Minnesota River Valley

Get off the beaten path in this sweeping valley region

A Native American dancing in traditional garb.
Mahkato Wacipi Pow Wow, Mankato

photo by karla caspari

Minnesota River Valley: Rich in History

History comes to life in the Minnesota River Valley, a region of Minnesota that has long been at the center of economy and development. Experience the storied past at sites and attractions that preserve years gone by.

As the longest tributary that feeds into the Mississippi River, the Minnesota River and surrounding valley region was a major route for fur traders and explorers as early as the 17th century. The area later witnessed the long, complicated relationship between settlers and Native Americans. In fact, Traverse des Sioux, located a few minutes north of St. Peter, was a crossroads and meeting place for Dakota people and Europeans for thousands of years. Eventually, it was the site of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, in which members of the Dakota nation ceded parts of present-day Minnesota to the U.S. government in exchange for payment and a reservation.

Learn more about this complex history at the Lower Sioux Agency. Located just outside of Redwood Falls, it is the site of the first attack in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. You can also immerse yourself in nature while getting a history lesson at Upper Sioux Agency State Park in Granite Falls. Grasslands, wetlands, woods, prairie knolls and rivers cover the grounds where you’ll find campgrounds and tipi campsites, horse trails, 18 miles of hiking trails and vistas overlooking the Minnesota River.

While in the area, experience the vibrant history of the German-founded town of New Ulm. Incorporated in 1854, the town celebrates its German heritage and history with attractions and events. Perhaps the best symbol of New Ulm’s heritage is the Hermann Monument, a 100-foot copper statue that overlooks the city. The monument of the Cheruscan chieftain was dedicated and erected atop its pedestal in 1897 and has watched over the town below ever since. While there, stop in at the Brown County History Museum, which features award-winning exhibits that explore the town’s past. New Ulm is also home to iconic German craft brewer August Schell Brewing Co. Visit the brewery for tours and tastings in the beer garden, and you’ll see why Germans have more fun.

For a truly immersive history lesson, head northwest to Historic Chippewa City, located outside Montevideo. The town replicates a late 1800s settlement, featuring authentic log cabins, an original church and blacksmith. Learn about life on the 20-acre settlement with hands-on experiences such as hammering horseshoes and churning butter. Another unique historic site located nearby is Lac qui Parle Mission. Visitors can learn about the roles that missionaries played in the development of the Dakota alphabet as well as life of the Dakota people in this 1835 mission which houses the first Dakota dictionary and gospel. Not surprisingly, the mission was one of the earliest schools and churches in the state.

Just about an hour’s drive northwest visitors can learn about the formation of the Minnesota River Valley at the Big Stone County Museum in Ortonville. Displays and historical treasures tell of glacial River Warren, which carved out the five-mile-wide valley around 10,000 years ago.

Alexander Ramsey State Park, Redwood Falls.
Alexander Ramsey Park, Redwood Falls

photo by SPX Sports

Minnesota River Valley: Outdoor Exploration

Discover all the recreational fun that the Minnesota River Valley has to offer. The area has an abundance of serene parks, wildlife refuges, multi-use trails and unique attractions

Start your outdoor adventure in the stunning Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge located near Odessa. An 11-mile stretch of the Minnesota River flows through this 12,000-acre refuge, providing habitat for migratory birds, fish and other wildlife. Enjoy the water by kayak or canoe, or set out on one of the countless foot trails for exceptional hiking.

For even more outdoor adventure, explore what locals call the “Little Yellowstone of Minnesota.” Travel about 90 miles southwest to Alexander Ramsey Park in Redwood Falls for tranquil nature scenes including the beloved Ramsey Falls, miles of paved hiking trails, campground facilities and even a zoo. At 219 acres, this is the largest municipal park in the state.

For an adventure on two wheels, head 65 miles southwest to hit the trails in Mankato. Practice your dexterity on the two-mile singletrack Fort LeHillier Mountain Bike Skill Park, which winds through trees and over small bridges and jumps. If a two-mile track isn’t enough, spend some time at Mount Kato for more of a challenge and bike over seven miles of singletrack trails from late April through October. Looking for shoreline riding? Head to Kiwanis Recreation Area, an extensive system of mountain biking trails situated on the shores of the Minnesota River.

