This northeast Iowa town has become a magnet for freethinkers, nature-lovers and beer nerds.
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Dunnings Spring Park
Credit: Jay Wilde

The guy in cycling bibs, with Labradoodle in tow, pedals straight to the brewery from mountain bike trails along the bluffs. Two fly-fishermen join him, after surrendering trout streams to the midday sun. A middle-age couple beside them invites strangers to the table, then fills growlers and leaves to camp along the Upper Iowa River. The scene encapsulates Decorah's take on Iowa Nice—outdoorsy folks reveling in a patch of untamed terrain in a state where 90 percent of the land is dedicated to agriculture.

Despite an elevation below 900 feet, Decorah feels like a mountain town, an oasis more than an hour from any interstate. The landscape consists of clear streams and limestone cliffs that dodged the last glaciers. (Northeast Iowa is part of the Driftless Area, rolling hills that also ripple into Minnesota and Wisconsin.) The town's 8,000 residents add to the vibe, with their grocery co-op member cards and yen for pink-cheeked living. They'll eagerly share Decorah's secrets with any visitor—especially over a beer.  

Oneota Community Food Cooperative
Credit: Ryan Donnell

10 a.m. Wander Water Street

Explore Water Street's beautifully preserved buildings, boutiques and cafes, plus the Vesterheim museum, home to the world's biggest collection of Norwegian-American artifacts. Then dig into local ingredients during an early lunch at Oneota Community Food Cooperative

11:30 a.m. Tour the Parks

Climb along a 200-foot-long waterfall at Dunning's Spring Park, just a few minutes from downtown. From there, walk to Ice Cave State Preserve to peek into one of the continent's largest ice caverns. At heavily wooded Palisades Park, rugged trails with names like Log Jam thread through the trees. 

2 p.m. Pedal the Trout Run Trail

Bike the Trout Run Trail, a scenic, 11-mile paved loop around town that crisscrosses streams. Make a pit stop at Decorah Fish Hatchery, open sunrise to sunset, to see rainbow trout of various sizes.The fish are born and raised here, then used to stock local streams. 

Toppling Goliath Brewing Company
Credit: Adam Albright

4 p.m. Visit a Brewery

If any single attraction put Decorah on the travel map, it's award-winning Toppling Goliath Brewing Company. Sip the famous Pseudo Sue IPA, or sample exploratory and seasonal beers at its appropriately giant HQ. A full menu includes pub fare like pizzas and apps. 

La Rana Bistro
Credit: Ryan Donnell

7 p.m. Dinner on the Town

Start a special meal with a cheese plate and cocktails at La Rana Bistro. (Or head to Rubaiyat for an award-winning wine list and hearty dishes like Pasta Rubaiyat, with creamy Alfredo sauce, shrimp, scallops and crab.) Save room for hand-dipped scoops at Sugar Bowl, a short jaunt down Water Street.

By Allison Vancura and Timothy Meinch