Six Unforgettable Bicycling Experiences in Southern Minnesota

By Brian Fanelli

Southern Minnesota's diverse landscape and unique bike trails provide unparalleled opportunities for adventure.

Spend any amount of time biking in Minnesota and you’re sure to hear stories about riding through the Mississippi River Bluffs, or suffering through the Almanzo 100 gravel race – two of southern Minnesota’s most unique biking experiences. But they’re far from the only must-ride experiences in the region. Thanks to its diverse landscape and unique bike trails, people biking in southern Minnesota enjoy unparalleled opportunities for adventure. From punchy gravel hills, to Great Plains farmland that stretches endlessly toward the horizon, to the driftless region’s rolling bluffs and valleys, bicycling in southern Minnesota is an experience unlike any other.

Across the region, these six unforgettable bicycling experiences are waiting for you.

Take a Ride in Rochester

rochester art center bike path
Rochester's extensive, 85-mile trail system will take you to most of the city's biggest attractions

Rochester is well known for the world-renowned Mayo Clinic, but bicycling in this scenic southern Minnesota city is anything but clinical. The city’s robust, 85-mile network of bike trails meanders along the winding banks of the Zumbro River, through downtown, and past an assortment of unique, locally owned businesses. Along the way, you’ll discover a city full of world-class urban amenities without the complications, long lines and high costs of a bigger city.

Begin your adventure at Peace Plaza or the People’s Food Coop, then just pick a direction and start riding! While biking in Rochester, you might come across one of the city’s many trailside vistas of the downtown skyline, a quaint neighborhood coffee shop, or – if you ride long enough – perhaps you’ll stumble across the wild grasses, wetlands and oak savannas found at the most remote edges of the city. From the cushy seat of your bike anything and everything is possible, so start planning your Rochester bicycling vacation today!

Escape the Daily Grind with an Impromptu Bike Camping Trip

Sakatah Singing Hills Trail with Bikers
The Sakatah Singing Hills trail spans 39 miles between Faribault and Mankato

For first-time bike campers, an overnight on the Sakatah Singing Hills Trail is a great way to dip your wheels in the water. This secluded, 39-mile paved bike trail between Mankato and Faribault is a flat and easy ride through hardwood forest, passing by numerous lakes and trailside towns and bisecting Sakatah Lake State Park near the appropriately named city of Waterville. Sakatah Lake keeps five campsites permanently on reserve for visitors who arrive by bike, so there’s practically no need for reservations: It’s the perfect choice for an impromptu overnight, or a well-planned family vacation. And because campsites are just minutes away from all the amenities in town, you can be as self-sustaining as you’d like. Combine your ride with the scenic Red Jacket Trail in Mankato for another 13 miles of hillside rural scenery before reaching the village of Rapidan, where you can bike to the Dam Store for a slice of their famous pie.

For a longer and hillier bike camping route, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more beautiful ride than the Mississippi River Trail (MRT) between Red Wing and Great River Bluffs State Park. You’ll follow the mighty Mississippi 85 miles downstream, conquer the soaring river bluffs and ride through a number of welcoming cities and towns, including Lake City and Winona. After a long, hilly day in the saddle, you’ll be happy to know Great River Bluffs State Park keeps five campsites permanently on reserve for bicyclists at Highway 61 mile marker 12 (off Fern Glen Road, outside of the main park area). Take some time to explore the King’s Bluff Trail, which offers a breathtaking view of the Mississippi River Valley, and don’t forget your binoculars: The river valley is a major flyway for waterfowl, eagles and hawks.

Time-Travel Back to the Golden Era of Cyclotouring

Lake Pepin 3 Speed Bike Tour horizontal

The Lake Pepin 3-Speed Tour is based on cycle touring in pre-war England, so leave behind your modern equipment, find an English-made 3-speed, and make some room in your wicker basket for tea supplies, scones and watercolors. Defined by its famously English convivial spirit, the tour includes many impromptu stops for food, water, tea, and perhaps a pint of beer if it suits your fancy. The route is peppered with scenic curiosities, historic markers and vistas to rival Old Blighty, along with many small villages with bakeries, coffee shops and overlooks. Plan your best to hit them all. If one gentle walk up the Bay City Hill isn't enough, there are other highly recommended optional routes that will add more pass storming and a bit of rough stuff to your resume. The Lake City Brew-Up always provides a relaxing and fortifying moment.

