Rock Climbing With The Kids At Taylors Falls, Minnesota

rock climbing with kids at taylors falls minnesota

I just digitally unearthed some photos from a trip to Minneapolis last summer with the kids. We took them back to our old stomping grounds, where we spent countless muggy summer evenings digging in the sandbox, or playing hide and seek, under a canopy of caterpillar tents.

We walked around our old apartment and wondered together how another family could be living there, just making themselves at home, as if we hadn’t claimed those four walls by filling them with our closest memories, our laughing and shouting and hide-and-seeking, our diaper changing and potty training, our reading and praying. This was our first time returning to territory that we had really marked as our own. It brought a mix of nostalgia and emotions, and we could only console ourselves by remembering how we had outgrown our Minneapolis apartment life. We had moved on.

Going back to the north start state also reminded us of our many outdoor adventures, camping, canoeing, and playing in the snow. Just as the four walls of our apartment had absorbed our domestic memories, the forests and waterways, the iron-ore dirt and entrenching snows of Minnesota had captured our earliest outdoor memories as a family. So it seemed fitting that we returned for the kids’ first rock climb on actual rock.

The quaint town of Taylors Falls sits on the Dalles of the St Croix river, about an hour north and east of the Twin Cities, on the border of Wisconsin. Taylors Falls, from our experience, is home to a pizza and ice cream parlor that appears to have once been a saloon, and Interstate State Park, where you can explore billion-year-old glacial potholes, some over fifty feet deep, and where you can rock climb amidst throngs of excited but nervous beginners who bus in from the city.

The climbing at Taylors Falls/Interstate is perfect for beginners. Mountain Project lists 139 total routes, all trad or top-rope, bring your own anchors, and the majority at or under 5.9 and having roughly 60-foot to 80-foot pitches. The holds are mostly basalt ledges, and the simpler routes are full of them. We spent most our time doing 5.5s in what’s called the Tourist Rocks section.

There was some initial trepidation, and only my oldest ever made it to the top. But, overall, they all did well and claimed to enjoy it. For young kids, even putting on a harness and tying in is a success. Someday, we’ll return and reminisce, and maybe try something harder than a 5.5.

Farewell to Minnesota


By now, Minnesota is long gone. We barely noticed the Minnesota corn fade into Iowa corn as we rolled south on our annual trip to California – south on highway 35 to meet 80 in Des Moines, then west on 80 for 1,700 miles, through Lincoln, Laramie, Salt Lake City, Reno, and finally dropping down into the heat and smog of the Sacramento Valley.

Unlike previous summers, this trip will have a different ending. When August comes and we make our way east, from the west-west to the mid-west, we won’t return to the unemployed, student-poverty, cramped-apartment life. Those days are finally behind us. Soon, our student debt will be dwarfed by a home loan, the most money we’ve ever not had, and we’ll begin the perilous tenure-race-track. But we’ve landed a job, and a house, and we couldn’t be happier.

When we arrived in the Twin Cities five years ago we were overwhelmed with an ambiguous feeling of excitement and anxiety. Our excitement evaporated with the summer heat, leaving only an anxious first winter ahead. My wife and I exchanged many frown-smiles with eyebrows raised during those first few months. It was a new type of adventure. Though we had lived far from home, on both coasts and overseas, for short periods of time, this was a 2000 mile move to a place we knew only from Jeff Foxworthy jokes.

With time, we learned there was more to Minnesota than notorious winters and an excessive number of lakes. I quickly learned about real winter camping. Not California-winter camping, where you drive 3 hours to find snow and then go sledding all afternoon in a t-shirt. I’m talking about stay-by-the-fire-or-freeze-to-death-in-minutes winter camping; why-am-I-doing-this?-because-it’s-awesome winter camping. None of my camping adventures deserve more hyphenated adjectives than those. Combine the thrilling winter options with the infinite waterways, available after the thaw, and you have an outdoors that doesn’t disappoint.

In addition to the excessively cold, persistent, harassing winters, and the lakiness (it’s like the entire state is sinking into a water table, and it’s only slowed by the annual freeze), we also discovered other people who didn’t seem to mind their location, some of them foreign and some native to the state.

First, we were blessed to find a dense collection of quality people who shared our lot – non-resident, diaper-changing, post-undergraduates, the majority unfamiliar with negative 20 degrees. This is the graduate-student-family-housing demographic, a mix of couples and families of different stages, ages, backgrounds, home countries, climates, languages, religious and political perspectives – extraordinary diversity.

Second, we were blessed to know some true Minnesotans, all of whom enjoyed the winters, or at least claimed to. These people have conquered the debilitating cold like vikings. They’ve mastered the long winters that bring grown Californians to tears. Their down-to-earth, hearty optimism was inspiring. Among the residents and non-residents, we found some of the best people we’ve ever known.

So, most important to the state are the people. At first, nothing could outweigh climate in our judgement of the place as a suitable home. It was unsuitable. Even finishing graduate school seemed tentative. But the people are worth their weight in gold viking armor. They’re worth their weight in farm-fresh cheese curd, and they turned the scales for us.

