Decorah is one of Iowa’s favorite small towns, especially for outdoor adventurers. It’s nestled in the northeast corner of Iowa, just 15 minutes from the Minnesota border. This corner of the state is sometimes referred to as the Driftless area, which means that it was not impacted by the most recent glaciers – giving the area a more geologically diverse terrain with more hills and more rock formations than the rest of Iowa.
Outdoor activities in Decorah, Iowa
Trout Run Trail
Trout Run Trail is an eleven-mile loop trail that circles the town of Decorah. The entire pathway is paved and the name comes from the five trout streams that the path crosses as well as its connection with the Decorah Trout Hatchery. Trout Run Trail has numerous inclines and switchbacks and offers a challenging trail for cyclists and walkers. For copies of the trail maps, visit: https://parks.decorahia.org/trail-maps
Kayak or Canoe on the Upper Iowa River
The Upper Iowa River is one most scenic rivers in the Midwest as it winds through prairie, forests, and tall limestone bluffs. Several outfitters carry rental equipment, and supplies, and provide transportation. There are many landing locations that you can pick from, all of which determine the length of your float trip. Your time on the river can be as short as 2 hours or as long as 8 hours depending on the landing location you select. Outfitters typically offer kayaks, canoes, or tubes.
Upper Iowa Resort: https://www.upperiowaresort.com/river-rentals
Bluffton Resort: https://www.blufftonresort.com/
The cold streams of NE Iowa are ideal places for trout. Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) stocks many of the locations each year. The Iowa DNR also maintains a list of trout streams, which can be found here: https://www.iowadnr.gov/Fishing/Where-to-Fish/Trout-Streams
Climb Pulpit Rock at Will Baker Park
It’s a one-mile loop trail that climbs a narrow trail with stone walkways and leads to a scenic view overlooking the Upper Iowa River.
Phelps Park was the very first park in Decorah. It’s best known for its traditional role as a picnic park (meaning playgrounds and picnic shelters), but it also has some incredible stonework and scenic views over the Upper Iowa River. There’s also a short trail (probably 1/2 mile there and back total) that leads down the hill to connect with the Trout Run Trail.
Address: 613 Park St, Decorah, IA 52101
Palisades Park is best known for its scenic overlooks with a great view of downtown Decorah. There are also miles of trails for mountain biking, cross-country skiing, and hiking.
Address: Ice Cave Road, Decorah, IA 52101
Decorah Fish Hatchery
Technically known as the Chuck Gipp Decorah Fish Hatchery, it is commonly referred to as the trout hatchery, as they mostly raise rainbow trout for 15 various streams in northeast Iowa. There are more than a dozen pools that house trout of all sizes. Be sure to bring some quarters if you would like to buy some fish to feed the fish!
Just beyond the hatchery is Siewers Spring, a man-made waterfall that flows into a small trout stream. In fact, you’ll usually see people fishing for trout at this location. Here’s the google map location for Siewers Spring.
The internet-famous Decorah Eagles are also near the hatchery. For several years, the Raptor Resource Project maintained a webcam allowing thousands of visitors to watch as the couple hatched their eaglets. However, the couple has recently built a new nest that is outside the range of the camera, but you’re welcome to tune in at https://www.raptorresource.org/birdcams/decorah-eagles/ to check on their progress of following the eagles.
Dunnings Spring and Ice Cave
Iowa’s tallest waterfall is Dunnings Spring. Although it’s technically 200 feet tall, the water doesn’t come down in one single fall but instead steps its way down from the top. Because it stair-steps its way down, you’ll frequently see people wading in the steps of the waterfall, so you might want to plan to bring shoes that can get wet!
Address: Ice Cave Rd, Decorah, IA 52101 Parking for Dunnings Spring is located at this google map location. From the parking lot, you must walk about 200 feet up a paved path to get to the falls.
This same parking lot is also your starting point for the Ice Cave. Instead of walking north uphill towards the falls, instead, you’ll walk east along Ice Cave Road for about 1/2 mile before you find the steps that lead up to the ice cave. Oddly enough, the ice is typically thickest in the cave during summer and fall.
