Bicycling in bluff country
In southeast Minnesota, the Root River Trail brings swarms of tourists to scenic villages.
It was a sunny day in southeastern Minnesota, and everywhere I looked, there were Babes.
Babes bombing along bike trails, Babes prowling the shops of Lanesboro, Babes laughing over white wine in the inn where I was staying.
They were the Fat Bottom Girls Cycle Club from Des Moines, also known as Babes on Bikes, and they were having a swell time riding the smooth, scenic trails of the Root River Valley.
I took a group photo of them in front of the Jailhouse Inn in Preston and inquired about their name; I didn't, ahem, see a fat bottom anywhere.
"It's from the Queen song, 'Fat-bottom girls make the rockin' world go 'round," said one of the Babes. "Then the lyrics go, 'Get on your bike and ride.' "
Bicyclists come from all over the region to ride the trails of Minnesota's bluff country, and inns are packed in summer and on fall weekends.
It's a big change from the late 1970s, when the area was known mainly to trout fishermen and turkey hunters. The last train had gone through Lanesboro and the movie theater had closed. In nearby Harmony, the Amish had yet to arrive.
The paving of a bicycle trail along the Root River changed everything in the 1980s.
Bicyclists love the river views, the 48 wooden bridges, the canopy of trees, even the occasional rattlesnake sunning itself on the blacktop of the Root River State Trail.
And they love the tucked-away feeling of Lanesboro, a hamlet framed by limestone bluffs.
Lanesboro's picturesque isolation became a good thing. Quaint bed-and-breakfasts opened, a theater company moved into the movie house and shops began to fill the century-old brick storefronts, some of which had been used to store grain.
Towns all over Minnesota looked on and asked, "Why not us?"
Preston and Harmony, with a tourism industry based on the local caves and Amish tours, were among them.
The 18-mile Harmony-Preston Valley State Trail came next, connecting to the Root River trail at Isinours Junction, midway between Fountain and Lanesboro.
The 5½ miles from Isinours to Preston follows the bends of the Root River's South Branch and is one of the sweetest stretches of trail in Minnesota, sometimes passing pockets of tilled land, sometimes bluffs with wildflowers growing out of crannies.
From Preston, bicyclists have to work a little harder. The trail heads up to Harmony along Camp Creek, a favorite fishing spot; Preston calls itself the trout capital of southern Minnesota.
The trail goes on, shaded by limestone bluffs, then starts to climb at an 8 percent grade, emerging onto farm fields redolent with fresh manure.
In Harmony, the trail ends at the Village Depot, where the Amish often sell jams, pickles, eggs and homemade baskets and rugs out of their horse-drawn buggies.
The downhill ride back, of course, is a lot more fun.
There are more hills on the easternmost stretch of the Root River State Trail, which now stretches 42 miles between Fountain and Houston.
Fewer bicyclists ride the 12½-mile section between Rushford and Houston, but it's the most exhilarating on the trail, a glide from Houston's Nature Center down to the river and into terrain that marks the beginning of coulee country.
It doesn't use an old rail corridor, and it's definitely not flat.
Since the Root River State Trail was created, Minnesota has created many great trails.
But to many people in the state and around the region, it's still the bicyclists' Champs Elysees.
Trip Tips: Bicycling in southeast Minnesota's bluff country
Events: April, Bluff Country Studio Art Tour. May, Preston Trout Days. First Saturday in June, Rhubarb Festival in Lanesboro. June, Art in the Park in Lanesboro. First weekend of August, Buffalo Bill Days in Lanesboro, with parade on Sunday. September, Autumn Trail.
Root River State Trail: This 42-mile trail, in lovely bluff country between Fountain and Houston, is Minnesota's pride and joy.
There's a 6½-mile downhill from Fountain to Isinours Junction (if you're arriving via U.S. 52, have your bicycling partners drop you off in Fountain so you can enjoy it), from which the trail follows the Root River, crossing dozens of bridges as it goes through Lanesboro, Whalan, Peterson and Rushford.
From Rushford, the trail departs from abandoned rail line and becomes especially scenic, climbing a steep hill on its way to Houston, where the Houston Nature Center offers showers.
Much of it is shady, and the area's lack of standing water means there are few mosquitoes.
For more about Lanesboro, see The belle of bluff country.
For places to stay, see Lodgings in Lanesboro. Reserve early in summer and for fall weekends.
For canoeing and tubing, see By river and trail in Lanesboro.
For more about the Lanesboro area in fall, see Bluff-country byways.
If there's enough snow in winter, there's skiing on the trail (away from towns, where it tends to get trampled), and the area is much quieter.
*Harmony-Preston Valley State Trail: From Isinours Junction, 4½ miles west of Lanesboro on the Root River State Trail, this 18-mile trail goes through Preston and up to the farm town of Harmony.
The 5½ miles to Preston, which follow the South Branch of the Root River, are shady and among the prettiest of the whole system. In the winter, it's an excellent place to ski.
The last third of the trail, up to Harmony, is more open and on an 8 percent grade (outfitters will take bicyclists up to Harmony for a downhill ride).
On busy weekends, it's often easier to find a place to stay in Preston than in Lanesboro.
For more about the Harmony area, see Cave country.