, the park has beautiful gardens and benches to enjoy. For us, it offered quiet snow-covered paths. 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.
4. Enjoy the Impressive Silo Art
Painted on the 135-foot-tall silos by artist Guido Van Helten, the project began in 2019 and, nine months and $250,000 later, it was finished in 2020. Inspired by real children in the surrounding communities, the artwork brings together the shared ideals of community, diversity, and inclusion. The artist’s inspiration for the painting came from a pow wow he attended in Mankato where he saw local children dancing including a girl wearing traditional Indigenous clothing, and another girl wearing a headscarf. It is a beautiful tribute to the town’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.
5. Reconciliation Park Honors Lives Lost in U.S.’s Largest Mass Execution
In 1862, 303 Dakota men were sentenced to death by the U.S. government. Thirty-eight 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.
6. 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. Some are abstract and colorful, others are animals like bulls, pigs and owls. And 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.
7. 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 offers unique 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 spent her time sunbathing in the window and looking for belly rubs from customers. Check out this link for a full list of Mankato’s shopping experience.
8. Enjoy a Diverse Selection of Cuisine
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. I had a fried goat cheese appetizer, a bowl of chili and flourless chocolate cake for dessert.
The following morning we stopped by Tandem Bagels for breakfast. We ordered coffee, tea, and bagels to go. It was all delicious!
9. 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. They opened LocAle a few years ago in 2018. Fun fact: They’re also microbiologists, Jim teaches at Gustavus and Lauren teaches at Mankato State.
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. The Bygone Brown and River Bramble Sour were my favorites.
10. 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. Head inside and warm up from the winter weather in this cozy space. 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. We also shared pizza and a charcuterie board, which had a great variety of cheese, crackers, cured meats, grapes, olives, and cashews.
11. 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.
Mankato is a True Hidden Gem
I’ve been to Mankato a handful of times, and each time I discover something new and interesting. While most Minnesotans know about Mankato, I don’t believe many expect to find such rich history, art, and culture. Mankato is a quick day trip from Minneapolis, but if you can stay longer, I highly recommend it.
This trip was sponsored by Shrpa Explore Local and Visit Mankato. All thoughts and opinions are my own.