Decorah is home to yet another waterfall, this time it’s just outside of town. You’ll find a small parking lot on the south side of the bridge that goes over the Upper Iowa River on Bluffon Road. The trail leading to the falls is just a dirt trail that is not handicap accessible and is just short of a mile to the falls. When you get to the falls, there are two sections: a section of the falls is coming down the hill on your right and stair steps its way down. On your left is the section that drops off into the Upper Iowa River. This section that drops off is ever-changing due to erosion, but one thing is certain, if you want to get to the base of the falls, it’s best done by kayak. Or if you don’t mind getting wet and muddy, cross the stream and climb the embankment to get to the base where it pours into the river.
Address: 2834 Bluffton Road, Decorah, Iowa
Other activities in Decorah, Iowa
Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum
The Vesterheim is dedicated to Norwegian-America history and is the country’s largest museum devoted to one single immigrant group. They showcase 33,000 artifacts housed in 12 different historical buildings on a single campus. One of the centerpieces is a 25-foot sailboat named the Tradewind, which carried two brothers across the Atlantic Ocean. There’s also an extensive collection of Native American art and culture
Seed Savers Exchange
Seed Savers Exchange is an 890 farm located north of Decorah that specializes in seeds. Yes, seeds. Their exchange program enables them to collect, save, and distribute thousands of heirloom seeds to protect biodiversity. It all started with two garden plants, ‘Grandpa Ott’s’ morning glory and ‘German Pink’ tomato, which were brought from Bavaria by their ancestors in the 1870s.
Seed Savers Exchange is open to the public. You can browse the gardens or shop for supplies in their store. They also have a farm/garden tour, however, you need to make reservations ahead of time. They also have miles of trails that are open to the public.
Porter House Museum
It’s the former home of Bert and Grace Porter who traveled extensively and were naturalists who were inspired by butterflies, rocks, and other natural curiosities. Many have referred to Bert Porter as “Iowa’s Butterfly Man” as they house an extensive collection of butterflies from North and South America. Included are Bert’s favorite – the brilliant Blue Morpho from South America.
Another highlight of the Porter House Museum is visible as you approach – the unique rock wall that surrounds the house. It was created by Bert Porter using his rock, gem, and fossil collection from around the world. The wall was put together very precisely using drawings that Bert made. The wall contains agates, geodes, quartz, calcite, galena, and even petrified wood.
Tour Luther College
Luther College is a private liberal arts college affiliated with the Lutheran Church. Approximately 2,000 students are enrolled. The campus lies on the edge of Decorah and is a wonderful place for a short walk.
Eats & Treats
Pizza is definitely not Norwegian. But Decorah definitely knows pizza, as they have two of the best-known pizza places in Iowa.
Known for thin-crust pizza cut into squares. However, it wasn’t always this way. Mabel, the owner, originally opened a sandwich shop where you made your own sandwich. I’ve heard that you even made your own change at the register when you checked out.
That changed when a student from Luther College walked in and asked to make his own pizza. It wasn’t long before Mabel renamed it to Mabe’s Pizza. If you’re not up for pizza, they still have sandwiches. And you don’t have to make them yourself, and you don’t have to make change for yourself when you check out.
Try the chicken cordon bleu pizza.
Address: 110 E Water Street, Decorah, 52101
Luna Valley Farm
Affectionately known as the “Pizza Farm”. Check their website for dates, as they are only open seasonally on weekends, and reservations are required. Their specialty is a 16″ wood-fired pizza made from the very best local seasonal ingredients. Picnic tables are available but fill up quickly, so you might need to bring chairs or a blanket.
Toppling Goliath Brewery
After successfully brewing at home, Clark and Barbara Lewey launched Toppling Goliath Brewing Company which is known for IPAs and barrel-aged stouts. At their Decorah location, they offer a full menu of food in addition to a wide array of drinks. Also, check their calendar for ongoing events and live music. You can also reserve a spot to get a behind-the-scenes tour.
Address: 1600 Prosperity Road, Decorah, IA
Pulpit Rock Brewery
Known for contemporary American beers that are crafted in Decorah. Although Decorah has its own Pulpit Rock, the name of this brewery is a reference to the real Pulpit Rock in Norway, as the founders mother is originally from Preikestolen, or Pulpit Rock, Norway. Beers are always on tap, but there is no food menu, but you are welcome to bring in your own food.
Local ice cream shop that won’t disappoint.
Address: 111 College Drive, Decorah, IA
Here’s a list of other Decorah dining experiences: