I’ve made the trek to the northeastern Iowa city of Decorah (pop. 8,000) many times in the last few years, but it was only recently that I realized I was visiting the hippie mecca of the state, at least according to the website Thrillist. The hipster gurus at this website said their determination was based on these factors: the city’s widespread beekeeping, the Oneota Community Food Cooperative, its two breweries—Toppling Goliath and Pulpit Rock—and Luther College, the local private college with a strong arts program.
Having spent many hours in Decorah due to two sons attending college at Luther, I can attest to the vitality of the college’s musical arts program (for example, see my review of a recent jazz band concert). Plus, in my experience, college towns tend to have a heightened “coolness factor” stemming from the diversity of both faculty and students and the businesses that cater to them, as well as the many activities occurring on campus which are open to the community. In addition to the attractions cited by Thrillist, I’ve discovered other interesting things to do in Decorah, such as:
Outdoor trails and scenic spots. The recently completed Trout Run Trail is a paved 11-mile loop around the city for walkers, runners, and bicyclists. Several miles parallel the Upper Iowa River, and the trail passes by the fish hatchery and numerous art installations. I’ve only walked a few miles along the trail, having accessed it from a parking area near downtown, but found it to be mostly shady and scenic.
Other outdoor areas I’ve visited include Dunning Springs, which boasts a 200-foot waterfall at certain times of the year, and Pulpit Rock, near Pulpit Rock Campground, which requires a climb up steep stairs carved out of the stone hillside but rewards the climber with a fantastic view of the surrounding area (see images of Pulpit Rock here).
A “Main Street” area filled with a world-famous museum, unique shops, and restaurants. Water Street is the main street in Decorah lined with interesting shops and businesses. Decorah is also known for its Norwegian heritage, and the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum and Heritage Center is located near one end of the main thoroughfare. The museum offers the largest collection of Norwegian-American artifacts in the country, and offers folk art classes, musical events, a museum gift store offering handmade items from Norway and folk art supplies, and even tours to Norway.
Here is a video produced by the museum:
The Vesterheim Museum is located at 520 W. Water St., Decorah, IA 52101 NS and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Nov.-Apr.) and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (May-Oct.). 563-382-9681.
I’ve enjoyed strolling down Water Street and window-shopping at the various businesses. It’s gratifying to see a small town’s main street busy with vibrant and seemingly-successful businesses.
There are numerous restaurants and coffee shops right on this street, as well. Favorite restaurants of mine include the family-operated Mexican eatery Don Jose and Koreana, a Japanese restaurant serving very large sushi rolls. For a sweet treat visit the Sugar Bowl Ice Cream Company, and enjoy your ice cream on its outdoor balcony overlooking the street.
As for hotels, the very best choice for main street convenience and comfortable, historic charm is the 34-room Hotel Winneshiek, opened in 1905. I stayed here in December one year and the lobby and full service restaurant were beautifully decorated.
Road trip ideas. There is no interstate leading to Decorah, so a visitor must arrive via 2-lane state highways. Coming from the southeast, I drove through many small towns including Fort Atkinson (pop. 350). Fort Atkinson is home to a rebuilt military fort on a hill overlooking the town. This fort existed only from 1841-55, when it was torn down, and it was manned by military only from 1841-46, ostensibly to protect the Winnebago Indian tribe from the Sioux Indians. The reconstructed fort is now a State Historic Preserve, and every Fall it hosts a frontier rendezvous weekend (this year’s event is Sept. 23-24, 2017). I attended the Rendezvous once with a boy scout troop and this is a perfect family activity. To be honest, there’s not a lot to see the rest of the year but the Fort’s location does provide nice views.
Another small town on the way to Decorah is Lawler (pop. 439), which I discovered hosts an Irish Fest annually in June (this year’s theme, “Get Lucky in Lawler” to be held June 16-18, 2017). I actually noticed the town because of its Veterans Park located right next to the highway. In addition to the requisite cannons and flags, the park contains lifesized statues of servicemen and women.
I enjoyed walking around the park, which was nicely maintained but which, as I’ve always noted on driving by, was deserted on this pleasant Saturday. However, I’m sure on occasions such as Memorial Day there are crowds and activities.
Stopping at these small towns along the way not only breaks up a road trip but gives context and meaning to the journey. I gain insight by seeing the tangible expressions of a community’s values, such as the care taken to construct and maintain the elaborate tribute to veterans in a town of less than 500 people. “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller. Here’s to many happy travels and stops along the journey!