Minnesota River Valley Tour: Beautiful by Bike

BY: Tom Engstrom / September 06 , 2012

Tom, his wife Linda, and friend Jack, took a 4-day bike tour of the Minnesota River Valley. Along the way they documented the joys and trials of camping by bike in this not-to-be missed part of our state. Tom's beautiful photos help you "see" the ride yourself.

My wife Linda and I have these great country touring bikes, racks and panniers that had never been used for their intended purpose. They are made for fully-loaded bike touring where you carry your camping gear with you. We’ve done plenty of cycling with a truck hauling our gear, but never a self-sufficient ride.

Neither of us, nor our friend Jack was getting any younger, so from this year we rode the Minnesota River Valley from its origin at Ortonville to our home in Mankato. The total distance was estimated at 190 miles, including town riding to find campgrounds and food.

The Minnesota River

There is an official Minnesota River Valley Scenic Byway route that served as our inspiration and planning guide, however it is a car route following highways we didn’t want to cycle. So with a combination of trails, gravel and paved roads we designed a route keeping us as close to the Minnesota River as possible. We also decided to camp in communities with food and cold refreshments. That meant Ortonville, Montevideo, Redwood Falls and New Ulm would ultimately be our overnight destinations. Additionally, Linda was taking a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources class about prairie potholes and was documenting our journey for a class project; hence she wanted to log the river’s elevation as we went.

Making Your Own Trail Isn't Always Easy

Day one began with a stop for coffee at Java Jules in Ortonville where we ran into Dan Kafka and his wife Brenda who I used to work with at Hubbard Milling in Mankato. They explained Ortonville is working to grow their bike tourism with rides around Big Stone Lake and through the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge, our route leaving Ortonville. A sign near the trail head for the Minnesota River State Trail in Ortonville noted the MS Tram ride had started from Ortonville several years and a Bike Around Minnesota (BAM) bike rack meant the BAM ride had stopped over night in Ortonville.  After we purchased sandwiches and fruit for lunch at Bill’s grocery by the Minnesota River State Trail trailhead,we headed out on the trail towards the Refuge. At this point the river is maybe 40-50 feet wide and there is not much evidence of a valley.

Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge

The Refuge is home to many birds, most noticeably Pelicans who were performing their magical choreographed dances in the sky as we rode. The trail is paved for several miles at thestart. When the trail enters the Refuge it turns to dirt and grass. Exiting the east end of the Refuge we rode on a rocky no motorized vehicles road. Our 700x35c and 43c touring tires served us well on these surfaces.

After the Refuge we turned south and rode on hard surface and gravel roads laid out on a prairiegrid away from the river. With over 90 degree temps and a strong southerly wind the ride southand east of the Refuge might have been the least enjoyable part of our whole ride. Lunch was on a grassy lawn in Louisburg where we found cold root beer at the grain elevator plus water and bathrooms at The Louisburg Lutheran Church. When we rode into town the church janitor saw us and drove her riding lawn mower over to our lunch spot and invited us to use the church. It’s always fun when friendly people greet and welcome you to share what they have. Eventually we arrived at Lac qui Parle County 33, a lovely road running along Lac qui Parle towards Lac qui Parle State Park. After a ride through the State Park and a drink of cold water, we continued on into Montevideo along Highway 7 which had a decent shoulder and not a lot of traffic. Camping in Lagoon Park next to the Chippewa River and close to downtown Montevideo was convenient to the excellent El Rancho restaurant. Cold beer and a mini fajita was just what I needed after 61 miles on a 90 degree windy day. The only drawback was the traffic on Highway 212 which passed close to the campground throughout the night. We rode a total of 61.2 miles day one.

Almost to Montevideo and a cold beer...

Day two began with a stop at Valentino’s Restaurant in Montevideo for a hearty breakfast and the days first shot of caffeine. We decided to ride to Granite Falls before looking for lunch. With help from a local we found the trail at the south end of Main Street in Montevideo. The trail ledus to State Road/ County 15. From County 15 we turned south and east on to gravel PalmerCreek Road and eventually to County 5 on the north end of Granite Falls. On Palmer Creek Road we started to feel like we were in the Minnesota River Valley with quiet roads, shade trees and views of the river. As we progressed the valley began to broaden and the bluffs grew taller. After picking up sandwiches and fruit in Granite Falls, we left on Highway 67, a pleasant ride without much traffic. We didn’t go far before stopping at the Blue Devil Valley Scientific and NaturalArea (SNA), noted for its granite outcrops and the 5-lined skink that lives there.

