Thinking of Minnesota roadways, superlatives do not normally come to mind. Riding Minnesota’s Otter Trail Scenic Byway can change that. The route includes many “largest,” “highest” and “most” spots along the way, making for an interesting ride. Plan carefully and you will cross three continental divides!
Otter Tail County is in the Lake Country of Minnesota, the “Land of 10,000 Lakes.” Otter Tail County itself contains more than 1,000 lakes, more than any other in the United States. These numerous bodies of water cause the byway to curve and flow between them for a great motorcycle ride. My BMW R 1100 RT was an excellent choice for some sport-style riding and some touring. The tourism economy of Otter Tail County includes cabins, resorts, lakes, boating and fishing, and many of the small towns in the area have a variety of festivals throughout the tourism season.
The Otter Trail Scenic Byway is conveniently detailed on a free map. Supplement it with a state map for the more intricate sections and you’ll be all set. The route has a few straight, flat roadways, but any straight sections on the 160-mile loop are usually rolling and higher than the surrounding terrain, providing vistas over lakes, forests and farms. The pavement is good, the curves many and the scenery plentiful. Ride in spring for beautiful greens, or autumn for great colors.
Since the scenic byway is a loop, there are many places to start and end the ride, and fuel, food stops and lodging are plentiful. I started in Battle Lake, Minnesota, and rode counterclockwise. Heading north out of town on Minnesota Trunk Highway 78, the road quickly begins to curve along the shoreline of Otter Tail Lake. Soon we come upon an unusual local restaurant, Elmer’s Texas Barb-B-Que. In addition to offering Texas-style BBQ in rural Minnesota, Elmer’s is unusual because it sponsors a dinner theater experience unlike anything in the area. A local community theater troupe performs a melodrama on weekends. A family-style BBQ, old-time medicine show and fun melodrama all rolled into one, Elmer’s dinner show is thoroughly enjoyable. A staff member even holds up cards advising the audience when to cheer, boo and hiss. Great fun!
Following the lazy and scenic curves, Highway 78 soon brings us into the community of Ottertail, about a mile east of the more recent development along the main highway. In the 1870s, the population dwindled because the railroad changed the route and bypassed Ottertail. A spur was later routed east of the town and city officials voted to move it, buildings and all, to the new location, about a mile east of the original.
Leaving Ottertail and heading north on Highway 78, we arrive in Perham. Make a left on County Road 34, cruise downtown Perham and head out into the country. The route rolls and curves around more lakes.
For a short diversion off the Otter Trail, take U.S. Route 10 to Frazee. The reward is a visit to the world’s largest turkey, Tom, a monument to Minnesota as the largest turkey producer in the U.S. From Frazee, taking back roads (not shown on the Otter Trail map) south to Vergas brings us to Loon Lake and a large sculpture of the world’s largest loon, a central figure in Vergas’ annual Looney Daze festival.
From Vergas, wind your way back to Trunk Highway 108 via County Road 35, then 85. From the intersection of County Road 85 and Highway 108, to U.S. Route 59 is my favorite section of this favorite ride. When the road is straight it rolls high across the landscape providing views of farms, forests and lakes. Approaching Maplewood State Park, you’re back in the curves. Trees grow close to the road and provide beautiful greens in summer, and flame yellows and reds in the fall. Sweepers make the road fun and then it squeezes tight between resorts and the Lake Lida shoreline. At U.S. 59, turn south toward Pelican Rapids. The world’s largest pelican, Pelican Pete, watches over Pelican Rapids dam, a good place to stop for a snack or a meal.
Heading south on U.S. 59 for a short distance, look for the Otter Trail signs and turn east on County Road 3. The road is in great shape and winds around the south side of Maplewood State Park. Head toward Phelps Mill County Park and continue to follow the Otter Trail signs over the country roads and curves.
Phelps is a small settlement centered around the 19th century flour mill. Once one of the largest flour mills west of the Mississippi River, the mill is now a museum, open for self-guided tours. Much of the original milling machinery remains and the museum is very informative.
From Phelps Mill, head west again. County Road 1 takes us into Fergus Falls. There are numerous restaurants, fuel stops and lodging establishments if you explore just off the Otter Trail. Following the Otter Trail Scenic Byway signs through Fergus Falls, just off the trail is Adams Park, where you will be rewarded with another large sculpture, Otto the Otter, who overlooks the Otter Tail River.
Back on the Otter Trail, leave Fergus Falls and head southeast. This is another great section of road, curvy and in good condition all the way into Dalton, which has limited services. There are two gas stations, the local coffee shop and the Dalton Opera House. The opera house hosts a variety of performers and you’ll want to find out if there is a concert during your visit.
Follow the route out of Dalton through beautiful rural country. At County Road 47, head south and enjoy more nice scenery and curves. The trail crosses Trunk Highway 78 and heads toward Inspiration Peak on County Road 38, the highest point in Otter Tail County. A short walk rewards you with a panoramic view.
As the village of Urbank came into view, I noticed numerous flashing red lights on the road ahead. “Uh-oh,” I thought, “what could this be?” Soon I came face-to-face with a parade. Reaching the intersection first, I turned north thinking I’d get out of the way, but to my surprise the parade turned north, too, and I found myself leading it! For about a block, people were waving at my black BMW! I returned my best parade wave, then continued to Vining.
There is an interesting park next to the Big Foot Gas, Grocery and Deli in Vining. The father of astronaut and Vining native, Karen Nyberg, is metal sculptor Ken Nyberg. Numerous interesting metal sculptures are on display in the park, and it’s worth taking a few minutes to admire the art and make a few photo memories.
Back on the road for the last leg of the trip, we turn west on Trunk Highway 210 and end up back in Battle Lake. It is a pleasant ride with great scenery, good roads, an easy pace and even a little history. Who could ask for more? For a fun ride through friendly and scenic territory, I highly recommend the Otter Trail Scenic Byway.