Located 38 miles from Rochester and an hour’s drive south of Minneapolis, Owatonna is a hidden gem you’ll enjoy exploring. From learning about its rich history while visiting historic buildings, and architectural landmarks to the scenic Kaplan Woods Parkway to the local culture on display at Owatonna Arts Center, there are plenty of places to visit in this city.
What’s more, most of the activities are kid-friendly, most are cheap, and some of them are free too, making it an easier choice for you to take your family for a weekend getaway or holiday to this fantastic destination.
Here’s a list of exciting things to do in Owatonna, Minnesota.
Fun & Best Things to Do in Owatonna, Minnesota
1. Take a Tour of Kaplan’s Woods Park
Whether you like hiking trails, biking, or trail running, Kaplan’s Woods Park has all you need to engage in such activities. It has seven miles of trails with easy, intermediate, dirt, and hilly terrains allowing visitors to enjoy hiking and running based on their skill level.
The trail is adjacent to Lake Kholmire, so visitors who don’t want to go hiking or running can swim or fish. You can also bring your bike to ride through the densely wooded area of the park.
Kaplan’s wooded area connects with the Parkway, a 1.5-mile trail that’s accessible to disabled people too. It stretches to the northern region bordering Morehouse Park, with more parking space and restrooms. The paved Parkway also has terrains marked off with trail maps for more adventure.
See Related: Best & Fun Things to Do in Minneapolis, MN
2. Visit Owatonna Arts Center
Before developing into a full-fledged economy, Owatonna was the city seat of Steele County. It was home to the Minnesota State School for Dependent and Neglected Children until 1947, when it was abolished and converted into Owatonna State School.
The new school provided education and vocational training to the disabled until 1970 when the city council purchased and converted it into an office space. It was also renamed West Hills and now functions as the city’s administration complex and home to Owatonna Arts Center and a seniors’ activity center.
See Related: Best Things to do in Duluth, Minnesota
3. Visit Minnesota Orphanage Museum
The previously highlighted Minnesota State School for Dependent and Neglected Children was home to more than 10,000 orphaned children.
After the city’s council purchased and converted these historic buildings into an administration complex, a former state schooler, Harvey Ronglien, requested to convert part of the block into a museum. Harvey wanted to see the school commemorate its past and the children who spent most of their young years here.
The council agreed and allotted a few buildings as a museum to tell the school’s fascinating history. The museum now shows what life was like for kids who lived there by displaying photos and other relics.
There’s also a restored cottage where boys aged 5-13 slept to give visitors an idea of the living arrangement for kids at the time.
See Related: Best Museums in Duluth Minnesota
4. Visit the Reptile and Amphibia Discovery Zoo
While Owatonna has only one zoo, the RAD Zoo has some of the rarest amphibian and reptile species on the planet. You’d have to drive as far as Wisconsin Dells to see similar species. At the RAD Zoo, You’ll find a 14-foot python, a 12-foot alligator, and an albino boa, among other rare animals.
What’s more, there are shows every day where guests are allowed to pet some animals. Visitors can also feed the animals during the weekend. Feeding these critters is one of the best kid-friendly fun things to do in Owatonna.
See Related: Best & Fun Things to Do in Minneapolis
5. Go for a Treasure Hunt at West Hills
Do you and the kids enjoy finding clues and searching for something special? Treasure hunting might be the adventure you need when visiting the Owatonna area! West Hills offers a unique treasure-hunting experience using geocaching. An evening session is the most exciting.
6. Take a Walk to the Famous National Farmers Bank
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Owatonna National Farmers’ Bank is a sight to behold. It’s one of the eight Midwestern banks designed by Louis Sullivan at the end of his career.
The National Farmers Bank has the most elaborate architecture as the owner wanted to break out from the conventional bank architecture.
Carl Bennett, the owner, wanted a bigger bank different from the typical Roman architecture in many small towns. As such, he sought the help of Louis Sullivan, a great architect.
He is still referred to as the father of the first American skyscraper, having designed a ten-story building in St. Louis. With National Farmers’ Bank, Sullivan wanted to create a new architectural design that combined rationality, emotion, function, and spirituality.
This inspiration led him to develop the bank’s unique design. It features red brick layered with green terra cotta bands and two large arches on the sides facing the streets.
The interior is impressive too. It has two stained glass windows designed by Louis J Millet, four cast-iron electroliers, a mural created by Oskar Gross, and a cast.
The bank still commands the corner of Cedar and Broadway, with visitors worldwide making a pilgrimage to see it. Some liken the experience as similar to visiting a cathedral while sunlight shines through ancient stained windows, thanks to Sullivan’s idea to create a symphony of color in the bank.
See Related: Best Parks in Saint Paul, Minnesota
7. Make a Pitstop at the Village of Yesteryear
The Village of Yesteryear has become one of the most popular attractions in terms of Owatonna museums.
Located in the southeast region of Steele County fairgrounds, the Village is home to two exhibit buildings, 12 restored buildings, including the beautiful Dunnell Mansion, and artifacts from the 1850s to early 1900.