Our next stop was the Upper Sioux Agency State Park where we enjoyed our lunch with a cold drink and a short movie about the Minnesota River Valley Scenic Byway shown to us by the Park Ranger. After lunch we headed across the Renville County 10 Bridge to gravel County 15 which follows the river to Redwood Falls. This was one of the roads we had been looking forward to as Jack is a fan of riding gravel and we wanted to experience the valley close-up.

Riding on Gravel

This road is more remote with little traffic and our touring tires worked well on the gravel roadsurface. Riding in loose gravel is not fun and it causes you to slow considerably, but this road was not difficult riding. Man made sites we saw along the way included the foundation of the Joseph Brown House from the 1800’s, the Rudi memorial and the Enestvedt Seed Corn Company. As we worked our way down the river valley, Jack started suffering from heat exhaustion so we crossed the river towards Delhi looking for ice water. After a couple of miles into a strong headwind we reached Delhi and found little left of the town but a few houses and water. Jack decided to rest in the shade and come into Redwood later in the day. Since it was about 6:00 pm Linda and I rode into Redwood to set up camp in Alexander Ramsey Park and seek food. The park was great, but the food selection close to the park was limited and we settled for pre-made pizza and cold drinks at the nearby golf course club house. The great view of the river valley from the club house somewhat made up for the food quality. Jack arrived by 8:30 pm and after a shower crashed into his tent. If we were to do this ride again we would stay on gravel 15 all the way into North Redwood, and then ride out of the valley to Redwood Falls. Every time we left the peaceful, shady valley roads we enjoyed the ride less as we encountered wind and roads platted to a prairie grid. Total miles day two equaled 55.

Day three was to become my favorite day and one that Jack missed since he was sick. His wife picked him up and he recovered to join us for dinner later that day. The day began with the discovery of a great coffee shop in downtown Redwood Falls called the Calf Fiend Café with handmade bread for our sandwiches and a lemon tort for my lunchtime desert. We left Redwood Falls heading East on County 24 which goes by the Jack Pot Junction casino and the Lower Sioux Indian Community where a Wacipi (Pow Wow) was taking place. We would have enjoyed the Wacipi however it was early and the activities had not begun. From there it was on to County 2 past the Lower Sioux Agency before it turns to gravel and drops down closer to the river. Again the gravel was good for bike riding with very little traffic and great views of the valley. On the previous day we missed taking a one lane bridge across the river because we rode in to Delhi, but today we discovered another one lane bridge taking us back to the North side of the river and then on to Fort Ridgely State Park. An event explaining how the Fort functioned long ago was underway while we relaxed under shade trees eating our lunch. Every so often muskets and cannons were fired keeping us from napping. After a lengthy break we headed back onto paved Nicollet County 21 (also called the Fort Road by some locals) towards New Ulm. While we had more traffic this was a fine ride on a very warm day. After a stop at the historic Harkin Store for a cold root beer, we headed for New Ulm and our campsite at Flandreau State Park. There is a certain sense of feel good when you ride into a town after a day of self-sufficient biking knowing you didn’t use a car to get there. Not sure how to describe it so you’ll just have to experience it yourself. The park was really busy with families camping and swimming. After setting up our tent and taking a shower, Jack and his wife Beth drove over from Mankato to take us to the Grand Hotel for a fine dinner and music by Fish Fry. This was a great way to celebrate our last night on the road and our anniversary! Our day three miles totaled 48.5.

Day four was the most uneventful as we had a short 24 miles to our home by Mankato. We found fruit, milk and yogurt at a convenience store to go with granola we brought from home.  The wind was blowing from the south as we made our way across Minnesota 68 stopping only in Judson for one last elevation check. In the future I think we would take Minnesota 14 out of New Ulm and then at Courtland take Nicollet County 25 to township gravel 506th street towards Judson. This would keep us closer to the river and then finish up the ride on beautiful Nicollet County 41 (Judson Bottom Road) into North Mankato.

Total miles ridden were 189.1, which included a few miles in search of food in the towns where we camped. I carried about 50 lbs of gear including our 4 person light weight tent and could have dropped maybe 10 lbs by not using front panniers. Keeping weight off the front of the bike would make gravel riding easier.

We thoroughly enjoyed the trip and becoming better acquainted with the valley we live in. There are many natural and manmade sites to visit. We’ll do it again.

Tom and Linda Engstrom                        Jack Rayburn

Mankato, Minnesota                                Mankato, Minnesota

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  1. Thanks for this report. I rode Mpls - Hutchinson - Olivia - Montevideo - Wilmar - Litchfield - Mpls a few weeks ago and I also camped in Lagoon Park and ate downstairs at El Rancho. I wish I had been aware then of your less busy gravel alternatives. I had intended to return through Redwood Falls and New Ulm but decided I had enough of the heavy traffic on 12, 212, 7, 15 and 25. Next time I will pay more attention to your route and loop through Mankato on the way back.John Blish