Things to do in and around Decorah!

A post written by Project friend Iver. What is there to do in and around Decorah outside of watching eagles? Plenty! #Decorah #Driftless


It seems there will not be much eagle-watching at the hatchery this year. While gathering beneath the trees at beautiful Siewer’s Spring is a fine way to spend a summer weekend, perhaps this is a year to explore some of what Decorah and The Driftless Zone have to offer? Here are some of my recommendations. Anyone is welcome to reply with ideas I have missed. Each of my suggestions is likely to leave you with memories and often photos to treasure.

In and Near Decorah

Decorah’s parks are our crown jewels:

Phelps Park is the largest, with lovely Depression-era stonework and stunning views of the river valley below. Some of you have been here for a SOAR eagle release. From the blufftop you will see the Decorah Prairie and community gardens along the river below, including the mowed replica of a peregrine falcon effigy in the prairie. If you are at all mobile, walk the trail beyond the pergola and gazebo overlook as far as the first footbridge, which is amazing.

Just below Phelps you can ride or walk the Dug Road Trail along the river, part of the bike trail loop. Access it by following Main Street (not the “main drag” Water Street, but one block uphill) toward the river from downtown or behind the Whippy Dip.

Pulpit Rock in Will Baker Park is a short but daunting climb up a series of stairs, including some hewn right through a cliff. Those joining us on the river will be right across the road to rent our boats. The trail goes up the hill to the left, near the road.

Dunning’s Spring is Siewer’s bigger and colder cousin. It is a pleasant refuge on a sweltering summer day. The drive up to the park is narrow and offers limited parking. If you find it crowded, consider parking at the entrance and walking the 100 yards into the park. If you can do the climb, go across the stone bridge on the left and up the wooden trail to the spring. The trail up the hill to the right of the parking area is a rigorous challenge but rises to a nice view of downtown. Amazingly you might encounter some of the area’s more intrepid mountain bikers, but most stick to the trails along the river or do their climbing at neighboring Palisades.

Ice Cave is down the road, and I believe the road is closed. Probably not worth the hike. Not much to see, but it is an interesting spot. The cave entrance usually remains icy all summer. (Amy’s note: look for fossil bearing rocks in the slide, but be careful when you do! I found some nice seabed there, along with an assortment of shells and a reasonably nice nautilus [I think]).

Palisades is mostly a drive-through visit, with plenty of space to park up top. Worth a visit mostly as another vista. Many of the shots you see of Decorah are taken from up there.

Twin Springs is another nice little water getaway. It used to be the sister facility to the Siewer’s Hatchery, and some old raceways still are within the foliage at the upper portion of the park. The trail across the stream into the pines above is nice.

Downtown Decorah

The Vesterheim Museum downtown can be well-covered in a couple of hours. We plan to stop in for a quick look at their new exhibit Tattoo: Identity Through Ink. They are having a free open house for the exhibit, sadly at the same time as Meet and Greet. We hope to get in free just before. On other days the museum is open 9 to 5. Remember that the museum includes not only the big red brick building, but also most of that block and also the village behind it.

The Porter House on Broadway is a classic Victorian home with some striking collections and furnishings. Perhaps most impressive is the stone wall surrounding the grounds, which is the owner’s collection of rocks from his travels. They are offering a guided tour of the wall … as luck would have it at the same time as our main event at Luther on Saturday afternoon. But visit at some other time, and check both the inside and outside of the wall at your leisure. And the Porter House says you are welcome all day Saturday to sit on their porches to imagine a Victorian summer weekend.

While visiting the Porter House, take a stroll or drive through the historic district that extends up the hill on Broadway and around the curve along Upper Broadway … in total of about half a dozen blocks long.

Give yourself a bit of time before the Saturday event to explore the Luther College grounds and buildings.

Saturday is Ridiculous Day downtown. Some merchants set up street displays and dress goofy. Not necessarily great bargains. but kind of a hoot in a hokey small-town way. Some unusual shops downtown include the Decorah Hatchery (outdoor gear in a former chicken hatchery), Sugar Bowl ice cream parlor, Red Roxy quilting(Amy’s note: they have some cool eagle patterns!), Blue Heron knitting, the Oneota Cooperative grocery, Broker Leather (smells great too) and Agora Arts. If you never have been inside the Hotel Winneshiek, do walk through. Go upstairs to see the rotunda from above, and when upstairs walk over to the connecting Steyer Opera House. Coming to ATF? Don’t miss our Before the Fledge Auction! It closes at 5:00 PM on Wednesday the 17th and includes gift certificates for a bunch of downtown merchants!

