Find Your Outdoor Adventure Off I-90

By Lisa Havelka

Much more than the fastest route from Wisconsin to South Dakota, I-90 offers road trippers a chance to experience some of the best outdoor adventures that southern Minnesota has to offer. From rock climbing and windsurfing to fly fishing, visitors may be surprised to discover all there is to do just beyond the next exit.

rockclimbing blue moundsBlue Mounds State Park, just north of Luverne in the southwest corner of the state, is distinguished by its 1,500 acres of ancient prairie and one of the last remaining herds of purebred bison in the world. The landscape, which includes a small piece of America’s once vast tallgrass prairie, is home to hundreds of wildflowers, big bluestem grasses up to 7 feet tall, and prickly pear cacti. Birders should be on the lookout for dozens of species, including the blue grosbeak and rare Brewer’s sparrow.

The prairie sits on top of a massive, dramatic cliff of Sioux quartzite, 1.5 miles long and 90 feet high in spots, making it a popular destination for rock climbing. Spend a day hiking or biking on the trails, or stay overnight in your tent, RV or in the on-site tipi.

Staking its claim to “the best wind in the Midwest,” Worthington is located near Buffalo Ridge in southwest Minnesota and has one of the largest wind farms in the region. The 795-acre Lake Okabena benefits from the winds generated, often at speeds of 15 or more knots, making it ideal for windsurfing. The Worthington Okabena Windsurfers host the annual Windsurfing Regatta & Music Festival in June that draws many fans and spectators and has hosted the U.S. Windsurfing National Championships.

Windsurfing Regatta & Music Festival, WorthingtonInterested in learning to windsurf yourself? World-renowned instructors offer lessons for all ages, providing equipment and instruction on land before getting in the water.

Stop by Lake Okabena throughout the summer to enjoy the public beaches and other water sports, including boating, canoeing, waterskiing and fishing. Come winter, don’t miss Winterfest on the Lake, which includes an ice fishing contest and a plunge into the chilly water for charity.

Albert Lea is known as the “Land between the Lakes” for its location between Fountain and Albert Lea lakes. Take a cruise on Albert Lea Lake aboard the Pelican Breeze II, a 60-foot riverboat replica complete with two smokestacks and a paddlewheel.

Rent a canoe at the Brookside Boathouse on Fountain Lake and paddle down the Shell Rock River State Trail, which begins at the headwaters of Fountain Lake, meanders through Albert Lea and onto the Shell Rock River for 20 miles before ending at the Iowa border.

Beyond the lakes, the Blazing Star Bike Trail connects visitors to Myre Big Island State Park, where the wetlands make for spectacular bird-watching, especially during the spring and fall waterfowl migration.

The Jay C. Hormel Nature Center in Austin began in 1927 with a single tree, planted by Jay, the son of Hormel Foods founder George A. Hormel. Today, this 507-acre nature center features hardwood and pine forest, wetlands, a restored prairie, walking trails, and 10 miles of hiking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing trails.

Visit at night to see the planets, stars and constellations through the 12-foot ash dome of the Sola Fide Observatory’s 10-inch refractor telescope, open on select weekends. The main building features hands-on activities and live displays including snakes and salamanders. Naturalists offer programs from wildflower hikes to monarch tagging, bird banding and more. A new interpretive center is set to open on Earth Day this year.

Fly fishing at Whitewater State parkPicturesque limestone bluffs and deep ravines make Whitewater State Park near Altura a popular destination. The 2,700-acre park features six scenic overlooks and excellent trout fishing in the spring-fed Whitewater River and Trout Run Creek, featuring brown, brook and rainbow trout.

The park is also home to a variety of hiking trails along the river and up to the bluffs. Visitors can hike two miles north to climb approximately 500 steps to the top of the 110-foot Elba Fire Tower. Constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the fire tower was used regularly in the early years to detect fires and today serves as an interpretive site.

Other activities at the park include a swimming beach, year-round visitor center, and cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter, with the option to stay in rustic, winterized cabins.

Great River Bluffs State Park boasts breathtaking bluff-top vistas of the Mississippi River Valley near Winona. Located in the Richard J. Dorer Memorial Hardwood Forest, the park has hardwood forest, pine plantations, "goat" prairies and fields that support an abundance of rare and diverse species. Don’t miss the view from the King's Bluff Trail.

Get off the interstate to experience southern Minnesota’s great outdoors.