Minnesota River Valley National Scenic Byway
- DesignationNational Scenic Byway (2002)
- Intrinsic QualitiesHistoric
- Length287 miles
The Minnesota River Valley National Scenic Byway traverses the ancient remnants of what was once one of the largest rivers to ever exist. Along the way, it uncovers stories from the U.S. Dakota War of 1862 that left hundreds dead and exiled a nation. Today travelers wind their way through vibrant small towns, Dakota communities, historic sites and scenic overlooks.
Story of the Byway
Life still moves at an unhurried pace, neighbors wave at passing cars, and visitors are embraced with old-fashioned hospitality along this nationally designated route. The Minnesota River begins at Big Stone Lake and this drive follows it along a series of roads to Belle Plaine.
Several spots focus on Dakota Indian heritage and tell the tragic story of the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War. You can learn about this history at the Lower Sioux Agency, Fort Ridgely and Lac qui Parle Mission-all state historic sites, and at the Treaty Site History Center in St. Peter. New Ulm's German heritage is celebrated in its festivals, shops and restaurants.
Many of the downtown areas boast antique shops and mom-and-pop eateries. Or, bring a canoe to experience the sites by water, as the Minnesota River is one of the few canoe rivers in southwestern Minnesota. Mankato is the western access for the Sakatah Singing Hills Bike Trail.
For bird lovers, whether you're a fan of the majestic bald eagle or tiny yellow-throated warbler, the Minnesota River Valley offers numerous birding hotspots - particularly at wildlife refuges and state parks. There are many good birding areas, particularly at Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge, Lac qui Parle State Park and five other state parks along the river.
The Minnesota River Valley played a crucial role in the conflicts that erupted between Euro-American settlers and the Dakota people as they struggled to call this land “home.” The U.S.–Dakota War of 1862 was a significant event for the region and for our nation— a tragic chapter that foreshadowed wars to come and permanently shaped the cultural identity of the Minnesota River Valley.
In 1862, the Minnesota River Valley region again erupted in war when a contingent of Dakota akic̣ita (warriors), frustrated by broken treaty promises, encroachment onto reservation lands, and corruption that left them starving, attacked traders and government employees and a warehouse full of food at the Lower Sioux Agency. More were killed on all sides in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 than Minnesota lost in combat deaths during the Civil War. As a result of the war, Governor Ramsey called for all Dakota people to be exterminated or driven from the state.
Thousands fled the state, and those that did not were separated into two groups. Women, children, and mostly older men were imprisoned at Fort Snelling before being removed from the state in May 1863. The akic̣ita that were not executed at Mankato were imprisoned at Davenport, Iowa. In March 1866, the surviving prisoners were released to join their families in exile.
Decades later, small groups of Dakota eventually started to return to their homelands in the late 1800s and lived in small communities near where the Upper and Lower Sioux Agencies had been. Nearly 50 years later, these small groups were organized into what is now the Upper and Lower Sioux Dakota Communities.
The Minnesota River Valley has a national story to tell about some of the oldest exposed rock on the face of the earth. This region was carved from dramatic and massive floodwaters that resulted from the overflow of glacial Lake Agassiz scouring a jagged path across Minnesota and uncovering ancient bedrock outcrops.
The Minnesota River travels through rich wetlands, prairies, granite outcroppings, wooded hills, farm fields, villages, and small cities. Over millennia, the river valley’s people, plants, and animals have interacted in a complex and unique ecosystem. Throughout the valley, evidence of the interactions between these species can be seen. Today, the valley’s natural features offer a fascinating number of interpretive opportunities.
Starting in Mankato, the byway takes a northwesterly direction on Highways 68,21,15, and 7 until reaching Browns Valley.
Points of Interest
The largest prairie pothole in the United States.
Lower Sioux Reservation
The Lower Sioux Indian Reservation, also known as the Mdewakanton Tribal Reservation, is an Indian reservation located along the southern bank of the Minnesota River in Paxton and Sherman townships in Redwood County, Minnesota.
Upper Sioux Reservation
The Upper Sioux Indian Reservation, or Pezihutazizi in Dakota, is the reservation of the Upper Sioux Community, a federally recognized tribe of the Dakota people, that includes the Mdewakanton.
Lac qui Parle State Park
Created in 1941 as a WPA Project.
Big Stone Lake
Narrow fresh water lake forming part of the border between Minnesota and South Dakota.
Built in 1871 with a two-story outhouse.
Beginning the Byway
Start in Belle Plaine and make your way south on Minnesota Route 93 toward Mankato. If you’re a history lover, be sure to stop in Henderson, Le Sueur, St. Peter, where you will find a number of museums that will tell the story of this region’s heritage. Be sure to stop at the W.W. Mayo House, which was the site of Dr. W. W. Mayo’s first medical practice, witnessed events of the US-Dakota War of 1862, and eventually served as the family home for another giant of Minnesota history — the Cosgrove family of the Green Giant Company. You will also find the E. St. Julien Cox House and the St. Peter State Hospital Museum.
As you follow the Minnesota River south through these small communities, there are many parks and arboretums if that is more your style. Keep an eye out for the Mayo Park and Arboretum, Ottawa Bluffs Preserve, Minnesota Square Park, and the Gustavus Adolphus College Arboretum and Sculpture Garden.
Before you reach Mankato, make a quick detour to U.S. Route 169 and 14 to see Swan Lake, the largest prairie pothole in the United States before returning to Manato at the intersection of Minnesota Route 93 and Minnesota Route 68. There are plenty of historical sights in Mankato. Try to see as much as you can in this first afternoon! Explore a historic house or mansion and wander around the Old Main Village for a taste of life back in the olden days. This is a great place to stop for the night before you continue on your journey through the Minnesota Valley.
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