Root River State Trail Log

A River Runs With You


One of the most popular trail rides in the state takes cyclists on the dual-trail system of the Root River Trail and the Harmony-Preston Valley Trail in the heart of the Bluff Country of southern Minnesota.


The Root River Trail, which follows the route of its namesake, the Root River, is nearly 42 miles long as its goes from Fountain all the way through Lanesboro, Whalan, Peterson, Rushford and Houston.


Connecting to it is the Harmony-Preston Valley State Trail that adds another 18 miles of cycling pleasure, some of which leaves the straight and narrow of railroad beds by going up and down hills and around curves. (See the Preston and Harmony pages for more information on that trail.)


Limestone bluffs flank the Root River Trail and are sometimes right next to the trail, or loom like mountains nearby. The river is also a constant companion on one side of the trail or the other for most of the ride.


The trail, which is nearly always far from any traffic noise, provides a scenic and unique ride that also has a touch of country (from cows to corn) in it.


Nearly all of those Root River trail miles are flat, except for a fast-paced, downhill ride of 5 miles or so beginning at Fountain, and the hilly, curvy 6.5 mile finish into Houston, which means there are biking experiences to meet every biker’s fancy.


The abandoned railroad bed that was resurfaced has more than 50 railroad bridges; most are short but some are nearly 500 ft. long.


The trail hugs the Root River, known for its canoeing, about three-fourths of the way, often close enough to be fully appreciated. The bluff on the north, however, is always in glorious view.


The trail sometimes cuts right through farms, complete with pigs, cows and horses and all the accompanying smells and sounds. Old barns are a delightful sight.


Bikers can start at the west end of the trail in Fountain, or at the east end in Houston (either going one way down the trail, going half-way round-trip from each end or doing the whole thing round trip). Others may prefer to begin more in the middle at Lanesboro and go west in one ride and east in another.


Options depend on your stamina, time and style.


Whichever way you choose to go, allow plenty of time to enjoy the bluffs, river, farms and small-town atmosphere that makes this trail a delight for multiple activities.


Highlights along the trail, from Fountain to Isinours Junction:


The trailhead on the southeast corner of Fountain has all that’s needed to change from street clothes to biking apparel: large “his and hers” bathrooms with lots of space and water in a quiet, out-of-the-way setting next to a corn field.There’s also a large parking lot, big playground and picnic area with gazebo in a park-like setting.


The first mile of the trail from Fountain is in open fields and passes next to a cemetery; the next five miles are usually under shade trees and a breeze, all downhill, but at a steady decline. There’s no river (some creek), but many scenic views with a couple of picnic tables along the way welcoming a stop, although that’s hard to do while coasting at 18 mph.


But if you return to Fountain, get ready to enjoy a little exercising with your ride back up the incline.


•M .4 Fountain is the “Sinkhole Capital of the World,” so stop at the information kiosk to learn about sinkholes that can be found throughout the area. You’ll also be able to take the walkway to an actual sinkhole.


•M .7 Prepare for the downhill ride of several miles. After the cemetery the trail curves sharply and drops, so you may need to apply the brakes, but you won’t have to spin for another two miles, especially if the wind is at your back.


•M 1 A warming hut for cross country skiers is also a nice shelter for cyclists. The ride continues under a canopy of trees and above a creek.


•M 2.5 Watch for the road crossing that comes up quickly, right by a hill of limestone that was excavated one recent summer and lost some of its natural charm in the process, although motorists can now see bikers more easily. After you cross the road, you’ll continue through farm country.


•M3 The trail comes out into the open and cuts through a farmyard where cows are often right along the trail; stop and enjoy the rural feeling.


If you’re still coasting since the cemetery, you may need a few spins to get going again before you can coast for about three more miles through the woods.


•M3.2 Look at all the trees arching over the trail. On sunny days, this provides shade. On cloudy days, you feel like you’re in a rain forest.


•M4.3 The first of many bridges (most of wood) that you’ll cross on the trail. The trail is open for just awhile and then goes back into the trees.


•M5 Cows are often so close to the trail you can hear them chomping on the grass.


•M5.2 This bridge takes you across Watson Creek.


•M5.5 A section of state forest (Isinours Forestry Unit, accessible from Hwy. 17) on the left is open for hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter. Toilets, water and shelter are available.


•M6.5 You’re at the trail’s Isinours Junction. The extension into Preston/Harmony comes up on your right (to the south). Continue down the trail 4.7 miles and you’ll arrive in Lanesboro.


