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Leann Kispert

Director, Explore Minnesota

Today we have a special road trip edition of La Crosse Local, we talk with Leann Kispert, Director of Explore Minnesota, we discussed the best ways to get out and explore nearby Minnesota. Leann shares her own insider tips for everything from paddling, to ziplining, to yearly Minnesota festivals within a short drive from La Crosse.

Photo Credit: Explore Minnesota + Jim Henderson

This podcast is sponsored by Balancing Act.  
Balancing Act.

Amy Gabay 00:00
This podcast is brought to you by Balancing Act, Teach, Coach, Mentor, Inspire, a collection of candid observations on the challenges facing business leaders today. Balancing Act is authored by Dr. Andrew Temte and is available today on Amazon and other fine bookstores. Today we have a special road trip edition of La Crosse Local. We talk with Leann Kispert, Director of Explore Minnesota. We discussed the best ways to get out and explore nearby Minnesota. Leann shares her own insider tips for everything from paddling to zip lining to yearly Minnesota festivals within a short drive from La Crosse. You can find more conversations, food reviews, live music and events on our website, I’m Amy.

Brent Hanifl 00:50
And I’m Brent.

Amy Gabay 00:51
And this is La Crosse Local.

Leann Kispert 00:54
Great. Well thank you for inviting me to be with you today. My name is Leann Kispert. I was born in Northfield and actually raised in Nerstrand, Minnesota. So, I am a southeastern Minnesota girl. Nerstrand is located actually it’s the midpoint between the Twin Cities and Rochester. And what led me to Explore Minnesota, I had previously worked at a variety of advertising agencies and also nonprofit trade associations. I always loved the mission of the trade associations, but they never had the budget that allowed me to do much on the marketing side of things. So, then I would default over to an ad agency where they would have the budget, but they wouldn’t necessarily have the mission. And Explore Minnesota became this wonderful intersection of both of those for me, and I have been there now for almost 15 years.

Brent Hanifl 01:55
As La Crosse Local, of course we’re based out of La Crosse, Wisconsin. And me and my family, you know we’re always looking for trips. And we invited you on to tell us about some, you know, kind of close to home trips from La Crosse, Wisconsin. Are there any sort of hidden gems you could share with us?

Leann Kispert 02:09
Sure, some of them are probably hidden gems, and others are probably more well known, but you can’t have a discussion about what to do without mentioning them. So first of all, getting out and exploring the trails late summer and early fall, the weather is starting to cool down. And one of the best ways to get out and enjoy nature is exploring the many trails we have and there’s a few in some of our state parks that are just great. The Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail. First of all, I love the name, Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail. It’s a 41 mile paved trail that runs from Faribault to Mankato, and that’s about a two and a half hours drive from La Crosse. And then another one that’s about an hour from La Crosse is the Root River State Trail. This is a paved, 42 mile bike route, and it goes through the Driftless Region, one of the state’s most beautiful and unique landscapes. And visitors can explore many charming communities along that route. There’s Fountain, Harmony, Lanesboro, Preston, Whalan, and each town has its own personality and features that just really make it its own. And then if you still want to get out on the water because it is still warm and it’s a great time to go. A river adventure by canoe or kayak down the Root River is a great option. And then a little further away, and if you’re craving a little bit more adrenaline, zip lining through the Minnesota River Valley at the Kerfoot Canopy Tour, and that is about three hours northwest of La Crosse near the town of Henderson. Kerfoot also hosts a high ropes challenge course with about 60 obstacles. And this is just a great fun experience for families and you’ll be surrounded by gorgeous fall color the entire time.

Brent Hanifl 04:12
I just actually just did zip lining for the first time and I couldn’t imagine it was such a great experience to do it for the first time. I thought I was gonna do a lot of climbing, a lot of stuff, but it’s pretty much you just hook on it just go.

Leann Kispert 04:24
Get out and go. It’s taking that first step, right?

