Minnesota Bluff Country

In the Land of 10,000 Lakes, We Explore Two Special Rivers.

Grab your bike, your canoe, your binoculars, your fishing gear, your horse, your ATV… stow it all in, on or behind your RV and head to southeastern Minnesota. There, the mighty Mississippi River and the meandering Root River set the tone for a very special vacation experience. Maybe you’ll spend as much time in or on the water as possible. Or maybe you’ll get no closer than the shoreline. Doesn’t matter. These two rivers drive the character of the area that reflects the rivers’ relaxing pace.

Let’s start with the Root River. Paralleled much of the way by Minnesota State Route 16, the Root River and its surrounding land is called Historic Bluff Country. State Route 16 is designated as a National Scenic Byway.

The region was untouched by glaciers that flattened much of Minnesota thousands of years ago; leaving rolling hills and limestone bluffs that contrast to the flatter prairie land to the north and west. A rich mixture of upper Midwest hardwood trees including oak, walnut, birch and cherry plus pines covers the land, much of which lies within the Richard J. Dorer Memorial Hardwood State Forest. Thanks to this designation as state land, recreational opportunities abound.

Minnesota kayaksWe took an upstream tour of Historic Bluff Country; having dropped off Interstate 90 just after it crossed the Mississippi River at LaCrosse, Wis. A few miles south of LaCrescent, Minn., catch State Highway 16 and head west.

Houston, Minn., sets the tone for what’s to come. It’s small, clean, and welcoming of tourists. Go north a couple of blocks to the Houston Nature Center to see displays of the region’s wildlife and natural history.

Sited among the Center’s natural landscapes are artistic sculptures formed from bicycles. That’s your cue that this region embraces bicycles. The paved 42-mile Root River State Trail is ideal for bicyclists, hikers and in-line skaters and in the winter, cross-country skiers, which is the only trail activity that requires a permit.

The Root River Trail runs from Houston to Fountain. A southern leg, the harmony-Preston Valley State Trail, connects to it north of Preston and runs south to the town of Harmony. While bikers watch the river as they peddle by it, canoeists, kayakers and tubers see the river up close and personal. Bring your own or take advantage of several outfitters in the area that will rent floatables plus provide shuttle services to bring you back to where you started. There are plenty of bicycle rental sources, too.

Settling in

The Historic Bluff Country offers RV parks that make the most of the area’s special attractions. Eagle Cliff Campground and Lodging is one of the larger ones, with 222 sites along the Root River west of Lanesboro on Highway 16. “People come to this area for the bike trails, the river and the tourist towns,” explains Joyce Knutson, an employee at Eagle Cliff, who says she sees campers staying longer simply to enjoy the area. “It’s a great place for families.” In fact, she says family reunions are becoming popular at the campground. No matter where you plan to stay, “make reservations,” she says.

The Old Barn Resort is another RV park. True to its name, the big old white barn — listed on the National Register of Historic Places — presides over the 18-hole Rivers’ Bend golf course that lies on either side of the Root River, and a campground with 172 sites for RV and tent camping. The barn includes a restaurant, bar and game room, and the feeling that a lot of people have enjoyed the resort’s laid-back charms since its renovation in 1988.

With your rig settled into one of the area’s campgrounds, you can get on your bikes and ride to your heart’s content, exploring every one of the trails system’s asphalt-covered miles. Or drive. Or float. In every town on the trail, you’ll find a downtown district that welcomes visitors, offers good food and drink, and presents ample diversions for simply walking around and exploring.

Lanesboro is the epicenter of Root River country. Nicely restored century-old buildings house a variety of shops and restaurants. On summer Wednesdays and Saturdays you can gather fresh local delicacies at the Lanesboro Farmers’ Market in Sylvan Park. The nationally known Commonweal Theater Company produces plays year-round in its $3.5 million 185-seat theater.

The town of Harmony sits at the southern edge of Root River Country. Five miles southwest of Harmony, nestled among the fields, is Niagara Cave, one of the largest caves in the Midwest. View its underground scenery, including a 60-foot waterfall, on a one-hour guided tour. Back in Harmony, don’t be surprised if you share the roadway with a horse and buggy in this Amish area.

As you explore the Root River area, you’ll find a refreshing absence of chain stores and restaurants. It’s one more way that helps you feel like you’re in a special place that’s enjoying life on its own terms.

It would be easy to let the Root River region consume your whole vacation as you get caught up in its easy charms. But we also wanted to get a flavor of another river . . . one that’s just a little bit bigger.

The mighty Mississippi starts its 2,300-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico at Lake Itasca in north central Minnesota’s Lake Country. It’s not until the first set of 26 locks and dam in Minneapolis that the Mississippi takes on the working character that defines it and the river towns that line it.