The trail narrative continues in the next two-page section.


Highlights along the trail from Isinours Junction to Lanesboro:


This trail narrative is a continuation of the previous two-page section.


•M6.7 After the downhill ride and the stop at Isinours Junction, the trail leaves the trees and skirts the winding Root River that will now accompany the trail all the way to its end in Houston. Stop here and enjoy the picturesque view. Legend has it that the bridge you see over the river was where the state’s largest trout was caught.


•M 6.8 Limestone walls cradle you on both sides of the trail. This is also a must-stop, or at least a slow-down, in this cavern-like section. Note all the rock that has fallen; makes you want to be on the look-out.


•M7 An interpretive sign will inform you what the “telltale” above you (just before the bridge) is all about. A few more spins and just before you get to the bridge, take a walk down the steps (on your right ) to the river.


The trail crosses the south branch of the Root River at this point for the first time, and then returns to go back across the trail just a short ways down the trail.


•M7.1 The trail continues through a canopy of trees, often crossing a bridge, and nearly always within a short distance of the Root River, although it may be hidden by the foliage.


•M7.4 Bridges along the Root River Trail come in all shapes, sizes and material. Check out the big rivets on this steel bridge that was converted to recreational use with wood planking. When you cross the bridge, note the steps on the right that go down to a shelter with a view of the river.


•M8.4 Note the limestone cliffs that pop up here and there along the trail. Also note (in late summer) the tall, dried stalks of wild parsley.


•M8.7 or 8.8 The trail is next to the Root River, so enjoy the quiet view from a picnic table. (But on one ride, a cow was bellowing in the distance, upset about something.)


•M 9.4 The trail cuts through a state game refuge, so be on the look-out for wild turkeys, deer, hawks and -rattlesnakes. There are warnings that rattlesnakes can be found on rock outcrops and in the river bottoms, so be aware. Turkeys have been seen on this section, especially in early spring.


The trail will come out of the trees for awhile and into the open, alongside cropland and go up a nice hill for about .1 mile; be prepared for a harder pedal. Then the trail will go downhill for just a bit, hug the bluff for a short distance and dip into some trees before winding away from the bluff to go straight through fields.


•M10 Notice all the big trees? Cottonwoods, right?


•M10.1 A rural scene meant for a post card: an old farmstead, cows on the hill and


•M10.8 The sound of rushing water, especially in spring/early summer, or after a heavy rain, tells you that Lanesboro is near.


•M11 Watch on the left for a paved trail segment (.2 miles long) that connects to a large parking lot cyclists can use as a trailhead in Lanesboro.


•M11.1 The entrance into Lanesboro is quite grand, with water flowing over the dam on your right and the city with its picturesque bluffs on your left and a trestle underneath.


There’s a cobble-stone style rest stop area right after the trestle.


The trail crosses a busy street then the big trailhead comes up. It has rest rooms, water, phone, bike racks and information. The trail then crosses another busy street before heading out of town.


The trail narrative continues in the next two-page section.


Highlights along the trail from Lanesboro through Whalan and Peterson to Rushford:


This trail narrative is a continuation of the previous two-page section.


•M11.2 From the Lanesboro visitor center, the trail heads out of town, passes a cattle auction site and then heads into a quieter, shadier stretch (lush with vegetation) for the rest of the nearly five miles to Whalan, the smallest town on the trail (but a popular one and quite biker-friendly).


•M11.4 The sights and sounds of livestock emanate from the auction barn that’s usually in full action Fridays.


•M 11.5 Cross a long bridge. Most of the debris is gone that had accumulated under the bridge during 2000’s heavy rain that flooded sections of the trail; you can still see more signs (such as gouged river banks) of the high water mark as you bike the trail all the way to Houston. The river is a constant companion much of the way as the trail hugs the bluff and crosses several bridges.


•M12 The trail that has been in the trees is now open with a scenic view of the bluffs on the right (and under a full moon on the left during a 6:30 a.m. ride one early September) as it cuts through a farm and corn field.


•M12.7 The river is on the edge of the trail on the right and the bluff with a retaining wall in on your left. The gurgling of water can be heard on one side, and car engines on the other.


•M 13.1 The north and south branches of the Root River merge under another long bridge complete with steel girders overhead. This is another spot worthy of a rest stop to just gaze at the water below and the bluffs around you. Note (on the left) the debris piled up under the bridge; that shows how high the water rose during the 2000 flooding.


•M13.6 Keep the kids off that private sandpile.


