What is there to do in and around Decorah outside of watching eagles? Plenty! – Scott Iverson
EXPLORE THE DRIFTLESS
In and near Decorah: Parks
Decorah’s parks are our crown jewels: https://parks.decorahia.org/decorah-parks
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. 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. 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 a hike down the road. Not a deep cave, 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.
Malanaphy Springs is a roughly two mile round-trip hike down a small path just outside of Decorah. It’s a bit hilly and you’ll probably want mosquito spray, but the spring and hills are beautiful! https://goo.gl/maps/J856FzBSJUBJ8E5m8
In and near Decorah: Places and Events
The Vesterheim Museum downtown can be well-covered in a couple of hours. It is a super-cool spot and 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. Hit up the gift shop for some awesome gifts!
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. You are welcome all day Saturday to sit on their porches and 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: a 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.
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.
Saturday is Ridiculous Day downtown. Some merchants set up street displays and dress goofy. Shops 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.
In and near Decorah: Food and Drink
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. Try one of their Nitro pours over ice and get a Norwegian Waffle. Amy’s note: I recommend them all, but don’t miss the muffin tops at Java John’s; Magpie’s panini, rosemary potatoes, or avocado toast (with a egg on top if you eat them), or the Pepper Pig Norwegian Waffle at Impact.
Cider! Go to Convergence Ciderworks for delicious cider and snacks. Order a Flyway Gold to support the Raptor Resource Project – and also because it is delicious! Amy’s note: It would be my favorite cider even if they weren’t supporting us with sales. Their support just makes it better!
Breweries! Toppling Goliath put Decorah in the national brewing spotlight when they were named the nation’s best brewery and one of their brews won best beer. But some people believe that 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 and I love the Jackson Cider! Pivo means beer in Czech. Also – you’re in town all weekend. Why choose when you can try them all?
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.
Exploring the Driftless
Interested in the invisible? Niagara Cave near Harmony is cool (literally). Mystery Cave in Forestville MN State Park near Spring Valley, MN is more natural, and is wheelchair-accessible. The park also includes the historic Forestville Village, preserved and staffed as it existed in the 1890s. Niagara Map: https://goo.gl/maps/KVQpVzzj23LxugrMA. Forestville Map: https://goo.gl/maps/trAtAadEHCt7RVP36. Amy’s note: I took whole family to both caves multiple times and everyone loved them! Niagara cave will be easier for young children.
Are you interested in the Amish? Check out the Amish Tours of Harmony, MN. Sylvan Park in beautiful Lanesboro isn’t far away: https://goo.gl/maps/zSyVtABTBmdhTe2ZA.
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. This is a small but very cool museum! Classical music fans, take note: Antonín Dvořák stayed in Spillville in 1893. Map: https://goo.gl/maps/9eAjXktY1Q2ebkvz6.
Downtown McGregor is charming. The antique mall and Driftless Area Wetland Center in Marquette are good stops too. Looking for beautiful views? Do not miss Pike’s Peak! Want to see the site of our first cliff release, all the way back in 1998? Hike with us at Effigy Mounds National Monument on Thursday! McGregor Map: https://goo.gl/maps/drqvhpfsNtb8Rwn9A. Marquette Map: https://goo.gl/maps/XCj1qUaD5Cm9ANBK7. Pike’s Peak Map: https://goo.gl/maps/FF3FMDHsj3k1jrQx5. Effigy Mounds National Monument Map: https://goo.gl/maps/a3r4KHWqMRS1ULXu9.
Visit Lansing to check out the Driftless Education Center and Mount Hosmer Park. I cannot overstate the amazing views and the lovely veterans memorial at the park. Something about the blufftops touches the eternal. If you work up a thirst, visit the Tiki bar at the marina just north of the bridge. Driftless Education Center Map: https://goo.gl/maps/avqfU5wLpFCbKGJ98. Mount Hosmer Park Map: https://goo.gl/maps/kGGb76oabD7a1Guw7.
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 or Dorchester or Marquette. Turn off your route on purpose, take gravel roads and go slow. Looking for something to do in Wisconsin? Hit up one of the world’s best indie bookstores in Viroqua and go around back to see the awesomely weird art garden of Rob Horwich. Driftless Books: https://driftlessbooks.com/ Art Garden: https://m.facebook.com/events/2594774320580975/.
We know you love raptors! Visit the International Owl Center in Houston, MN or the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, MN. Both are well worth the drive. 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