Explore Bluff Country & the Mississippi River Valley

By James Riemermann

Great River Bluffs State Park, Winona
Great River Bluffs State Park, Winona

More than 10,000 years ago, glaciers covered all of Minnesota except the southeastern corner. And that made all the difference. Known by geologists as the “driftless” region (and by Minnesotans as Bluff Country), this land is graced with gentle rivers and streams flowing between high wooded bluffs. Glacial meltwater carved the deep valleys, while sparing the soft limestone bluffs.

The greatest of these rivers is the Mississippi, but many clear, cool tributaries such as the Root, Zumbro and Whitewater rivers are beloved by canoeists, trout anglers, birders and other nature lovers. The Root River’s 80 miles offer excellent, gentle canoeing, and the paved Root River Trail is one of Minnesota’s most popular biking spots, with 42 mostly easy miles to ride along an abandoned railway line.

The trail runs from Fountain to Houston, passing through the lovely river town of Lanesboro, home to the Commonweal Theatre, antique shops and charming B&Bs. Local restaurants range from simple to gourmet, many offering local and seasonal specialties.

Amish Country

Root River Trail biking
Root River Trail

The Root River Trail connects with the 18-mile Harmony-Preston Valley State Trail; both wind through the heart of southeast Minnesota’s Amish community. Horse-drawn buggies are common sights on local roads. Harmony and Lanesboro are home to several shops selling Amish crafts and baked goods, and tours of Amish farmsteads offer a glimpse into this distinctive, peaceful culture. Harmony is also home to Niagara Cave, with a 60-foot waterfall, wedding chapel, stalactites, stalagmites, and various fossils.

Lanesboro Arts is a nonprofit organization with a gallery that exhibits and sells works by more than 90 local and regional artists, and also operates the St. Mane Theatre, which stages music, community theater and monthly variety shows.

Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park in Preston offers tours of the longest cave in Minnesota, along underground paths and chambers with stalactites, stalagmites, and iridescent underground pools. Above ground, there are tours of Historic Forestville, a restored 1800s village complete with costumed interpreters.

The crystalline waters of Beaver Creek Valley State Park, near Caledonia, are home to brown and native brook trout swimming between hardwood-covered bluffs that rise as much as 250 feet above the creek. To the north are Whitewater and Carley state parks, on different forks of the Whitewater River near Altura.

Birthplace of Waterskiing

Water Ski Days_Ben Threinen_800x533
Waterski Days, Lake City / Photo by Ben Threinen

The driftless portion of the Mississippi is likewise dominated by high bluffs overlooking the water, including the river’s widest naturally occurring point at Lake Pepin, where waterskiing was invented. It’s also one of the best birding locations in the state.

Near the northern end of the lake is Frontenac State Park, with magnificent river overlooks and trails traversing bluffs, prairies and river floodplains. Drive-in and RV camping is available, along with a handful of more remote cart-in campsites.

To the south is Lake City, where the Pearl of the Lake paddleboat offers 90-minute excursions on Lake Pepin, some of which are wine and cider cruises in cooperation with a local winery.

South of Winona is Great River Bluffs State Park, with camping, hiking, and incredible views of the river valley. Comfortable rooms are available at several hotels, inns and bed-and-breakfasts in town.

Almost all the local towns have antique and gift shops, and driving through the countryside on a nice day, it’s common to come across big yard sales and flea markets full of great finds. Raising the bar on that tradition, a four-day weekend in early May features a “100-Mile Garage Sale” from Hastings to Winona, with countless shops and individuals taking part.

Riverside Attractions

National Eagle Center
National Eagle Center, Wabasha

Overlooking the river in Wabasha is the National Eagle Center, where wild bald eagles can usually be spotted through two-story floor-to-ceiling windows, or from the terraced plaza outside. The center also offers daily live eagle programs with the bald and golden eagles that reside at the center.

At Lark Toys in Kellogg, kids and grown-ups can ride a carousel of whimsical hand-carved animals, from horses and deer to ostriches, pelicans, moose and loons. There’s also an antique toy museum, mini-golf and a wide array of toys for sale, including old-fashioned wooden pull toys handmade by local craftspeople.

Beneath a distinctive 500-foot limestone outcropping on a bluff known as Sugar Loaf, Winona is the largest town along this portion of the Mississippi. Two universities support a surprisingly lively arts scene for a town of less than 30,000 people.

The Great River Shakespeare Festival presents lively and accessible productions of several of the Bard’s works as well as other classics, and even some new works, every summer from late June through early August. Arrive early to take part in pre-performance conversations about what you'll see on stage, and look for free opportunities to engage with the actors and learn about their process.

JMW Turner, Hampton Court Palace, Watercolor on Paper, c. 1825-28, Minnesota Marine Art Museum, Winona
Minnesota Marine Art Museum, Winona

Winona is also home to the widely renowned Minnesota Marine Art Museum, with waterway-themed masterpieces by Van Gogh, Monet, Gaugin, Matisse, Picasso and many more in its permanent collection.

On the homegrown side, the Polish Cultural Institute and Museum celebrates the area’s Polish heritage with historic and cultural artifacts, and the Winona County History Center features three floors of exhibits in a historic building downtown. Don’t miss the view from Garvin Heights overlook.

In the winter, there is great cross-country skiing on the Root River and Harmony-Preston Valley trails and in most of the region’s state parks, and in autumn these hardwood bluffs show some of the most dramatic fall color in the entire state.