Root River waterfall
The south branch of the Root River flows into Lanesboro, where an old dam creates a picturesque waterfall.

Scenic Lanesboro

This quaint small town — known for its natural beauty, arts scene and popular restaurants — offers an ideal weekend getaway. In fact, it’s worth repeating.

It had been a long week at work. A long week. I needed a vacation, and I needed it fast.

But where could I go on a small budget with no plane ticket and zero time off work?

I found the answer in a town I’d visited two years earlier — a small town rich with charm, dining options and engaging activities — both indoors and out.

That town was Lanesboro, Minn.

It had everything I wanted — stunning natural vistas, a picturesque downtown, delicious food and a thriving arts scene — and all just a two-hour drive from the Twin Cities, about 40 miles southeast of Rochester.

It was time to go back.

Nestled amidst the rolling hills, corn fields and limestone bluffs of the Root River Valley, Lanesboro became a rural tourist destination in the 1970s after the town’s milling industry fizzled out.

When you’re a city dweller, a relaxed, gridlock-free, quiet town like this — population 754 at the time of the 2010 Census — is a most welcome change.

Friday-night agenda

I chose to stay at O’Leary’s Bed and Breakfast, a restored 1910 home with five rooms (all with private bathrooms).

Lanesboro, dubbed the bed-and-breakfast capital of Minnesota, boasts nearly 20 B&Bs and non-chain hotels. (In 2004, Outside Magazine named Lanesboro one of the “20 Best Dream Towns in America.”)

My first big stop after settling in was the town’s historic St. Mane Theatre for Over the Back Fence, a community variety show offered on the second Friday of the month March through November.

The 90-minute show — which is broadcast the following Wednesdays on Winona State University’s KQAL 89.5 FM — included songs, skits and jokes from local performers, as well as special musical guest singer-songwriter Jake Manders and storyteller Al Batt.

The next morning, I awoke to a fantastic B&B breakfast at O’Leary’s, which included fresh-baked raspberry and blueberry scones from the Lanesboro Pastry Shoppe, a local favorite famous for its treats and other breakfast offerings.

Aroma Pie Shoppe in Whalan (population 63) offers a rotating selection of fresh-baked slices, plus sandwiches. Photo by Sam Patet
Aroma Pie Shoppe in Whalan (population 63) offers a rotating selection of fresh-baked slices, plus sandwiches. Photo by Sam Patet

Saturday: Biking (and pie)

My first activity on Saturday was a bike ride along the Root River State Trail.

Constructed in the 1980s over a former Milwaukee Railroad bed, the 42-mile-long east-west trail system connects six towns in Fillmore and Houston counties, including Lanesboro.

In addition, the 18-mile north-south Harmony-Preston Valley State Trail connects with the Root River State Trail 4.7 miles west of Lanesboro and travels to the towns of Preston and Harmony.

I didn’t bring a bike, so I rented one from Little River General Store, one of several outfitters in Lanesboro that rent bikes, canoes, kayaks and inner-tubes.

Having laced my shoes and donned my helmet, I hit the trail and headed northeast for Whalan, Minn.

I wasn’t planning to bike very far — it’s less than five miles between the two towns.

Honestly, I just wanted to visit Whalan’s famous Aroma Pie Shoppe.

Open for more than 30 years, the shop is currently owned by Karna Hudoba, who bought it this past April.

It’s going well.

On one of its busiest days, the shop sold more than 600 slices to hungry visitors, Hudoba said.

Not bad for a town with a population of 63 (as of 2010).

A whiteboard displayed the flavors of the day — apple, peach, coconut cream and maple oatmeal, to name a few.

I went with a slice of blueberry cream cheese silk and a cup of coffee.

After biking back to Lanesboro, I stopped at Pedal Pushers Café for lunch.

Co-owner Angie Taylor said she and her husband, Scott, change their extensive lunch and dinner menus each year, although they keep some comfort food items no matter what, including liver and onions, chicken pot pie and Norwegian meatballs.

I had grilled fish tacos served with sweet potato chips and a lime Italian soda.

Minnesota's Root River State Trail is picturesque and popular with cyclists. Photo by Sam Patet
Minnesota’s Root River State Trail is picturesque and popular with cyclists. Photo by Sam Patet

Adventure awaits

Next, it was off to Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center.

Six miles north of Lanesboro, this privately run nonprofit center offers a variety of environmental classes for adults throughout the year — such as crocheting, fly fishing and bird watching — as well as programs for kids.

Nine miles of hiking trails are open to the public here seven days a week, too.

But I went for another popular attraction at the center — the high ropes course.

Open year-round, the course features views of the Root River Valley.

As I made my way between seven platforms — 30 feet off the ground — I had to take deep breaths to calm my nerves every so often.

Note: Eagle Bluff’s spokeswoman Sara Sturgis said older adults do attempt the course, but it’s recommend for people who are comfortable with at least moderate physical activity.

zip line at Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center
The high ropes course — 30 feet off the ground — at Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center near Lanesboro affords views of the Root River Valley. Photo courtesy of Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center

Theater for all

Afraid of heights? Other activities include a bus tour of the area’s Amish communities, a trip to one of the area’s two underground caves or, in the winter, cross-country skiing.

You can find information on all these opportunities at the town’s visitor center, which is open seven days a week.

I didn’t have much time to rest after my ropes-course adventure.

I had to get ready for an evening performance at Commonweal Theatre.

Now in its 28th season, Commonweal is run by a company of 14 professionally trained actors.

In addition to performing, the actors manage all aspects of the theater’s operations, including ticket sales, marketing, fundraising and facilities maintenance.

The theater produces six shows a year, including one every year by the 19th-century Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen.

I had the pleasure of seeing playwright Ken Ludwig’s adaptation of The Three Musketeers.

You still can see it — it runs through Oct. 24 — or, if you head down in November or December, you can see Pride’s Crossing or A Christmas Carol.

Before the show, I had dinner at Intermission, a small restaurant next door to the theater.

Dining there was a treat for me. I went for the New York strip steak with roasted garlic and jalapeno butter, with a glass of Zinfandel.

Reservations are recommended.

The Three Musketeers is showing at Lanesboro’s Commonweal Theatre
The Three Musketeers is showing at Lanesboro’s Commonweal Theatre through Oct. 24. Tickets cost $35. Photo by Jason Underferth

Sunday goodbyes

Before heading out on Sunday morning, I took a stroll through the historic downtown, stopping at several gift stores and antique shops.

I also visited the Lanesboro Arts gallery. Operated by Lanesboro Arts, a nonprofit that also produces the Over the Back Fence variety show, the gallery features work by artists from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa as well as special exhibitions throughout the year.

And with that, I was back in my car and headed north for the Twin Cities.

Lanesboro, alas, was even better than I remembered it.

Whether you’re still working or retired, on your own or traveling with the grandkids, Lanesboro might be your perfect weekend getaway.

Lanesboro's quaint downtown features an array of shops and galleries. Photo by Adam Wiltgen
Lanesboro’s quaint downtown features an array of shops and galleries. Photo by Adam Wiltgen

Sam Patet works for Lyngblomsten, a Christian nonprofit that offers health care to older adults, and is a freelance writer on the side. Check out his work at tinyurl.com/samuel-patet.


Resources

Lanesboro: Plan your trip at lanesboro.com.

Root River & Harmony-Preston Valley State Trails: Download a guide (including a printable color map) for the Blufflands State Trail System in southeastern Minnesota at tinyurl.com/blufflands.

Commonweal Theatre Company: See what shows are playing at commonwealtheatre.org.

Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center: Explore course listings and hours of operation at eagle-bluff.org.