In late June I ventured 400+ miles into new territory–northeast Iowa. This four-day road trip was centered around Decorah, a small town surrounded by scenic hilly terrain with limestone bluffs, streams, and healthy cornfields.
My first stop was the Decorah fish hatchery, a recent tourist attraction because it sits across the road from an enormous cottonwood tree housing the famous bald eagles’ nest. After watching the Raptor Resource Project’s eagle cam for several weeks this spring, it was thrilling to hear the recently fledged eaglets vocalizing and to see their 6 ft. wingspans overhead while their parents perched like sentries nearby. The manager of the fish hatchery greeted the binocular and camera adorned group absorbing this wildlife spectacle, answered questions and asked everyone to mark our hometown on a map. Towns in Maryland, Virginia, Kansas and Minnesota were pinpointed.
Many morning and evening hours were spent at the hatchery while the afternoons were dedicated to seeing the town’s other attractions. Decorah has a rich Norwegian history which, if you didn’t already know it, becomes obvious when you see the flag of Norway displayed alongside the U.S. and Iowa flags at the town’s entrance.
The Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum and gift shop on the main street downtown seemed like a good starting point to learn more about the town’s cultural heritage. A large collection of artifacts and folk art featuring rosemaling is exhibited in this museum known as ”the most comprehensive museum in the United States dedicated to a single immigrant group.”
The Porter House Museum in the heart of town is easy to find because it’s nearly impossible to miss the hand constructed rock wall surrounding the formal Italianate style home. The Porters were adventurers enamored with South America and subjects like butterflies, insects and, of course, rocks. Their travel memorabilia, butterfly art, and taxidermied collections of birds and waterfowl are displayed inside. Pick up a chart that identifies the rocks and minerals in the exterior wall.
If you’ve been to the Grassroots Arts Center in Lucas, Kansas and appreciate the folk art creations there, don’t skip the Bily Clocks Museum in Spillville, a few minutes south of Decorah. Pay for the guided tour and find out about the two brothers who designed and carved magnificent clocks (many with moving parts) you’ll never see anywhere else.
What some people still call the World’s Smallest Church (St. Anthony of Padua Chapel) is near Festina just a few miles south of Decorah in a serene setting off a gravel road and next to a cornfield.
The stone building with a tall steeple is tiny, seating only eight people, and appears to be in good structural condition. Pick up a free brochure inside to learn more about why this chapel was built.
Preservation gardens and heirloom seeds and plants are highlights of the Seed Savers Exchange and Heritage Farm about five miles outside of Decorah. It was sunny and cool the morning I went–perfect for walking around the gardens, historic apple orchards and vineyard. Ancient White Park cattle reside and breed here, ask at the visitors center where you can get a close view of the herd. The gift shop sells heirloom dry beans, seeds, and cooking, gardening and nature-themed products. If you appreciate this approach to gardening, call ahead for tour information and plan to spend some time on this beautiful farm.
For serious exercise, the popular Trout Run Trail in Decorah is a mostly paved 11-mile loop trail for bicycling, jogging and walking, and part of it follows the Upper Iowa River. If you prefer to be on the water, the Upper Iowa River is known for quality kayaking and canoeing. A bike rental shop is downtown, and regional outfitters can help you enjoy the waterways.
There’s much more to see and do in Decorah, a town Midwest Living magazine has listed as one of the 100 best small-town getaways in America. This quiet, scenic corner of Iowa demands another peek during the cooler and more colorful months of autumn.
Be sure to visit the Travel Neighborhood to help you plan your fall road trip!
photos by Kim Sain