About this Itinerary
Like the winding river it parallels, the Root River State Trail dissects southeastern Minnesota through a landscape rumpled with hills and rocky bluffs. Here, scattered farms fold into hillsides and small towns thrive on trail-goers and other outdoor enthusiasts. You’ll encounter railroad relics repurposed into charming museums that chronicle the region’s past. This trail offers the perfect combination of forested and open landscape connecting delightful villages full of friendly Midwesterners and plenty to hold your interest. Historical Lanesboro is your base; its Main Street is on the National Register of Historic Places, and you might even share the road with an Amish buggy.
Fly into Rochester, Minnesota, and drive about 42 miles to Lanesboro, a charming, artsy town tucked into the folds of America’s Driftless Area. The geologically designated name refers to this small part of the country that somehow missed glacial scouring during the last ice age, creating a bumpy terrain of low hills, deeply cut river valleys and high, rocky bluffs.
We recommend the Scandinavian Inn, an environmentally friendly B&B with secure bike storage in a residential neighborhood a half-mile from the trail. Lanesboro has more B&Bs than you can shake a doily-covered lamp table leg at, so if any particular place is booked, you’ll find another literally right around the corner—or next door. In addition, you’ll find plenty of other accommodations in the towns linked by the trail.
Lanesboro was once a center of transportation and mills, and many Victorian brick buildings line the downtown’s historical district. All restaurants, shops and entertainment are within easy walking or cycling distance of your B&B. By staying here, you can do the trail in two leisurely days.
Rent bikes at either Little River General Store or Root River Outfitters, both are downtown and just off the trail. If you don’t want to do an out-and-back jaunt, Little River General Store will shuttle you.
Ride from Lanesboro east to Houston (about 31 miles one way), calling in at Whalan, Peterson and Rushford. Some of the trail’s inviting features include several picnic areas and shelters, nearby campsites, wooden-planked bridges and, of course, the scenery. Stop by the River Trail Picnic Basket (100 Parkway Ave.) and order lunch to go, which you can enjoy at one of the many scenic spots on your ride.
You’ll no doubt encounter some wildlife, including hawks, wild turkeys, deer, beavers and possibly even a rattlesnake sunning itself on a rocky ledge by the river—or on the trail. Although rattlers might not be high on your list of pleasure-inducing creatures, they are a rare and protected species; leave them be and they won’t hurt you. But do take care when recreating around any rocky outcrops.
Another type of ancient, and now extinct, wildlife you might notice are brachiopods, clam-like animals that thrived in the large, shallow sea that covered this region millions of years ago. Their fossilized remains can be seen in the rocks.
After leaving Lanesboro, your first town is Whalan. Supported by a crook in the Root River, the tiny rail town was founded in 1868 and was the county’s center for the tobacco trade. Two things worth stopping for here include the Aroma Pie Shop (Thurs.–Mon. only), right along the trail and known for miles around for their flakey-crust delights. Try a slice of “bluebarb” or other unique fruit combos. They also serve deli sandwiches.
Ride by Ernie’s Station, an old filling and service garage built in 1917. It no longer operates but it has a fantastic collection of old signs, automotive equipment and other memorabilia from that era.
If you’re in town the third Saturday in May, you’ll want to see Whalan’s Stand Still Parade, where the “parade” goes nowhere but spectators move around it. You can also enjoy live music, a craft fair, children’s activities and contests.
Next down the line is Peterson, originally built around flour and feed mills and sustaining some light manufacturing businesses. Since 1871 the local fish hatchery has also been well-established in this state of 10,000 lakes—and even more fisherpersons. The Peterson State Fish Hatchery, which raises mostly lake trout, is about two miles south of town. Adventurous cyclists can ride there from the trail, on-road, or save it for another day of explorations.
At Mill Street in Peterson, jump off the trail and head east two blocks to Centennial Street. On the corner is the Peterson Station Museum & Visitor Center (open most days 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.). The old depot was moved here from its original location along the rail line. Check out their historical artifacts, memorabilia and photographs. It also has a genealogy section in case you want to trace your Norwegian ancestors. If you’re here in mid-June, join their offspring for a 3-day celebration at the Gammel Dag Fest. Norwegian for “Good Old Days,” the festival has food, music, a parade, arts and crafts vendors, a softball tourney and a bicycle ride.
In case you’re still hankering for pie, or just need something cold to drink, you’ll find Burdeys Café just off the trail (417 Mill Street). They also have homemade soups and all-day breakfasts. And of course, this being the Midwest, Friday is fish fry day.
Across the street on the next block down is Geneva’s Ice Cream & Snacks, selling hand-dipped ice cream goodness, sandwiches, water and other drinks, as well as souvenirs and local handcrafts.
Continue along the trail on the north bank of the Root River to Rushford, just five miles farther through a wooded corridor. As you approach town, you pass by Featherstone Farm, which grows organic fruits and vegetables that you’ve likely already tasted at your B&B or a local restaurant. The farms offer self-guided walking tours of the operations, as well as tractor rides, cooking demos and other activities.
In the village—like in all towns along this route—the depot has been repurposed as a trail center and little museum; it’s also on the National Register of Historic Places. Unlike other depots on this trail, however, this one is the state’s oldest two-story variety still standing on its original site. Built 1867, the museum displays railroad memorabilia and an exhibit on 2007’s epic flood.
Historical accounts tell of Rushford’s young ladies dropping by the depot to get a look at the fresh young males arriving to settle here. What would they think of the spandex-clad arriving by bicycle today? Next to the depot are other historical buildings: a jailhouse, one-room school house, a log home and replica of the old chapel.
You can’t visit the land of Norwegian settlers without trying lefse—a soft flatbread similar to a tortilla and filled with just about anything you like. Try one at Norsland Lefse (behind the depot). Watch the lefse makers ply their dough and browse their Norwegian souvenirs.