By the time it reaches the town of Red Wing, Minn., the Mississippi River is in its full working strength, with towboats and barges moving grain, fuel, coal and fertilizer while recreational boaters ply the inlets for fish or enjoy the majestic bluff scenery.

Thanks to those bluffs, there are two ways to enjoy a great view of this old river city. The easy way is to drive up to Memorial Park. The “no trucks” sign and a few steep tight turns makes this a drive better suited for a solo vehicle or a Class A motorhome. At the top, you’ll be rewarded with a panoramic view plus a nice park for picnicking.

Don't ForgetThe more challenging way is to hike to the top of Barn Bluff. Do this only if you consider yourself to be in good shape and have good hiking shoes. There are no facilities of any kind at the top, only another beautiful view.

For many, the word “Red Wing” is synonymous with pottery. Today, the Red Wing Pottery Company is one of Minnesota’s oldest businesses and ranks in the top 10 of Minnesota’s shopping destinations. You’ll also find the Historic Pottery District, and Pottery Place Mall, and a lovely downtown shopping district. As you’re walking through downtown, be sure to step down to Levee Park to enjoy the riverfront and check out the Red Wing Visitors Center in the historic old train depot.

Red Wing’s Colvill Park offers another opportunity to relax, picnic and enjoy Mississippi River views. The park includes a marina with boat launch and a public aquatic center. There’s ample room to maneuver the biggest RVs, but overnight camping is prohibited.

Take U.S. Highway 61 South to embrace river views to the east and bluff views to the west. Stop and explore at any community you come to; each will give you a true sense of life in a river town. Unique among them is Old Frontenac. The entire community, which lacks any commercial establishments, is on the National Register of Historic Places, the first Minnesota community to be so named. Beautiful Civil War era mansions still stand.

You’ll pass Frontenac State Park on your way to Old Frontenac. It’s emphasized as a prime birder’s park and includes 58 drive-in campsites, 19 with electricity.

There’s a reason the Mississippi River looks unusually wide along here. It’s a naturally formed section of the river called Lake Pepin that’s up to two miles wide and 22 miles long. It’s a year-round recreation destination, popular with sailors in the summer and ice fishermen in the winter.

Several towns along the way, including Lake City and Wabasha, have RV parks very close to downtown and the river although overnight camping may be very limited. Lake City, “birthplace of water-skiing,” has a river walk that covers more than two miles of the town’s riverfront. On it, you’ll walk past one of the largest marinas on the Mississippi.

The city of Wabasha, in addition to having a delightful downtown district, lays claim to being Minnesota’s oldest community and the site where the movie, “Grumpy Old Men,” was filmed.

In recognition of having one of the country’s largest concentrations of bald eagles during the winter months, the town is home to the National Eagle Center. The center promises to offer great insight into America’s national symbol. It’s only a short walk from the downtown area, which might be your best option, as parking immediately by the center appears limited.

Much of the bluff side of the river is part of the sprawling Richard J. Dorer Memorial Hardwood State Forest that also encompasses the Root River region. As a state forest, it offers a wide range of multi-use opportunities. We checked out the Kruger State Forest campground, which is about five miles west of Highway 61. It’s lightly used, with 19 rustic campsites and a nearby canoe launch into the Zumbro River.

Further south, off-road vehicle enthusiasts will find 13.5 miles of trails designated for their use at the Snake Creek Forest Management unit near Kellogg. Nearby Carley State Park has 20 drive-in sites; Whitewater State Park has 106 drive-in sites.

RV Minnesota bluffsAlso near Kellogg is the LARK Toy Store which bills itself as the nation’s largest independent toy store. Inside, you’ll find lots of unique and nostalgic tin, wooden and stuffed toys plus an indoor carousel, a restaurant, and outdoor miniature golf.

As you meander south on Highway 61, avoid pulling into tiny John Latsch State Park in search of a campsite (there are only seven walk-in tent sites). But you can stretch your legs there and gain another great river view by hiking the half-mile trail to the top of Charity Bluff.

Lock and Dam Number 5 has a parking area and a viewing spot to watch boats being raised or lowered through the locks.

Immediately south of the dam is the Bass Camp Resort with 74 RV sites and a true Mississippi River fishing camp feel.

A few miles further south we rolled into Winona. The chain stores reappeared, we no longer could see the river just beyond our door, and that one-step-from-reality feeling that the river imparts began to fade. We drove a few more miles south, hit the entrance ramp to Interstate 90, set the cruise control and said farewell to a wonderful slice of upper Midwestern river city experience.

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