If the kids had immediately fallen asleep after we waved farewell to the messy old apartment complex, I might have had a moment to reflect on the great people we knew and the great time we had. Now that I have a moment to reflect on it, I’m sad, even a little teary-eyed. To the state as a whole – I’m sorry for making fun of you behind your back. To our friends – farewell, it was great, keep your stick on the ice. And to anyone considering or worried about moving to the land of lakes, especially the city of twins – it’s a wonderful place to live and raise a family.

State Forest Campgrounds

Frog huntBack before the shut down of our state government and DNR, a huge crew of us dads and kids spent a night at Kruger campground, just off the Mississippi on the Zumbro river. With our uncoordinated efforts combined we probably had a hundred hot dogs and enough marshmallows to sculpt a life size Micheline man. As should always be the case when car camping, it was a veritable smorgasbord.

Campfire at KrugerAfter the food frenzy we went on a night hike in search of frogs and fireflies. Then, we spent a few hours around the campfire. The younger kids started getting delirious, begging for bed, around ten o’clock. The dads were spent, from chasing mallow-fueled children and from finishing off the hot dogs. My son and I pushed it to midnight – the last ones to hit the sack.

Anyway – here are three things about state forest campgrounds that make me a happy camper:

  1. The price is right – the going rate is $12 per night per non-reservable site. State parks range from $20 to $30.
  2. There’s more space – a site typically maxes out at 8 people in 2 tents, though we fit 18 people, 6 tents, in 2 sites and the ranger didn’t mind. State parks usually draw the line at 6 people, 1 tent.
  3. Fires are ablaze – you can gather wood, and it’s usually in abundance.

S'moreeseoKruger is one of many MN state forest campgrounds. The DNR refers to them as primitive, where only the basic needs are met – a picnic table, fire pit, tent pad, and toilets. Usually there’s access to potable water as well. Besides hotdogs and s’moreos, maybe a s’moreeseo or two, what more do you need?

Ann Lake Parts I and II

three hikers

This month we nearly got the entire family of five, with one on the way, into the woods for a campout. It wasn’t until we pitched the tent and set up camp at Ann Lake, an hour northwest of the Twin Cities, that we realized we had forgotten one of the most crucial items – pullups. Crap.

I was ashamed to call myself a boyscout. So much for my 5 kid-camping essentials.

What to do? Our two oldest are potty trained, but only by day. I was willing to get up every two hours, all night, to avoid an accident in the tent, but we had also brain-lapsed on the baby’s diapers. Could I fashion some out of leaves and sticks? Does mother nature provide nothing that’s waterproof on the outside and absorbent on the inside? Moss? Lichen?

What did parents do before pampers? After 20 minutes of debating with myself I reluctantly struck the tent and packed the gear. We had dogs and s’mores and sat by the fire until 10 before returning home.

The next week we were back for a sequel – the Batman Begins kind, not the Batman Forever or Batman and Robin kind. We had a stockpile of pullups and diaps, enough for Jon plus Kate and 8. But this time my wife couldn’t join us, so it was just me with the three kids.

Total chaos, hoards of ticks, lots of fun.

Backcountry Snow Campout

hiking in the snow
Yours truly, posing for a pretended candid shot by the bonfire.

Last week we kicked off the new year with an overnighter in the “wilderness” of central Minnesota – Sand Dunes State Forest. In our three years here I’ve always settled for the state parks, despite the multiple expenses: $16.00 campsite + $8.50 reservation fee + $5 parking. The last straw is paying $10 for two bundles of approved firewood. Contrast the state park with the state forest: $40.00 vs $0.00. No fees, permits, or amenities.

My first attempt at dispersed camping with the kids was a hard-earned success. The main obstacle was finding an entrance and a place to pitch our tent. The DNR offers little help. In fact, they discourage camping outside designated sites. We found a parking lot on the state forest map, but it turned out to be a dirt road which subtly reduced to a trail the further you went. So we opted to park near the highway and hike in.

hiking in the snow
Starting the walk in with kids and sled.

We hiked for about a mile, at about one mile per hour. You can do the math. The kids were tired and whiny. I was relieved to finally find a spot where the snow was cleared down to the dirt. Some trucks and tractors had apparently come through to do a little deforesting, which meant solid ground and ample, free firewood. Ample frozen, free firewood, that is. I had to use my stove like a blow torch to get it going.

Besides finding a spot, the main challenge was keeping a three-year-old and five-year-old warm and happy when there’s not much to do. My daughter was grouchy most the time. She wanted to go home. She wanted her mom. She wanted more fruit snacks. While my son and I cooked and ate dinner, she cried in the tent for an hour.

Still, weather permitting, I’m glad we went. It was a “good experience.” Camping, with its discomforts and unfamiliarities, doesn’t come naturally to kids. They’re used to heating and air conditioning, backup and double-backup menu options, and generally getting what they need/want when they need/want it. Outdoor trips, in their different forms, can approximate the comforts of home. But the unprocessed, organic, backcountry provides the most nutritious outdoor experience. Most importantly, the kids were proud of their accomplishment.