While much of Minnesota is characterized by woods and water, the southwest corner of the state has a special appeal of its own. Picturesque farmsteads, towering wind turbines and charming small towns give visitors a distinct vibe that can't be found anywhere else.
First-time visitors may be surprised to discover all there is to see and do in this region. In no particular order, here are six unique attractions you can only find in southwest Minnesota.
Spomer Classics, Worthington
It’s only open by appointment, but car buffs and collectors shouldn’t miss this one-of-a-kind museum. A classic Oldsmobile, Pontiac Trans Am, Chevrolet Bel Air and Firebird are just a few of the iconic cars on display. But even more impressive are the 200+ vintage neon signs from car dealerships and farm equipment dealers, which give the place an awe-inspiring glow when the owner flips the switch.
Brandenburg Gallery & Herreid Military Museum, Luverne
This two-for-one attraction will please both the art lovers and history buffs in your group. On the first floor of the Rock County Veterans Memorial Building, the Brandenburg Gallery showcases the work of Minnesota’s most famous photographer, Jim Brandenburg. The Luverne native spent 30 years with National Geographic, and still has a passion for his hometown. All proceeds from the Luverne gallery go to the Brandenburg Prairie Foundation, whose mission is “to educate, expand and promote native prairie in southwest Minnesota.”
The upper floors of the building house the Herreid Military Museum, which tells the stories of service and sacrifice from the Civil War through World War II. Artifacts on display include the tail end of a World War I fighter plane and military uniforms from Rock County soldiers. Eventually, the top floor will feature exhibits from the Korean War to the present.
Blue Mounds State Park, Luverne
A Sioux quartzite cliff rising 100 feet into the air, and one of the last remaining herds of purebred bison in the world, are just two of the distinctive qualities of this state park found north of Luverne. 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.
Spend a day hiking or biking on the trails, or stay overnight in your tent, RV, or in the on-site teepee (advance reservations required). The park's newest offering is a 90-minute Prairie and Bison Tour, available on summer weekends and holidays, Memorial Day through Labor Day. Three tours are offered each day of operation, one of which is wheelchair accessible. Reservations can be made in advance online or in person that day.
Pipestone National Monument, Pipestone
The Native American tradition of quarrying pipestone to make into sacred pipes and other items is still practiced today at this National Monument, making it the only site in the National Park System where resources can be removed from the grounds. Tribes from the area and beyond come here to quarry the stone using sledgehammers, chisels and other handheld tools; the waiting list for the required permit is as much as 10 years out.
Visitors can tour the grounds to see the 56 active quarry pits, as well as the native tallgrass prairie, quartzite rock formations and Winnewissa Falls. Inside the visitor center, a museum tells the story of the site’s history and culture, and craft workers demonstrate the art of creating pipestone goods.
Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, Walnut Grove
Although she passed away nearly 60 years ago, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s fame continues to this day, with her recently published memoir debuting at No. 2 on The New York Times best-seller list. The Ingalls family lived on Plum Creek near Walnut Grove in the 1870s, and the museum here attracts fans of the books and TV series from around the world.
The grounds feature eight buildings depicting daily life in those days, including a schoolhouse, chapel, depot, and a dugout like the one the Ingalls lived in at the time. For three weekends in July, an outdoor pageant tells her story to a live audience. The buildings are open seasonally through October; the gift shop is open year-round.
Go back in time to when riding the rails was the height of transportation at this indoor/outdoor museum and park in Currie. The guided tour includes a ride on the manually operated turnstile (listed on the National Register of Historic Places) and takes visitors inside the depot, train car, old schoolhouse and other buildings that were moved to this site over the years.
Kids will love watching the model train in action, while adults will appreciate the history and fun tales from another era. The museum is open Wednesday-Sunday, Memorial Day-Labor Day (by appointment in the spring and fall).