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Stay-cation: Fun Things to Do Around Rochester, MN

Family vacations are expensive. Gas, lodging, meals...oh, and then there is the admission cost to all the cool things that you want to see. Vacations cost more than a small fortune. Now figure in the loss of income (some of us don't get paid vacations) and you've "broke the bank". Enter the stay-cation. Gas costs are reduced. Lodging is covered. Meals, although still necessary, can be made at home and packed in a cooler. This summer, instead of taking a week off, I am taking a couple long weekends. One weekend we will be traveling "Up North" to visit my husband's college buddy. Otherwise we're keeping our exploring near to home.

Another benefit to a stay-cation is a little extra time for home projects. I can keep up with the laundry, instead of having a week's worth of laundry to do when I return home. Isn't that the worst part of vacation - the accumulation of dirty clothes you have to wash after being away from home all week? Gardening can be accomplished while the kiddos are sleeping in. Win-win. Get a little work done, wake the kids and off we go for some summertime FUN! 

I live in a small town near Rochester, MN. Although a smallish city, Rochester has quite a few hidden treasures. Many are inexpensive or free (I love that word). Travel a short distance from Rochester and there are many other resources in the neighboring towns. Yes, even in my tiny hometown, there are a few fun things to do.

Less than 15 miles west of Rochester, in Byron, MN is Oxbow Park/Zollman Zoo. Oxbow Park offers camping, hiking, picnic areas and Zollman Zoo. Although the zoo small, it is the perfect size for kids. Best of's FREE! This is a one my favorite places to take my daycare kiddos. Fun for the little kids and fun for the big kids. Check their schedule because they often offer free events on Saturdays. Last year I took my cub scouts for a maple syrup making workshop. The boys loved it.

Twenty-three miles south east of Rochester, in Chatfield, MN is the Pope and Young Club Museum of Bow hunting. Even if you are not a hunter, this museum is cool. It includes a timeline of the history of bow hunting, the largest collection of bows, handcrafted bows of Dr. Saxton Pope, Arthur Young, and Glen St. Charles (founder of the Pope and Young Club), as well as many stuffed animals...the real, but dead kind. Although the museum kindly appreciates donations, it is otherwise FREE! The museum is fun for all ages.

Tree Top Towers
Chatfield also offers fishing on the Root River and Mill Creek (which I'm told is great location for trout fishing); a short hike at Savanna Springs Nature Area, which displays area prairie grasses and wildflowers; and a city park which hosts FREE Thursday night concerts during the summer and a grower's market on Thursday afternoons. The park is a perfect spot for a picnic and has an awesome playground for the kids to work off some energy. Other than the cost of a container of worms, these activities are all FREE! After all the free activities, stop by the Dairy Queen for a treat. Not only do we love ice cream, but the owners, John and Holly Martinka are a REALLY nice couple. I'm all for supporting my local business' especially when the owners of said business cares for and loves the people in their community.

Rochester also has a few FREE (how can you not emphasize such a great word?) options for entertainment.

Rochester Art Center, adjacent to the Mayo Civic Center, hosts a FREE Family Day on the first Saturday of each month. The hours are 10am-5pm, with hands-on art activities from 1pm-4pm. Family guides are available. The people that work/volunteer at the Art Center are FABULOUS! 

The Rochester Art Center, during regular hours (check the website for hours) is FREE to military personnel and their families, Olmsted County Residents and children. If you don't fall into the "free" category the cost is $5 per adult. Pretty cheap.

Thursdays on First and 3rd ~ weekly outdoor market in downtown Rochester. This all day event (11am-8pm) is FREE...if you can resist the multitude of vendors selling food, arts and crafts. ;) Live music/entertainment begins around 4 pm. I have yet to check this out but have heard good things. Thursdays on First is on this summer's to do list.

Another favorite place to visit is Quarry Hill Nature Center. Donations kindly accepted but otherwise this stop is FREE. Quarry Hill Nature Center includes an exploration hall filled with live and mounted animals, a huge fish aquarium, and many things to touch (bones, pelts, fossils, turtle shells) - no need to tell the kids to keep their hands to themselves! The Center also has a bird observatory equipped with binoculars, bird guides and speakers so that you can hear the songs coming from the outdoor bird sanctuary.