Brent Hanifl 04:28
Yep. So for me, you know over the last about 18 months we’ve kind of been sticking close to home sometimes just trying to get out of the house. Give me suggestions for kind of like easy last minute kind of getaways or day trips, potentially late fall, summer.

Leann Kispert 04:44
Yeah, easy is definitely a key trend that we’re seeing. People just want to get out, have an experience waiting for them. And one way to do that is winding your way through southern Minnesota and enjoying the fruits of the harvest season is just a great way to get away. Wineries in southeastern Minnesota include the Cannon River Winery and Cannon Falls, Round Lake Vineyard, Indian Islands Winery in Janesville, and the Chankaska Creek Ranch and Winery in Kasota. And in fall, many wineries often offer seasonal specials, tastings and tours that can include you know, a romantic stroll through the vineyard. But also in early fall, many also host grape stomping events, which can be really fun to watch or participate in. And then another great option, especially if you just want to get in the car and drive a little, is driving the Great River Road. The Great River Road has recently been designated as the country’s newest All American Road. And that means it’s like the cream of the crop, it’s the best of the best of the scenic byways in the country. And for an easy late summer drive or thinking ahead a little bit to fall, it’s one of Minnesota’s best rainbow routes along the bluffs of the Mississippi River. And the Great River Road spans all the way from La Crosse up to the Twin Cities. And that’s a nice two and a half hour road. And along the way, you’re gonna see a lot of the charming river towns like Winona, Lake City, Wabasha, and Red Wing. And also there’s great scenic overlook opportunities along the way. Great River Bluff State Park and Frontenac State Park are must stops. And then also the National Eagle Center in Wabasha is a must stop for anyone who is a bird lover. And while there’s definitely enough to see and do for a great round trip along the Minnesota border, some roadtrippers do like to make a circle trip by weaving into Wisconsin. And that is fine because we love our neighbors as well.

Brent Hanifl 07:03
Yeah, you know, us just being right on the border La Crosse, Wisconsin just being right across from La Crescent in Minnesota. Me and my family zip out to, you know, like you said the Eagle Center, but also the International Owl Center in Houston, Minnesota. And it’s always just a great activity to take people out and check things out that are in your own backyard.

Leann Kispert 07:20
You got it.

Brent Hanifl 07:22
More about you. Can you give us a rundown of nearby festivals or special events that you are particularly fond of? I know there’s probably too many to just name one, but I’m trying to get that insider information.

Leann Kispert 07:33
Oh insider information? Well, I don’t know about that because you we are entering just a peak season for festivals and events, especially this year when so many of these events were canceled last year. And our website has a great database of events and festivals throughout the state and there are dozens of options for southeastern Minnesota. So a few of them that I will bring to your attention. Immediately after Labor Day we have the Defeat of Jesse James Days in Northfield. This is an annual heritage event and festival. It began back in 1948 and it features reenactments of the bank robbery in Northfield by the Jesse James Gang. There’s a Grand Parade and a lot of other surrounding events, and it’s one of the largest outdoor celebrations in Minnesota. Earlier I brought up the Root River Trail, and in mid September, September 8th through the 25th, you can experience the Taste of the Trail where you can bike or hike your way through the Root River Trail system the first three Saturdays in September. And you can enjoy features of each community along the trail. Each week a different set of communities will offer a taste of their town including special foods and activities and music. And September 23rd through the 25th is the Boats and Bluegrass Festival in Winona. And this is a family friendly camping and music festival on the shores of the Mississippi River. It’s three days of non stop music with dozens of acts in the lineup. And activities also include Mississippi backwater canoe trips. And we just want to remind folks that due to COVID-19 we just encourage everyone to check the official websites or the event organizers for any alterations that might happen last minute and also has COVID information on the website.

Brent Hanifl 09:40
From La Crosse, if I want to spend you know maybe an extended weekend you know or even a full week, what are some of your favorite sort of Minnesota activities or trips statewide, maybe a little farther from us?

