Road tripping is as essential to summer as sunscreen and Popsicles. Whether you crave a pine-scented campsite, great eats or family fun, here are four trips that stretch north and south, east and west, and even high and low on the quest for fresh adventure.
Go deep, go wild on the Range Ely, Tower and Orr • 63 miles
Wisecracks bubble up as families adjust clunky yellow hard hats. Kids roll their eyes at a command to “Put your coats on!” It seems silly on a sticky summer day.
The elevator door at the Soudan Underground Mine near Tower, Minn., seals shut and we feel the drop down — more than 2,000 feet beneath the surface. Darkness swallows sunlight, and as the tram kicks into gear and cold air whooshes across us, we agree: This is way cooler than Disney.
Maybe it doesn’t have the twists and turns of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, but it’s a thrill, and an authentic, tangible piece of Minnesota history seeped into the rocks around us. Tours of the University of Minnesota’s underground high-energy physics lab round out the experience with mind-blowing science lessons.
Families can pull together an educational (and furry) vacation with a 63-mile road trip from Ely to Orr with Tower as the midpoint. Start in Ely with its outdoorsy shops, family-friendly dining and attractions such as the International Wolf Center, which lets visitors get eye-to-eye with the animals. This summer, new pups join the pack.
On the other end of Ely, visitors on the American Bear Center’s balcony shoot photos of the resident bear trio. Wildlife lovers continue north past Tower to Orr, where school buses take visitors to elevated platforms and walkways to settle in to watch wild bears wander in to the feeding stations.
Iron Range eats
Check Zup’s and area grocers for regional specialties such as pasties (traditional meat-pocket pies that were handy for miners), potica (thinly layered pastries often with walnuts and fruit), sarma (stuffed cabbage rolls) and local products such as Dorothy Molter Root Beer and Crapola granola.
Follow the pink prairie highways Jeffers, Pipestone, Luverne and Sioux Falls • 142 miles
Distracted by the immensity of the prairie and the big sky, drivers can easily miss a distinctive characteristic of southwest Minnesota and southeast South Dakota: pink quartzite.
The hard rock that reddens at sunset pushes up through the tallgrass prairie at Jeffers Petroglyphs, a spiritual site that predates modern tribes and European settlers by at least seven centuries. They left clues to their lives with close to 5,000 carvings depicting humans, deer, elk, buffalo, turtles, arrows and thunderbirds.
Look for the rosy hue of quartzite on many highways as they unfurl west toward Pipestone National Monument, another sacred site. Hike to the waterfalls and see the small quarries where Native Americans dig through layers of quartzite, using only hand tools, to unearth pipestone. Inside the visitor center, third-generation carvers sculpt the rock into peace pipes.
Twenty-six miles away, Luverne’s 100-foot quartzite cliff at Blue Mounds State Park draws rock climbers and hikers on the lookout for bison and the waxy yellow prickly pear cactus blooms.
Luverne’s Rock County Courthouse Square houses a war museum, which includes showings of Ken Burns’ World War II documentary that debuted in Luverne. It also includes the work of nationally known Minnesota photographer Jim Brandenburg, who helped acquire 800 acres for Luverne’s Touch the Sky Prairie, where travelers can hike across the restored northern tallgrass landscape.
Quartzite attractions continue beyond southwest Minnesota and the yawning fields of wind turbines. The rosy rocks dramatically tower above the river at South Dakota’s Palisade State Park. In Sioux Falls, S.D., the city’s gushing namesake at Falls Park offers the ultimate playground for kids to crawl, jump and climb across the rocky expanse where the Big Sioux River tumbles.
Homey beef, potatoes and sour cream raisin pie at Lange’s Cafe in Pipestone.
Have a Miner brew or glass of wine to go with a Farmer’s Lunch at Prairie Berry East Bank in Sioux Falls, S.D.
Get a room at Pipestone’s Historic Calumet Inn, camp in a tepee at Blue Mounds or try Sioux Falls’ Victorian Bed & Breakfast next door to the quartzite Pettigrew Home & Museum.
