Luverne’s Bike Trails Make Connections
Back when automobiles were new and roads were few, Luverne, MN was an important stop on historic Highway 16, part of a route between Detroit and Yellowstone National Park. Today, traveling across the country is much less of an adventure than in the early 19th century and no longer requires a leather cap and goggles. You’ll still need a car to get to Luverne, but you should also bring your sense of adventure-and a bike.
After 10 years in the making, the Luverne Loop Trail was just completed earlier this year. This 7-mile paved route circles the town, and together with a 6-mile spur north to Blue Mounds State Park and the 2-mile Christopher Martin Ashby Memorial Trail, Luverne’s network of recreational routes has now grown to about 15 miles. From a previous visit I knew that Take 16, the local brewery, serves a great beer, so it was a no-brainer that my wife Jen and I had to be there for the ribbon cutting, the first annual Tour de Loop and a weekend of exploration.
We arrived on the eve of Luverne’s annual Buffalo Days celebration and moved into our digs at the Luverne Campground, where local entrepreneur couple Mike and Traci Davis have built a series of small cabins for rent. Nine of these tiny homes line up with views of The Lake, a gravel pit turned swimming and fishing hole. Traci met us there to give us a tour of cabin number two, a two-story mini-condo made to resemble a barn. The forecast was a hot and muggy one and we were happy to see the AC humming inside. The downstairs had a kitchen, dining room, bathroom and a bed. The spiral staircase in the pretend silo was made from reclaimed bowling alley planks. It took us upstairs, where there was a long reclining sofa, TV and another bed. It was the perfect base camp for the weekend.
As comfy as the couch looked, we had an appointment downtown and hopped on our bikes. On the way to the trailhead, we detoured to the Luverne farmers market where we picked up some provisions. Luckily, my trunk bag was exactly the right size for a loaf of bread.
Across from the brewery, a crowd had gathered for the first annual Tour de Loop on a warm evening. The trailhead building, a former Casey’s convenience store, was gutted and remodeled to have bathrooms, a water fill station and space for a future bike and watersport rental concessionaire. Off to the side were picnic tables and a bike repair station.
A large, vertical sign on a grassy knoll in front of the building let us know we were at the trailhead for the Luverne Loop Trail. It made for a great background for the ribbon cutting. Holly Sammons, Luverne Economic Development Director, snipped the red band, the two ends fluttered to the ground, the crowd cheered and the ride was on.
When we registered, we were handed tickets to turn in at stops along the way to be entered into a prize drawing at the end. Jen and I took off, going clockwise around the loop. We passed Redbird Field on the Rock River where kids in crisp, white uniforms tossed balls and swung bats, then entered a wide open, grassy area. The intense heat of the day was fading and a pleasant breeze kept things cool. We had made it to our first stop and turned in one ticket each. The trail then crossed Highway 75 and worked its way around the Luverne Ice Arena. We were now on the west side of the loop and passed by a familiar sight: Across The Lake, we saw our little barn headquarters. Farther ahead, we passed through Kolbert and Hawkinson Parks as well as the Luverne disc golf course and more baseball and softball fields. They were perfectly manicured and ready for a weekend’s worth of ballgames during Buffalo Days.
After that, we rode on top of what looked like a flood diversion dam for a short stint and stopped to admire the Child’s Remembrance Garden at Tonto Park. We continued past Sanford Medical Center and onto the northern part of the loop, which was one big downhill ride. When we crossed North Blue Mounds Avenue, we turned south. To the north, Blue Mounds State Park’s cliffs jutted from the prairie in the distance, but that was on the agenda for the next day. Before we came back to the trailhead, we stopped at the Prairie Ally Food Forest, which occupies just a small sliver of land along the road. A food forest is similar to a free community garden, except the plants there are perennials, two volunteers tending to the plants told us.
After the ride there was enough time for a drink at Take 16. We snagged an open picnic table on their huge outdoor plaza, which was hopping with people on a Thursday night. Bikes were leaned up against fences or scattered on the grass and there was an energy in the air that only grew as more people returned from the ride, chatting excitedly, a little sweaty and ready for a pint. Luckily, our table was right next to the outdoor bar and life was good. Jen and I have both had their beers, which are all excellent, but we return to the Hayloft wheat beer time after time. It’s as close as you can get to a real German Hefeweizen without traveling there. This beer was made for post-ride recovery.