Outside you'll find a 2 acre catch and release fishing pond, hiking trails/bike path, and historic caves. The pond is home to many turtles and frogs. An evening hike around the pond in the Spring offers the lovely chorus of the hundreds of frogs that call Quarry Hill home. Quarry Hill offers summer Nature Camps (something my son looks forward to every year), Sunday programs and other special events during the year. During the winter, Quarry Hill offers snowshoe rentals. Love, love, love this place!

The History Center of Olmsted County is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9am-5pm and costs $5/adult and $2/child. The Center displays a medical theater, history of St. Mary's and the Mayo family, as well as IBM computers that are as old (or as young) as me.

Aerial View of MayowoodThe History Center is also the contact point to tour the Mayowood Mansion. This year the mansion turns 100 years old.  I had the opportunity to visit the mansion last winter during it's Christmas tour. Each room was sponsored/decorated by individuals or business' for Christmas. The mansion is beautiful and I loved the tour but I suspect that this would be very boring for young children.

Stop by Silver Lake to feed the geese and have a picnic. Bring your own bread crumbs or quarters for the "corn dispensers". Canoe, kayak, paddle boat and bike rentals are also available at Silver Lake Bike and Boat Rental (cost approximately $10 or more).

Chester Woods Park, just outside of Rochester, also has canoe, kayak and paddle boat rentals costing $6/hour or $25/day....or you can bring your own. A vehicle permit is required to enter the park and costs $5/day or $25/year. Chester Woods also has campsites available.

Summer vacation wouldn't be complete without swimming. Silver Lake Pool and Soldiers Field Pool, which has a 112 foot water slide, cost $3/children and $4/adult. Foster Arends Beach is FREE but does not have life guards. Chester Woods Park also has a beach. Personally, I prefer the beach over a swimming pool. Something about digging my toes into the sand.

Although I've listed several options for stay-cation fun, I think it's important to s-l-o-w-down. Spend some time at home catching fireflies. Take a walk or a bike ride around town. Fire up the grill. Roast s'mores on the fire pit in the backyard. Run through the sprinkler with your kids. Splash in some puddles during a warm summer rain. BUT, most importantly, cherish the person or people you are with more than the activities that you are doing.

May you each have a summer creating lifetime memories with the people that you love the most!


  1. Actually the no longer have the corn dispensers for the geese at Silver Lake Park.

  2. No more corn dispensers?? I wondered about that when I was writing. My daughter and I loved going to the feed the geese ~ I loved hearing her squeal in half fear, half delight as the geese followed her for more corn! Ah, but that was 17 years ago. :) Thanks for the "heads up"!

  3. What a wonderful list! I'm bookmarking it to use this summer... I live in Owatonna so none of these are too far away! Thanks for the great ideas!!!

  4. Thanks for the great ideas!

  5. Thanks for the great suggestions! We will be passing through the area on our way from Green Bay, WI to Spirit Lake, IA. It's kind of a long trip for a two year old and a 3 month old, so we are looking for places to stop and stretch the legs for a bit without breaking the bank. Your site has been the most helpful so far. Thanks so much!

  6. Many stops are necessary when traveling with little ones! Hope you enjoy my neck of the woods as you are passing through.

  7. Awesome list! Thank you for compiling all this info. We have family in Rochester, and with two kiddos we like to be out and about when visiting, but don't want to spend loads of money on expensive activities.
    I'm especially diggin the FREE things :) it is a wonderful word isn't it? LOL!

  8. I also enjoy walking around downtown and enjoying the art. There is an art tour (arranged and self-guided) at the Mayo Clinic/Gonda Buildings. There is also usually a youth art display in the Skyway between the Double Tree and Public Library. There are also a number of coffee shops downtown to enjoy as well. I think it is fun the enjoy the architecture and plazas downtown as well.

    Bike trails and parks.

    Honkers baseball games / Ice Hawks hockey games

    Ice skating and swimming are available indoors and outdoors.

    1. Yes! Those are great things to do around Rochester. The cathedral in St. Mary's is lovely too. :)


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