Root River Valley, Minnesota
The Root River Valley seems to come out of nowhere, plopped down in southeastern Minnesota, right where you’d expect to find nothing but tidy squares of flat farmland. Those who have discovered this hidden valley of sorts tend to get excited. Really excited. Given the chance, they often go on and on about the gorgeous trail they biked, or the view from the road they drove, or the cute little diner they found.
"And Lanesboro, " they say, "You must visit Lanesboro! " Then they start in about the town’s restaurants and bed and breakfasts and shops until next thing you know, you’re wishing not only that they’d stop for air so you could tell them you get the idea already, but that you, too, might spend a few days in this intriguing valley, 100 miles southeast of the Twin Cities, that inspires such gushing praise.
The time to go is fall. Hardwood trees cloak the limestone bluffs, and their distant red, yellow, orange and brown puffs transform the valley into a gently rolling boil of color. At its peak between late September and mid-October, the scene spreading up on either side of you is so striking, it can compel you to stop what you’re doing and just look.
One of the best things about this particular 30-mile stretch of valley between Lanesboro and Houston to the east is that it holds many ways to see the fall color. The river, the paved Root River State Trail and the Historic Bluff Country National Scenic Byway (State-16) run side by side on the valley floor.
Biking the state trail, a 42-mile stretch of old Milwaukee Railroad bed, is among the most popular modes of exploration. Even now, when fair-weather bikers dust off their helmets for the promise of a valley overtaken with autumn, all riding styles coexist. Slow-moving families, plus lone, serious pedalers and couples young and old all seem happy to be out on a crisp fall day. Many offer a quick "hello" as they pass and stir up tiny tornadoes of colored leaves. Even with the addition of hikers and in-line skaters, the trail doesn’t seem too crowded.