Suddenly, at just about 8 pm, a murmur went through the crowd. Within a few minutes the entire throng had moved across the street for the drawing, leaving the brewery nearly deserted. Twenty minutes later, after much cheering and clapping, some lucky kids showed off their prize rides and one very lucky guy rolled away on his new e-bike. And, just like that, the crowd walked back and resumed where they had left off. The sun had almost set when we left. Our little barn was only a mile away and the trail took us right there.
The forecast for the next day was another scorcher and we were off to an early start. At Wildflowers Coffee Shop on Main Street, the smell of baked goods and espresso was the first thing we noticed. The bright, open space was flooded by the early morning sun and there was lively conversation at each table, fueled by coffee. The whirl of the grinder and the hiss of the milk frother were the background music. We ordered breakfast and discussed the itinerary: Take the bike trail to Blue Mounds State Park, then hike the trails and return to town for some more sightseeing. A couple of delicious breakfast sandwiches and iced coffee drinks later, we were on the way. It was going to be a hot one, but we had plenty of water and were lubed up with an insane amount of sunscreen.
At the familiar trailhead, we started going north until we left the city limits behind, enroute to Blue Mounds State Park. Soon, the signature rock formations appeared on the horizon. We had an up-close look at these red, pink, purple and blue Quartzite cliffs as the trail entered the park and took us right past an impressive rock wall. The breeze picked up and the wind rippled the tall grass making it look like water flowing down the hills. Our own water was nearly gone when we reached the park after only six miles, and we refilled ourselves and our bottles at a spigot at the unoccupied group camp where we found a resting place in the shade of a huge oak.
After cooling down, we left the bikes behind and went for a hike. On the Upper Cliffline Trail we were on top of the world with wide open views. It was just us and the warblers and a myriad of insects buzzing in the meadows. We were lucky to spot blooming prairie smoke on the edges of the trail. They’re easy to miss because the wispy tufts of their seed heads are inconspicuous if they’re not growing in a large cluster. Prickly pear cactus grows here, too, tucked into the crevices of quartzite outcroppings. Unfortunately, it was a little too early in the season for them to be blooming. One steep descent later we were on the Lower Cliffline Trail, heading the opposite way.
Back at the group camp it was time for an old-fashioned cooldown. On the count of three, I flipped up the handle of the hydrant. Immediately, ice-cold water shot out and sprayed off my head. A couple of deep gasps later, my internal thermostat was back in the green. Then it was Jen’s turn. We were both soaked, but happy. Our trail lunch was a simple ham and cheese sandwich with bread from the farmers market, but it was a perfect moment. Sitting at a picnic table dripping wet and eating a sandwich brought back memories of childhood summers and trips to the beach. By the time we made the trek back to town, our shirts were dry.
We found refuge at the air-conditioned Herreid Military Museum on East Luverne Street. The former Rock County Jail was restored and repurposed and now houses the military museum, the Brandenburg Gallery and the Luverne Chamber offices. We walked the two floors of the exhibit, which covers the US history of armed conflict, beginning with the Civil War. There were glass cases displaying weapons, uniforms, documents and photos, even a real military Jeep, complete with a machine gun mount. We sat in the stuffed chairs in the center of the first exhibit floor and watched a film where one veteran described his war experience.
Back at the barn, we cleaned up and dressed up because Buffalo Days was about to kick off. The smell of full-lead gas and the low rumble of high-powered engines set the stage for the famous Friday night Cruise-In on Main Street, now in its 33rd year. Show cars trickled in at a steady pace. Hundreds of classic rides and some new ones were lined up along the curb with the hoods up and tops off as people walked by and talked horsepower with the proud owners. It’s one thing to own a robin’s egg blue, 1953 Chevy Bel Air, but perhaps the proudest man on the block was showing off his homemade Flintstones car, built from Cottonwood and pine logs. “Does it work?” I asked. “It rolls!” was the answer. There was a line to have your picture taken with it and Jen couldn’t resist.