In 1962 Steele County Agricultural Society leased this portion of Owatonna to develop a pioneer village. The Village has since grown into a famous tourist attraction, recently adding several history museums.
- Dunnell House: Built by Mark Hill Dunnell in 1868/9 as a belvedere for wives to watch for their husbands as they returned. The Italian-style house showcases furnishings from residents and the most influential family in Minnesota.
- The Windmill: Once the most effective windmill in town, producing enough water for households and livestock. It’s a recent addition to the Village’s many historical artifacts, added about 22 years ago.
- The Bachelor Cabin: Constructed in the late 1800s as a home for William Lueck, a mail carrier. It has a rugged bachelor style demonstrated by the rope bed with a straw mattress, winter coats made from buffalo hides, pelting board, and food safe.
- The Print Shop: Initially served as a shed at Dunnell House and later as a Fire Hall. It later moved to host the 1900 printing press. You’ll also find an engraver’s table, which a Josten’s employee used.
- Farm Machinery Building: Built-in 1984 and resembled the early equipment dealership. It exhibits tools used to reduce labor in households and fieldwork on the farm.
- The Blacksmith Shop: Built-in 1896 and operated till the 1920s. A tour of the shop helps you understand how blacksmiths kept machines in top shape. There’s a drive shaft and belts for powering machining tools.
- The Gas Station: Constructed in 1931 along Highway 65 in Ellendale, Minnesota, to serve the surging car market. Clients would come to the station for oil, tire pressure, and water level checks.
- Museum of Professionals: Built-in 1887 to store the equipment of the many professionals (dentists, beauticians, physicians, ophthalmologists) who served the country’s populace.
There are village tours from Tuesday to Sunday from May to September. However, The Dunnell House and Steele County Historical Society offices are open all year from Tuesday to Friday except during the holiday. Visitors can also schedule group or bus tours on other days by appointment.
See Related: Best Small Towns in Minnesota
8. Go Bird-watching at Rice Lake State Park
Head to Rice Lake State Park to see the beautiful four-foot Sandhill Cranes stretching their red faces and the Snow Geese ruffling their feathers. The scenic park is in the south-central of Minnesota, where Native Americans grew wild rice in the marshy puddles.
Today, the shallow waters are home to birds during the fall and spring migrations, making this state park an exceptional birdwatching spot. Visitors can also canoe to nearby camping spots, photograph the blossoming spring wildflowers, and play in the snow along the winter trails.
9. Go Camping at Rice Lake State Park
Rice Lake State Park is a truly great camping spot. The park’s campground has 40 sites for RVs, which are less than 55 feet long, but if you don’t have one, you can always camp old school.
The park offers several camping options — a walk-in site on the northern part of the park, boat-in sites on the opposite side of the lake, and carry-in sites on the west side. All the sites provide easy access to flat hiking trails and lead you to the wooded part of the park.
See Related: How to Pack for a Camping Trip
10. Drink Healing Water at Mineral Springs Park
Legend has it that the once sickly Princess Owatonna drank water from this river and recovered from illness. Her father, Chief Wabena, heard of the curing water on the banks of Maple Creek and decided to move his tribe to camp there. His daughter had been ailing for a long time and was very frail.
The river has since become a historical wonder, with travelers worldwide making a stop here to rest and drink the ‘healing water.’ A statue of Princess Owatonna stands here, and the locals believe her grateful spirit watches over the riverbank.
11. Dine at Costas Candies and Restaurant
Costas Candies and Restaurant is one place you don’t want to miss out on during the Owatonna trip. So far, the restaurant has been awarded local trophies in three categories:
- Number 21 among the Top rated restaurants in Owatonna
- Number 10 among the most reviewed coffee shops in Owatonna
- Number 4 among the Top rated coffee shops in Owatonna
The family-owned business was opened in 1919 by George Boosalis as a candy kitchen. Since then, the company has created hand-made candies for over a century, including creams, turtles, and delectable truffles.
Visitors can enjoy cozy breakfast treats like three-egg omelets and delicious lunches or dinners, such as cheeseburgers and various sandwich options. A pot of freshly-ground coffee is available throughout the day, served with root beer floats, hand-spun milkshakes, and malts.
12. Go Kayaking at Lake Kohlmeier
Apart from the famous Rice Lake State, Owatonna also has an artificial lake called Lake Kohlmeier. This large artificial pond formed after an abandoned gravel mine became flooded with spring water.
Lake Kohlmeier got its name from a former property owner who operated a business here. Visitors rent paddleboards, canoes, kayaks, and paddleboats to explore the waters.
You can also rent a hydro bike for a unique experience or head to Kohlmeier Beach to swim in the designated areas. The lake also has a fishing area and park you can explore on a trail bike.
See Related: Best Cabin Rentals in Lake Superior
13. Go Bowling at Spare Time
Spare time is an excellent place for visitors looking for an indoor entertainment facility from bowling to laser tagging. It has multiple games both adults and kids will enjoy playing, and a bar and a restaurant serving refreshments inside and on the patio located outside.
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