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Your Dream State Guide to Southern Minnesota

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Observe roaming bison herds at Minneopa and Blue Mounds State Parks / Roy Son

Your Dream State Guide to Southern Minnesota

By Ashlea Halpern

Say the words “Southern Minnesota,” and a wide-open prairie — or perhaps the SPAM Museum — probably springs to mind. But this part of the state also possesses awe-inspiring caves, majestic river valleys and national monuments rich in Dakota history. Visitors can find bison roaming freely in our state parks, pluck their own Haralsons from the trees at a mom-and-pop orchard or watch bald eagles swoop and dive overhead while they paddle the sun-dappled backwaters of the Mississippi River.

Here are five ways to kickstart your exploration.

Niagara Cave in Harmony, Minnesota

Niagara Cave / Ryan Taylor

Go underground and back in time

Hikers and horseback riders flock to Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park in Preston for its scenic forested trails. Anglers come for the Blue Ribbon trout streams. But the biggest draw in the 3,583-acre park is its eye-popping caverns. First documented in 1937 and the longest known cave network in Minnesota, Mystery Cave boasts 13 miles of passageways plastered with stalactites and stalagmites.

Dramatically lit walkways are stroller- and wheelchair-friendly, and interpretive tours take place between May and October. The hour-long Scenic Tour provides the best overview for first-timers, highlighting the cave’s unique rock formations and shallow pools of eerie blue water. For tripod-toting shutterbugs, there’s a two-hour Photography Tour. For aspiring spelunkers, there’s the four-hour Wild Caving Tour — a strenuous but exhilarating scramble through corridors that are off the beaten path.

Niagara Cave, 20 minutes southeast of Mystery Cave, is another must-see with its 60-foot waterfall, subterranean wedding chapel and mining sluice for panning gemstones and fossils. While you’re in the area, don’t miss the living history village at Historic Forestville, operated by the Minnesota Historical Society. With the help of costumed interpreters, visitors can time travel to an 1800s general store and a homestead done up with original artifacts. Nearby, see additional caverns, sinkholes and springs when you explore the new Driftless Area Karst Trail, a self-guided driving tour through Southeast Minnesota.

Bison herd Blue Mounds State Park

Bison herd at Blue Mounds State Park

See the bison at two state parks

How lucky are we? Minnesota has not one but two state parks where you can observe bison in their natural habitat. In addition to having the largest waterfall in Southern Minnesota, Minneopa State Park in Mankato is home to a newly re-established American Bison herd. After ogling the range safely from your vehicle, visit the historic Seppmann Mill, a German-style grist mill built with native stone, and take a hike through a striking sandstone gorge. Try to spot the beaver colony as you make your way to the park’s 50-foot twin falls.

Two hours southwest, Blue Mounds State Park is another haven for 100 pure-strain bison. Watch them graze across 533 acres of tallgrass prairie while keeping your eyes out for another fearsome mammal: the rock climber. Like moths to a flame, rock jocks lose their minds when they see Blue Mounds’ pink-hued Sioux quartzite cliff rising 100 feet above its plains. For visitors who’d rather keep their feet planted firmly on the ground, there are several hiking trails to choose from, as well as a paved bike trail. Ride the latter six miles south to the city of Luverne, and the payoff is a frosty pint at Take 16 Brewing Company.

A pair of bikers on Root River bike trail, Lanesboro

Root River bike trail, Lanesboro / Ryan Taylor

Bike the rail trails in Bluff Country

Characterized by its towering limestone bluffs, the Driftless region is a sight to behold — and best experienced on two wheels. The Root River State Trail is a 42-mile paved route that runs along a former railroad line between Houston and Fountain, winding gently past farms, forest and the kind of small-town scenes Norman Rockwell loved to paint.

Take it slow and stop often to explore. Meet the rescue owls at the International Owl Center in Houston, the nation’s only owl-exclusive education center; sample Norwegian lefse from the 36-year-old, family-run Norsland Lefse in Rushford; bop around the art galleries in charming Lanesboro; and cool down with a lip-puckering North Country, a blueberry and wild rice sour beer, at Karst Brewing in Fountain.

Between Lanesboro and Fountain, bicyclists seeking more of a workout can head south toward food and libations in Harmony on the 17-mile Harmony-Preston Valley State Trail. It, too, is constructed partly along an abandoned railroad grade but with steeper inclines emerging from the river valley.

 

Minnesota apples and fall leaves

Sunny Augustine

Pick your own fruit at a family-run orchard

This part of the state is an agricultural hotbed, its fertile land feeding folks near and far. Sekapp Orchard, a staple at the Rochester Farmers Market, celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. The U-pick orchard, which opens its gates around Aug. 20 and wraps up by late October, has 8,000 trees and dozens of apple varieties, including tender-sweet Honey Golds for snacking and crisp Connel Reds for baking. Come harvest season, Sekapp welcomes kiddos with a corn maze and straw bale pyramid.

At Northwoods Orchard in Oronoco, a corn labyrinth, pumpkin patch and farm animal petting zoo await. At Turkey Hill, a U-pick apple orchard in Pine Island, pears, plums and farm-fresh eggs beckon. And let’s not forget Ferguson’s Orchards in Lake City. It has upwards of 300,000 apple trees and a sweet-as-can-be store selling jugs of apple cider and fresh-baked pies.

 

Woman hiking through a field of prairie grasses at Great River Bluffs State Park

Hike through lush prairie grasses at Great River Bluffs State Park / Zane Spang

Drive the Great River Road

The Federal Highway Administration recently upgraded the Great River Road from a National Scenic Byway to an All-American Road, a status bump that acknowledges its natural beauty and historic, cultural or recreational relevance. The route runs nearly 3,000 miles from the headwaters of the Mississippi River in Itasca State Park to the Gulf of Mexico, but one of the prettiest stretches — US-61 from Red Wing to Winona — is located in Southern Minnesota.

Hugging the western flanks of Old Man River, this leg is dotted with plenty of diversions. Kick things off at the Pottery Museum of Red Wing, which showcases more than 6,000 pieces of vintage stoneware. Hike along the bluffs at Frontenac State Park or save your energy for Great River Bluffs State Park in Winona; both offer sweeping river views. For another inspiring vantage point, get on the water with Broken Paddle Guiding. The Wabasha-based outfitter leads spectacular Flooded Forest kayak tours through the backwaters of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge.

Itching for something artsier? Spend the afternoon browsing aquatic works by such iconic painters as Pablo Picasso and Paul Cézanne at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum in Winona. Kids in tow? A ride on the hand-carved Minnesota basswood carousel at LARK Toys in Kellogg thrills the young and young at heart alike.

Ashlea Halpern

Ashlea Halpern is a contributing editor at Condé Nast Traveler and a writer for Dwell, New York Magazine, Bon Appétit, AFAR, Airbnb, Midwest Living, Artful Living, and Minnesota Monthly. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @ashleahalpern.