Sterling’s Cafe and Grille was the place to be for dinner that evening. They had live music inside, but their sidewalk seating was the perfect place to watch the constant parade of cars and people and listen to Starfire, a local favorite rock band. The Palace Theatre and its striking marquee was a fitting backdrop. Our food arrived quickly. Jen loved the crispy onions on her prime rib sandwich, and the bacon jam on my bacon momo chicken sandwich hit the spot. We enjoyed the show for a while, but the long, hot day was beginning to catch up with us by the time the sun had set. We left the revving engines behind and strolled away as Starfire’s rendition of Suzie Q echoed off the quartzite buildings on Main Street and followed us home.
Saturday’s breakfast was a classic waffle feed, put on by the Rock County 4H Club at the historic Masonic Lodge. It was a busy place and the banquet style tables in the cafeteria were getting fuller by the minute. Kids shuttled plates of waffles and sausage, bussed tables and kept the syrup flowing as the adult kitchen crew kept making more. A gray-haired couple slid in next to us and we had a pleasant chat about our trip and our plans for the rest of the day. It was an all you can eat affair, but we pulled the brake at one waffle each. We were sent off with a friendly “Thank you for visiting. Have a good time.” It’s places like these where you really get to know a town and its people.
We made another round on the Luverne Loop on a pleasant Saturday morning and this time we included the leg of the Christopher Martin Ashby Memorial Trail. It was a short, but scenic, wooded ride through Luverne City Park and past the Rock River Reservoir. We passed the town’s other camping area, the River Road Campground, then took in the view from the tallest hill on the trail. To the north was Blue Mounds State Park and our vantage point made it clear just how unusual the quartzite rock formations are and how suddenly they spring from the landscape around them.
Back in town, we visited the Rock County Historical Society’s History Center, housed in a former car dealership on Main Street. It’s a fitting building for displaying one very rare automobile, the Luverne Automobile Company’s 1911 Run-About. All brass, glass, metal and wood, it sat in the former showroom’s display window, gleaming under bright lights. It’s one of two such cars to have survived until today, after the company stopped manufacturing passenger cars in 1916. They did manage to produce 750 vehicles during their 13-year run. With a design nod to its predecessor, the horse drawn carriage, this horseless carriage was the epitome of luxury whisking the well-to-do around unimproved roads with its 30-horsepower engine and illuminating the road ahead with kerosene lamps. The color, a shade of turquoise, was added by a previous owner because the Run-About only came in two colors, black and brown.
Another room houses displays of early life in Luverne, beginning with a replica of the first settlers’ shanty. We traveled back in time and visited a barber shop, a covered wagon, a school room, barber shop and other dioramas of the day to day from a long time ago.
The History Center’s other famous collection started with a visit to a Cracker Barrel. Betty Mann, former board president, bought some nutcrackers at a 50% off sale in the restaurant’s country store and started a personal collection that quickly outgrew the rooms in her house. By the time she donated it to the Historical Society, the wooden head count was just shy of 3,000 and it kept growing. In January of 2023 it touched an important milestone. After reaching the 5,000 mark, there are now more nutcrackers than people in Luverne. The collection is spilling into the streets, too, and you’ll find artist-inspired versions of these figures around town. Rumor has it, a giant, outdoor nutcracker is forthcoming. We were dazzled by the orderly variety and humbled by the sheer volume of the assortment. Grouped by themes, row after row of the wooden statues filled shelves and the inside and tops of many glass display cases. Mrs. Mann, curator of this brightly lacquered army, told us if we brought her a nutcracker, she could tell within a just a few moments if it was already part of the group.
Our sightseeing continued and we turned our wheels toward the historic Hinkly House, just a couple of blocks away. Built in 1892 with red quartzite blocks from what is now Blue Mounds State Park, it has been preserved and restored down to the last detail and gives a glimpse into how the wealthy lived in the early 19th century. When we visited, the ladies of the Blue Mound Quilt Guild were displaying their work at their annual show inside. It was amazing to see just how pristine a condition the place was, like a time capsule. Care had been taken in the restoration, down to the stunning reproduction of the period wallpaper with its shimmering patterns. The Hinklys had the first telephone in town and it still hangs on the wall in the kitchen. Besides the quilts being displayed throughout the 12-room mansion, it felt like the family had just stepped out to return any moment, pulling up to the curb in their Run-About, perhaps.
