Life

Lanesboro, Southeast Minnesota's bike capital, charms visitors

Biking on the Root River bike trail in Lanesboro over an old railroad bridge.
Biking on the Root River bike trail in Lanesboro over an old railroad bridge.
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If you want to see the vitality that a bike trail can bring to a community, visit Lanesboro, Minnesota on a weekend. Bicyclists are everywhere, from families pedaling with their kids strung behind them like ducklings to friends chattering as they ride side-by-side and athletes racing past with determined looks on their faces. Especially on a fall weekend when the countryside is ablaze with orange, red, and gold, the town can feel like an alternate universe where cars have largely disappeared.

Lanesboro’s rebirth as a biking capital began in the 1980s, when the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources converted an abandoned railroad bed along the Root River into a recreational trail. Visitors began coming to the area, and the little community that had been in danger of dying instead became a top weekend destination for Midwesterners.

Bicyclists riding the Root River State Trail, the main driver of the town’s renaissance, enjoy an ever-changing panorama of fields, woodlands, farms, rolling hills, and 300-foot limestone bluffs. When combined with the Harmony-Preston Valley State Trail, a spur route to the south, bikers can travel 60 miles on paved paths.

While a half dozen small towns and villages line the route (including Whalan, home of the to-die-for Aroma Pie Shoppe), picturesque Lanesboro is the crown jewel.

Its handsome brick commercial buildings date back to the 1870s, when the town was a thriving center for flour milling. Many were restored during the 1970s and 80s and now house shops, restaurants, and other establishments that cater to the steady stream of visitors who come via two- and four-wheeled forms of transportation. With no fast food restaurants, chain stores, or stoplights, Lanesboro is both hipster-cool and pleasantly old-fashioned.

In addition to being known as a bicycling mecca, Lanesboro prides itself on its artistic vibrancy. In 2014, its council passed a resolution declaring the entire town an Arts Campus, the first rural town in the U.S. to have that designation. This communitywide initiative includes an artist residency program, art in the park programs, and the Lanesboro Area Art Trail, which sponsors tours of local studios on selected weekends. At any time of year, you can see the work of more than 90 regional artists at Lanesboro Arts, a downtown store with a rotating exhibition gallery.

The performing arts also flourish in Lanesboro. The St. Mane Theatre, a historic building constructed in the early 1900s, hosts a monthly live radio variety show from March through November as well as community theater productions, films, and concerts. And the Commonweal Theatre, a year-round professional company now in its 29th season, presents a wide variety of classic and contemporary plays in a 200-seat theater in the downtown. “Steel Magnolias” plays through October 23; “Ghost-Writer” from September 7 to November 12, and “The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge” runs from November 16 to December 22.

Shoppers can browse an eclectic range of stores in Lanesboro, including the Black Crow Gallery, which carries both useful and decorative arts and crafts, and Avian Acres’ Wild Bird Supply, where you can stock up on feeders and food for your feathered friends for the winter. Crown Trout Jewelers crafts custom-made pieces from wedding rings to earrings, while the Root River Rod Company sells vintage and new fly fishing tackle that you can try out in nearby streams.

Once you’ve ridden the Root River Trail and explored Lanesboro, you can head farther afield on the Historic Bluff Country National Scenic Byway, which runs for 88 miles on Highway 16 from Dexter to La Crescent. Take a short detour off the byway to visit the Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center to hike the trails or take a class on cheese making, basket weaving, or other crafts. Or you can visit the nonprofit International Owl Center in Houston, a center dedicated to advancing the survival of wild owls.

As you drive the countryside, you’re likely to see black-clad Amish people riding in buggies and working the fields with horses. To learn more about this group that eschews most modern conveniences, book a three-hour excursion with Bluffscape Amish Tours. Riding in a small bus that leaves from downtown Lanesboro, tour members learn about Amish customs and history and get the chance to visit several Old Order Amish farms and stores. In between shopping for quilts, baked goods, homemade baskets, and other handcrafted items, you’ll learn about Amish schools, weddings, funerals, and churches.

“Many visitors are curious about Amish ways,” says Joan Ruen, who with her husband David owns the company. “Our tours are a way to interact with them respectfully and on their terms.”

And if you prefer to do a tour on your own, you can rent the Amish Backroads Tour CD, which is available from local shops.

The Root River region can also be explored by canoe or kayak. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has designated a portion of the waterway between Chatfield and the Mississippi River as the Root River State Water Trail. More than 40 species of birds have been sighted here, with great blue herons, egrets, and red-tailed hawks especially common. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot a red fox, woodchuck, or coyote on the bank or a river otter or beaver in the water.

Back in Lanesboro, a variety of restaurants will satisfy the appetite you’ve built up on your explorations. Try the Norwegian meatballs at the creatively decorated Pedal Pushers Café, which sources much of its meat and produce from area farmers. For a more upscale meal, try the Old Village Hall Restaurant, located in a stone building that was originally the town’s village hall, fire station and jail. And end the evening with a beer on the patio overlooking the water at the Riverside on the Root, a pub that often has live music on weekends.

Whether you visit on foot, by bike, or by car, Lanesboro offers a relaxing and scenic fall retreat.

If you go

Lanesboro is known as the Bed & Breakfast Capital of Minnesota for good reason. Many of the town’s historic homes welcome visitors, including the Habberstad House Bed and Breakfast (www.habberstadhouse.com) and the Scandinavian Inn (www.scandinavianinn.com). In addition, the Stone Mill Hotel and Suites (www.StoneMillSuites.com) has 13 themed guest rooms in an 1885 refurbished building.

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For more information, contact the Lanesboro Chamber of Commerce at (507) 467-2696 or www.lanesboro.com.

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