Decorah & the Trout Run Trail
I visited Decorah back in 2013, an adorable town in northeast Iowa, and wrote on this blog about my experience. I spent that fall weekend shopping, dining, visiting the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, and taking a short walk on the 11-mile Trout Run recreational trail.
My biggest regret on that trip was not being able to secure a room in the Hotel Winneshiek. And, in hindsight, I definitely wimped out on the Trout Run Trail.
Last weekend, I headed for Decorah again to meet with a handful of Iowa college and university alumni magazine editors on the lovely Luther College campus. Although I was primarily there for work, I was also determined to do this visit right.
So I made a reservation at the Hotel Winneshiek months in advance, and I was not disappointed by my stay there. The historic hotel, built in 1905, is every bit as friendly and grand as you would hope. The lobby is enthralling, with a three-story atrium, cozy seating, dark wood, and marble fireplace.
My room was not overly posh; instead, it was comfortable, charming, and exceedingly clean, with a gleaming and well-lit bathroom and a big, cushy bed. The hotel has both a restaurant (Restauration), in which I ate a simple breakfast one morning, and a bar (the Tap Room).
I spent much of my time on the Luther campus, and some meals were furnished by our college hosts. But I managed to sample a number of other Decorah bars and restaurants during my stay.
I arrived on Thursday afternoon and met my new Luther College friends at La Rana for dinner. La Rana is a small bistro with a menu built around fresh, locally sourced ingredients. I enjoyed a hummus-and-pita appetizer, a glass of pinot noir, and a spring salad with fresh strawberries and sliced almonds. Everything was delicious.
Afterwards, we met other editors at Toppling Goliath Brewing Company’s taproom. I’m told that this brewery is raking in the awards; I was recently introduced to its Dorothy’s New World Lager at the Iowa Taproom in Des Moines’ historic East Village. On Thursday night we sat on the brewery’s comfortable patio, where I drank a pint of Murph’s Irish Red, the heaviest Irish amber I think I’ve ever tried. It was good…but very heavy. I’m told the PseudoSue (with a label featuring the famous T-Rex) is another good one to try.
After a full-day conference on Friday, another editor and I – on the advice of several locals – set out to eat dinner at McCaffrey’s Dolce Vita Italian restaurant. I was told it had the best wood-fired pizza in the most unique setting in town. Both of these things were true. Also, the restaurant was incredibly hard to find. Even with a map, we got lost, hit a dead end, nearly drove down a bike path, and had to flag down a local cyclist who, when we told him where we were headed, laughed. Because it’s that confusing. But he gave us great directions, and we found the place. (Turn right in two stop signs, turn right on Hwy. 9, turn right on Hwy 152, turn right and then a very quick left onto Twin Springs Road – don’t blink or you’ll miss it! – then go under the bridge and up the winding lane through a park and onto a gravel road. When the road ends, you’re there. Trust me.)
At McCaffrey’s Dolce Vita you can sit inside, but why do that when you can dine on the covered porch, or be really adventurous like us and sit outside under a tent decorated with Christmas lights? On Saturday nights, this area is said to be packed with people enjoying live music. We didn’t get live music – just a thunderstorm, which was sort of fun in its own way. And the thin-crust margherita pizza, side salads, and glasses of wine were enhanced by the restaurant’s woodsy atmosphere. It was worth the trip.
Afterwards, since it was only 7:30 and we had nothing else to do, we drank more wine in Rubaiyat, the restaurant across the street from our hotel. I had dined here in 2013 and thought both times it was a very nice place with friendly servers and a classy, old-world atmosphere.
To round out my restaurant recommendations and before I talk about the Trout Run Trail – I swear I’m getting to it! – let me just mention a couple of other places in Decorah that are worth a shout-out.
First, Java John’s coffeehouse has awesome coffee in a comfortable setting. I went there both Thursday and Saturday for decaf café Americano, artfully prepared by the same barista both times. The Oneota Community Food Co-op is also worth a visit. I only went there for bottled water and a cookie, but one could do some serious food shopping there, including picking up fully cooked meals from the deli. Last but not least, the Sugar Bowl ice cream store is a locally owned shop serving the creamiest hand-dipped ice cream I’ve tasted in years. (The website says the shop is for sale, so you might want to go there soon.)
All of these shops, bars, and restaurants are located in downtown Decorah (except Dolce Vita, which, as noted before, is god knows where).
OKAY, I really just intended to write about my experience on the Trout Run Trail, so here we go, 858 words later. (Sorry about all the restaurant reviews. I couldn’t help myself.)
When I walked on this trail in 2013, I made the comment that “walking the entire 11-mile trail would have killed me.” This year when I was planning my return trip to Decorah I desperately wanted to prove that, three years later and three years older, I am in better shape. Except, well, maybe it would take too long. Maybe the weather wouldn’t cooperate. Maybe my feet would give out, so I’d definitely need to bring along spare shoes. And snacks. And lots of bottled water. In short, I was looking for an excuse not to attempt this walk.
I was thoroughly unconvinced that I had the stamina to walk 11 miles on a trail that is described as “challenging” in parts. I didn’t want to get halfway through and poop out, with no alternative way to get back to my car.
When I woke up Saturday morning, I had a sore throat and didn’t feel the greatest. I almost decided to scrap the whole thing. But then I decided I’d just grab a bottle of water at the co-op and walk a couple of miles. Easy peasy.
It took me about 15 minutes walking from the hotel to the western edge of the trail, which coincidentally is the official beginning of the trail according to the maps and all the signage. I walked south through woods and bluffs and zig-zagging switchbacks. I saw artwork and overlooks and a few cyclists enjoying what turned out to be a really beautiful day. I was having such fun! After about two miles, I checked the trail map and decided I needed to go about two more miles to see some of the trail’s best features. And then it hit me: I loved this trail. I was hooked. So I decided, what the hell, I’ll just walk the whole thing.
So I did. Without my trail snacks or my change of shoes and socks, without extra water or my cell phone or emergency cash, without anything except one bottle of water, my camera, and my map. It was a spectacular experience. Here’s a chronological gallery of my favorite scenes on the trail:
The “challenging terrain” is not difficult at all if you’re a walker. I’m sure these sections are tough on a bicycle, because there are a lot of ups and downs. I saw a cyclist or two walking their bikes and looking pretty winded. But I loved the hills, loved the bridges, loved the views. The section from Mile 5.5 to Mile 11 (or Mile zero, depending on how you look at it) on the west and south side of Decorah is the most scenic and has the most variety. There’s a park around Mile 5 with restrooms and water, so I took advantage of the facilities and filled up my water bottle.
Also around Mile 5 you pass by the Trout Hatchery and the famous Decorah eagles’ nest. I’d walked this section (Mile 5 to about Mile 3) before, and it’s mostly farmland, but the trail does cross a stream where people are fishing. And this is the section with the archway sculpture that’s become the trail’s main icon. Here are the highlights of this section:
Miles 2 and 3 are unpleasant, because they go through town where the trail is located directly beside busy streets and then briefly near an unattractive industrial site. But eventually I got back into a somewhat scenic area before ending where I started just west of downtown.
I’m happy to report that I still had a spring in my step after 3 hours and 35 minutes of walking. I felt absolutely victorious. I spent another half-hour or so in Decorah, finding food and more water and coffee for the road (thank you, Java John’s). I would happily walk this trail again. And I’m guessing I will.