•M 13.8 Four deer were hanging around the trail on an early September morning; maybe they were after the wild plums overhead. Sometimes a hill is welcomed on flat railroad bed trails, and this is one of them, even if it’s quite short.


•M 14 Time again to take the eyes of the trail and see what’s around you. Look up to the right at the top of a cliff and see the house perched high above. And shade trees are all around you, cooling you off on a hot day and, on cooler fall days, providing an eyeful of color if it’s the fall when the trail is its most picturesque.


•M14.1 The river is close to the trail; on the other shore are happy campers at a private campground.


•M15 You can stop at a X-C skiing hut and a picnic table.


•M15.6 Suburban Whalan arrives; note the Whalan golf course on your left.


•M15.8 After hugging the bluff and keeping close to the Root River, the trail glides into Whalan. 


Stop at John Whaalahan Park (named after the man who founded Whalan in 1868) on the left side of the trail that includes a gazebo-style shelter and playground, portable toilet and water. Just down the trail on the right, across from the old post office, is a sitting area and displays of old photos and information about Whalan.


There’s on-street parking if you want to make “downtown” Whalan your trailhead, but the main trailhead with parking and toilet is down the trail about a half-mile (just off the trail that winds through the woods) at M16.4 that has plenty of parking, tables and toilets, but no water.


•M16.6 Go up a short hill to the left and into the woods. From here to Peterson (about eight miles and most of it feeling like it’s downhill) the trail curves through the countryside, with the bluff always on your left and the river often on the right. There are enough old barns along the way to make the views even more interesting. There are a few picnic tables along the way for rest stops or long views.


•17.6 A bridge over a stream that empties into the Root River right next to the trail and offering a scenic view. You’ll hear water, especially if it has rained recently.


•M17.7 and 18.1 Benches invite bikers to enjoy a view of the river.


•M18.8 Be careful: All that’s between the edge of the trail and the river 30 ft. below is that orange warning fence. Most of the trail’s shoulder was washed away here in 2000 during record rains; it’s hard to believe that the river rose this high.


•M19 The trail is farther from the Root River; note the big oaks on the bluff (on your left).


•M19.5 Note an old red barn.


•M19.6 The trail crosses a driveway and then goes through a block-long growth of goat’s beard. On one early September day, hundreds of bees were in the white-flowered bushes. Don’t do anything to disturb them. Just pedal quietly through the area.


•M20 to 20.4 Note the signs (including a few fallen rocks) left behind after a heavy rain that came down the hillside. You’ll cross a driveway and it’s all downhill from here into Peterson, about 4.5 miles.


•M21.2 Another old barn along the trail that is in an open, sunny section. But soon the trail goes back into the woods.


•M21.8 An old barn on the bluff and at 22.2 an old barn on your right in the field.


•M22.3 The Root River is again close to the trail, but just briefly.


•M22.8 Big Spring Creek didn’t look that big in the fall.


•M23 What is that pole with the #37 on the bluff all about?


•M24.5 After crossing a bridge the trail pops out of the woods; a playground and ballfield emerge on the west side of Peterson and a shelter with bathroom is just over the hill to the right. The little town of Peterson appears to be the most well-kept town in the state, with cropped lawns and lovingly-restored buildings plus a new one here and there. As the other towns, it’s biker-friendly, with several benches along the trail (and one oft coveted is under a big shade tree).


If you start your ride in Peterson, watch for the signs coming in from Hwy. 16 that will direct you to city park that has a shelter and bathroom. The trail is just over the grassy hill in the woods.


•M24.9 The trail leaves Peterson through a tunnel of trees just after passing the old city hall on the left. For the next two miles the trail goes through the woods and along the river. The trail feels secluded here away from homes, fields and highway noise.


•M25.9 Stop at a bench for a nice view of the river.


•M26.8 The trail breaks into the open, away from the river and distanced from the bluffs. On one early morning ride, misty clouds and fog were lifting off the bluffs after an overnight rain. From here to Rushford (2.5 miles) you’ll be out of the trees and riding next to farm fields, most with corn.


•M29 As you near Rushford, watch above for the limestone bluffs that seem to be topped with stone walls. They are.


A road will take you to the top of those bluffs, so take a good look at them now so you’ll appreciate the climb (by foot, bike or vehicle) later.


•M29.5 The trailhead in Rushford features a trail center that has restrooms, water, parking and a museum, old school and tiny church. Continue along the marked bike route on the street straight ahead to pick up the next segment of the Root River Trail into Houston.


