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The Perfect Road Trip on the Minnesota River Valley National Scenic Byway

By Cinnamon Janzer

Sep 28, 2021

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Beyond its namesake body of water, Big Stone Lake State Park features endangered native prairie.

Courtesy of Big Stone Lake State Park

Beyond its namesake body of water, Big Stone Lake State Park features endangered native prairie.

A drive along this southern route reveals endangered landscapes, historic sites, and a German-style brewery that survived Prohibition.

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Stretching across southern Minnesota from Big Stone Lake to Belle Plaine, the Minnesota River Valley National Scenic Byway offers a nature-filled trip through the Midwestern heartland. Along the way, you’ll have opportunities to learn more about Dakota Indian heritage, explore state parks, and even visit a brewery or two, giving you a taste of the unique, unhurried life in this part of the state.

For help planning the ultimate road trip on the byway, we’ve rounded up the best stops along the route, from some of the oldest rock outcroppings on earth to the site where the U.S.–Dakota War started in 1862. Just don’t forget to download a good playlist

Big Stone Lake State Park 

Ortonville

In addition to its namesake body of water, Big Stone Lake Park is home to oak savanna, or native prairie, which is considered an endangered ecosystem in Minnesota. In the Scientific and Natural Area where the oak savanna thrives, visitors can see gorgeous wildflowers in the spring and summer or watch for several different bird species. Of course, fishing on the lake is also an option here, as is lakeside camping. Pets are allowed at the campsites, and there are restrooms and showers for those who prefer not to totally rough it.

At 3.6 billion years old, the Gneiss Outcrops are some of the oldest known rocks on earth.

Gneiss Outcrops

Granite Falls

If you’ve been driving the byway for a while, a stop at the Gneiss Outcrops will be a welcome—and beautiful—change of pace. Located within a large meander in the Minnesota River, the designated Scientific and Natural Area features ancient rocks that have survived Paleozoic seas, the migration of continents, and the weight of glacial ice. Formed approximately 3.6 billion years ago, the outcrops are among the oldest known rocks on the earth’s surface. Over the past few decades, they’ve become even more significant as other outcrops along the Minnesota River have been exploited for granite mining, housing, and recreational use. Explore the area in early July to see the yellow blossoms of the rare plains prickly pear cacti anchored in the crevices of lichen-covered rocks. 

Between the two major rock outcrops lies a natural lake where you can enjoy sweeping views across the Minnesota River Valley. While the surrounding area has no maintained trails or other recreational facilities, it’s popular for hiking and bird-watching in the summer, and snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in the winter. Adjacent to the outcrops is the Minnesota River Water Trail, a 318-mile route that runs from St. Paul to Ortonville and is perfect for paddlers of all skill levels.

Learn all about the Dakota people and their history at the Lower Sioux Agency.

Lower Sioux Agency

Morton

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No trip through Minnesota would be complete without learning about the state’s Native American history. One of the best places to do so is the Lower Sioux Agency, where the U.S.–Dakota War broke out in 1862. In the years following the signing of the Mendota and Traverse des Sioux treaties of 1851, tensions mounted as the U.S. government failed to make payments and provide the food and supplies it had promised to the Dakota people. Eventually, the strain between the Dakota and the newly formed Minnesota government erupted, resulting in a historic battle at this very site. 

Today, visitors to the Lower Sioux Agency can tour a Dakota history exhibition, then follow a half-mile trail to a restored U.S. government building from 1861. There are two other short trails on the property that follow the Minnesota River to spots like the site of a former blacksmith’s shop, plus a museum store stocked with Native American books and gifts. If you stop by on a weekend, you might catch one of the regular programs on Dakota life and nature.

Dating to 1871, the Harkin Store still features some original products on its shelves.

Harkin Store

New Ulm

An authentic general store from 1871, the Harkin offers a kitschy step back in time that shouldn’t be missed when driving the Minnesota River Valley National Scenic Byway. Once the social center of the community, the store was where townsfolk and farmers gathered to buy groceries, barter for supplies, and share gossip. Many of the store’s original goods remain on the shelves today, taking visitors back to a simpler time in history. Open from late October to early May, the store also features costumed staff, special programming on Sundays, and a gift shop stocked with knick knacks. Visit to examine the wares, check for mail in the mail slots, or grab a seat by the stove and enjoy a game of checkers. Then head to the porch and enjoy sweeping views of the Minnesota River Valley.

The oldest family-owned brewery in Minnesota, Schell’s survived Prohibition and is still thriving today.

Schell’s Brewery

New Ulm

The second-oldest family-owned brewery in the United States—and the oldest in Minnesota—Schell’s started way back in 1860, long before the craft-beer craze of today. Founded by German immigrant August Schell, the brewery managed to stay open during Prohibition and continued to thrive afterward, challenging traditional German brewing ideals while also paying homage to its roots. In the 1980s, Schell’s was among the first breweries to start producing craft beers, beginning with a German lager that’s still popular today. 

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To learn more about the brewery, buy tickets for a tour, held Friday through Sunday during the winter and all week long during the summer. Tours start with the history of the Schell founding family, then continue to the family mansion, the beautiful gardens, and the roaming peacocks. You’ll also have the chance to visit the historic brewhouse and its pre-Prohibition copper kettle, which was shipped from Germany, and stop by the Rathskeller Tap Room for a taste of assorted beers. Afterward, hit the gift shop to pick up more beer, branded clothing, and authentic glassware.

Visit the St. Peter State Hospital Museum to see vintage objects used by doctors in the 1800s.

St. Peter State Hospital Museum

St. Peter

Minnesota’s first state hospital, St. Peter’s opened in 1866 to serve the mentally ill and dangerous. While it started with space for just 50 patients, it served almost 3,000 at its peak in 1957, housing everyone on a campus ringed with barbed wire. Straitjackets and electroshock therapies were regularly employed, though patients could also grow crops, dance, and attend social events. In the 1960s, deinstitutionalization initiatives changed the hospital’s role from an asylum to a treatment center, which it remains to this day. 

In an effort to dispel rumors and bring transparency to its 150 years of work, the hospital runs a museum that guests can tour by appointment. After a short introduction about the institution’s history, visitors can take in various exhibitions, which cover everything from the duties of the nurses and doctors to the care and daily routine of the patients. You’ll also be able to see vintage objects used by doctors or created by patients, as well as photographs of nursing staff and records of salaries. If you’re into weird medical history, you won’t want to miss it.

Nature lovers will appreciate the oak savanna and prairie flowers at Ottawa Bluffs.

Ottawa Bluffs Nature Preserve

Le Sueur

Visitors are drawn to the Ottawa Bluffs Nature Preserve to see the unique oak savanna, which is among the most endangered ecological communities in Minnesota. Venture to the top of the bluff on the west side of the preserve and you’ll also enjoy sweeping views of the Minnesota River Valley, as well as have the chance to explore an American Indian burial ground. If you’re into botany, the bluffs are a great place to see pasqueflowers—the first prairie flower of spring—which can be found on the south-facing slopes, especially toward the top of the rises. Look for them in early April, as soon as the ground starts to thaw. The entire preserve is managed by a conservancy, which removes trees and brush from selected areas and then plants harvested prairie seeds to help restore the oak savanna and the diversity of species that live there.

Note: Though COVID-19 has stalled a lot of travel plans, we hope our stories can offer inspiration for your future adventures. Please continue to check government websites for the latest policies and restrictions.

Plan your trip to Minnesota:

>> The Best Things to Do in Minnesota

>> Required Eating: 10 Meals Not to Miss in Minnesota

>> The Best Hotels and Resorts in Minnesota for a Truly Local Stay

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