Need a reason for a road trip? Got a taste for adventure (or just fudge)? Here are 10 small towns—from Ely and Walker to Luverne and Lanesboro—that feature artisan gems, tasty eateries, historic treasures, and off-the-beaten-track experiences. Grap a map and go.
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Call Your Bluff
To get to little Lanesboro, population 754, you go up then down, up then down until you bottom out in a bowl of limestone. Where are you? You’ve gone deep, man, well-tucked into what locals call bluff country and geologists call the driftless area, spared by the last glaciers to become a kind of Midwestern Appalachia of steep ridges, narrow valleys, and organic ice cream. To explore it, pluck a rental bike from the rafters of Little River General Store and pedal into the countryside on the Root River State Trail, or rent a kayak from Root River Outfitters and hit the water. Back in town, grab some lunch at Pedal Pushers Café, where owners Angie and Scott Taylor have elevated the burgers-and-beer concept with grass-fed beef. Or savor the sausages next door at Das Wurst Haus, where Arv Fabian makes the brats, the mustard to slather on them, and the root beer to wash it all down, even as he escapes from the kitchen to play his concertina (don’t call it an accordion!).
Walk off the weight by browsing the work of regional artists at the smartly curated Lanesboro Art Center or the vintage hats and natural-fiber women’s wear at the new Bittersweet Boutique. Take some fresh produce home from the new Lanesboro Local Marketplace (the town claims to be Minnesota’s rhubarb capital) or, if it’s Saturday, from the farmers’ market in Sylvan Park (for fantastic jam, look for the Amish buggies). In the evening, try the Scandinavian small-plate smorgasbord at Kari’s—the Taylors’ other, more upscale restaurant—which connects directly to the Commonweal Theatre, an unusually ambitious community troupe (what other small-town theater offers both Ibsen and Sylvia?). Have a nightcap on the patio of Riverside on the Root, the river burbling beside you. Then retire to the berth of your choosing—Lanesboro also claims the title of Minnesota’s B&B capital. Want privacy? Try Belle Rive, a house of your own right up against the bluff and bike trail. Or get the full Victorian, breakfast-big-as-a-boulder experience at Anna V’s, where you’re liable to become driftless yourself.
Where to go: Little River General Store, 105 Coffee St.; Root River State Trail, 100 Milwaukee Rd.; Root River Outfitters, 109 Parkway Ave. S.; Pedal Pushers Café, 121 Parkway Ave. N.; Das Wurst Haus, 117 Parkway Ave. N.; Lanesboro Art Center, 103 Parkway Ave. N.; Bittersweet, 107 Parkway Ave. N.; Lanesboro Local, 207 Parkway Ave. N.; Sylvan Park, 202 Parkway Ave. S.; Kari’s, 210 Parkway Ave. N.; Commonweal Theatre, 208 Parkway Ave. N.; Riverside on the Root, 109 Parkway Ave. S., Belle Rive, 302 Ashburn St.; Anna V’s, 507 Fillmore Ave. S.
OUT AND ABOUT
5 quick trips from Lanesboro
VISIT SPRING GROVE
Culture in the Country
Spring Grove is a town on the verge, just a B&B and soap store away from being swarmed with red hats. For now, though, it’s all yours— the first Norwegian settlement in Minnesota, the wellspring of our state stereotypes. Here, the city hall is a radhus, the folk school teaches rosemaling, and visitors are guests, not tourists, inevitably asked to dance if there’s a concert at the heritage center. Take it from Tim Blanski, who moved here from St. Paul a decade ago to build elegantly rustic furniture: “This place is real. No airs. Just good living.”
Tim Blanski builds furniture from salvaged barn wood and polished burls in his Granary Woodshops (18668 County Rd. 4) on a bucolic spread north of town. The four-year-old Bluff Country Artists Gallery (111 W. Main St.) showcases Blanski’s work alongside local pottery, paintings, etc. Each spring, artists welcome visitors during the Bluff Country Studio Art Tour (bluffcountrystudioarttour.com). Ye Olde Opera House (155 W. Main St.) stages plays downtown and at its bluff-side barn.
This is coulee country, filled with quirky names like Hippie Valley and Yucatan Valley, and Redford-ready trout streams known mostly to fishermen and rattlesnakes. Hike to overlooks in nearby Beaver Valley Creek State Park. Drive the 12 miles south from Spring Grove to Dorchester, Iowa, on County Road 16 for a ride on a gorgeous ridge. Or take County Road 4 north of town to Rooster Valley Road, a twisting loop that’s spectacular in the fall.
Spring Grove’s population is still nearly 90 percent Norwegian, and the new Giants of the Earth Heritage Center (163 W. Main St.) is evidence of the Nordic roots. Its folk music and dance performances are popular with gray-hairs and trendy high-schoolers alike. The center’s ambitious folk school has classes on everything from Norwegian sweater-making to learning to speak the native tongue. You can even have your DNA traced to see if you’re Norwegian.
Minnesota’s largest Amish community resides just west of Spring Grove. You’ll find pies, jams, and more on Saturdays at the Amish Farmers’ Market four miles south of Harmony on Highway 52. QUARTER/quarter (25 Center St.), a smart new restaurant and wine bar in Harmony, serves comfort food fresh from the gardens of chef Steven Larson, formerly of D’Amico Cucina. And don’t leave town without some locally made Spring Grove soda.
For more Hidden Minnesota content, see a slideshow at MNMO.com/HiddenMN.