Road Trip: Decorah, Iowa

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 Coop Decorah, Iowa | Kale and Ale

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 Decorah, Iowa | Kale and Ale

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 Decorah, Iowa | Kale and Ale

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.

Toppling Goliath | Kale and Ale

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.

Mabe's Decorah Iowa Beer Gnome | Kale and Ale

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 Decorah, Iowa | Kale and Ale

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.

Friday Links

Hope everyone had a great week. It’s supposed to be 50 and sunny in the Twin Cities this weekend, so how can’t it be wonderful?

Did you get President’s Day off? I had never heard of that beyond banks and the post office until I moved to Minnesota, but I got it off, so I’m not complaining. What would you do with an extra day off?

I spent the afternoon brewing my second batch of beer, a clone to Deschutes Fresh Squeezed. We are adding even more hops to the already hoppy beer, so this could be interesting. It’s fermenting like crazy.

Fresh squished homebrew | Kale and Ale

Beyond that, here are some links I’m into:

It’s from October but I’m just now seeing 50 best hikes in the world. It’s really motivating me to plan another trip. I’ve hiked Angle’s Landing and have a few more on my wish list, what about you?

RELATED: Last year I hiked Zion and Grand Canyon.

This month’s Bon Appetit is all about food culture, including ways dining has changed since 2000.

2016 James Beard Award semifinalists have been announced. Have you been to any of these restaurants or will you based on the awards? I seriously want to visit San Francisco just to walk around, eat and drink, and things like this only make it more so.

What have you been reading/eating/enjoying this week?

Daytrip: St. Croix Valley

Afton State Park bluffs |

Bluffs at Afton State Park

This past weekend was gorgeous. Minnesota was feeling near-record temps. Knowing those days are numbered and I’ll soon be homebound, coupled with fall colors on display, I headed east for some hiking in Afton State Park, located on the St. Croix River at the boarder of Minnesota and Wisconsin, and take advantage of some Wisconsin beers while I was there.

State Park: Afton State Park

About a 35 minute drive from Minneapolis, it was easy to access yet away from everything. The trails are great: Its easy to follow, they clearly display the difficulty and trails intersect often in very short (.2 or .3 miles) so its a very “choose your own adventure” hike. I was at the tail end of a nasty spell of allergies and didn’t know how hiking would make me feel, so it was nice to decide if I would go a little further or not on a whim.

Afton State Park path |

Not as much fall color as I hoped, but perfect temps and a natural tree canopy make for great hiking.

With 20 miles of trail at different difficulties, I was to go back when I’m feeling better and explore more. In my few miles of hiking I was able to see bluffs (which is the level the visitor center is), woods and prairie.

If hiking isn’t your thing, the gently rolling, wide trails are also used for horseback riding, snowshoeing and cross county skiing. With a wood-fire stove in the visitor center, its obvious this park is popular year-round.

Brewery: Pitchfork Brewing Company

Pitchfork Brewing Hudson |

Pitchfork Brewing Company

Located four miles into the state, Pitchfork offers a lot of different kinds of beer, and has a tempting list of what will be on tap soon. While I was there they had a wet (local!) hop in a firkin, and a pumpkin and Oktoberfest beer. I tried a bit of each of those and the rye saison, which were all solid choices. They give samples and have a variety of glass sizes so it’s easy to try a little of everything. Pints are $5 (the firkin was $6, could have charged more, probably) and it’s a good atmosphere with a popcorn maker, some TVs, lots of light, a long bar, booths and tables.

Also in Hudson

American Sky Brewing Company

I didn’t stop here (maybe next time, remember I’m coming back!) due to time, but I’ve heard good things about it. They have a good variety of beers, and I did pick one up at the liquor store.

Hudson Liquor

Wisconsin beers |

Variety of Wisconsin beers I don’t believe are available in Minnesota

Since I was (barely) in Wisconsin, I wanted to stop at the liquor store and get some beers not available in Minnesota. I stopped at Hudson Liquor because it was next to Caribou Coffee, but it was a good choice. It is clean and easy to navigate, with a walk-in cooler and lots of local beers and single bottles to build your own six pack. The Wisconsin beers I got are:

  • Oliphant Brewing Skullship Muerte
  • New Glarus Apple Ale
  • Ale Asylum Demento
  • O’so Hop Whooping
  • American Sky USA IPA
  • New Glarus Scream IIPA

Daytrip: Mankato

Minneopa waterfall |

Waterfall at Minneopa State Park near Mankato, Minnesota.

I have made an effort this summer to get out and explore more since, as I’ve mentioned, I was busy with buying a house last summer. I think I’m taking advantage of the short Minnesota summer. I’ve enjoyed incorporating daytrips into the rotating.

I shared my time in Waconia, but two weeks ago I went hiking near Red Wing at Frontenac State Park and purchased a state park pass good for one year. I didn’t take many pictures during that time, but hit up the park and a fairly challenging hike, but the reward is views from the bluffs of the Mississippi River. After that I hit up Red Wing Brewing for some beers, which had pizza that looked amazing (looked being the key word).

Minneopa State Park prairie |

Prairie being restored and prepared for bison at Minneopa State Park.

Wanting to take advantage of the weather, the hiking shoes I bought this summer and the park pass, I planned a trip to Mankato and the nearby state park Minneopa. This park was a lot different than Frontenac, so the variety was neat. The trails were much easier, as they are all made for cross country skiing, so they are wide and flat. There are two parts to the park, a paved trail going to the waterfalls and a part that is in some trees but mostly prairie grasslands. In the second part, they are currently working to restore the prairie further and reintroduce bison into the park. I think there will be a part where the bison roam that you can drive through with your car, so I would like to go back and visit once this is done.

Mankato Brewery sampler |

Mankato Brewery sampler

I enjoyed all the sites and flowers, but the prairie was warm, so I wanted a beer to cool down. Heading to Mankato Brewery, I opted for a sampler, as it was all types of beer I like and I had only had one of the four beers before. The sampler included Kato Lager, Organ Grinder Amber Ale, Duly Noted American Pale Ale and Haymaker IPA.

Chankaska Creek Ranch & Winery |

Chankaska Creek Ranch & Winery

From there going north the next stop was Chankaska Creek Ranch & Winery. The variety of wines was impressive. I got five samples for $7. The real draw was the brick-oven pizza, as I wasn’t going to make the same mistake and miss out as I did at Red Wing Brewery.

Chaknaska Creek Winery pizza |

Chankaska Creek veggie pizza

The brick oven pizza was crispy and had a variety of vegetables. After eating some pizza and sipping wine I walked the grounds. A creek runs through the winery, and I was impressed with the different parts of the winery that can host events and are nice spots to relax.

Chankaska Creek Winery |

Chankaska Creek

I think I have a pretty good thing going with hiking and exploring breweries and wineries that are easy drives from the cities. Do you have any easy daytrips around here that are worth a drive?