All along Minnesota's Historic Bluff Country National Scenic Byway, there are hints people think outside the box. On the eastern edge in Houston, you'll colorful sculptures cobbled together with bike parts -- think herons, guitars and even a funky double swing. Bike parts are especially fitting for this popular cycling destination.
The 60-mile Root River Trail follows a former railroad bed through the scenic valley, while the 88-mile scenic byway travels along Highway 16. The highway was once a key part of the nation's east-to-west routes before interstates took over.
These days, the winding road is a chance to soak up the culture of a deeply rooted farming community, folksy towns, and an artsy spirit that takes inspiration from surrounding scenery.
Lanesboro ranks as the byway's most popular destination. It has just over 700 residents, including internationally known artists and a professional theater company that make it one of America's best small art towns. The bike trail sparked Lanesboro's renaissance in the early 1990s, but the art scene has grown to be an equal attraction.
Visitors come for big-city cuisine, exhibitions and performances with a small-town pace and convenience. The Victorian downtown -- on the National Register of Historic Places -- stretches three blocks, nestled between the river and limestone bluffs.
Stop at the Lanesboro Art Center to enjoy colorful mosaics, intricate wood-carving and wood-turning, landscape paintings, ceramic fountains, jewelry, and rotating exhibitions from more than 75 area artists. A few have downtown studios while others open their homes to visitors during the Bluff Country Studio Art Tour each April.
You can continue the art tour and cap off a day of shopping and dining at The Commonweal Theatre Company. It, too, offers rotating art exhibits as well as a permanent collection that starts as soon as you step through the door and look up. Themed, upside-down chairs hang suspended from the ceiling. In the large lobby, farm implements, an old bed and vintage toys add character to the former cheese factory.
Commonweal's 192 seats, all recycled from Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater, are never more than 30 feet from the stage. That keeps performances intimate. February and March bring dark dramas to the stage during the annual Ibsen Festival, a nod to the area's Nordic roots. Summer fare reflects the lighter season with comedies and musicals for all ages.