On a perfect, last-gasp-of-summer day, my husband and I set off on our bikes on southeast Minnesota’s Root River State Trail. Leaving the bustling trail town of Lanesboro, we were soon pleasantly surprised to have the smooth asphalt almost to ourselves as we pedaled through green canopies and open farmland, past the occasional kayak and canoe in the gently flowing river.
Only in the tiny town of Whalan — a few miles east of Lanesboro — did we run into some minor cyclist congestion near a popular pie shop.
On this Labor Day weekend, we had feared a scene resembling RAGBRAI, the annual ride across Iowa in which thousands of cyclists engulf small towns like an invading force, sweating in spandex, cleats clomping on concrete.
Not to worry. The 42-mile paved trail — part of the 60-mile Root River Trail System that snakes through a bucolic valley of forests, bluffs, villages and farms — proved to be a cyclist’s paradise. And in pretty Lanesboro (population 734), we found other draws, including a vibrant arts center, abundant live theater, good restaurants and lovely bed and breakfasts.
The trail system consists of two trails linking eight towns, each a short distance apart. The result is several 5- to 13-mile segments, providing a variety of options for riders. We encountered families with young children, as well as millennial and middle-aged pleasure riders and the occasional serious-looking solo cyclist.
Lanesboro itself was packed with tourists, many with bikes atop car racks. But there was plenty of room to window-shop on and around Parkway Avenue, the historic main drag, lined with attractive 19th-century brick storefronts. We could still get into the restaurants we wanted to try. And the Root River Trail, which runs east-west along an abandoned railroad line that often hugs the river, was always peaceful.
We took it easy. (No 80-mile RAGBRAI days for us!) On our first day, we rode a 27-mile round trip linking Lanesboro, Whalan and Peterson. The trail was flat but not dull, cutting through woods and fields, past postcard-perfect old farmsteads and — surprise — a low-key mini golf course near Whalan, with a few families putt-putting.
We also learned that Whalan is so tiny — 263 acres, with about 67 residents — that it throws an annual “stand still” parade (slated for May 20). The color guard, musicians, floats and American Legion vets stay put while spectators do the walking.
After browsing in a small craft gallery and riding past a 1917 restored gas station, we weren’t quite ready for pie in Whalan, so we rode on to Peterson (population 199), where we had excellent rhubarb pie at unassuming Burdey’s Cafe.
Walking through quiet and tidy downtown Peterson, we met some outgoing women decorating a bandstand with flowers. They encouraged us to return for Taste of the Trail, showcasing local food on three Saturdays in September in various trail towns.
On Day 2, the trail’s eastern stretch from Peterson through Rushford and Houston, Minn., was even less busy, but the towns were bigger. The asphalt also was rougher, especially between Peterson and Rushford, but Minnesota is on it: The 5-mile segment is currently being repaved, and is closed through May 26.
Outside Houston (pop. 979), we encountered the trail’s one steep section, slowly pedaling uphill and then sailing downhill. But it was mercifully short, especially compared with RAGBRAI’s frequent roller-coaster-like rides. At the trailhead in Houston was another great spot for kids — the so-called Natural Playground with stone tunnels and buried fossils.
Driving back to Lanesboro with our bikes in tow, we couldn’t resist finally stopping at the Aroma Pie Shoppe in Whalan, where we learned the hard way that it’s best to show up before 4 p.m. The fruit pies were gone, so we picked two unfamiliar varieties — Vermont maple and sour cream raisin. Both were delicious.
Rain washed out our last day’s plan to ride the western segment between Lanesboro and Fountain, Minn., and the 18-mile Harmony-Preston Valley State Trail, which connects the Root River trail to Preston and Harmony, Minn. As is often the case with travel, we left the Lanesboro area with some places still to explore. All the more reason to return.
Lanesboro Arts (1-507-467-2446; lanesboroarts.org) has a gallery showcasing regional artists’ work. Its St. Mane Theatre puts on concerts, films, community theater and a monthly “Over the Back Fence” variety show.
Commonweal Theatre’s well-regarded professional company stages classic, contemporary and new plays. In 2017, it is ending a 20-year tradition of annually performing a Henrik Ibsen play. The Norwegian playwright’s “When We Dead Awaken” runs through June 17 (1-800-657-7025; commonwealtheatre.org).
Eat and drink in Lanesboro
• Pedal Pushers Cafe (1-507-467-1050) for Norwegian meatballs and local craft beer served in a cheerful, casual setting. Open April through December for daily lunch and dinner.
• Old Village Hall Restaurant (1-507-467-2962) for fine dining in an old stone building with a pretty courtyard. Daily dinner and weekend lunch from Memorial Day through fall. Reservations recommended.
• Have a picnic in Sylvan Park, downtown beside a small pond, campground and seasonal Saturday farmers market. The nearby library’s public bathrooms include pay showers and are handy for changing in and out of bike gear.
Where to sleep
Lanesboro’s Habberstad Bed & Breakfast, in an 1897 Queen Anne Victorian house, has five bedrooms plus a Carriage House option (1-507-467-3560; habberstadhouse.com).
Lanesboro is the hub of the Root River Trail System, about 120 miles southeast of the Twin Cities via Hwy. 52 and Fillmore County Road 8.
Lanesboro Chamber of Commerce: 1-507-467-2696; email@example.com.
The website lanesboro.com has a trail map, a guide to trail towns, Amish farm tour information and links for renting bikes, kayaks and canoes.
A visitor center is in a reconstructed depot downtown, next to the trail.
Betsy Rubiner is a Des Moines-based travel writer.