Spring is in the air. Across the state, fields and trees bloom, the sky fills with migrating birds, and Minnesotans look forward to spending more time in the great outdoors. On the western edge of the state, the Upper Minnesota River Valley comprises Big Stone, Chippewa, Lac Qui Parle, Swift, and Yellow Medicine counties, where charming towns and opportunities for outdoor recreation abound. This region of the state is an excellent destination for local history buffs, outdoor enthusiasts, and anyone who wants a taste of small-town living.
The Minnesota River Valley National Scenic Byway runs along the river from Browns Valley to Mankato. The road passes by prairies, brushlands, wetlands, and lakes full of wildlife, including the spring’s newborn deer and birds. The riverside scenic byway is a perfect springtime joyride and a useful connection between towns, parks, and wildlife refuges.
The Upper Minnesota River Valley contains three state parks—Big Stone Lake State Park, Upper Sioux Agency State Park, and Lac Qui Parle State Park—each containing acres of tranquil prairie lands. Prairies are one of North America’s most endangered habitats, and these wildlife sanctuaries are protected and maintained by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Each park has plenty of trails and campgrounds, allowing visitors to immerse themselves in Minnesota’s nature.
Big Stone Lake State Park
The lakeside campsites of Big Stone Lake State Park are perfect for midweek or weekend trips with friends and family. Thousands of years ago, this area was the end of the glacial Lake Agassiz that covered North America, but now it’s the source of the Minnesota River and a great place to canoe, kayak, and paddle board. Take that first refreshing swim of the season in this historic lake, or enjoy a peaceful walk through the neighboring oak basswood forest.
Upper Sioux Agency State Park
Between Granite Falls and Redwood Falls, explore (or fish!) the site where the Yellow Medicine River flows into the Minnesota River at Upper Sioux Agency State Park. The north and east valley overlooks offer views of expansive fields of spring wildflowers and, at night, constellations shine over the prairie. After Memorial Day, the Yellow Medicine River Campground has three spacious tipis available for rent.
Lac Qui Parle State Park
Birdwatchers will love Lac Qui Parle State Park. The French translation of the Dakota word that means “lake that speaks,” the name is especially apt in springtime when thousands of Canada geese fly to the prairie, filling the air with honks and quacks. Not only is this a great spot for springtime birdwatching, visitors also enjoy canoeing on Lac Qui Parle Lake, taking in views from the lake’s scenic overlook and resting comfortably in the park’s
rustic camper cabins.
Many people call the Upper Minnesota River Valley home, and they’re eager to share their heritage-rich towns’ riverside walks, boutiques, bakeries, and public art with visitors. Here are four towns along the Minnesota River Valley Scenic Byway:
Montevideo is surrounded by interactive historic sites that provide a glimpse into Minnesota’s past. Historic Chippewa City is home to 24 buildings replicating a late-1800s village, complete with a town square and boardwalk. Also nearby, explore the 17-acre farmstead at the Olof Swensson Farm Museum, a site listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Take a walk through the Swensson family home or the large red barn built in the 1880s to get a firsthand look at the lives of Minnesota’s immigrants. After filling up on state history, head over to Talking Waters Brewing Co. Sip craft brews and enjoy stand-up comedy, live music, and other community events held in the lively taproom.
While it’s not quite in Montevideo, don’t miss Tokheim Stoneware. Owned by local artisans since 1973, this handcrafted, wheel-thrown Scandinavian folk art studio is one of rural Minnesota’s hidden gems. The pottery has been featured in the Norwegian American Vesterheim Museum in Decorah, Iowa, and was part of the Smithsonian Institute’s Museum Store during the Vikings exhibit that commemorated the 1,000-year anniversary of Leif Erikson’s landing in North America. It’s well worth the drive to pick up a piece of truly unique pottery or sculpture.
Granite Falls is a great place to spend an afternoon shopping and sightseeing. Parallel to the Minnesota River, walk down Prentice Street and stop by Stella + Poppy for artisan bath and body products and Falls Boutique to find unique assorted gifts including rustic kitchen decor, floral perfumes, and candles. Pick up a freshly baked cookie or doughnut at Carl’s Bakery, which is across from the Riverwalk Murals. The murals display creative representations of the Upper Minnesota River Valley’s flora and fauna, including pelicans and butterflies.
Also along the riverwalk, peruse the Main and Emerging Artist Galleries, plus the Makers on the Minnesota gift shop, where you’ll find one-of-a-kind items from local artists. This space, run by the Granite Area Arts Council, includes books, pottery, jewelry, art prints, games, and more. A staple in the community, Granite Falls Kiwanis Popcorn Stand opens in May and offers hot buttered popcorn and root beer to snack on while walking across the Granite Falls Footbridge.
At the end of the riverwalk, turn into town to find the Andrew J. Volstead House Museum, named for the Minnesotan lawyer and politician behind the Volstead Act, which launched the national ban on alcohol known as Prohibition. This national landmark offers a look into a fascinating period in American history through the lens of Volstead, a child of Norwegian immigrants and an advocate for farmers.
Halfway between Granite Falls and Redwood Falls, family-owned Grandview Valley Winery is a prime place to spend a spring afternoon. Bring a group of friends and sample white, red, and rosé wines or split a pizza on the patio.
Ramsey Park, on the northwest side of Redwood Falls, has plenty of activities for all ages. Celebrate the return of warm weather with a family trip to the park to take in the beautiful cascading waters of Ramsey Falls, or picnic by the Redwood River. Kids will love the Ramsey Park Zoo, where they can get an up close look at buffalo, elk, deer, goats, and prairie dogs.
In town, there is an abundance of local shops to visit. Stop by Sisily Boutique to find adorable baby clothes and women’s apparel. Laney Lu’s Boutique, named for the daughter of the owner, stocks the latest and cutest apparel, accessories, and home decor. Get lost in a book from Chapter Two, a colorful and cozy bookstore.
New Ulm’s German American heritage is on display throughout the town. A 45-foot-tall Glockenspiel with 37 bells chimes every hour, and the German-Bohemian Monument, a statue of a family, was erected in 1991 to honor the immigrants who made this place their home. Shop for clocks made with Old Country craftsmanship and dine at Kaiserhoff, a New Ulm establishment that has served German specialties like schnitzel, bratwurst, and potato salad since 1938.
Also be sure to stop by August Schell Brewing Co., which was started by the co-founder of the town and is the second oldest family-owned brewery in the United States and the oldest in Minnesota. Schell’s is launching “Into the Depths” tours with new and exclusive access to brew houses, production areas, beer caves, and the brewery’s original taproom. And hang out in the Bier Halle and chat with locals while enjoying a beer brewed in the traditional German style.
There are plenty of non-German-inspired activities in New Ulm, too. In April 2023, the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame will reopen to the public, and guests can once again explore the history of Minnesota musicians like Bob Dylan, Judy Garland, and Prince through memorabilia. Each year, the museum hosts an induction banquet to honor new artists and professionals who have contributed to the Minnesota music scene. Stop by Becky Bakes for a seasonally decorated cupcake, cake, or cookie, and dine at Lola, a cafe and restaurant serving brunch, lunch, and dinner. Keep an eye out for their food truck at local events.
Spring is the perfect time to explore the Upper Minnesota River Valley. Whether it’s resting on the beaches of Big Stone Lake, exploring valleys of wildflowers with children, or sipping a German lager at the state’s oldest family-owned brewery, the area’s towns and wildlife sanctuaries come alive with renewed energy and the promise of brighter days ahead.