Looking out over the Mississippi River from a scenic overlook at Great River Bluffs State Park

Camping & Hiking Along the Mississippi River at Great River Bluffs State Park

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Scenic overlooks provide majestic Mississippi River vistas at Great River Bluffs State Park / Zane Spang

Camping & Hiking Along the Mississippi River at Great River Bluffs State Park

By Sheila Regan

Great River Bluffs State Park, in the Bluff Country of Southeastern Minnesota, has dramatic shifts in elevation and steep bluffs hovering over the lush Mississippi River valley. 

For a solo camping trip on Labor Day weekend, I was happy to have driven down the scenic route along the river. The bluffs popped in and out of view, all green and brown, with hints of orange and yellow.

Woman hiking through a field of prairie grasses at Great River Bluffs State Park

Hike through lush prairie grasses at Great River Bluffs State Park / Zane Spang

Day 1

When I arrived at Great River Bluffs State Park, I ventured out for a hike along King’s Bluff Nature Trail, which started out in an oak-hickory forest. Part prairie, part hardwood forest, the landscape transforms as you move through it. Acorns lined the trail and crunched beneath my shoes as the forest shifted into a spectacular bluff prairie, lined with blooming flowers.

The vista at the end of King’s Bluff is gob smacking. The glimmering water of the Mississippi River, surrounded by vegetation and framed by the rolling bluffs, made me gasp.

Roasting a marshmallow over a campfire

Roasting marshmallows over the campfire / Roy Son

That evening, I pitched a tent, made a fire, and had Spanish ham and brie on a baguette for dinner. I also enjoyed a can of Lift Bridge beer I’d managed to keep cold in a cooler. I listened to the crackle of the wood as it burned in tune with the sound of wind blowing in the trees.

It felt achingly quiet. Camping by yourself has a lonely feeling, but that’s the point. It forces you to be present with your thoughts. I felt the warmth on my face from the fire, then, as if on cue, the moon appeared to keep me company.

That night, the wind blew off my tarp, and I had to get out of the tent to stake it down again. In the morning, a soft pinkish light greeted me. I made another fire and roasted a marshmallow for a s’mores breakfast.

Scenic overlook of the Mississippi River from Great River Bluffs State Park

Morning fog over the Mississippi River at Great River Bluffs State Park

Day 2

On the second day, I made my way toward the Valley View vista. I found it very peaceful to hike alone through the tall trees, surrounded by an abundant undergrowth of white wildflowers and mushrooms. At the end of the trail, surrounded by red velvety flowers, I sat amidst the grasses and drank in the view of bluffs cascading down into the prairie below.

After a rest, I pushed on to visit the other trails. The East Overlook offered a tremendous view of where the Mississippi intersects with the Black River Delta, and the South Overlook was equally vast and rich.

Performer at Steamboat Days Festival

Performer in the annual Steamboat Days Festival and Parade in Winona / Visit Winona

More to Do in Bluff Country

Hungry for more adventures? Keep exploring this beautiful and unique part of Minnesota on the region's scenic hiking trails or with a paddleboat tour of Lake Pepin, a bike ride on the Root River State Trail or an artsy weekend getaway in Winona

Man and dog at Superior Hiking Trail overlook

Sunset on the Superior Hiking Trail / Alyssa Hei

Know Before You Go

  • A vehicle permit is required to enter Minnesota state 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.
  • Some Minnesota state parks have all-terrain electric wheelchairs for use on unpaved trails.
  • If your dog will be hiking with you, keep it on a leash and clean up after it.
  • Don't pick wildflowers or otherwise disturb the landscape. "Take only photos, leave only footprints."
Sheila Regan

Sheila Regan is a freelance writer, journalist and arts critic based in Minneapolis. She has covered dance, theater and the arts, in addition to news writing and feature reporting for local publications as well as national outlets, including Hyperallergic, the Washington Post, The Art Newspaper, ArtForum and Bomb.