Close-to-Home Fall Colors Van Trip

Fall colors, food and fun were the motivators for the short overnight journey

Having fun in your van or small camper doesn’t always mean long trips racking up thousands of miles and covering multiple states.

One of the advantages of having a small, nimble, easy to maneuver RV is the ability to visit towns and scenic places without the worry of wondering if there will be anyplace for us to park our rig.

Our 2019 Ford Transit High Roof 148 van fits perfectly in a regular parking spot and is easy to turn and drive on narrow streets or in crowded parking lots. We do have to be aware of our height when pursuing a drive-thru coffee or meal, however.

We love to throw a few goodies in the van’s refrigerator, pack a small bag of clothes, the dog’s favorite toys and treats and hit the road.

We did just that this past weekend.

Fall colors, food and fun were the motivators for the short overnight journey within our home state of Minnesota. And, if we didn’t want to spend the night somewhere in the van, we were fine just returning home at the end of the first night.

When Midwest people think fall colors, they normally think, Upper Peninsula of Michigan, or Northern Wisconsin.

Southern Minnesota doesn’t get the press for Fall colors and excitement like the northern parts of the states do, but we were determined to find some early fall red, orange, and yellow turning leaves.

We were also determined to find us some tasty fall treats, like apple cider donuts and crisp, tart, and gooey caramel apples.

There are two apple orchards close to our home, but we have been to them before. This weekend, we were going to visit some places we have seen but never stopped. Plus, our hopes were to discover a couple hidden gems along the way.

Another fun thing to do with weekends such as this is having no agenda, no plan, and no Google Maps pinned. We were going to wing it.

With the van pointed up the highway from our house, we were off and headed in the general direction of fall colors and fall fun, or at least we hoped.

The annual corn and soybean harvest is a sure sign of Fall where we live. Farmers were busy taking advantage of good weather and field conditions to get their crops harvested from the fields.

The first stop on our weekend Fall Fun Tour was a small apple and pie shop off of State Highway 60 on 528th Avenue in Lake Crystal, MN. Welsh Heritage Farms is a popular destination during the Fall holiday time.

We got a parking spot by the entrance and right in front of some apple trees ladened with bright red fruit.

The quaint buildings and colorful displays really helped get us into the Fall state of mind. They are well known for their in-house-made pies.

Visitors can watch dozens of pies being made from a window in the gift shop. Oh, did we mention their apple cider donuts. Of course, we bought a couple bags of heavenly fresh cinnamon sugar coated gems.

They offer a wide variety of apples to choose from. We did some early Christmas shopping for family while we were there browsing all the specialty food items and crafts.

A funny thing we realized while at Welsh Heritage Farms is when we worked in local radio, both of us had voiced radio commercials for the business, but never had the time or opportunity to stop in until now.

On our way back to the van, another van had parked next to our rig. The family of that Mercedes van struck up a conversation about vans and plans for their van and we shared with them the features we installed in ours. Always fun to meet other van folks out on the road.

Before leaving the apple farm, we had to open the bag and try the cider donuts, and yes, they were awesome! Tender, soft, and so yummy!

Driving east we saw our first early fall colors which appeared in the wooded hills above Mankato, MN. Bright Autumn hues were beginning to make their appearance which got us excited for seeing more.

We continued on Hwy 60 to Waseca and discovered The Boat House Bar and Grill tucked in a residential neighborhood on beautiful Clear Lake.

Our way of deciding if we stop or not at a spot usually depends on if we can find parking. We found a place to park the van, so we went in for lunch.

The food was good and plentiful. We toasted to the weekend and resumed our journey in search of more fall color and fun.

Interstate-35 north took us past the cities of Owatonna and Faribault. We veered east towards Northfield, MN.

Kim worked in radio in Northfield after graduating from college. Northfield has also been the home of Malt-O-Meal cereal products since 1927.

Some of the old mill buildings are still located on the banks of the Cannon River that runs through downtown Northfield.

Northfield has become a trendy tourist destination, with lots of boutique shops and beautifully tended parks and flower gardens. Fall color was strong in the downtown trees.

A light rain was falling as we traveled two-lane country back roads towards the Mississippi River town of Red Wing, MN.

