Posts Tagged: adventuring in the driftless region

Driftless Day Trip: Decorah

Decorah Driftless Day TripDecorah, We Adore Ya

By Inspire(d) Staff • Photos by Inspire(d) unless noted

Everyone knows we love Decorah. Some say it’s the beauty of the bluffs that draws people in. Others speculate there’s some sort of vortex created by the meteoric rock embedded way under those bluffs.

Or it could simply be the amazing downtown, variety of entrepreneurs, and all the great people here that brings the place to life.

Whatever it is, it’s magic. And we think it’s about time we shared some of our favorite things that make Decorah such a magical community.

Despite a fair amount of traveling and extended periods of time living in other states and countries, we at Inspire(d) HQ (Benji, Aryn, and Roxie) have called the Decorah area home for the majority of our lives. And in the 10 years that Benji and Aryn have been together, it’s possible that Decorah has changed almost as much as it did those 25 years previous! It keeps getting better.

It would be nearly impossible to sum up all of the good things in one, succinct article, so we’re just gonna go ahead and map out one perfect weekend in Decorah. Feel free to explore more on your own! Check it out at


Decorah is nestled in a crook of the Upper Iowa River, right along two rifts of craggy limestone bluffs. This sets quite the lovely backdrop for our charming Midwest town.


This community of just over 8,000 people is well known for a lot of things. Vesterheim Museum, Nordic Fest, Luther College, StoryPeople, a kick-ass food co-op, great paved and mountain biking trails, the eagles (of course!), and a thriving downtown with great restaurants, shops, and entertainment – to name just a few. So get out your calendars and get a trip to Decorah in the books.

We can’t wait to see you!



It’s Friday afternoon. You’ll probably want to leave work early so you can get to Decorah in time for dinner. Make a reservation at La Rana for tonight then spend a few minutes – or, you know, like an hour – checking out some of the great stores on Water Street.

Tip: the Visitors Center is right on Water Street (507 W. Water St – near Vesterheim and ArtHaus!) for those looking for more local info or ideas.

If you still have a few minutes before dinner, grab a quick happy hour drink at Rubaiyat or the Tap Room in the Hotel Winneshiek. Renovation on this historic hotel and the attached Steyer Opera House was completed in 2000. The beautiful property really is an anchor for Downtown Decorah. Their motto is “the welcome is real” and, true to their word, they host tons of fun events throughout the year. We love their Live in the Lobby music series. Check for up-to-date details.


Dinner time! Finally. Aryn might be a little partial to La Rana, the sweet bistro on the corner of Washington and Main Streets, because it’s where she worked for two years after returning to the area in 2005. But more than that, the food is amazing, and the ambiance pure loveliness. Go ahead and order one of co-owner Mark’s cocktails mixed up with house-made juice (best. mojitos. ever.) and pretty much anything on the menu. We love the rotating specials and you can’t beat a table full of starters like seasonal bruschetta or local shrimp.

La Rana insideLaRanaFood

Post dinner, check out some in-town entertainment. There’s often great live music kiddy-corner to La Rana at the Haymarket (grab a handful of pulltabs while you’re at it!). Not feeling the music scene? Cozy in for a great brew at the Courtyard and Cellar…think of it as pre-game for tomorrow’s brewery extravaganza (ha!). More on that later.



Ah, morning in Decorah. There are several great spots to get your caffeine fix in town, but we think you should start at Impact Coffee on Washington Street (right next to La Rana). If you came to town to check out the craft beer, let this be your precursor to that, but with craft coffee instead. The nitro cold-brews are Aryn’s favorites, and Benji loves the house-made chai. Looking for breakfast? Lots of great options for that too. T-Bock’s fare is local and tasty, plus if you’re watching a game, this is the place to be (their burgers are amazing too – the Southwest is our go-to), or if you’re looking for a coffeehouse to get a little work done (or a little social media check-in), Magpie is the perfect choice – they’ve got yummy breakfast (Aryn loves the “B” wrap) and our favorite Kickapoo Coffee from Viroqua, Wisconsin, brewed up and ready to roll.


Next up, you really ought to get out for a ride. At Inspire(d) HQ, we’re pretty into mountain biking and love to spread the fun around the community (world!). If you don’t have a bike, head over to Decorah Bicycles to get fitted for a rental – they’ve got tons of options, and it’s only $25 for four hours (or $100 for the whole weekend if you’re really loving it)! There are somewhere around 20 miles of amazing single-track biking and hiking trails woven throughout the bluffs of Decorah – beginners might want to start on River Trail or some of the trails up around Palisades Park. Ask Josie or Travis at the bike shop for a map and suggestions – they’ll hook you up. And if this is your first time, maybe ask about scheduling a led-ride with Josie.


