Shops and restaurants line Water Street in Decorah, a northeast Iowa city known for its scenic beauty and numerous trails.
Millions of years ago, major geographic events began shaping the scenery we encounter when we visit Decorah and much of far northeast Iowa.
Decorah, population 8,000, is part of the Driftless Area, a region of steep cliffs and deep ravines that Ice Age glaciers never flattened, leaving behind a haven for nature lovers, geology buffs or people who simply relish scenic views and being outdoors.
The Driftless Area encompasses northeast Iowa, southeast Minnesota, southwest Wisconsin and the extrene northwestern corner of Illinois. Caves, sinkholes, springs and clear trout streams are common, thanks to the karst topography, which develops as underlying rocks are dissolved by water.
More than 30 miles of off-road and paved trails, of varying difficulty, wind through the hills and valleys surrounding Decorah.
The trails are accessible on foot or on bicycle. Some of the trails require more experience and equipment, such as mountain bikes.
Mountain biking beginners are advised to start at the River Trail, which begins near Dunning’s Spring Park on the northeast side of Decorah and runs adjacent to the Upper Iowa River.
The river — arguably Iowa’s most scenic — runs through the city and the Driftless Area, on its way to the Mississippi.
A waterfall, an ice cave
Dunning’s Spring Park, located off Quarry Street in Decorah, features countless complex trails that may be difficult for even mountain bikers.
But experienced hikers can use them to access a scenic overlook, a limestone waterfall and a stone bridge crafted by Decorah stone mason Ted Wilson.
Some trails lead to Decorah’s Ice Cave Park, a state preserve and a natural wonder that gets its name from layers of ice that form every year in January and last through August.
The Van Peenen Park trails also connect to Ice Cave Park and feature varied terrain and scenery, from steep climbs to prairie.
Stone steps lead up to Pulpit Rock and a striking scenic overlook in Will Baker Park.
The Vesterheim, at 520 W. Water St., is a national Norwegian American Museum and Folk Art School.
The museum complex has around 33,000 artifacts, 12 buildings, a library, archives and a collection of historic and contemporary Norwegian folk and fine arts. Norwegian Americans began collecting and storing the items reflecting their heritage in 1877 at Luther College.
The museum was named one of the 15 best small-town museums by the Fodor’s travel guide, and USA Today picked it as one of the 10 “great places in the nation to admire American folk art.”
Admission to the museum, which is open daily, is $10 for adults, $5 for children 7 to 18, and $8 for seniors. Admission is free to active-duty military personnel and their families through Sept. 6.
The museum also offers classes about Norwegian culture, art and language. The classes for now are online, but in-person classes begin again in October.
Chris Johnson, the museum’s president and CEO, said the classes highlight Decorah’s Norwegian heritage and also delve into the broader story of immigration.
“The community in Decorah is becoming more diverse every day,” Johnson said. “The story of our community is not only a Norwegian one, but a story of many other cultures as well.”
Visitors are able to explore these “common threads” in immigration, he said, on the new trail at Vesterheim Heritage Park, which has been renovated and reopened.
Becky Idstrom, editor of the Vesterheim Museum’s magazine, said Decorah’s Norwegian heritage permeates the city.
“It’s difficult to explain, but when I visited Norway it very much just felt like home,” she said. “And that’s how I feel here in Decorah.”
Idstrom said Norwegian culture influences many aspects of life in Decorah— particularly the enthusiastic embrace of the outdoors, or “friluftsliv” in Norwegian, and the enjoyment of cozy, or “koselig,” activities like classes at Vesterheim.
Beer and food
The Toppling Goliath Brewing Company is a destination brewery and taproom in Decorah, with four “flagship” beers on tap plus more than 40 beers that rotate throughout the year.
The taproom has a restaurant and also offers barrel-aged stout and sours.
Clark and Barbara Lewey founded the brewery, at 1600 Prosperity Rd., in 2009. Its beers are now distributed in 30 states.
Pulpit Rock Brewing Co., 207 College Dr., opened in 2015.
Its name comes from founder Peter Espinosa's ties to Norway. Decorah has a Pulpit Rock, and Preikestolen, a 1,982-foot cliff in Norway, translates to “Pulpit Rock.”
The taproom does not serve food, but visitors can bring their own or order delivery from a Decorah restaurant. The Landing Market, 211 College Dr., is next door and features six food vendors under one roof:
Norwegian tacos feature seared salmon, greens and berry sauce served on lefse shells from Justin’s, one of the six food vendors at The Landing Market in Decorah.
There’s more to see, of course, just around the corner … or along a Driftless trail.
Phone: (563) 382-3990