The annual fall migration of maple leaf spotters to New England is a travel industry all its own, and Colorado's golden aspens have legions of fans. Less well-known are the red oak forests of southeastern Minnesota. These dense woodlands produce a tonal range that color connoisseurs appreciate for its depth and richness.
The Chosen Valley, 100 miles southeast of Minneapolis-St. Paul on U.S. Highway 52 and 10 miles south of Interstate 90, marks the beginning of the only area in Minnesota that wasn't scraped flat by glaciers during the last ice age -- a fact that sets it apart not only geographically but socially.
This hilly, heavily wooded region is rural, traditional and picturesque. Family farms are small: pastures interspersed with wood lots, cornfields lying along river bottoms, and farmyards where pigs and chickens are out in the open air. Whether you're in a car or on a bicycle, you'll find great leaf-viewing with
out the traffic that plagues fall excursions to better known areas. And, country folks are willing to stop and chat, suggest things to see and give directions.
A group of private citizens in Chatfield, a charming town of 2,000, has printed up several self-drive leaf tours. Averaging 15 miles each, the itineraries are annotated with historical and contemporary commentary and mile-by-mile driving instructions. Several ofthe tours follow the various branches of the Root River, which flows east through the Chosen Valley on its way to the Mississippi.
The Loughrey Valley Tour follows the middle fork of the Root River and offers some of the area's best color. The hills above the river and its tributary creeks are blanketed with oak, maple, walnut, elm and hickory -- part of the primeval hardwood forest that once covered much of the East and Midwest and survives today only in areas too steep for agriculture. Although predominantly oak, the variety of species forms a symphony of color. From clear top notes of yellow and chartreuse, the scale runs through oranges and scarlets to bass notes of raw umber and burnt sienna.
The Stone Barn Tour features an immense drive-through barn that measures 100 feet long by 40 feet wide. The structure was built in the late 19th century by Tom Ferguson, a traditional stonemason who cut more than 100 cords of stone in a nearby quarry and hauled them to the site in a horse-drawn stone-boat. With his horse powering a gin pole, he lifted the blocks three stories high and laid them with mortar made from burned lime rock. Gary and Deb Anderson, the current owners, welcome visitors to stop and look at this masterpiece.
Just north of Chatfield, Harvey Bernard's art studio and gallery is located in the one-room schoolhouse that Mr. Bernard attended as a child. Visitors can sit at antique cast-iron and maple desks, a few bearing the carved initials of former pupils, write on genuine slate blackboards and even ring the original school bell. Mr.Bernard's highly detailed pen and ink silhouettes depict the era of farming when horsepower was giving way to tractor power. The designs are silk-screened on pine plaques of various sizes. More than one hundred designs, which are marketed nationally, are for sale.
Visitors to the Chosen Valley often base their excursions out of Lund's Guest House in Chatfield. Two cottages, with a total of nine rooms, are decorated in the style of the '20s and '30s. The only concessions that innkeepers Shelby and Marion Lund have made to modernity are the mattresses and the microwave. Everything else is authentic to the period: art deco bedroom sets, claw foot bathtubs, working Victrolas, console radios, a piano with period sheet music and Chinese checkers.
One of the Midwest's premiere bicycle trails starts 11 miles south of Chatfield near the town of Fountain. A black-topped pathway follows the old Milwaukee Road rail bed 30 miles to the town of Rushford. Its route roughly parallels the Root River, so riders starting at Fountain have the advantage of traveling downriver. It takes a strong rider to complete the round trip in one day. Many cyclists do a car shuttle between the trail-head and the old depot in Rushford, both of which have ample parking.
A few miles into the ride, you'll pass the Old Barn Hostel. This small resort is centered around a huge renovated barn that originally sheltered race horses. The Old Barn provides trailer hookups and both dormitory and private rooms that are reasonably priced. Its indoor-outdoor pool is open 10 months a year and is available to both overnight guests and drop-in visitors. The restaurant is a favorite with locals, and the hostel's owners offer guided tours of nearby Amish farms.
During recent decades, the Amish have moved farther and farther west from their original settlements in Pennsylvania in their quest to find good farmland at affordable prices. They farm with horses and without electricity, and seem to be right at home in this slow-paced region. You can see them driving along the crushed-rock back roads in their plain, black buggies, the men wearing broad-brimmed hats, the women in long dresses with aprons. These Old Order Amish are private people, but the English (a name they give to any outsider) can stop at their farms to buy a variety of hand-crafted goods.
Walnuts in the path
The Root River Bike Trail continues downriver from the Old Barn Hostel. During autumn, black walnuts sometimes litter the path and riders must watch out for the occasional cow pie among the fallen leaves. One can sometimes see wild turkeys running through the underbrush, a red-tailed hawk scanning the fields, or a papery wasp nest hanging from a trailside branch.
Halfway to Rushford, the trail passes through Lanesboro, a picturesque town set beneath limestone bluffs and whose entire business district is on the National Register of Historic Places. Most riders either stop for lunch or overnight. Mrs. B's, a 10-room bed and breakfast, provides elegant lodging and dining in a native limestone building dating from 1872. Owners Bill Sermeus and Mimi Abell cook with many local ingredients: walnuts and butternuts, succulent hams, fresh trout and herbs from the restaurant's herb garden.
Just up the street is Arv Fabian's Das Wurst Haus. Mr. Fabian's German bratwurst, sauerkraut, mustards, "brochen," ice cream and root beer -- all homemade -- are becoming legend in these parts. When he isn't talking, Mr. Fabian plays his concertina.
Other attractions of southeastern Minnesota hill and bluff country include apple orchards, where varieties being picked in early October include Haralson, Fireside, Regent and Prairie Spy. Several area towns sponsor fall festivals, which are equally popular with visitors and local residents.
If you go . . .
Oak trees reach their peak of color later than aspen and maple, so it's best to plan your trip for early to mid-October. Call the Minnesota Office of Tourism at (800) 657-3700 for general information on fall foliage.
Driving tours: Chosen Valley Leaf Guide itineraries are available at the Chatfield Tourism Center, 13 Second St. S.E., Chatfield, Minn. 55923 or from Faye Wiskow, (507) 867-4196.
Bicycling: For information on the Root River Trail, write to Root River Trail Towns, Box 411, Lanesboro, Minn. 55949, or ask locally for directions when you arrive in the area. Bike rentals are available at the Old Barn Hostel and in Lanesboro.
Bed and breakfasts: Lund's Guest House, 218 Winona St., Chatfield, Minn. 55923, (507) 867-4003, charges $45-$65 double occupancy, which includes a Continental breakfast. Mrs. B's Historic Lanesboro Inn, Lanesboro, Minn. 55949, (507) 467-2154, charges $53-$63 weekdays for double occupancy and $85-$95 weekends, which includes full breakfast. Mrs. B's restaurant serves five-course table d'hote dinners for five nights a week at $19.95 per person.
Old Barn Camping Resort & Hostel: (800) 552-2512 or (507) 467-2512. Located six miles east of Fountain. Hostel rates are $10 per person (which includes bedding and towels) in the dormitory rooms and $20-$30 for singles/couples in a private room. Bike rentals are $10 a day.
Amish tours: Michel's Farm Vacations, 45 Main Ave., Harmony, Minn. 55939, (507) 886-5392. A guide accompanies you in your car; a 2 1/2 -hour tour costs $22 per car.