As we thaw, Minnesotans tend to gravitate to our 10,000 lakes and the hum of lakeside resorts. But what of our sturdy, sweeping bluffs? In the heart of our state’s Driftless Area, Lanesboro cultivates its own seasonal pull without a large, rounded body of water to cozy up to. Instead, the small and topographically significant town of 750 or so relies upon an impressive density of other natural and human-made wonders.
Along the two-hour drive southeast of Minneapolis-St. Paul, steep limestone inclines and bottomed-out valleys are ideal canvases for witnessing the rebirth of the earth. That includes the dramatic final descent into town. The 42-mile Root River State Trail passes through Lanesboro, so it’s attractive for cyclists (and river kayakers) to use as a base of operations. A car almost feels superfluous with this many eateries, coffee shops, and Victorian bed-and-breakfasts strung along the strollable Parkway Avenue.
The businesses are tourist-friendly but not predictable or outdated. Local craft beer is readily on tap. Think historic facades, small-town pride, parks, bridges, multiple theaters, and a waterfall. Plenty of bike racks, but no Starbucks. Lanesboro wears its past proudly, but culture is still progressing, especially creatively.
Outside the Lanesboro Museum a decommissioned payphone (’member those?) now plays oral histories from the town’s past. The Lanesboro Arts Juried Sales and Exhibition Galleries sit a few storefronts down. More than 90 regional artists’ works—paintings, sculptures, photos, and more—all sit before a jury before they’re displayed and sold in the beautifully refurbished, 140-year-old building. The phone booth and gallery are but two pieces of Lanesboro Arts’ widespread mission. The year-round, multidisciplinary programming has a footprint and scope enviable for most mid-size cities.
On our last visit, my family chose the gasp-worthy Sacred Clay Country Inn out of more than a dozen solid bed-and-breakfast options. (It closed at the end of 2013, but reopened in the fall of 2018.) Tucked into a forested area a short, 3-mile drive (or pedal) south of town, the Inn is an enormous white house with a stately lawn and garden set on a hill. Out on its wraparound balcony is a view of the valley and Duschee Creek nearby. While the structure is less than 20 years old, the exposed wooden beams, antiques, Amish furniture and woodwork, stained-glass windows, and massive hearth evoke something that could’ve been there for a century or more. Except, of course, everything’s far too clean to be that old, and there’s Wi-Fi.
We had to pry our 2-year-old daughter out of the Narnia room’s hidden passage in the wall. For nursing sore limbs or nagging thoughts, a lot of the bathtubs have jets. The rooms and suites are impeccably kept, but there’s also ample common space to spread out and explore. Bring a Kindle (or an actual book!) and find an armchair, couch, or porch swing waiting to cradle you comfortably.
If these Lanesboro amenities haven’t completely scratched an itch for “lake vibes,” don’t despair. Old Barn Resort, a bit of a scene-setter all by itself, is merely a 7-mile drive, or a 5-mile bike ride on the Root River State Trail. Even if camping, golfing, tubing, trout fishing, or RV parking aren’t motivating factors—though quality options exist for each—stop for a meal or a pint at the Old Barn Restaurant & Bar. Located inside a beautifully restored barn, it’s an unapologetically carnivorous menu for a clientele ranging from Amish families to hunters (yes, there’s taxidermy) to big-city folk. A few entertaining hours at that U-shaped bar could push any good trip further toward great.
While Lanesboro might be too small to shift Minnesota’s overarching travel narratives, it has proven formidable enough to write a compelling chapter for itself. Good luck pedaling home without picking up a few tales of your own.
Eat, Play, Stay in Lanesboro
The gorgeous, 200-seat downtown theater stages professional, live productions Thursday-Monday most weeks between March and December.
This corner restaurant filled with wooden booths is a sturdy, family-friendly option. Inventive comfort food—Norwegian, Korean, and Greek dishes among the usual burger fare—are created with locally sourced ingredients.
The newly renovated bike destination in nearby Whalan features a rotating selection of fillings, including in-season rhubarb.
Weekend attractions include the Rhubarb Festival (June 1), Lanesboro Arts’ Art in the Park (June 15), the 60 Mile Garage Sale along the Root River State Trail (June 21-22), and Buffalo Bill Days (August 2-4).