Wind through a historic river valley Belle Plaine, Henderson, St. Peter, Mankato and New Ulm • 95 miles
Long before railroads and interstates, early settlers followed the Minnesota River into southern and western parts of the state. Catch the Minnesota River Scenic Byway on the west bank of the river at Belle Plaine, where it snugs next to ravines and bluffs and passes by small towns, pioneer cemeteries and 150-year-old farms. Stop in St. Peter at the Traverse des Sioux Museum, where a treaty signed at the ancient river crossing led to a pivotal, difficult chapter in state history and erupted into the short but deadly U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.
Follow Hwy. 99 and the Hwy. 169 detour from St. Peter to Mankato, using a good map to find Judson Bottom Road, where there’s a stop at Minnemishinona Falls. At New Ulm, take a tour of Schell’s — the second-oldest family-owned brewery in the nation at 165 years old — with a tasting of its German craft beers and nonalcoholic sodas. Peacocks strut through the brewery’s picturesque gardens.
Downtown, a self-guided audio tour explains New Ulm’s German roots and the importance of brewing, and tells of the city siege during the U.S.-Dakota War. Ornaments and steins sit in the windows of boutiques, and the glockenspiel come to life with figurines and carillon bells three times a day. Drive up the city’s hillside to climb “Hermann the German,” a monument with a 102-foot-high view of the river valley.
West of New Ulm, the Harkin Store Historic Site provides an authentic glimpse of pioneer life, while Fort Ridgely State Park welcomes guests to golf among its ruins. On the way back to the Twin Cities, follow the river valley via Hwy. 68 to reach the waterfalls at Mankato’s Minneopa State Park and seek a glimpse of its new herd of bison.
Road snacks along the way
Stock up on road snacks, exotic pop, baked goods and fresh produce from Jim’s Apple Farm (aka “Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store”) south of Jordan. Plan B: sandwiches and sundaes from Toody’s soda fountain in Henderson.
Upgrade with an adventure
Try ziplining with Kerfoot Canopy Tours south of Belle Plaine (ziplinemn.com), Drive A Tank in St. Peter (driveatank.com), or take a guided trip with Bent River Outfitter on the Minnesota or Blue Earth Rivers (bentriver outfitter.com).
Rural charm, rolling roads and scenic trails Lanesboro, Harmony and Decorah • 40 miles
Point your vehicle to the rolling fertile terrain of southeast Minnesota and northeast Iowa, where farm-to-table dining is normal (not trendy) and small towns blend culture and charm with outdoor attractions.
Lanesboro provides a popular hub for Root River Valley paddlers and bikers, thanks to its wealth of historic bed-and-breakfasts, the St. Main Theatre for evening entertainment, restaurants, and a farmers market where Amish families sell baked goods and cashew brittle. Visitors can learn more about Amish life through guided farm tours and head west to Preston and historic Forestville, a tiny tucked-away 1880s village brought to life by costumed interpreters.
The village sits within Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park, where visitors can tour parts of the 13-mile Mystery Cave with underground pools, stalactites and flowstone. For another weatherproof (and naturally cool) outing, check out Harmony’s Niagara Cave south of Lanesboro. Tours lead down to an underground waterfall, kissing stone and canyon-like passages.
Decorah, Iowa, likewise features a mix of woods, farms and scenic parks such as Dunning’s Springs. Bikers and runners hop onto the 12-mile Trout Run Trail for a loop around the community. Visitors to the Decorah Fish Hatchery can feed the brown and rainbow trout growing in its open tanks, but most come to watch the famed eagles whose eaglets have been viewed by more than 300 million people via the Internet.
Other don’t-miss Decorah attractions include Seed Savers Exchange, an 898-acre heritage farm, and the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum that tells tales of Norwegian immigrants and their culture.
Norwegian meatballs, hot pork commercial, spicy rhubarb chicken and rhubarb pie at Lanesboro’s Pedal Pushers Café. Salmon BLT or spicy chicken sausage and gnocchi with edamame and sweet corn succotash at Decorah’s Rubaiyat Restaurant.
Spend the night in an 1885 granary that’s now Lanesboro’s Stone Mill Hotel & Suites, or at Decorah’s historic Hotel Winneshiek in the heart of downtown.
Lisa Meyers McClintick (LisaMcClintick.com) wrote “Day Trips From the Twin Cities” and “The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path.”