A pair of immensely popular trails, collectively known as the Blufflands State Trail, are the ideal way to experience the beauty of southeast Minnesota. The 60 miles of paved path lead through the wooded valleys and past the towering limestone bluffs and rolling farm fields that define this corner of the state. As a bonus, deer, pheasant, and wild turkey encounters are quite common.
The bikers and in-line skaters who flock here to use these trails are largely responsible for the area’s economic resurrection. Heaviest use comes during the summer, but cross-country skiers make the trails year-round attractions.
The shade-covered Root River State Trail winds along its eponymous waterway for most of the 42 miles between Fountain and Houston, crossing 47 bridges along the way. The trail largely follows an abandoned railroad grade and is almost completely level except for a steep half-mile climb about five miles from the Houston end. Riders doing one-way trips should note that there is an appreciable downhill from west to east.
The just as beautiful Harmony-Preston Valley State Trail, an offshoot of the Root River Trail, leads 18 miles south to Harmony and has two distinct segments. The northern half crisscrosses Camp Creek, Watson Creek, and the South Branch Root River — like the Root River Trail, it is generally flat and pleasantly shady. Beginning at County Highway 16, about five miles south of Preston, the trail leaves the old railroad grade and climbs out of the valley over leg-burning hills. For many, it is a welcome break from the usual flat and straight miles of rail-to-trail conversions. Eventually you are rewarded for the effort with a sweeping view of the path you just traced. Beyond this there are just rolling hills on into Harmony.
Lanesboro, located along the western half of the Root River Trail and just five miles from the Harmony-Preston Valley Trail, is the main base for most riders, though most of the quaint rural communities along the trail have lodging and/or camping.
Canoeists, kayakers, and inner tubers run the Root River. Both the north and south branches cut past towering bluffs and sheer limestone cliffs and are easy routes with generally nothing more than the occasional Class I rapid. The North Branch is widely considered the most scenic trip and is thus the most popular. The 30 miles between Chatfield and the confluence of the two branches near Whalen can be done in about 12 hours, though several campsites make it a great overnight trip, and a landing at Moen’s Bridge right in the middle allows for more manageable day trips too.
Below Whalen the valley widens and continues to expand for all of the 55 miles to the Mississippi River. Highway 16 hugs the river most of the way down, and though this makes for an incredible drive, it diminishes the quality of the paddling.
For just a short jaunt consider the winding five-mile, 90-minute trip between Lanesboro and Whalen. A pair of outfitters in town can set you up with everything you need for some time on the trail or the river.
The Little River General Store (105 Coffee St., 507/467-2943 or 800/994-2943, 9 a.m.–6 p.m. daily, open until 8 p.m. Sat.–Sun. summer) rents canoes and kayaks and has a most impressive array of bikes, including tandems, recumbents, tandem recumbents, and even side-by-side four-seater surreys. Shuttle service for bikers is available along the entire trail system with advanced notice.
The smaller, though generally cheaper, Root River Outfitters (109 Parkway Ave. S., 507/467-3400, www.rootriveroutfitters.com, by appt. Mon.–Fri., 8 a.m.–4 p.m. Sat.–Sun.) has bikes, canoes, and inner tubes. Both companies provide shuttle service with watercraft rentals.
© Tim Bewer from Moon Minnesota, 3rd Edition