Leann Kispert 09:50
So, my teenage daughter and I love to go thrifting and antique shopping and the great thing about that is you can find it all throughout the state. There are unique opportunities in many of our smaller towns, but also in some of the larger destinations. Rochester has a charming, historic Third Street area and they offer nine antique stores. And they also host a three day Gold Rush twice a year. One is in May, the other one is in August, so coming up. Performing arts is another thing that we really enjoy and that you can also find statewide. The schedules are really starting to fill up nicely now for fall and winter because of all the rescheduling that had to happen because of COVID. But there are some great options in southeastern Minnesota like the Commonwealth Theatre in Lanesboro, the Sheldon Theater and Red Wing. But Minneapolis and St. Paul are just a plethora of performing arts options if you wanted to take a longer trip.

Brent Hanifl 10:57
So actually we were just in Rochester a little bit ago and we like to just take a little kind of like a half day trip up there and went out to eat, and explored some of those creative components, you know, a few galleries in right downtown. It was really kind of nice to see something that was just so close, you know about an hour away.

Leann Kispert 11:14
Exhibits that museums are really coming back again as well. And speaking of Rochester, we just added a great new article on dining options in Rochester. So if you want to see what’s hip and hot on the food scene in Rochester visit

Brent Hanifl 11:31
Being from right the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin is you know, just like people always say when I’m traveling there, like you’re really happy. You’re really outgoing. When you’re talking to people what surprises people when they visit Minnesota, you think, from hospitality to food to you know, what’s that special, something that people find here?

Leann Kispert 11:46
Yeah, so Minnesota’s appeal as a destination really lies in the intersection of both its abundant natural scenery, but also the excitement and vibrancy of its cityscapes. So just the diversity of options that visitors have, kind of no matter where they go throughout the state. Experiencing Minnesota as more than a place, visitors are often drawn to our arts and culture and our history. We have a really innovative food and beverage scene. And people really appreciate the value that they get for their dollar when they vacation in Minnesota. We have incredible geographic diversity, so not only do we have cityscapes and urban areas and small towns, but we also have prairie and wilderness and more than 11,000 lakes. And so the diversity of destinations and experiences that we have attract over 73 million visitors a year. And really there’s something to offer everyone. No matter what they’re going to receive really warm hospitality when they’re here.

Brent Hanifl 13:00
Being from this area, what’s the best avenue for people to find out more about Minnesota, what’s happening, events, festivals, where’s the best spot to go?

Leann Kispert 13:07
Well, the easiest spot is our one stop shop We have last minute summer getaways or fall getaways. We feature a variety of travel ideas and inspiration. On the website, we have an extensive database. So if you’re looking for something specific, either something like resorts or campgrounds or a certain destination, you can search by all those filters. We also have a variety of newsletters that you could sign up for that give you travel ideas for the month upcoming events. We have some activity centric reports like a fishing report. And coming up in September, we have our very popular weekly fall color report. We also have expert travel counselors who can help you plan your trip for free. We have a toll free number, 888-visitmn, to talk to a travel counselor who can help you plan your trip from beginning to end. We also have a live chat feature on and you can talk to a counselor during our business hours. And then a great way to get inspired without really having to talk to anyone is to go on to social media and follow our travel hashtag #onlyinmn. This hashtag has millions of uses and as a great real time inspiration tool. So if you really want to see like what’s happening now and what people are posting about, it’s a great way to get some ideas for yourself.

Amy Gabay 14:50
La Crosse Local Podcast is a production of River Travel Media. Do you have an interview idea you’d like to share with us? Message us on Facebook at La Crosse Local. Find out more about us at and you can subscribe to the La Crosse Local Podcast on your favorite podcast app. If you like us, rate us five stars. We appreciate it.

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About La Crosse Local

La Crosse Local is an arts, food, and entertainment podcast and publication for La Crosse County and its surrounding communities.

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