The trail narrative continues in the next two-page section.


Highlights along the trail from Rushford to the end of the paved trail in Houston.


This trail narrative is a continuation of the previous two-page section.


To get from the west end of the Root River Trail in Rushford to the continuation on the east end of town, bike eastward on the marked bike lane on the city streets (past the north side of the IGA) and to the trail that begins about about two blocks past the IGA. Watch for a bridge; that’s where the trail resumes.


•M29.7 As you cross the bridge, note the dirt floodwalls (dikes) that have been built around downtown Rushford and residential areas that protect against a rising Root River and Rush Creek during flood stage, which happened in 2000. The trail will pass homes and then some farms before heading into the woods.


•M30.3 Watch for a big oak tree with a half-dozen trunks.


•M31.3 Take a look: You’re out in the open with bluffs all around you in the near distance and crop fields near you (where on one late-summer ride a deer ran after hearing bike riders, with only its white tail showing as it jumped through the tall crop). The trail will cross a series of bridges, skirt a filed, brush up against a bluff and then be in open country for another .3 miles before heading into the woods again.


•M32.5 Enjoy a wide, clear view of the river and its curvy banks. Also note the large trees the river swept along during the flooding of 2000.


•M32.7-33.1 The trail cuts right through a cornfield; enjoy the sun on cloudless days.


•M33.3 Go over the bridge and the landscape changes; the bluff is one the left, river bottom is on the right.


•M33.6 A ski hut offers some shelter, if you need it, or rest on the bench.


•M33.9 A post has an old sign with “25” on it; no idea what that is for.


•M34.6 A picnic table pops up where you can take a break and enjoy a view of the river. For the next mile (before the “old” trail connects to the “new” extension), the ride feels like it’s all downhill.


•M35.5 Watch for the right turn that leads to the trail segment into Houston. (If you miss the turn, the trail goes about .1 miles and then abruptly ends as the pavement turns to grass; that’s a good sign you’ve gone too far, so turn back.) As the trail goes right and dips closer to the river bottom it will whip right and left (on concrete instead of bituminous) for about .3 miles before crossing the river over a long, wooden-planked steel bridge.


Get ready for a different kind of trail ride on the other side of the bridge, because the next 6.5 miles into Houston will have soft and hard turns, a couple short hills and one nice long climb, all adding up to an exhilarating ride.


•M36.2 The trail takes a sharp turn to the left (just before the highway) and soon begins a .2 mile-long climb that will get your heart pumping.


•M36.6 The trail goes to the left as it makes a U-turn through the woods and around some private property.


•M37.1 Ready for a long half-mile climb of about .4 miles? Hey, exercise is good. Take the hill in low or high gear, depending on your mental and physical state, or feel free to dismount and enjoy a nice walk to take it slowly.


•M37.6 Your reward for going uphill is now a fast ride downhill for about a half-mile. Check your brakes and hang-on. Take it at a speed comfortable for you. The trail here is actually a bike lane that borders a private road; stay to the right and watch for vehicles on the other side of the marked lane where vehicles travel.


•M38.1 The trail hits the bottom of the hill, but instead of following it to the highway, watch for a left turn, then a sharp right, soon followed by another left turn that goes down a long hill.


•M38.3 The trail will meander through the woods.


•M38.8 The trail meets the river as it continues through mostly-wooded areas for over two miles.


•M39.1 The original trail was damaged during the heavy rains of 2000, so the trail has been moved away from the river a bit to help prevent that from happening again.


•M39.7 The trail is right up against the river and in the open for about .2 miles.


•M40.3 The river is on your left, crop fields are on your right.


•M40.9 The trail turns right and away from the river as it heads for civilization and the highway.


•M41.2 The trail goes up a short hill and turns left to follow the trail that is now atop the dike protecting the town when the river floods. The trail is out in the open and sunshine as it heads for the Houston trailhead. Sometimes wildflowers grow tall and wide enough to squeeze riders into a single lane (such as at 41.5).


•M41.7 The trail ends, but follow the pavement to the right for about .2 miles to go to the unique Houston trailhead/nature center, which has bathrooms, shower (yes, a shower!), unique sculptures made from bike parts, naturalist displays, beautiful landscaping and lots of parking. This has to be the most unique trailhead in the state, so plan some time here and meet Alice the owl. This is also where riders can begin their trip.


Go straight on Plum Street and then right on Hwy. 76 to go into downtown Houston.


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