Camping & Hiking Along the Mississippi River at Great River Bluffs State Park
By Sheila Regan
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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