Decorah, Iowa, is located in the northeast corner of the state, 15 miles south of the Minnesota boarder among bluffs. Best known for the eagles, liberal arts college Luther, Norwegian pride and Toppling Goliath Brewery, it’s an outdoor haven of small-town living. Having only passed through it once 18 years ago, I decided to head down Highway 52 and explore the big hiking and beer options in this small town.
Aaron and I visited over the long Memorial Day weekend, and be warned: The town shuts down on the holiday. There were only two places open downtown for breakfast, but more on that later.
Beer and Food Options in Decorah
Oneota Community Co-Op
We arrived in Decorah around lunchtime, so we headed straight to the Oneota Co-Op, recommend by my dad. The shop itself isn’t large, but the cafe portion includes a salad and hot bar and pressed panini sandwiches. I was hard pressed (hilarious, right?!?!) to pick between the magic mushroom and chipotle tofu sandwiches, but ended up with tofu simply because I knew I would appreciate the protein from it and the two slices of cheese on it later when I was hiking and drinking. And the sandwich was amazing, featuring slices of tofu in an amazing sauce between two melty, flavorful slices of cheese. We ended up stopping at Toppling Goliath Brewery for lunch, eating on the patio and washing the food down with a hoppy beer.
Seed Saver’s with heritage seed area in the front
After lunch we made our way to Seed Savers Exchange Heritage Farm to view the gardens and hike the grounds. There is a lot of ground there, so it was fun to walk around past an orchard, through a prairie and in a pine forest. Beyond the hiking (of which there are many miles of trails with varying degrees of difficulty, pick up a map in the visitor center to find out trail features, length and difficulty) are the gardens. There is a great herb and decorative garden, but my favorite part is where Seed Savers is trying to identify possible duplicate types of produce to properly name and identify foods and to save the heritage seeds. The farm is free to visit and interesting, worth a few hours of time.
Pulpit Rock Brewing and chill patio
Next we stopped at Decorah’s other brewery, Pulpit Rock Brewing Company. It had a great, large patio with a great view of a city park. It was warm, so it was great to hang out outside. People kept filling in and out, ordering beers and enjoying themselves. We, however, weren’t that impressed with the beer. It wasn’t bad, it just didn’t impress us, feeling like we could take it or leave it. So we left it, but like I said, many people were taking it.
We made out way to Hotel Winneshiek, the restored turn-of-the-century hotel, to drop off our things and freshen up, and walked around the cute downtown. The Decorah Hatchery clothing and outdoor store came recommended, but was already closed for the day when we made it there, as it had very limited hours on Sundays. We walked down Main Street, passing historic buildings and looking at some interesting houses featuring large gardens and solar panels.
Main Street ends at the Upper Iowa River and an entry point for the well-maintained paved 11-mile trail around Decorah, running alongside the well-known Fish Hatchery and Raptor Resource Project, home of the Decorah eagles. We plan to bring our bikes next time and explore the trail in full.
Tons of small-brewery charm at Toppling Goliath
This time we didn’t have our bikes so we walked back to Toppling Goliath. I recommend walking because parking isn’t great (both in size of lot and that you have to go down a steep drive to exit) and the beers are so damn delicious you won’t want to limit yourself. Pro tip: Belly up to the bar and chat up the servers to find out what fun beers they have had recently (we scored samples that way) and to learn about what beers are in the works. See current beers on tap.
Beer-drinking gnome at Mabe’s, the best kind
After trying enough beer, dinner was in order so we walked back downtown to Mabe’s, It was a good choice for after-drink dinner, with a homey feel and delicious food. And the casual family vibe and large dining room meant we felt we could linger. From there we went back to the hotel, tired from a long day, and needing to rest for more hiking the next day.
Lots of Hiking in Decorah
We ate breakfast at our hotel restaurant, Restauration. It was only one of two places open for the holiday, but by going there we weren’t settling; it was a fantastic meal. It focuses on homemade and local food, which is a warm welcome in a hotel restaurant. I got the blue plate special (served on a blue plate!): eggs, potatoes, fruit (instead of meat) and toast, and the potatoes where smashed and fried with the skins on, seasoned well, and the eggs were local. Very filling meal for around $6.50, great to keep me nourished while hiking, and good coffee, too.
Dunnings Springs is totally worth the stop
Right inside town are three parks next to each other, each worth exploring: Dunnings Springs, Ice Cave and Palisades. Each is worth a stop, even a quick one, on its own. The spring can be seen from parking and is very impressive, and there are benches to sit and view, so it’s a great spot to visit no matter your athletic ability. View hiking options in Decorah.
Decorah really has a little of everything I look for in a getaway, and I can’t wait to return.