Tucked away in the Driftless Area of Northeast Iowa lives the amazing and beautiful city of Decorah. I take pride in my travels and the places that I’ve visited across the world. I’m an Iowan, but I had never visited Decorah, one of the state’s hidden gems, filled with history, friendly people, a distinct culture, great cuisine and drink, active lifestyles and many a dairy cow that take pride in their stylish Norwegian head wear.
See, Decorah is distinctly Norwegian. Beginning in the 1850’s, the area became a center for Norwegian-American settlement and culture. Today, the city is home to the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, the largest museum in the country devoted to one single immigrant group. It is home of the Luther College Norse, the Decorah High Vikings, and the Nordic Fest celebration that draws 50,000 – 75,000 people each summer. During my travels, I’m always joyed to come across cities that take pride in their heritages, and Decorah is a perfect example of this.
As the family prepared for a drive from Ames to the Wisconsin Dells for a little R&R, I thought it would be fun to spend the evening in Decorah. Following a three hour drive from Ames, we arrived in Decorah and jumped right in. Our first stop was the Decorah Fish Hatchery on the south side of town. As a parent of two toddlers, activities are good! We may have stumbled upon our new favorite family activity – feeding fish!
The Hatchery rears approximately 150,000 rainbow and brook trout annually. It is open to the public 365 days a year from dawn until dusk, and most importantly, for .25 cent handfuls of fish food, parents can keep their kids occupied and witness pure joy! To be honest, we had a tough time getting the kids to leave as my quarter supply diminished rapidly.
Across the street from the Hatchery live a few of Decorah’s most famous residents – The Decorah Bald Eagles. The Raptor Resource Project installed and runs the live stream for research purposes, and at one point, the live feed of the eagles became the most viewed live-stream of all time when the website reached 250 million views in 2011. While we did not see the eagles during our trip, I was amazed by their ingenuity and brilliance to build their home across the street from 150,000 fish. Brilliant!
A great place to stay makes any trip enjoyable, and the family was treated with great hospitality by the friendly folks at Hotel Winneshiek, the county’s namesake hotel. Located in the heart of Decorah, the hotel offers a full-service experience that includes lodging, a bar and a popular restaurant (Restauration), all located within its walls.
Talking to Tammy from the hotel the night before the trip, something she said stayed with me. I was asking her questions about Decorah, and she mentioned how much she loved the community because it ‘always feels alive.’ We witnessed her words, and I was even greeted with a Facebook message from Dan at the hotel, laying out his favorite Decorah running route from the hotel. We followed his advice!
Of course, the kids loved staying in the hotel as well. They immediately found the elevator, claimed their spot in the room, ran a few hot laps…..
Scoped out the Water Street scene from above…
And were marveled by the concept of a full-length mirror.
My plan was to do my run the next morning, so we spent Saturday late afternoon and early evening exploring as much of Decorah as we could. Our first stop was to get some needed caffeine, and we found a quaint space and a delightful cup of Joe just down the street at Magpie Coffeehouse.
Like Tillie and I sniffing out coffee beans, the kids must have known that the back of the house offered a collection of toys. Sure enough, they found them.
Outside of the Coffeehouse, a sign promoting $1.99 t-shirts caught my eye, so I purchased a nice running companion from Sports World for the next morning. Ironically enough, the store was celebrating its opening weekend, hence the $1.99 t-shirt promotion, so it was fun to be able to support a new community venture during our visit.
We stumbled upon another great cow print, this time in mural format, on the side of the local co-op.
And my main man Cal found an open running space between buildings. The simple things!
We were on a mission to walk to one of the state’s, country’s and world’s most buzz-worthy breweries. Besides showcasing a clever welcome sign, Toppling Goliath Brewing Co. attracts beer aficionados from all over to taste its brews. I distinctly remember my first Toppling Goliath experience. I received a call from a friend who lives in Missouri. I was going to see him at a Minnesota wedding that weekend, and he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get his hands on some Toppling Goliath. He asked me to pick some up. I showed up a the local liquor store, asked for Toppling Goliath, and was told that my timing was good. They had just received a shipment and five others were already there to quickly deplete the stock.
As reported by the Des Moines Register, Toppling Goliath brought home victories in multiple categories in the 2016 RateBeer “Best” award winners, including “world best” in double IPA, strong stout and American amber or pale. While I’m perfectly happy with a few Miller High Lifes, it was fun to indulge in some of the best beer in the world.
On the way back to Water Street, we took a moment to check out the landscape on one of Decorah’s bridges. A group of people floating down the Upper Iowa River perfectly represented the Decorah lifestyle and mentality.
A stop through Decorah can only be official if you enjoy a pizza pie at Mabe’s Pizza. In my opinion, if you’re identifying the characteristics that a small town must have to be great, an iconic family-friendly pizza joint must be on that list! Mabe’s was perfect for our evening, and the pizza was delicious. It was so delicious that I left my credit card at the restaurant. A big thanks to the people at Mabe’s for stashing away and cutting that bad boy up the next day!
We got to bed at a good time, and my initial goal was to take off alone in the morning for a six mile run. The next morning, Tillie and I made the game time decision to pack the kids up in the stroller and make it a family outing. I’m glad we did it, as I love to show the kids the value of exploration. They had a blast!
Just down the road from the hotel is the Winneshiek County Courthouse, a stately building.
And one turn later, the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum. I’d need to visit Decorah again and spend some time in this building.
Leaving Decorah later that morning, I kept thinking to myself how amazing it is that the city has the Trout Run Trail. The 11-mile trail completely circles the city. It is constantly filled with walkers, runners, and cyclists enjoying the beautiful landscapes of Decorah. You don’t come across many trails like this, and a portion of our run took place on the trail.
The trail is a great point of pride for the community, and you see this through the inclusion of art along the way.
After enjoying the trail for a bit, we cut through the Decorah Campground, let the kids play on the jungle gym for a bit, and continued up the hill toward Luther College, a private, liberal arts college associated with the Lutheran Church. Growing up in Iowa, you always hear about the many small private colleges and universities throughout the state. I remember reading the sports page growing up and being intrigued by the scores from the Iowa Conference. As I’ve gotten older and explored the state a bit more, it’s been fun to find these institutions along the way.
We found a great view on campus for a nice break. During the weekend, Business Insider came out with their 30 Best College Towns in America list. #10 – Decorah, Iowa!
We headed south on conveniently-named College Drive and ventured east on Ice Cave Road, a suggestion from Dan at Hotel Winneshiek. I loved this road as it hugged the river and downtown to the south and a number of parks that towered above from the north. We came across many other runners on this road, and it provided a peaceful run. Along the way, we found the Ice Cave itself, or what I think is probably the Ice Cave. We walked up the stairs, but I think the darkness of the cave intimidated the kids a bit. We’ll go in next time.
Turning south on 5th Avenue to head back to downtown, we crossed another bridge with a great view. Lucky for us, we missed the rain by about 30 minutes. In total, we accomplished approximately six miles (and no meltdowns by the kids).
I want to thank Hotel Winneshiek one last time for their kindness to our family. We Iowans take pride in our friendliness, and the folks at Hotel Winneshiek embody this. Get to Decorah, it’s a magical place.