A slow-paced, back-to-nature experience awaits RV travelers along the state's western edge.
By Tom Watson
Two great rivers flow south out of Minnesota. One is the mighty Mississippi, which defines part of Minnesota’s border with Wisconsin. The other is a modest but historic river of asphalt that actually starts in Canada and continues, like the Mississippi, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. This roadway is one of America’s oldest designated scenic routes, dating back to 1917. It’s U.S. 75, the “King of Trails."
U.S. 75 follows trails worn into the prairie soil by American Indians, whose trade routes ran north and south, from Canada to the southern coastline of America. The Minnesota portion of U.S. 75 is 414 miles long and was designated King of Trails National Scenic Byway in 2004. Rich in geological and cultural history, the trail's many impressive local and regional attractions are steadily drawing visitors to Minnesota’s western border.
Natural And Historical Sights
Traveling north to south, the road crosses the glacial flats created by ancient Lake Agassiz. The subsequent thawing and retreat of its glacial ice created the valley through which the Red River flows today. Southern drainages formed the ancient River Warren, geologic grandfather waters to the Mississippi farther east. As you travel southward along U.S. 75, you cover two distinct geological continental drainages. At Brown’s Valley, the waters flow north to Hudson Bay. Farther south, at Lake Benton, the southern drainages split again. Those to the west flow first into the Missouri drainage before meeting up with the eastern drainage that feeds the Mississippi River. Major recreational waters include Big Stone Lake near Ortonville, and Lake Benton in the town of the same name.
Birders flock to several spots on or near the trail in spring and fall to witness the passage of waterfowl and shorebirds as they migrate along the eastern edge of the Great Plains. Crookston celebrates its bounty of bird species with an annual bird festival. Large expanses of marshlands and shallow, wide river sloughs attract birds all summer along the King of Trails, especially in Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge south of Ortonville and Marsh Lake just to the east of the road. Several areas south of the border also offer birding as a major attraction, including the only saltwater lake between the Atlantic Ocean and Utah — Salt Lake — just west of the community of Madison.
The largest metropolitan areas along the highway are the twin cities of Fargo, North Dakota, and Moorhead, Minnesota. Here culture, entertainment, and the finer things in life are amply provided by metro areas fully engaged in a modern, prairie-rich lifestyle. Visitors to Moorhead’s Heritage Hjemkomst Interpretive Center will witness a tribute to Minnesota’s rich and active Scandinavian heritage in the replica Viking ship, the Hjemkomst. Built by a local Norwegian family, the ship actually sailed to Norway in 1982. At Moorhead, U.S. 75 travelers can head over to Fargo to see the Red River Zoo and the Plains Art Museum, among other attractions.
Nearly every town along this scenic byway has at least one building on the National Register of Historic Places. In Moorhead, the Comstock House tops that list. Crookston boasts a rare collection of 18th- and 19th-century commercial properties on the register, and the Lund-Hoel House in Canby is but one of many featured historic buildings along that stretch of highway. County historic societies are quite active and offer clusters of nostalgic 19th-century pioneer Americana on display throughout the length of road in Minnesota.
The central stretch of road, from Breckenridge south past Ortonville, is the start of the lakes region. Coupled with activity on the Red and Minnesota rivers, this region attracts anglers, waterfowl hunters, and those who just enjoy some time on or in the water. A huge statue of a cod in Madison, the "Lutefisk Capital of the U.S.A.," attests to the popularity of fishing in this region, and its diehard Norwegian traditions as well.
Several state parks are accessible via a very short side trip or very near the highway, especially as one travels south. Most of these state facilities are small but offer several campsites designated for RV use. Even in the middle of the otherwise flat and treeless prairie you can find an oasis of hardwoods and streams that has been saved and put to use as a place to camp or park. Lake Bronson State Park and Buffalo River State Park are located on the upper half of the route, while Big Stone, Split Rock, and Blue Mounds state parks offer those resources farther south.
Those who simply enjoy a good boat ride can now appreciate the view along the shores of Big Stone Lake on the tour boat Eahtonka II in Ortonville. Several rivers east and south of Big Stone, in the region known as Prairie Waters, are growing in popularity as kayaking and canoeing streams. The Prairie Waters region is within a half-hour drive of U.S. 75.
Pipestone National Monument
The southern third of this route takes you past a mix of modern alternative energy technology and ancient history. Towering wind turbines spike the landscape and horizon with their gleaming propeller blades high above the rolling plains. Where Indians once raised modest crops of maize, mega-sized farms now grow corn for livestock, human consumption, and as the basic raw material for a growing number of ethanol manufacturing plants.
Pipestone National Monument is where the native stone was quarried for use in the ceremonial calumets, or peace pipes, of the Plains Indian tribes. A visitors center at the monument reveals the significance of the site. Also, 2008 marks the 60th and final year the "Song of Hiawatha" outdoor pageant will be presented in Pipestone. The outdoor theater is adjacent to a prairie lake, and the show takes place July 18-19, 25-26, and August 1-2. Tickets are only $10 for adults. Visit www.pipestoneminnesota.com/pageant/index.htm or call (507) 825-4126 or (800) 430-4126 for more information.
Other events abound all along the highway, including a host of county fairs, scheduled during the height of summer in July. Nearly each community has a chamber of commerce with full events calendars. See the King of Trails visitors guide for details.
The King of Trails showcases the full range of Minnesota’s western border country — its heritage; its resources; and its welcoming, relaxed lifestyle. This scenic byway is definitely not life in the fast lane, and that’s what gives it its true appeal and perhaps most alluring quality.
The "Historic Highway 75" visitors guide is available through www.highway75.com, or:
Pipestone Chamber and Visitors Bureau
Pipestone, MN 56164
In addition to the smaller RV sites at the state parks, there are several large RV parks along the King of Trails. Check your campground directory for more listings, or FMCA's Business Directory, published in the January and June issues of FMC and online at FMCA.com.
Lake Hendricks Campground
P.O. Box 86
Hendricks, MN 56136
Lakeshore RV Park
39445 Lakeshore RV Park Road
Ortonville, MN 56278
Pipestone RV Campground
919 N. Hiawatha Ave.
Pipestone, MN 56164