Hike to Breathtaking Overlooks in Minnesota's Bluff Country
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Take sightseeing to new heights with a hike in southeast Minnesota's bluff country.
This area is part of the "driftless region," an area untouched by four major glaciers, resulting in deep valleys and steep, rocky walls undisturbed by glacial drift and erosion. Several trails offer scenic views of the Mississippi River, valleys, rugged bluffs and spectacular fall colors. Bring a pair of binoculars to spot eagles, hawks and other birds that soar along the river flyway. In fact, this portion of the Mississippi Flyway is one of the best in the country for viewing spring and fall bird migrations.
Where to start? From Red Wing to Winona, here are three destinations to get you started.
An hour’s drive from Minneapolis-St. Paul, the historic and charming town of Red Wing is home to several bluffs, the most prominent being Barn Bluff. This landmark looms over downtown, the Mississippi River and the river valley.
Hikers can choose from a south trail (considered easy) and a north trail (slightly more difficult) to reach the two scenic overlooks and additional trails. A trip to the top and back takes one to two hours. Serious rock climbers ascend the bluff’s north face, considered among Minnesota’s best climbs.
Those interested in area history will want to take a short trail on the northeast side of the bluff to the G. A. Carlson Lime Kiln which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.
"The hike is a little strenuous but it is so worth it," says Hugh W on TripAdvisor. "You can literally see for miles. Watch barges go up and down the river. You are so close to the eagles soaring over the river."
Frontenac State Park
In Frontenac, where the Mississippi River widens into Lake Pepin, Frontenac State Park is another rewarding bluff country destination. The park has over 14 miles of hiking trails, including sections along the cliff edge that feature breathtaking river overlooks.
One trail landmark is the natural limestone arch, called In-Yan Teopa (Dakota for “rock with opening”), perched on top of the bluff. In addition to stunning views and great picnic sites, bird watching at Frontenac is spectacular. If you've forgotten your binoculars, request a birding kit at the park office.
Great River Bluffs State Park
Farther downriver in Winona, Great River Bluffs State Park is named for the sheer-sided bluffs that rise 500 feet above the river and valley. The park has more than six miles of easy hiking trails. Four trail overlooks—the North, South, East and King’s Bluff Overlooks—offer spectacular views of the Mississippi River.
Get an expansive view of the park’s interior from the Hill of Many Timbers and Kearn’s Valley overlooks. Hiking trails wind through forests, fields, and prairies that are home to a wide variety of wildlife. More than 100 species of birds can be seen in Great River Bluffs State Park.
Know Before You Go
A vehicle permit is required to enter Minnesota state parks and many regional parks. Save time by ordering one online before you arrive at the park.
For comfort and safety on the trail, be sure everyone has appropriate footwear (tennis shoes, not flip-flops).
Bring a water bottle for each hiker as well as plenty of sunscreen, bug spray and snacks.
Pick up a paper map at the park office or load a GeoPDF map before you leave (don’t rely on your phone to navigate because cell and Internet service may not be available in the woods).
The accessible trails at Minnesota state parks are stroller friendly as well as wheelchair friendly.
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