We all know Des Moines is awesome and we have a new accolade or ranking to celebrate nearly every week. But do you know about the beautiful town of Decorah, Iowa? It was named to Smithsonian Magazines 20 best small towns to visit in 2014, and Forbes Magazine gave it the title of one of America’s prettiest towns.
My family takes a fishing trip to Decorah every year, and over the years it has become my happy place. As my family grew, I also realized it’s a low-stress vacation – because, let’s be real, a “vacation” with kids is sometimes really just a trip, isn’t it?
Decorah is about a four-hour drive from Des Moines. The small town has a lot to offer if you know which rocks to overturn. Admittedly, you do need to enjoy being outdoors to justify this trip, but there really is something for everyone to explore. We’ve been going there for a decade and I still discover something new each year.
Here are my tips for planning a trip to Decorah
Where to stay
There are a handful of hotels, guest houses, and bed and breakfasts to choose from, but I recommend renting a cabin or staying in an Airbnb to get an authentic, relaxing experience. We have stayed in an Airbnb in town for our quicker stays. When I wake up to the birds chirping and no buzz of a big city, I feel so relaxed. Plus, it’s usually the cheapest option and you can still get the whole house to accommodate little ones.
When we travel with our extended family, we rent a big cabin in the nearby small “town” of Highlandville, Iowa (population of 35) at the Bear Creek Cabins. There are dozens of more options to stay in cabins in nearby rural pockets. It all depends on what kind of trip you are planning.
What to do
This town is home to a lot of festivals. In July, they host the Winneshiek County Fair in and the Nordic Fest. When we go, I always find time for a bike ride on the 10-mile loop Trout Run Trail route around town. There are definitely some hills, but it is a doable route with a child in tow. The route takes you to an overlook of the town surrounded by prairie flowers. It’s one of my top 5 favorite places I’ve ever been to and the most beautiful trail I’ve ever crossed.
No need to pack your car with all that biking gear, you can rent everything you need at Decorah Bicycles, which is right off the trail. Rentals are $20 per bike and $10 for a Burley Bee to hold the kiddos – and all rentals include helmets.
Trout fishing is the major attraction in the area. If you are a beginner, Twin Springs is a very accessible stream. Parts of the park are handicap accessible and you can park right next to the stream. For the novice angler, you will want to navigate the confusing gravel rural roads to find the rarest of fishing holes. Watch the DNR stocking schedule to scout out these visits, and don’t rely on GPS to get around. You will have to get a county map to navigate, but those nearly pristine areas you find are worth the extra effort.
Where to visit
If you tire of fishing or biking, you can visit Dunning’s Springs, or the Decorah Fish Hatchery. Not only can you see tanks full of trout of all ages, but the hatchery is where the famous Decorah Eagles live. Seed Savers Exchange is outside of town. They preserve heirloom plant varieties. It’s one of the largest non-governmental seed banks in the United States.
Where to eat
You won’t find a lot of chain restaurants in this town, instead, there are dozens of locally owned unique restaurants to try. I haven’t eaten every pizza in the world, but out of the ones I have, Mabe’s is still my favorite of all time. Open for over 60 years, this local place is located on the main street in town and has plenty of room to accommodate big groups. If you like Italian sausage, get the Regular. If you still have room after the meal, take the kids to The Whippy Dip – your standard local ice cream shop that becomes the meeting place in town.
For a getaway from the kids, stop by Toppling Goliath Brewery. They have started selling some canned beers from this brewery in a few Des Moines area Hy-Vee locations. You can also get special reserves at this brewery. We once witnessed people lining up for hours with backpacks to take away a special reserve. I have a friend who follows the TGB truck driver on Twitter to watch where he’s dropping deliveries. In short, it’s great beer that’s worth obsessing over.
Finally, if you need to stock up on food for the cabin, get the best local foods at the Oneota Co-Op. We visit so often I have considered buying a membership, but anyone can shop there.
Reading back on this, I think my love is more of an obsession. I’ve often stared at the rural houses along the gravel roads in northeast Iowa and dreamt of selling everything and retiring to the slice of heaven. In the meantime, I will continue visiting with my family for some sunshine and some Mabe’s pizza.