If you’re thinking a fun – but still pretty challenging – paved ride is more your speed, it’s time for a loop around the Trout Run Trail – it’s 11 miles of lovely Northeast Iowa vistas (here’s a map!). No matter the direction you take on Trout Run Trail, you’ll pass by the Decorah Fish Hatchery, and the famous Decorah eagles too. Take a quick break to feed the trout, marvel at the waterfall at Sievers Spring, and snap a selfie with those magnificent birds before you continue on.


Speaking of waterfalls, Dunning’s Spring is one of the best around (in our opinion). It’s always several degrees cooler back there, which makes it a perfect stop in the hot summer months, but we love to check it out pretty much any time of year. Make sure to climb the steps to enjoy the view from above too. Dunning’s also happens to be a great picnic spot, and is just off the single-track trails if you’re taking that route today.


If you’re an old RAGBRAI pro looking for even more mileage today, perhaps you’d be up for a little out-and-back to Bluffton. The hills are real, and the beverages are cold at Randy’s Bluffton Store – it’s the only place in Bluffton, so you’ll find it!

And if biking just isn’t your thing (okay, okay), another great option for a morning expedition is Seed Saver’s Exchange Heritage Farm just north of Decorah. We love it (we even got married there)! The Lillian Goldman Visitor’s Center is the perfect place to start your visit. From there you can easily stroll the display gardens, or roam for a great hike on trails across the ridges of the farm – or even up to the heritage apple orchard. Special events during the summer include the annual Seed Saver’s workshop and campout weekend, as well as a benefit concert night that features Mason Jennings this year.

Photo courtesy Seed Savers Exchange.

Photo courtesy Seed Savers Exchange.

Morning adventures complete, it’s time for rewards: beer!

If you’re in to beer at all, you’ve surely heard about Toppling Goliath. Select TG brews have made big splashes, winning top-ratings in several circles, and we love their big-hop creations too. Aryn is a hoppy beer fanatic, and Benji is a good-beer-of-any-kind fanatic, so we’re really happy that TG is roosted here in our hometown.

The new kid on the block, Pulpit Rock (hey, a rhyme!), has no trouble meeting the good beer bar that’s set in our community. Pulpit Rock’s beers are super tasty and their tap room (and, in warmer weather, the large patio area) are fun- and people-filled pretty much all the time.


So. You should probably plan to visit both places. And you should probably plan to walk. It is also worth noting that both of these tap rooms allow you to bring your own food in (and don’t serve food), so plan ahead accordingly.

No matter where you’ve been exploring, it’s bound to be time for a little food in your belly. Grab a quick lunch at Oneota Co-op (delicious local salad bar, panini, and to-go fare) or Koreana (sushi and other Asian dishes). Or you could have the one and only Mabe’s pizza or our favorite “Taco Joe” from Happy Joe’s delivered to one of the breweries (if you go that route)! Finish your meal off with one of our favorite afternoon treats: a cake bite, procured at Beyond the Bar Bakery on Water Street, or the chocolate cake at Java John’s.

BeyondBar1 ChaiHorizontal

Decided not to drink this weekend? There’s fun for you too!

For Aryn’s perfect alcohol-free afternoon, she would go to a yoga class at the Yoga Studio or Yoga Room downtown and then get a massage at Day Spring Spa or The Massage Room. Oooh! Or a session at the Acupuncture Center! Or a pedicure at one of the great salons in town. Benji would enjoy a little hike or a spin class at Reefuel, or maybe a canoe down the Upper Iowa River – you go ahead and decide what you’d like best.


For dinner tonight, make a reservation at Restauration. Chef Tom Skold puts together a really tasty, ever-changing menu, and it’s fun to dine in that lovely Hotel Winneshiek. Or, if things are looking too busy at the Hotel, McCaffery’s Dolce Vita is a fun option. It’s right past Twin Springs Park (which would be a beautiful place for a quick hike before dinner). We love the thin crust pizza cooked to perfection in a wood-fired oven. Plus, there’s live music on select evenings in the summer. Owner Jim McCaffrey writes a column for Inspire(d) pretty regularly, and he’s a hoot to chat with, so tell him we say hello!

To cap off the evening, take a stroll through downtown…maybe with some ice cream at Sugar Bowl or Whippy Dip! Tip: Phelps or Palisades Parks both offer good sunset-viewing.