At the end of Elm Street at Winona Street, the Feed Room Café occupies an old flour mill, which had former lives as a turkey hatchery, poultry grain mill and storage building. There’s outdoor seating here, and the quiet location makes for a pleasant place to rest. The mill has been in the same family for many decades and was rehabbed for a restaurant in 2010 when the devastating floods of 2007 destroyed the owner’s turkey farm. Try their Belgian waffles, quiches or a hearty sandwich.
As you leave Rushford, you’ll cross over a branch of the Root River then follow the main twisting waterway through a tableau of farms broken by the wooded hills into tidy parcels. In places, the trail comes quite close to the river. Stop to look for beavers in the water and hawks perched in trees. A wild turkey might strut across the trail in search of insects and nuts in the forest litter.
About six miles west of Houston, you cross the river to the south bank, and for about 1.5 miles encounter a hilly stretch around Cushion Peak. Pull aside at the overlook for fantastic views across the river valley.
From here, head through the woodlands among scattered farms to Houston, which was once a port for steamboats (it’s not that far from the Mississippi). At trail’s end you’ll find a unique and pleasing way to herald your arrival: the Nature Center. Say hello to resident mascot Alice, the great-horned owl, and learn about her fellow owls, as well as other native wildlife.
Grimy? Take a shower here then stroll through the grounds, which are adorned with recycled bicycle sculptures. The center has several programs during summer and also offers one-way shuttles for cyclists, boaters and river floaters from the center. Inquire about details.
Through the Grapevine, a café just two blocks from the trailhead (129 S. Grant), whips up authentic German food, including the area’s best kraut, schnitzel and bratwurst. Across from the trailhead, Barista’s Coffee House serves iced coffee, which just might have the kick you need for the ride back to Lanesboro. You can also grab a sandwich here as well as gifts and books.
In Lanesboro this evening, make reservations at Intermission, serving pasta, melt-in-your-mouth tenderloin or fresh walleye. Next door you can see a play by the Commonweal Theatre Company. Lanesboro is a show town, and other options include the Lanesboro Community Theatre and a live variety show, called Over the Back Fence, on the second Friday of the month, from February through November.
The Lanesboro Arts Center shows homemade movies in Sylvan Park (Parkway Avenue behind the school) during autumn and sponsors a thematic film series that screens every third Friday of the month, May–Oct. The center also has an exhibition gallery for the arts.
Your ride from Lanesboro west to Fountain is only 11 miles. There are no other towns between the two, just plenty of rolling countryside through woodlands and farms. You won’t be following the main stem of the Root River either but rather its smaller south fork, which flows over Lanesboro’s dam at the west end of town.
Cross the south fork a couple of times, wending your way west. The fork heads south near the junction (and northern terminus) of another of Minnesota’s fine rail-trails, the Harmony–Preston Valley State Trail. Hop on it and head south if you want to extend your trip today. It’ll take you just under six miles to reach Preston and 18 miles to reach Harmony. At the trailhead in Preston you can see an original Milwaukee Company grain elevator and restored 1939 Milwaukee Road boxcar. This is Amish country, and you’ll find delectable foodstuffs at markets near the trail in the Preston area, too.
Back on the Root River Trail, just before you reach the end, you climb to the village of Fountain. The railroad mapped Fountain in 1870 and named it for Fountain Spring, the town’s water supply.
Calling itself the “Sinkhole Capital of the United States,” Fountain may have some competition brewing in Florida, but nevertheless you’ll find the trailside sinkhole demonstration area interesting, if not downright fascinating. Apparently, sink holes pop up (down?) frequently around here.
Sink holes form when rain water and snow dissolve carbonate rocks (mostly limestone and dolomite) near the ground’s surface. Southeast Minnesota is rife with this type of geology, called karst. Streams and rivers, including the South Fork of the Root River, are known to disappear underground through sink holes and reappear farther downstream.
Before you disappear back to Lanesboro, drop in (no pun intended) at the Fillmore County History Center & Genealogy Library, housed in an old county school building one block west of the trailhead. An airplane hanger, log cabin and other buildings display the growing collection of antique dolls and toys, clothing, vintage tractors and handmade wooden tools, as well as exhibits of different time periods, including an old newspaper office, post office, country kitchen and soda fountain.
If all the bike riding has left a sink hole in your stomach, fill it up with a pizza or a home cooked turkey dinner finished off with a slice of pie, made fresh daily, at the Village Square of Fountain (99 Main St.). Right across the street is the Bent-Wrench Bar & Grill, serving burgers and brews.
Following your trail excursion, stay an extra day and explore Lanesboro’s many galleries, gift shops and boutiques, featuring works by local artisans and Amish goods. Scenic Valley Winery offers complimentary tastings.
The Lanesboro Historical Museum (next to the trail at Elmwood and Parkway) is three floors of rooms featuring bridal, school and military memorabilia, as well as “Buffalo” Bill Cody relics and other things. Take a trolley ride through the town’s past, which includes a tour of the fish hatchery (Tours & Treasures, 102 E. Beacon Street; 507-467-4466).
Other restaurants to check out include Riverside on the Root for lovely outdoor seating where you enjoy salads, sandwiches, steaks or fish. Their Dirty Martini Lounge pours 14 signature martinis, margaritas, daiquiris and mojitos. They also have music. The Old Village Hall Restaurant & Pub has a limited menu selection and they aren’t open late, but the steaks, fish and desserts are worth a stop.
If you’re traveling in September, on Saturdays throughout the month, each community along the Root River and the Preston–Harmony trails hosts Taste of the Trail, where local restaurants and other food vendors have samples of their fare. Other events also take place in some of the towns.