Field Trip: Decorah’s Winter Playground

Photo from Frankie Schneckloth
Photos from Frankie Schneckloth

Whether you’re an Iowa native or a temporary resident, winter weather is something none of us can escape. As the mercury begins to drop in the coming weeks, we can hunch down deep into our downy coats and avoid the outdoors for the next few months, or we can dig our activewear out of storage and suit up: It’s time to play!

While plenty of well-groomed trails and recreation sites exist close to home (Terry Trueblood: Love you! See you soon!), we’re getting out of Iowa City to truly embrace the cold weather by heading north. Decorah, originally settled by Norwegian immigrants, is nestled among the steep bluffs hugging the Minnesota-Iowa border. With its Nordic heritage, it’s no surprise that an abundance of winter activities exist for all activity and adventure levels.

Distance from Iowa City: 133 miles
Nearby: Minnesota


Dug Road Inn
601 West Main Street, Decorah, Iowa

Maybe you prefer just to appreciate winter’s beauty. Dug Road Inn makes it easy, with a cozy fireplace, inviting bathtubs and a luxurious three-course breakfast. If, after a little R&R, you decide you’re up for some activity, you’ll find skiing and hiking options right outside your door.


Decorah boasts one of the largest ice caves in the Midwest, topping out at three acres and situated in the Barbara Barnhart Van Peenen Memorial Park. Ice caves (any natural caves with substantial amounts of perennial ice) are typically dry during the fall and very early winter months, but by January or February, expect to see ice layers forming that will become several inches thick by May and last until late August.


If you can walk, you can snowshoe! The learning curve for snowshoeing is much less intense than other winter sports, making it the perfect introduction to winter play. Hit up any of the outdoor recreation areas in town and go for a low-impact hike on top of the snow.

Cross-Country Ski

While a small town, Decorah boasts 10 dedicated areas for ski-related recreation. Whether you’re looking for something easy and accessible as a beginner or something a little more challenging and technical, there are options for everyone. Tracked (with guides for your skis), groomed (cleared of debris and obstacles) and un-groomed trails all exist in the area and offer varying levels of difficulty.

Ice Skate

Visit Carl Selland Wayside Park to live out your secret Ice Capades fantasy. During warmer weather, this area sees many a basketball game, but in the colder months it’s flooded to create a skating rink complete with warming hut.

Fat Bike

Mount up on a fat bike and tackle the trails on two wheels. The tires are bigger, so they roll over obstacles more easily, and squishier, which provides extra traction. The rental bikes come equipped with bar mitts to keep your hands toasty.

All winter equipment — snowshoes, skates, skis and fat bikes — can be rented from Decorah Bicycles on a daily basis.

Frankie Schneckloth is Little Village Magazine’s unofficial winter advocate. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 211.