(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2004)
"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.
The Scenic Byway
Visitors looking for a different perspective hit the scenic byway. Bluffs on both sides create photo ops galore, making you wish for more places to pull over. That’s where the towns come in. Some are sleepy, some are active, and all are excuses to stop. Plus, there’s little chance you won’t find your style of distraction in at least one of them.
For instance, the Aroma Pie Shoppe draws many to Whalan, four miles east of Lanesboro. Aroma’s pie sales on any given fall weekend day outnumber the entire town’s population of 64. The cafe also sells delicious soups, and sandwiches on homemade bread, but dessert is the real draw. A sign promoting "World Famous Pies" lures diners in, where they’re tempted with at least 25 kinds of the home-baked treats, often including raspberry rhubarb and chocolate brownie.
About 14 miles east of Whalan, Magelssen Bluff in Rushford offers a 440-foot valley view from above the town name, secured into the hillside letter by letter, Hollywood-style. It’s an easy trip up in a car, a real workout astride a bike.
Lanesboro is where visitors inevitably linger longest. On fall weekends, bikes lean outside downtown’s two-block stretch of stores and restaurants, housed in venerable two-story brick buildings. Buggy teams driven by members of the county’s Amish population, the state’s largest, clip-clop through town. The occasional car carrying newlyweds and trailing tin cans and streamers drives by, pretty Lanesboro is a popular place for weddings.
The community is also known as one of Minnesota’s bed-and-breakfast capitals. A good reason why is the Berwood Hill Inn. The Victorian country home four miles west of town on State-16 offers antique-filled rooms, a five-course breakfast, lush gardens and a valley view that’s especially breathtaking in fall.
Lanesboro’s theater/dinner combination is the thing to do in the evening. There are just a few dining options past 5 p.m., and one good choice is Riverside on the Root, which features standards such as steak, fish and hamburgers. When weather permits, diners sit on a second-floor deck overlooking the river and watch the last few bikers coming in off the trail.
Riverside doesn’t take reservations, so arrive early if you want to finish dinner in time to make the show at the professional, nonprofit Commonweal Theatre. The Commonweal smartly runs two different plays on Fridays and Saturdays, so visitors not only have a choice but could also see two productions in a weekend. Reservations are both accepted and recommended here, since the 126-seat theater often sells out. On the bill this fall are the drama Steel Magnolias and the hit London comedy The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged).
Chances are good that the Commonweal would end up being part of your own spiel about this great little town in southeastern Minnesota called Lanesboro, in this valley that seems to come out of nowhere, that you just must visit in the fall.