JJ’s Tasty Drive In was our lunch stop, but we gave it our own twist and biked in. The inside of the tiny, classic diner was packed so we plopped down at a picnic table under the drive-in roof. JJ’s has been a staple of the Luverne dining scene for 30 years and if you can fry it or griddle it, they have it. There’s over 50 menu items, including ice cream, shakes and malts, but we kept it old school with a cheese burger and a Grizzly, a double cheese burger. And, behold, our cheese fries had real cheese on them. No fake, orange mystery goop here. “It’s like McDonald’s, but a thousand times better,” a man waiting in line told us. That about summed it up.
Part of the annual Buffalo Days festivities was an arts and crafts fair, typically held on the grounds of the Rock County Courthouse. We strolled around here for quite some time, visiting booth after booth. Jen disappeared into a tent with dresses, and I examined some of the custom woodworking items. The smell of the food booths wafted across the street and had it not been for the Grizzly burger, the Indian street tacos could have lured me in. There were propane tank pigs, tie-dyed clothes, handmade rugs, wooden signs, crocheted potholders and upcycled decorations. The colorful 605 Magic Art Bus was parked in the street along the festival grounds and people sat at picnic tables, trying their hand at painting and creating mosaics. It was a party atmosphere.
After a day out in the sun we were ready for a little AC break at our barn, but had to make an unscheduled stop. Biking along, I noticed a sign on a side street that said “B’s Bakehouse-Open Today”. On a whim, we went inside. It turns out we were lucky, because owner Brittany Loosbrock’s bakery is only open for retail occasionally as most of her business is made to order custom decorated cookies, cupcakes and macaroons. We were happy to stumble on this pop-up store and grabbed a couple of cupcakes which we carefully transported back to the barn and savored while we chilled by the AC.
Our dinner that night led us to another new discovery, this time at the Howling Dog Saloon. If you’ve never heard of chislic, you’re not alone. Makenzie Huber of the Sioux Falls, SD based Argus Leader newspaper defined it in her August 2019 article What Is Chislic? Why Cubes of Meat Became a South Dakota Food Favorite: “Salted cubes of meat —ranging from mutton to beef to venison to goat — deep fat fried or grilled; served skewered or on toothpicks with a side of crackers or dipping sauces.” The piece takes a look at the history of the dish, named the official state nosh of South Dakota in 2018, and how the hamlet of Freeman, SD (just 90 minutes west of Luverne) became the country’s official chislic capital. Our beef version came with cheese and onions and the buffalo burger was good, too.
We had to leave on Sunday, but we weren’t done sightseeing, yet. After a delicious breakfast sandwich at Take 16 we returned to the state park, by car this time. Starting at Eagle Rock Vista, we went for a short hike on the Eagle Rock and Western Loop Trails and were happy to see the bison in full view near the edge of their 550-acre range. Next time, we decided, we’d take part in the 90-minute bison tour here. Another interesting thing to see is the so-called Rock Alignment in this area. There’s no definite answer as to its origin, but a line of rocks some 1,200 feet long runs across the fields from east to west.
On the way to our final stop, Touch the Sky Prairie, we had to investigate a roadside attraction. In 1963, the Luverne Christian Reformed Church congregation built a tiny wayside chapel on the side of the road just north of Luverne. There’s enough seating room for six and one person standing at the lectern and it’s fitted with wooden pews and stained-glass windows. We stopped in for a moment of contemplation and to check in with Saint Christopher about our drive home.
Just a few miles down dusty country roads, there’s Touch the Sky Prairie, a 1000-acre unit within the Northern Tallgrass National Wildlife Refuge. If you’ve never been to a prairie restoration site, a visit here will open your eyes. Minnesota once had over 18 Million acres of native prairie, most of which disappeared under the plow in the last century. In a place like Touch the Sky Prairie, you can get a glimpse of what must have been like before that time. Once we hiked inwards and out of sight of the surrounding farms, there was just us, the wind, the grasses, the birds and a sky that seemed close enough to touch. Something we didn’t expect to see was a waterfall in the middle of all of this. We sat in the shade of a small stand of trees surrounding the falls and listened to the water rush over the rocky outcroppings. Some call it dawdling, we call it the scenic route home, but leaving a great place is always hard. On the walk back, thunder clouds appeared on the horizon and the skies opened up. Once again, we were dripping wet, but happy.