Minnesota Scenic Drives: Minnesota River Valley Scenic Byway


The Minnesota River flows gently between ribbons of oak, elm, maple, and cottonwood trees. The Minnesota River Valley Scenic Byway, which follows the river, wanders past rich farmland and through towns steeped in Minnesota history.

Passing through rolling farmland and woodlands bordering the river between Belle Plaine and Browns Valley -- 300 miles of highways and gravel roads -- is a scenic, historical, and cultural experience.

Cultural Qualities of the Minnesota River Valley Scenic Byway

The Minnesota River Valley is a productive land, and as a result, people have been living here for hundreds of years. They thrive on the land and develop rich cultures to complement their successful lifestyle along the Minnesota River. In every town and stop along the Minnesota River Valley Scenic Byway, travelers have the opportunity to discover the industrious society that has made this land thrive.

The Dakota people share their regional history and thriving modern-day culture through festivals, museums, restaurants, hotels, casinos, and trading posts. European pioneers left their mark as well, and their strong ties to their European heritage remain and are celebrated today.

Residents of New Ulm welcome visitors to numerous celebrations, shops, restaurants, and lodging, all of which focus on their German heritage. Milan residents are likewise proud of their Norwegian heritage, and their community festivals focus on the food, crafts, and traditions of those ancestors. Many other communities on or near the byway demonstrate their proud heritage through festivals, events, and museums.

Historical Qualities of the Minnesota River Valley Scenic Byway

Once a wild and untamed river valley, the land of the Minnesota River Valley Scenic Byway used to belong solely to the Dakotas. The land was rich and fertile and seemed ripe for the picking, yet struggles erupted during the same years that the Civil War was raging.

In 1862, the largest and bloodiest Native American war in the history of the United States occurred. For ten years, the land was divided between the Dakota people and new settlers and the first reservations were developed, but the Dakotas eventually wanted their land and their way of life back. The result was a six-week war in which many settlers and Dakotas were killed. 

When the war was over, Abraham Lincoln pardoned many of the more than 300 Dakota men who were going to be hanged. The remaining 38 men became part of the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

Natural Qualities of the Minnesota River Valley Scenic Byway

When you aren't driving through enchanting towns and pastoral fields, you see that the land is overtaken by nature and the wilderness that's native to Minnesota. Prairies and woodlands combine to form natural areas full of plants and animals. The natural areas along the byway are perfect places to see the Minnesota River Valley's natural ecosystems.

The Minnesota River is now gentle and calm. However, the river valley was once filled by the Glacial River Warren. The glacial river carved the valley down into ancient bedrock and exposed outcrops of gneiss. The valley topography varies from one to five miles in width and from 75 to 200 feet deep. The Minnesota River flows from the Hudson/Mississippi Continental Divide in Browns Valley through the steep bluffs and low floodplain area that characterize one of the most impressive landscapes in Minnesota.

The array of landscapes in the river valley boasts a large variety of wildlife and plant life. Wooded slopes and floodplains of willow, cottonwood, American elm, bur oak, and green ash rise into upland bluffs of red cedar and remnant tall grass where preserved tracts of prairie remain for public use and appreciation. Prairie chickens, turkeys, white-tailed deer, coyotes, foxes, beavers, and many species of fish and birds live here, as does the bald eagle.

View Enlarged Image Explore the riches of the Minnesota River Valley as you follow this map through the cultural and agricultural heart of the state. View Enlarged Image Explore the riches of the Minnesota River Valley as you follow this map through the cultural and agricultural heart of the state.
View Enlarged Image Explore the riches of the Minnesota River Valley as you follow this map through the cultural and agricultural heart of the state.

Recreational Qualities of the Minnesota River Valley Scenic Byway

The Minnesota River is one of the great tributaries to the Mississippi River. It provides some of the best recreational opportunities in the upper Midwest. Outdoor recreation abounds, including bird-watching, canoeing, hiking, trail riding, fishing, hunting, camping, boating, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, and golfing. State parks and recreation areas combine outdoor recreation with opportunities to discover history along the byway.

All of these activities can be found along the byway at the six state parks, at scientific and natural areas, at wildlife management areas, or at the local parks or waysides. Camping along the Minnesota River Valley Scenic Byway is one of the best ways to experience the nature of the river valley. Spending time near the river, you can better enjoy the beautiful scenery at one of the byway's lakes or take a stroll along the Minnesota River itself.

Find more useful information related to the Minnesota River Valley Scenic Byway:

  • Minnesota Scenic Drives: The Minnesota River Valley Scenic Byway is just one of the scenic byways in Minnesota. Check out the others.
  • Belle Plaine, Granite Falls, Mankato, New Ulm: Find out what there is to do in these cities along the Minnesota River Valley Scenic Byway.
  • Scenic Drives: Are you interested in scenic drives beyond Minnesota? Here are more than 100 scenic drives throughout the United States.
  • How to Drive Economically: Fuel economy is a major concern when you're on a driving trip. Learn how to get better gas mileage.