The two day, 85-mile ride begins in Red Wing and heads clockwise around Lake Pepin with an overnight in Wabasha. Tent camping is available in Malone Park, or you can reserve a room at one of the hotels or B&B’s in town. To best enjoy the comforts of British civility, the organizers advise that you to “wear something appropriate for eagle watching or sitting in a café, and bring an honest-to-goodness rain cape because, of course, it rains in England. Be prepared to make new friends and be swept away by the scenery. Be prepared to stop here and there to take a photo or complain about your hard saddle or make an entry in your Tourbook.”

PedalMN E-Newsletter Banner in Orange 

Find Fossils in the Driftless Region on a Nature Scavenger Hunt

Root River Trail Horizontal

Nestled among the many rivers and bluffs of the Richard J. Dorer Memorial Hardwood State Forest in southeast Minnesota, the 60-mile Root River and Harmony-Preston Valley trails are the perfect place to blend your love of cycling with your passion for nature-watching. Unlike the rolling hills and plunging valleys of the surrounding landscape, the trail itself is relatively flat – barring two steeper sections at either end, near Harmony and Houston. If you prefer to ride hills, exit the trail to explore the scenic and low-traffic roads of the surrounding state forest.

Part of the “driftless region,” the trails showcase the unique topography and history of southeast Minnesota: part prairie, part forest, and all driftless. One of the few parts of Minnesota passed-over by glaciers during the ice age, the ancient bluffs that line the trail are home to a rich variety of plants, animals and fossils, from turkey vultures to tree frogs, oak trees to bluestems. Keep your eyes and ears open while riding the Root River and Harmony-Preston Valley trails for an up-close look at the region’s delicate natural ecosystem, and be sure to explore the Root River Trail towns’ many historic attractions along the way.

Compete in the Country’s Most Infamous Gravel Bike Race

Almanzo Peleton
The pack is gaining. Photo courtesy of Spring Valley Tourism.
 

For some people, too much is never enough. And to those people we say, Almanzo. One of the most iconic gravel rides in the country, the Almanzo 100 brings the pain with mammoth hills, headwinds and choppy terrain. Make no mistake: This is a difficult race to finish. There’s no support team. Out here it’s just you, your bike and 100 miles of Minnesota’s most notorious gravel roads. But that’s all the more reason to love it.

Riders willing to subject themselves to this race can sign up by simply sending a postcard with your name, the name of the race, and your contact information to the organizers. The only fee? Postage. It’s a deceptively simple starting point for such a grueling race, much like having your legs devoured by the rolling farmland hills of southern Minnesota. But even though your legs might hate you by the end, you will never forget riding in the Almanzo 100.

Explore the Great Plains and Pipestone National Monument

Winniwissa Falls at Pipestone National Monument
Winniwissa Falls and the namesake, reddish-pink pipestone rocks of Pipestone National Monument / Photo by Myra Smisek

Ride through tallgrass prairie and wooded ravines on the Casey Jones Trail in southwest Minnesota, one of Minnesota’s first state trails. Heading west from the trailhead outside of Woodstock, you’ll ride 13 miles on a mix of gravel and paved trails before arriving in the town of Pipestone, home of the Pipestone National Monument. A sacred site for many tribes of Indigenous Americans, the quarries at Pipestone have been used for traditional pipe-making for countless generations.

Going back for centuries, Indigenous Americans have traveled great distances to chisel and craft the soft, red pipestone into ceremonial prayer pipes. Established as Pipestone National Monument in 1937, the site is protected by the National Park Service and provides Indigenous Americans access to the sacred pipestone quarries. Non-Indigenous guests can attend cultural demonstrations, explore the visitor center and museum, and attend interpretive programs such as talks, guided walks and multimedia presentations.