Originally the Root River State Trail was part of the Milwaukee Road rail line that ran from La Crosse, Wisconsin, and eventually reached Wessington Springs, in eastern South Dakota. The decline of the railroads, which hit the Milwaukee Road hard, led to the abandonment of much of the line in the late 1970s. A stretch from Austin to Jackson, Minnesota that had recently been rehabilitated is the only section still in service today. It’s now a minor branch line for Canadian Pacific Rail, into which the Milwaukee Road had been absorbed.
People immediately saw the potential for the abandoned stretch from La Crosse to Austin, but there was fierce opposition from local residents who felt the land should be returned to them. The concept of rail trails was still in its infancy. The nation’s first (and still the best), the Elroy-Sparta State Trail in Wisconsin, was only a decade or so old. As a compromise only the center stretch in the narrow and scenic Root River Valley, from Fountain to Money Creek, was saved as a rail trail. The stretch to the west, through typical flat agricultural land, and to the east, where the valley widens considerably and is more agricultural was lost.
Ultimately the error of this was realized, but now creating sections of trail is hard. The goal is now a whole system of trails in the southeast called the Blufflands Trail system, but the only extensions so far have been a branch to Preston, then to Harmony and an eastern extension to Houston. An effort to build a stretch from Preston to Forestville-Mystery Cave State Park fell victim to an unfavorable court ruling that eminent domain could not be used. A stretch that is mostly just a path along gravel country roads is being built to Iowa.
This photo tour will focus on the original core section, from Fountain to Money Creek, then the extension to Houston, Minn. Like all of my photo tours, it’s a composite of multiple trips stitched into a single narrative. Part One will cover the closest and most scenic part, Fountain to Lanesboro, while Part Two will cover Lanesboro to Houston and include some trip planning tips for those who might want to check it out in person.
Mile 0: Fountain
The trailhead is the town of Fountain, where you put on your riding helmet. Originally the trail ran through the center of town. Now it gets diverted along the county road at the southern end of town, and ends in the trailhead at the city park. Slightly farther along the county road is what used to be a highway wayside of US 52, that now houses a gazebo, an veterans memorial. Here’s a map of the area, with the trail in solid orange and the unused old railroad grade in dashes.
Farther down the road there is the Fillmore County Historical Society Library and Museum. It’s housesd in a former elementary school.
Here we are at the Fountain trailhead parking lot.
And the actual start of the trail:
Initially the trail weaves around fields and a cemetery before joining the old rail bed east of town:
The Fountain region is notable for the “Karst topography” where the dissolving bedrock has created sinkholes. You can see one in the above picture, where there’s a random clump of trees in the background just to the right of center. On the trail is an interpretive sign and a boardwalk that leads into an overlook into one.
Once the trail enters the old railroad grade, the long, steep slope down into the valley begins. Where it crosses Jade Road there is a scenic vista and Trailside Holsteins.
Mile 6: Isinours
Once down the hill, you cross over a bridge and then pass a minor trailhead at the Isinours State Forest campground. Shortly beyond Isinours is where the Harmony-Preston Valley trail meets. Thoughtfully there is a right turn lane for eastbound to southbound traffic:
At trail junctions there is an open area with a selfie station:
After the rock cut is a series of two bridges. The first is nothing really notable, but the second is the first of two through truss bridges. Before the bridge is an old wood pole, the remains of a “telltale,, dangling ropes were suspended above the track to warn anyone riding on top of the train to get down before they would be hit by the overhead bridge structure. Here’s a modern mockup with fencing rather than dangling ropes:
The trail passes along a few more farms:
Mile 11: Lanesboro
Approaching Laneboro there’s a waterfall for an old mill pond.
Along the Mill Pond is the Poetry Lot, so named because of signs with poetry that adorn the lampposts. This is my preferred spot for starting rides on the western half of the trail due to the space and ease of getting to and from the Twin Cities.
From the Poetry Lot, you cross into town on the second of three iron truss bridges.
Nothing like ice cream on a scorching hot summer day (or an autumn day!).
Some old buildings on the main street. Unlike other towns its size in the southwest farm country where sunlight seems to bask faded glory, Laneboro is lively. That’s not exclusively from bicycle touring, though that seems to be a big part of why the town is thriving. The surrounding countryside is beautiful and there’s canoeing on the Root River.
Just beyond the main street is the (reconstructed) depot, which serves as a trail center:
Here’s the sign opposite the depot. Part Two will continue 31 miles to the trail’s terminus at Houston.
Part 2 will cover the remainder of the trail from Lanesboro to Houston.