Coffee! Java John’s, the Magpie, and Impact all are coffee houses downtown. My favorite is Impact, which offers brewing styles the others do not. They will have just moved to a new location right on the main drag that I have not visited. Try one of their Nitro pours over ice. (Amy’s note: but don’t miss the muffin tops at Java John’s and I’d fight [well, at least think about it] for a Magpie paninni on a cold, wet morning)

Breweries! Toppling Goliath of course is the one that put Decorah in the national brewing spotlight when they were named the nation’s best brewery and one of their brews got best beer. But I have heard that many believe Pulpit Rock, which includes one of the TG founders, does even better.  Also good is Pivo just south in Calmar. Pivo is the only one to include ciders; they are made with my dad’s apples! Canoe Cider is named for the area around his farm, but honestly I prefer their Jackson Junction Pear Cider. (Amy’s note: My Dad grew up in Jackson Junction, so I can hardly wait to try this! Pivo means beer in Czech)

For anyone interested in flower and/or vegetable gardening, or simply inspiring bucolic beauty, Seed Savers Exchange on Heritage Farm just north of Decorah is a must-see. I cannot oversell this place. The response from folks I send there is a nearly-unanimous “OMG Iverson, it was so much better than I imagined.” As one of the founders of the now-popular heritage seed movement, SSE is a world leader. Heritage Farm is as beautiful a spot as you ever will see. ATF weekend is also their annual conference and campout (many guests camp at the farm). Most events are free, but it can be crowded. If not attending conference events, I suggest you go sometime other than Saturday.

How about supper on a farm? Luna Valley Farm just north of Decorah serves up excellent wood-fired pizza every Friday night. They serve great gourmet pizzas with local-sourced foods and beers as much as possible. You eat outside on picnic tables beneath a tent, much like at Meet and Greet. Except your neighbors are goats and wildflowers. Luna Valley also is one of the glamping spots mentioned in the current issue of Inspire(d) Magazine, available free all over town.

County Fairs are the essence of small town midwestern living. Decorah’s fair is the week before, but two neighboring counties have their fairs during AtF. The Allamakee County Fair in Waukon is on the way to the Mississippi River for anyone going on the Sunday cruise. For a more scenic drive there, instead of taking Iowa 9, go straight past WalMart from the hatchery, follow the first curve to the right as you approach an industrial area, and follow that road to Waukon. You might see Nora’s eagles!

The Fillmore County Fair in Preston MN is at the heart of the sinkhole region featured in Decoding the Driftless. If you turn left off Highway 52 at Burr Oak, and then right again when you reach a stop sign, you will return to Highway 52 in Harmony MN. You will have driven right over the top of Coldwater Cave from the movie Decoding the Driftless!

While in Harmony MN, maybe take a tour of Amish farms? Or just a drive on any county roads there will take you through Amish country, so watch for buggies and wagons (Amy’s note: go to Lanesboro!)

Interested in the invisible? Niagara Cave near Harmony is cool (literally) but kinda touristy. And lots of stairs down into the cave. Mystery Cave in Forestville MN State Park near Spring Valley is more natural, and is wheelchair-accessible. The park also includes the historic Forestville Village, preserved and staffed as it existed in the 1890s. (Amy’s note: had the whole family to both caves multiple times and everyone loved them!)

Bily Clocks in Spillville just south of Decorah houses a collection of huge hand-carved clocks made by a couple of farmer brothers on long winter nights.

Especially if you go on the river tour Sunday, you will find downtown McGregor charming. The antique mall in the old Marquette school is a good stop too. Looking for beautiful views? Do not miss Pike’s Peak! (Amy’s note: Want to see the site of our first cliff release, all the way back in 1998? Visit Effigy Mounds National Monument and hike the Hanging Rock Trail. It’s a lot nicer than it was, but bring mosquito spray just in case!)

Or just drive. North and east especially take you into the best of the Driftless Iowa. Use GPS to take aim at Bluffton or Highlandville (visit the Highlandville General Store and check the Inspire(d) article on the Highlandville dances) or Dorchester or Marquette. Turn off your route on purpose, take gravel roads and go slow.

Also a stretch from Decorah, but recommended is the National Eagle Center in Wabasha MN. If you pass through Winona, check out the Minnesota Marine Art Museum. You won’t believe your eyes!

Robin Brumm says you should stop at Lark Toys, which just south of Wabasha. They have a carousal, mini golf, a vintage toy museum, a deli, toys, books, ice cream, fudge and live Llamas!

And (Amy’s addition) check out Spook Cave if you have the chance and don’t mind boats in a cave. Small boats and super touristy, but very cool experience!

Thanks for visiting us!

-Scott “Iver” Iverson