While in Mankato, be sure to stop at Minneopa State Park. Explore trails that meander along Minneopa Creek and past waterfalls, and take in beautiful views of hills rolling as far as the eye can see.

If you prefer water adventures, start in the northern portion of the Minnesota River Valley at Big Stone Lake in Ortonville. Hop into a canoe or kayak and paddle along the Minnesota River State Water Trail that begins at  Big Stone and meanders along diverse wildlife and terrain to Fort Snelling in St. Paul.

After a day of adventuring, rest your weary bones at Moonstone Farm. Located in rural Montevideo, the 240-acre family-owned farm features a one-room cottage surrounded by the simple pleasures of the prairie.

A young boy playing at the Childrens Museum of Southern Minnesota.
Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota

Photo by children’s museum of southern minnesota

Minnesota River Valley: Eat, Shop, Play

Try these local favorites for one-of-a-kind dining, shopping or entertainment in the Minnesota River Valley.

Heaven’s Gate Winery is a family-run operation located in Belview. The winery uses apples grown on their own land. Made-from-scratch dishes fill the winery’s seasonal food menu, and visitors continually boast of their delicious wines.

The region is also home to Minnesota’s first underground winery. Since 1993 Morgan Creek Vineyards & Winery has been serving award-winning wines. The New Ulm winery uses the temperature below the earth’s surface for a cellar-like storing atmosphere.

During your time in New Ulm, visit The Grand Center for Arts and Culture. Located in a historic downtown New Ulm hotel, the Grand hosts live music weekly, monthly art exhibitions and various cultural events open to the community.

Grab the kids and visit nearby Mankato for the Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota. The museum provides fun, hands-on learning for young minds through a variety of exhibits and daily activities.

If you’re searching for a unique gift for that hard-to-buy-for-friend, head to Redwood Falls and stop in at The Farmer’s Wife. Browse the collection of accessories and decorations including stacks of dyed wool, 18th- and 19th-century pottery, and hand-poured candles that line the shelves of the home decor and gift shop.

In nearby St. Peter, some of the best coffee around is found at River Rock Coffee. Inspired by the tree-hugging ’60s, the coffee shop is a favorite among nearby Gustavus Adolphus College students and faculty alike. While in the area, see works of art at the school’s Hillstrom Museum of Art, which is free of charge and features rotating exhibitions with work by students, faculty members, and national and international artists.

If you’d prefer a craft ale or IPA over coffee and wine, head to Hendricks and stop in at Bank Brewing Co. Originally a bank on the main street of town, the Bank Brewing taproom now fills pints and sample glasses with unique IPAs, pale wheats and Berliner weisses. The taproom rotates its beers through four taps and has games and an outdoor beer garden.

A map of southern Minnesota split into regions.

Historic Highlights: Minnesota River Valley

1. Big Stone County Museum – Ortonville

Begin your journey at this historic museum on the border of Minnesota and South Dakota. See treasures from years gone by and learn about the creation of the Minnesota River Valley.

2. Fagen Fighters WWII Museum – Granite Falls

Hop on the Minnesota River Valley National Scenic Byway and travel southeast along the picturesque route. Step inside this historic museum and see authentic aircrafts and vehicles used during WWII.

3. Lower Sioux Agency – Morton

Continue southeast along the byway to this site that marks the start of the U.S.Dakota War of 1862. The history center and exhibit reveal stories of the Dakota people before, during and after the conflict.

4. Hermann Monument – New Ulm

Continue south along the byway and stop at this statue that stands atop a pedestal overlooking the town, celebrating New Ulm’s rich German heritage.

5. Traverse Des Sioux – St. Peter

Head east to the site where members of the Dakota Nation ceded parts of current-day Minnesota to the U.S. government. The government’s failure to hold up its end of the bargain led to rising tensions and, ultimately, the U.S.Dakota War of 1862.