Minnesota's Backyard: Stunning vistas, and no glaciers, at Great River Bluffs State Park
The second stop on our 20-site tour of Minnesota's state parks brings us to the Driftless region in the southeast corner of the state, where on a clear day you can see a wide swath of the Mississippi River valley from hundreds of feet above, and well into Wisconsin from the many viewpoints of Great River Bluffs State Park.
WINONA, Minn. -- If you were a kid in the 1970s, and visited downtown Minneapolis, the IDS Building’s observation deck was a must-see. From the time Minnesota’s tallest skyscraper opened in 1972, to the decision roughly a decade later that the space could be better used for offices, you could take the long elevator ride to look out on 360 degrees of windows, hundreds of feet in the air, with views of the meandering Mississippi River below. They said on a clear day you could see all the way into Wisconsin.
With the need for downtown office space dramatically changing in the wake of the pandemic which had most of America working from home, at least for a time, one wonders if we will see a place to peer out at the vista from Minnesota’s tallest man-made structure. Until that day comes, a stunningly scenic drive two hours southeast of the metro area offers a fantastic facsimile.
Just a few years after the IDS Building opened, Great River Bluffs State Park was established on more than 2,800 acres of land inside an already-preserved state forest. From Highway 61 between Winona and LaCrosse, Wis., a winding county road carries motorists up and up to the top of the towering bluffs, where a network of relatively easy hiking trails fans out in multiple directions. For people who live in the Mississippi valley nearby, the park is a kind of hidden gem for the region.
“I feel like it’s one of those overlooked state parks. It’s very small, it doesn’t have Gooseberry Falls or something iconic like that, but the vistas from Great River Bluffs, in my opinion, are some of the best of of the Mississippi River valley in southeast Minnesota,” said Emily Kurash Casey, who lives nearby and serves on the board of directors for Visit Winona. “It’s good to visit in all seasons. We hike there in the winter often, and I know cross country skiers really love it in the winter. It’s even got a sledding hill.”
The park actually offers three camping options -- a traditional drive-in campground with 38 sites, a more secluded cart-in campground and a smaller bicycle campground with five sites just off Highway 61, for those biking the Great River Road.
You don’t need to be a geologist or a geographer to know that the southeastern corner of Minnesota is a little different than the rest of the state. As opposed to the flatlands of the Red River Valley, the lake-dotted swaths of central Minnesota or the rolling, arid prairie of the southwestern corner, the Mississippi Valley south of the Twin Cities features towering bluffs and deep valleys that look more like Appalachia than the Midwest.
Welcome to the Driftless region of Minnesota -- that one small area of the state that was missed by the glaciers that flattened so much of the Midwest roughly 2.5 million years ago.
“The word ‘Driftless’ is something that people are starting to understand and recognize it as a place,” said Kurash Casey, of the region that includes parts of Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois, as well as Minnesota.
The park is bordered on the east by US Highway 61, and on the south by Interstate 90, meaning that the serenity of the scene can be punctured by traffic noise in the distance. If that element lessens your desire to camp, Winona and its dozens of hotel options are a 20-minute drive away.
A unique attraction in Winona, with a metro area population of around 30,000 and three colleges in town, is the Minnesota Marine Art Museum , which opened in 2006 and has been expanded three times since then. With a nod to Winona’s riverside roots, the museum’s five galleries display works with a focus on the artist’s relationship with water. The popular current exhibition “Memories of Titanic,” runs through June 6, 2021.