It’s your last morning in town. Coffee time? How about Java John’s? While you’re there, make sure to get one of Roxie’s favorites: a cinnamon roll! We love their cappuccino muffin tops too.

If you’re looking for something a little stronger, we recommend Bloody Marys at the Haymarket or the Bloody Mary bar at Rubaiyat. In fact, if you’re heading to Rubaiyat, you may as well go ahead and grab a booth or a table at the bar – the brunch menu is great. Or if you’re looking for down-home, no-frills breakfast, you can’t go wrong at the Family Table. The pancakes are truly plate-sized, and the service is quick and friendly.


Looking for a way to entertain the kiddos?

If we knew you were bringing your littles along, we probably would have outlined a totally different trip! Better add Vesterheim – think giant boat inside, Norwegian artifacts, and fun displays that you can walk around in – to the list. The Porter House Museum is stocked with cool rocks and a massive bug collection. And ArtHaus and the Clay Studio are perfect for creative kids looking to express themselves (check calendars for classes or open studio hours). Are you visiting us in the fall? Pinter’s Pumpkin Patch is so much fun every year – Roxie loves it!


So hey! It’s been fun to have you in town. We hope you’ll come again! If you do, let us know at Already a townie? We hope you get out and support local businesses in this amazing community of yours – we are so lucky to live here! XOXO

Get on your calendar:

Winneshiek Music Festival (January)

Oneota Film Festival (March)

Women’s Weekend Out (April)

Decorah Time Trials Mountain Bike Race (April)

Winneshiek Farmers Market (Wednesdays, 3-6 pm / Saturdays, 8-11 am, May-Oct)

Lawn Chair Night (in front of the Winneshiek County Courthouse, Thursdays, 7 pm, June-August)

Nordic Fest (July)

Loop-de-loop 5K & Half Marathon (September)

Northeast Iowa Studio Tour (October)


Traveling to Decorah


SPOTlight: Hokah, Minnesota

Heading from La Crosse down Highway 44, the river at your left, bluffs to the right, the scenic zen takes over (keep your eyes on the road, driver!). Need a quick break? Stop in Hokah to check out a cool waterfall – right before the big curve up into town, turn left into the fire station parking lot. Hop out and walk on foot to Como Falls Park – it’s got that lovely waterfall plus a few spots to have a picnic or a quick run around.


SPOTlight: Spring Grove, Minnesota

When you’re headed back to La Crosse after your weekend, definitely save time to stop in Spring Grove. This little town is, as they say, pretty neat – stop to see the Giants of the Earth Heritage Center, grab a bite to eat at Doc’s Blue Moose, a drink at Norski’s, or even a movie at best stadium-seated theater in the region, Spring Grove Cinema.


SPOTlight: Lanesboro Minnesota

From Rochester, you can pop over to Lanesboro for a little Brigadoon-style fun. Take in a show at Commonweal Theatre, awesome art at Lanesboro Art Center, or unhitch your bike for a ride on the Root River Trail. It’s a fun place to spend an afternoon or even a day!

SPOTlight: Harmony & Preston, Minnesota

On the way back, you can schedule time to check out southern Minnesota – Harmony (lunch at Stella’s or a little exploring at Niagara Cave) or Preston (Forestville State Park is cool, and the area’s a trout fishing hotspot!). Maybe you’ll even want to pop over to Four Daughters Winery. It’s a little out of your way, but it’s a fun stop and the food is great.

beerSPOTlight: Elkader, Iowa

Coming from the south?

Make your way up the river through Guttenberg or stop over in Elkader. Elkader’s got an awesome white water play area right downtown on the river! Other highlights we love? Schera’s for amazing Algerian food (their shwarmas and falafel are favorites of ours) and there’s a great new park on the east side of town that’s perfect for some kiddo energy-busting. Check out our Elkader Day Trip at for more ideas!

(SPOTlight photos courtesy area chambers & visitor centers)

Houston Nature Center


Houston Nature Center
215 West Plum Street
Houston, Minnesota, 55943

Hours: Vary by season; check website for current hours
Admission: Free, but donations always welcome

The realistic taxidermy displays – have you ever looked a fox or an otter in the eye? – are impressive. The timber rattlesnake exhibit is fierce. But the real star of the Houston Nature Center is its natural playground, opened in 2013.

“Kids just love it,” says Connie Verse, center manager. “Actually, so do adults.”

Take a look at photos of the center’s latest addition and it’s easy to see why.

No swings or jungle gyms dot the decidedly untraditional play scape. Instead, pedestal pipes create opportunities for music. A sand pit (with hidden fossils!) invites digging. Stone tunnels and caves promote old-fashioned games of hide-and-seek. A wooden wall facilitates climbing. Straw bales invite stacking. And a slide provides plain, old-fashioned fun.

