You’ll notice the terrain first. This isn’t what you expected for Iowa. That’s Decorah for you.
Decorah is a small town in northeastern Iowa tucked in the Driftless Area of the Midwest. For a town with a population of about 8,000, Decorah offers a lot of outdoor adventures and fun of things to do.
The Driftless Area, in case you were wondering, is a region in the upper Midwest, that had glaciers.
Paddle the Upper Iowa River
The first thing you should know about the Upper Iowa River is that it has some fans. Like BIG fans. It was included on a National Geographic list of the 100 Greatest Adventures in America.
It’s the kind of calm, scenic river you’ll want paddle. If you aren’t familiar with the area, though, it’s best to go through an outfitter who will drop you off at a launch point. Enjoy it during the daytime, or if you ever luck out like I did, try a moonlight guided tour!
There are outfitters supplying kayaks, canoes and tubes to paddle the Upper Iowa River, including:
- O.F.F. the Driftless Wellness and Adventure Co., 212 Pulpit Rock Road
- Hutchinson Family Farm Campground, 2299 Scenic River Road
- Decorah River Tubes, 701 Winneshiek Ave.
You can find a Upper Iowa River paddle guide to download here.
Glamp at Luna Valley Farm (or at least go for the pizza)
Luna Valley Farm is a picturesque spot just outside of Decorah. The farm has glamping tents set on a wooden platform. Each tent has a king-sized bed with luxury linens. Wake up to the sound of a working farm starting its day. Tents sleep two people.
My experience with Luna Valley Farm is a memorable one, though I didn’t get to glamp there (yet!). They have a wood-fire pizza oven for pizza dinners on Friday nights seasonally. The pizza is made with ingredients grown or raised on the farm. When I went, there was also live music and beer.
The atmosphere at Luna Valley Farm is welcoming where you get to know the people sitting next to you. It was a rainy night, but under the tents, we dined and chatted happily. There was live music the night we were there.
- Glamp at Luna Valley Farm, 3012 Middle Sattre Road
- Wood-fire pizza nights at Luna Valley Farm from mid-June to late-October
Climb a waterfall and look for an ice cave
Dunning’s Springs is a 200-foot waterfall in downtown Decorah. Find it easily at Dunning’s Spring Park. Most people are content to wade in the water, but you can climb it, too!
Wear decent climbing shoes if you’re going to attempt to go up the waterfall. The water is cold. There are stairs, making an easy route to get to the top of the falls.
The gravel parking lot near the waterfall is also near another interesting site, Ice Cave Hill. It’s about a half-mile walk from the parking lot heading east on Ice Cave Road. The cave is open to the public and free.
While at Dunning’s Spring Park, take time to explore the trails, including mountain bike trails.
- Dunning’s Springs Park, Ice Cave Road
Decorah is known for its awesome mountain bike trails. I’m not a mountain biker (shocking, I know), so I stuck to paved trails.
The Trout Run Trail, a paved loop of about 10 miles that rides along the Upper Iowa River through cornfields. The trail will take you past the fish hatchery and a bald eagles’ nest.
The trail provides a glimpse into what makes the terrain of the Driftless Area so fascinating, including the algific talus slope in the limestone walls. It causes a cold breeze to come from the rock. The trail is not entirely flat, and some hills may be a little challenging for beginners.
If flat is what you’re looking for, do an out-and-back from the bicycle shop to the fish hatchery. It’s flat (and you can look for the bald eagles’ nest while you’re out there).
- Trout Run Trail access points: Will Baker Park (west edge of Decorah off Pulpit Rock Road); Fifth Avenue Bridge (west edge of Decorah off Pulpit Rock Road); Wold Park (near Sumner Street east of Decorah High School); Trout Run Park (east edge of Decorah off Highway 9, near Old Stage and Trout Run roads); and Decorah Fish Hatchery (2325 Siewers Spring Road, south of Highway 9)
Go bird watching… for bald eagles
The Trout Run Trail is also the key to spotting bald eagles, fingers crossed. A pair of eagles have a well-known nest near the trail and if you don’t spot them on your own, you’ll likely spot fellow bird watchers eyeing them.
- Bald Eagles’ Nest, near Decorah Fish Hatchery, 2321 Siewers Spring Road
Feed a bunch — and I mean a bunch — of fish
The Decorah Fish Hatchery has 24 raceways and three rubber lined earthen ponds where rainbow trout are raised. You can visit any time of the year.
Be sure to bring quarters for fish food. You’ll want to see the commotion when you drop food into one of the tanks. It’s fun, and not just for kids.
- Decorah Fish Hatchery, 2321 Siewers Spring Road
Get a taste of Norway
But of course, my way of exploring the Norwegian way of life is through food. Update: Unfortunately, the restaurant I visited, Ruby’s Restaurant and Catering, is now closed.
- Vesterheim, 520 W. Water St.
Sleep in history
The grand and historic Hotel Winneshiek opened in 1905 in downtown Decorah. It has been restored to its early glory and remains a premier hotel for overnight stays.
- Hotel Winneshiek, 104 E. Water St.
Have a beer
Decorah has a few microbreweries to choose from. Beer fans may already know one: Toppling Goliath.
Pulpit Rock Brewing Co. is another great option. With many options on tap to try, from a delicious amber to more unique flavors like an Oreo stout and a cider that tasted like Key lime pie, if you like beer, you’ll find something to like here.
- Topping Goliath Brewing Co., 1600 Prosperity Road
- Pulpit Rock Brewing Co., 207 College Drive
FYI: Iowa’s oldest brewery is actually in Amana.