Zip lines whir across forests, military tanks growl and plow through puddles, and bicyclists grind up hills and speed back down. Quench your thirst with one of hundreds of soda flavors at Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store in Jordan, or hoist a cold brew from one of the nation’s oldest family-owned breweries in charming New Ulm. Local history abounds here, with stories of the area's triumphs and tragedies.
Start your Minnesota River journey on Highway 169, heading southwest out of the Twin Cities, and pick your favorite way to experience this 300-mile scenic drive.
See Fall From the Treetops
The height can make newbies wary when climbing up to zip-line platforms, but the snug harness and exhilaration of speeding above the trees—with fall colors on fast-forward—make any nerves vanish in a blink.
Sand Creek Adventures, a 4-mile detour off the byway along Highway 21 south of Jordan, guides visitors through its high ropes course and the zip line across Sand Creek. Kerfoot Canopy Tour tucks into the woods above the Minnesota River with its zip lines set up between Belle Plaine and Henderson.
For a fall treat and thirst quencher post-adventure, three of the most beloved stops on the byway are found between Jordan and Belle Plaine. Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store, with its can’t-miss-it yellow buildings, offers sweets and sodas galore, plus fall pumpkins, apples and pastries. Minnesota Harvest and Emma Krumbee’s load up with their fresh-picked apples, cider, baked goods and family-friendly activities, from hay rides to petting zoos.
Learn About Native American History & Heritage
St. Peter’s Treaty Site History Center tells about a pivotal treaty between Europeans and Dakota Indians that allowed settlers into the valley, but led to starving tribes and an uprising that sparked the U.S.-Dakota War in 1862. Sites throughout the valley tell this story, with extensive exhibits at New Ulm’s Brown County Historical Society; Reconciliation Park in Mankato, where 38 Dakota were hanged; and battlefields and ruins at Fort Ridgely near Fairfax.
Hikers can check out the cool, wet gorges at Mankato’s Minneopa State Park with its 39-foot waterfall and a resident herd of buffalo. When rain has been plentiful, Minnemishinona Falls on the other side of the Minnesota River drops 42 feet into a ravine. To the west, Redwood Falls claims the state’s biggest municipal park, Alexander Ramsey Park, which also has camping through mid-October, a 20-foot waterfall and a small zoo with bison, elk and deer.
Mankato offers numerous bike loops throughout the river valley, plus the Sakatah State Trail that stretches to Faribault. The most popular local ride follows the Red Jacket Trail to historic Rapidan Dam, where a tiny cafe serves up old-fashioned burgers and pies. It’s also the sweetest rest stop for cyclists on the annual Mankato River Ramble.
Bent River Outfitter rents canoes, kayaks and paddleboards and offers shuttles to paddlers who want to explore local rivers, including the Blue Earth River with its deep grottos and gorges. They also host guided paddles by appointment only and require a group of 6 or more.
Celebrate the German Way
New Ulm, known for its distinctive and historic German architecture and culture, embraces a traditional Oktoberfest celebration the first two weekends in October with a parade (Oktoberfest 2021 will not take place due to Covid-19), tours at sixth-generation Schell’s Brewery, music and dancing, wine-tasting and a grape stomp at Morgan Creek Vineyards, and the chance to shop early for German Christmas ornaments.
Don’t miss climbing the Hermann the German statue that rises 102 feet high for a sweeping view of the Minnesota River Valley cloaked in its brightest colors.
Lisa Meyers McClintick is a prolific travel writer for outlets including USA Today, Midwest Living, the Star Tribune and her website lisamcclintick.com. A mom of three, she especially enjoys family travel, hands-on learning vacations, local food and farms, living history and outdoor adventures.
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