Kim searched for campgrounds to stay overnight, but they either had a two-night minimum, or were already filled on this late Saturday afternoon.

Red Wing is also notable as the home for Red Wing Boots and for the very collectible Red Wing pottery.

What we were the most excited about was the Duluth Trading Company store in town. Entering the store we came face-to-zipper with the world’s largest pair of Duluth Trading Co. pants!

After doing some shopping, we walked next door to the Red Wing Shoes store where we came face-to-lace with the world’s largest Red Wing boot!

The store displays and sells their shoes and related products, offering custom fitting. The downtown location houses the Red Wing Shoes Wall of Honor, and self-guided tour of various historic, photographs, and exhibits.

One of the great things we noticed in downtown Red Wing was many of the retail shops were open past the usual 5 p.m. closing time which allowed us late-comers to check out some of the stores.

With the day quickly slipping into night, we decided to make a short drive on the Great River Road to Lake City and stay overnight at the Lake City Rest Area. Before parking and tucking in for the night, we made the drive into downtown Lake City to look around.

A paddlewheel tour boat making its way on the lake at dusk was fun to watch.

We have stayed at this same Lake City rest area before in our RV, but this is the first time for us in the van.

The facility is located along the banks of the Mississippi River and Lake Pepin. There is some highway and railroad train noise that could disturb some traveler’s slumber. We didn’t mind the occasional noise at all.

The rest area offers lots of lawn area, picnic tables and barbecue grills and a fire pit, but does not allow camping. The restroom building is well maintained with a caretaker on site.

The best thing about the rest area is waking up to sunrise over the Wisconsin bluffs on the other side of the river.

Steamy and strong pour-over coffee, and the few apple cider donuts we had left made for a great start to a sunny Sunday morning.

Lake City’s big claim to fame is being the birthplace of water skiing.

Water skiing was invented in 1922 by the late Ralph Samuelson who had the crazy idea to strap a pair of boards on his feet as skis and used a clothesline as a towrope on Lake Pepin. The American Water Ski Association officially recognized Lake City as the birthplace in 1966.

Ready for some more Fall fun and discoveries, we left the rest area and headed south on Highway 61 along the Mississippi River.

The highway is known as the Great River Road, and the Blues Highway, and was made famous as the subject of a song and album title by Minnesota native Bob Dylan called “Highway 61 Revisited.”

Our morning’s destination was a huge apple, flower and gift shop in La Crescent, MN.

But a stop and tour of Kim’s old college town of Winona, MN put that on hold for a few hours.

First was to see the campus, find her old dorm building then hunt for the house she rented along with four other co-eds. We found the house and the memories and stories of college days continued.

More driving led us to the historic Winona railroad depot, which is still in use as an Amtrak station.

JK was in his element amongst the trains as he photographed a pair of bright red Canadian Pacific locomotives and a well-worn Soo Line caboose.

We watched as the Amtrak Empire Builder passenger train slowly came to a stop at the station.

It was fascinating to see the passengers boarding and getting off the train, wondering what their stories were and why they were riding Amtrak rather than driving or flying to their destination. “All aboard!”

At La Crescent, it’s easy to spot Bauer’s Market. The expansive property faces Highway 61 just south of the I-90 interchange and bridge over the Mississippi River into Wisconsin.

We hit the Fall fun jackpot at Bauer’s. Fall colors of the flowers, pumpkins and gourds was a feast to the eyes.

They offer a wide selection of what seems to be every apple variety known to humankind.

With so many to choose from, you can try a taste of at least a dozen different apples to aid in making the apple purchase.

With a shopping cart filled with colorful Mums, more early Christmas gifts for family, three bags of apples, a pumpkin, and a couple peanut-covered caramel apples for the road, we headed for home.

We had so much fun spending the weekend finding Fall colors and visiting a bunch of towns in southeastern Minnesota.

Filling up the gas tank with much cheaper priced fuel than at home and having the ability to spend the night along the Mississippi River in our van at no cost was an added bonus.

NEXT TIME: We’re on the road for another weekend van camping trip. We spend one night in Iowa grilling hot dogs over the campfire next to calm lake waters. The next night we’re back in the van and back in Southern Minnesota to camp at a city run park and tour a massive, historic church.

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