A rare mix of activities comes together in the Root River Valley in the southeast corner of Minnesota (100 miles south of the Twin Cities). Along the 30-mile stretch between Lanesboro and Houston, the river, the paved Root River State Trail and the Historic Bluff Country National Scenic Byway (State-16) run parallel past storybook towns, bike-rental outlets, canoe outfitters, restaurants, homey cafes, shops and inns.
Trail traffic keeps Lanesboro and other towns along the way busy all year. In summer, bikes line up outside the Aroma Pie Shop in tiny Whalan (population: 64). In autumn, color splashes the bluffs, and hilltop apple trees beckon. In winter, the route becomes a cross-country skier's dream, especially when Whalan lights a nighttime trail with candles.
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Using a 42-mile section of old Milwaukee Railroad bed, the paved Root River Valley State Trail weaves below riverside bluffs rising 300 feet overhead and crosses some 48 old railroad bridges. The trail connects Fountain, Lanesboro, Whalan, Rushford and Houston; it also links to another popular bike trail, the Harmony-Preston Valley State Trail. Several area businesses rent bicycles for visitors who don't want to bring theirs (800/944-2670; rootrivertrail.org).
The Houston Nature Center is a major trailhead for the Root River State Trail. During summer, take in one of the free nature programs offered throughout the week and on Saturday evenings (507/896-4668; houstonmn.com).
Root River Trail 
The 88-mile Historic Bluff Country Scenic Byway (State-16) with bluffs on both sides creates photo ops galore, making you wish for more places to pull over. Running from Dexter to La Crescent, the byway connects Preston, Lanesboro, Whalan, Peterson, Rushford, and Houston. Small museums, parks, trails and historical sites entice you to stop along the drive.
Other scenic drives in the area include the Apple Blossom Scenic Byway in the east end of the river valley and the Amish Buggy Byway running through Harmony (800/428-2030; bluffcountry.com).
Bluff Country 
Visitors to one of the Midwest's largest limestone caverns (in Harmony) and its 60-foot waterfall (with a bonus wedding chapel) should pack sweatshirts: It's a constant 48 degrees. But the waterfall and huge stalactites and stalagmites make Niagara Cave worth the chilly temperature (800/837-6606; niagracave.com).
Niagara Cave 
Harmony is home to the largest Amish community in Minnesota. Van, car or bus tours organized by Amish Tours of Harmony offer stops at about a half-dozen Amish farms (800/752-6474; amish-tours.com). Or see Amish countryside on your own by renting CDs with driving tours from The Village Depot (877/886-2409; village-depot.com). The driving tour points visitors to 11 Amish farms and homesteads within a 30-mile radius. Shop for Amish products and watch the Amish work their magic with woodworking, basketry, baking and hand stitching. Keep the CDs for up to five days for continued exploration.
The Village Depot 
Lanesboro (population: 788, left), a hub for the river and trail, dazzles with its pretty, walkable downtown and stately church steeples. Many of the rehabbed buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places. A number of the historic homes and buildings house bed-and-breakfast inns.
Lanesboro also has an arts scene worthy of a bigger place. The professional Commonweal Theatre offers comedies, family-friendly shows and musicals in a new 200-seat house (800/657-7025; commonwealtheatre.org). The nonprofit Lanesboro Art Center showcases the works of local artists, selling items such as scarves, jewelry and paintings; classes for children and adults also are offered (507/467-2446; lanesboroarts.org).
Commonweal Theatre 
Lanesboro Art Center 
Held seasonally at Sylvan Park, the Lanesboro Farmers Market has dozens of vendors representing the region's 1,500 farms. Look for regional specialties such as grass-fed beef and pork; rhubarb soap; homemade cereal, pies, jams, and jellies; lefse; krumkake; rosettes; and our favorite treat -- cashew crunch made with just butter, sugar and cashews. The market runs Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings from May through October (800/944-2670; lanesboro.com).
Around 1900, a forward-thinking farmer bought up the dying town of Forestville and patiently waited for the state to recognize what he had saved. Today, interpreters chat with visitors in this beautifully resurrected pioneer town (25 miles west of Harmony and Lanesboro and 10 miles south of Preston). The village shares a park with Minnesota's longest cave, Mystery Cave, open for tours in the summer. The park also offers fishing, hiking, camping and horseback riding (507/352-5111; dnr.state.mn.us).