“The oldest person who has gone down our slide was over 80, and the youngest was riding in a parent’s arm,” says Verse. “The playground is just one of the ways we help people of all ages unplug from technology and get out and experience nature.”


Built in 2001, the center sits on 18 scenic, peaceful acres at Trailhead Park and functions as the eastern trailhead of the 60-mile Root River Trail System. In addition to its natural play scape, the park offers a native prairie and primitive walk-in camping facilities – nine tent-only sites, available on a first-come, first-serve basis – along with shower and restroom facilities that Verse proudly describes as “the best along the entire Root River Trail.”

For almost 15 years, the center was also synonymous with Alice, the great horned owl that now “works” at the International Owl Center in downtown Houston. And while the owl-based programming that was once a Houston Nature Center staple is now offered a stone’s throw away at the International Owl Center, there are plenty of other programs planned for the spring and summer sure to interest nature enthusiasts of all ages.


In June the center will begin offering its popular children’s summer programs – which include hands-on educational activities, play time, and (of course!) snacks – two Wednesdays a week. Family–friendly programs are offered every Saturday through the year and focus on a single topic each month. Wetlands will be spotlighted in May, pollination in June, biking and bike safety in July, and arts and nature in August.

“Our mission is to educate people – children in particular – regarding nature and its benefits and to help people experience the outdoors,” says Verse. “Between our natural playground, our camping facilities, and our programming, everyone is bound to find something of interest here.”

What not to miss: A guided walking tour to the Houston sign on the bluff will take place at the center during the Houston Hoedown, July 29–31.

See more Driftless Nature Center profiles here!

– By Sara Friedl-Putnam

Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center

Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center
28097 Goodview Drive
Lanesboro, Minnesota 55949

Hours (for visitor center): Monday­-Friday, 8 am-4:30 pm, with weekends varying by season
Admission: Free for grounds; most programs and the ropes course have a fee

“Eagle Bluff rocks!!” proclaims one enthusiastic Tripadvisor reviewer. “Faaantastic!!” gushes another. “Great fun!!” exclaims a third.

Make the time to visit the sprawling 80-acre Eagle Bluff campus – located near Lanesboro in the beautiful bluff country along the Root River – and it quickly becomes clear why superlatives accentuated by multiple exclamation points seem to be the norm when describing this unique environmental learning center.

“The natural beauty really is unmatched,” says Stephanie Davidson, public programs coordinator. “It’s the perfect place to explore and learn about the outdoors – whether you’re two or 92, you’ll find something of interest here.”

That includes the center’s popular high ropes course, open on Tuesdays and Saturdays from June through August. (Reservations required, cost $25 per person.) A breathtaking view of southeast Minnesota – not to mention a healthy boost in self-confidence – awaits those brave enough to hitch on a harness and negotiate cables, logs, and planks 30 feet above ground.


Those who prefer to keep their feet planted firmly on the ground will find a geocaching course –cell phone or GPS required! – and nine miles of hiking trails that stretch from river’s bottom through tallgrass prairie to bluff’s top. “You might see deer, chipmunks, rabbits, and perhaps a river otter, but it’s the birds that we’re really known for,” says Davidson. “This area has bald eagles, hawks, turkey vultures, feeder songbirds, and forest and prairie birds – it’s worth the trip just to go birding.”

The center also offers a broad array of public programming throughout the year, with the spring and summer boasting a particularly rich schedule. Its “Becoming an Outdoor Family” weekends help family members reconnect in the great outdoors while learning about topics ranging from archery and fishing to geocaching and target shooting. Its “Dinner on the Bluff” series features engaging presentations on hot-topic issues and (of course!) a tasty gourmet meal. And its Skills School provides opportunities for individuals over 16 to learn new skills for more sustainable living. Ever wanted to bake bread, Amish-style? Interested in taking great wilderness photos? Curious about Saami bracelet-making? More than 60 classes covering those topics and more are on tap this spring and summer courtesy of Eagle Bluff’s Skills School.


Of course, youth summer camps have been a staple at Eagle Bluff since its founding, and that remains true to this day. “This year’s summer camps explore canoeing, biking, rock climbing, even raptor handling,” says Davidson. “You name it, and it’s probably on our schedule.”

What not to miss: Dinner on the Bluff series – a tasty opportunity to check out the facilities, learn, and enjoy great food.

See more Driftless Nature Center profiles here!

– By Sara Friedl-Putnam