With bluffs to climb, some of the state's best bird-watching, apples a-plenty and the chance to ride a merry-go-round dragon or a real train, the southern stretch of Minnesota's Great River Road makes for a great family getaway.
Start at Red Wing for the wow factor. How many chances do you get to take photos by a boot made for a giant? The 16-foot Red Wing boot's on display at the city's new Red Wing Shoe Museum. Stroll through the historic downtown district and past the depot where Amtrak's Empire Builder rumbles through on its way to St. Paul or south to Winona, hugging the river along the way.
If you're visiting in late winter, head to Wabasha, one of the nation's top spots to see bald eagles swoop from shoreline branches and powerfully snatch dinner from open water below. Year-round, the National Eagle Center lets visitors get close to resident eagles. Interpreters tell about the birds' keen eyes and powerful bodies, and help spot wild eagles from viewing decks.
Other birds -- tundra swans, pelicans, songbirds and sandhill cranes -- migrate through each spring, then gather again in the fall before heading down the Mississippi's super flyway. Keep binoculars and cameras handy, especially near backwaters or river inlets such as the one at Red Wing's Colvill Park.
Bring binoculars and check out the parks along the way. You can picnic and camp at both Frontenac State Park, perched along the Mississippi's steep banks, or Great River Bluffs State Park with its thick woods and sweeping views of the valley and Black River Delta.
Hiking trails thread through hardwood forest, thick with maples, basswood, oak and hickory that flame into full glory by late September.
At Winona, take a break with trails and playgrounds at spacious Lake Park or eat at nostalgic Lakeside Drive Inn. Go on a hunt for artsy blue heron sculptures scattered throughout the university town.
In the fall, look for roadside stands all along the Great River Road for fresh-pressed cider, pies and crisp autumn apples.
For a whimsical finish, head back north to Kellogg's LARK Toys. With goodies galore, vintage toy exhibits, mini-golf, and a hand-carved carousel merry-go-round that blends dragon and troll, otter and swan, it's a one-of-a-kind find.