The laid-back wineries, local restaurants, scenic parks and cozy inns that dot the state's southernmost stretch of the Great River Road, in the far southeast corner of Minnesota, make welcome stops for two. But the greatest attraction this time of year is the river valley itself. A sparkling band of sapphire water cradled in bluffs bursting with shades of ruby, emerald and gold will set the tone for a romantic getaway to remember.
Where to Wine
About a mile south of the historic little rivertown of Hastings, a few turns off Highway 61, Alexis Bailly Vineyard transports you far from all things urban—or Minnesotan, for that matter. David Bailly stubbornly carved this Napa-esque compound into southern Minnesota's corn and bean fields way back in the '70s, making it the state's oldest winery. Sip home-grown wines in the weathered-wood tasting room or on the back deck, shaded in grapevines twisting overhead.
About 20 miles down 61 outside of Red Wing, the Falconer Vineyards tasting room perches on the edge of a lovely valley brimming with curly vines, heavy with grapes each fall.
Wind back down the road from Falconer you're in Red Wing, one of Minnesota's most romance-nurturing towns, where you'll find B&Bs, intimate restaurants, entertainment at the historic Sheldon Theatre and the classic elegance of the historic St. James Hotel downtown. Choose from 67 enchanting Victorian guestrooms, and four distinct dining options at this romantic hotel with views that overlook the Mississippi River.
All along this stretch of road following the river south to Iowa, there are parks perfect for walks, picnics or just soaking in the view, hand-in-hand. In Red Wing, Colvill Park is known for eagle-watching, central Levee Park is the place for downtown river views, and Barn Bluff features a bird's-eye vista of the valley, a well-earned reward after a steep 1.5-mile hike.
Further south on the Great River Road, tempting views emerge one after the other. In Lake City, stop for the sailboats on Lake Pepin, a widening of the Mississippi River that's a whopping 3 miles wide. Then there's Faith, Hope and Charity, the trio of pretty bluffs in John A. Latsch State Park—about 900 steps deliver you to a great view atop Charity.
Continue south to Winona, where the Minnesota Marine Art Museum inspires with diverse works from the world's most renowned marine artists, as well as the mighty river waiting just outside its front door. And the many orchards in and around La Crescent, the Apple Capital of Minnesota, are a natural in the fall; some even sit on the blufftops overlooking the Mississippi.
All along the river valley at day's end, the lowering sun highlights the russet-colored trees against the sky's fleeting pastel backdrop, adding to the allure of the southernmost section of Minnesota's Great River Road in fall. Make time, and bring your sweetie. You don't want to miss this show.