Highway 61 Revisited

By Mpls.St.Paul Magazine / Inspired by Osmo Vänskä's My North

When Minnesota Orchestra Music Director Osmo Vänskä isn’t running one of the most celebrated orchestras in the world or watching hockey (he is a native of Finland after all), he’s probably recalibrating on his motorcycle. And while he’s ridden all over the state, including all the way north to Grand Portage, his preferred route is along the bluffs of the Mississippi River Valley in southern Minnesota. Make sure to stop at these unique destinations when you decide to make like Osmo and explore Highway 61.

Reads Landing Brewing Company, Reads Landing

Reads Landing Beer
Delicious beers from Reads Landing Brewing Company.

The Mississippi River Valley is dotted with fantastic breweries, including Wenonah and Island City in Winona, and Red Wing Brewery in – you guessed it – Red Wing. But if you’re only going to try one, Reads Landing Brewing Company, built right on the river in a 1870s former dry goods store, makes a compelling case for your business. Take in the history and lush river scenery over a Pumpkin Pullman Porter.

St. James Hotel, Red Wing

Red Wing’s decadent St. James Hotel first opened for business on Thanksgiving 1875 and instantly became a Minnesota staple of class and relaxation. Now owned by the Red Wing Shoe Company, the St. James’s brunch buffet is the perfect early pit stop on your drive down 61. Oh, and bring binoculars for some great eagle watching (or just glance up).

Lake Pepin Pearl Button Co., Lake City

The first brick building in Lake City, built in 1866, has been many things: It’s been a button factory, a funeral home, a Chevy Dealer, a poultry hatchery and the storage building for a local hardware store. Today the Pearl Button Company is one of the quaintest, coolest multi-dealer antique malls in the valley. Pick up a latte from the in-house café, Button Cup, before delving into the vast assortment of antiques, arts and oddities found within.

National Eagle Center, Wabasha

An "Eagle Ambassador" is observed at the National Eagle Center

The Mississippi River Valley is well known by birders as an eagle-viewing paradise, and the National Eagle Center is the nest for all things eagle on Highway 61. This interpretive center and eagle refuge on the banks of the Mississippi has a robust museum and two stories of interactive exhibits, but the stars of the show are the ‘eagle ambassadors’—injured eagles living in captivity you can get up close with. Be forewarned, though, that flying meat is to their eagle shows what smashing a watermelon is to a Gallagher show.

Paperbacks and Pieces, Winona

Since 1977 Shelley Olsen’s voluminous shop has been peddling new and used books to scenic drivers and Winona-ites alike. A mish-mash of knickknacks, used books, new books arriving weekly, live readings and book clubs, Paperbacks and Pieces is a solid browse. And as a special bonus for people who keep a stack of old books in their car, you get 25 percent off the book you’re buying when you trade in a book at purchase.

My North is a weekly video series created in partnership with Mpls.St.Paul Magazine and Explore Minnesota. If you missed Osmo Vänskä's story, view it here.

>See more My North itineraries