Thanks to a freak of nature during the last ice age, there is an unspoiled paradise in Southeastern Minnesota. Many have never heard of it because those in the know keep it like a closely guarded secret. It is a region with towering bluffs and hundreds of miles of trails. Its maze of Mississippi River backwaters are a jarring and beautiful contrast from flat terrain around it. But the bikers, hikers, climbers, and paddlers who discover it know the area as the premier outdoor playground of the Upper Midwest.
The Driftless Region is the name for this dramatic landscape along a small stretch of the Mississippi River. It was made possible by a peculiar event 10,000 years ago when glaciers were inching their way across the continent. For reasons scientists still debate, the glacier parted in the southernmost corner of Minnesota and left a piece of land undisturbed there, with the two sides of the glacier rejoining in Iowa. Everything around it was crushed flat and covered with sediment. But this region kept its rugged bluffs and deep valleys.
Gateway To the Driftless
Perched on the Mississippi River just off Interstate 90 in Southeastern Minnesota, Winona, Minnesota, is one of the most scenic cities in the Driftless Region. It has become a hub for the recreational amenities the area has to offer. Located two hours from Minneapolis and Saint Paul, its location makes it an easy road trip for visitors coming to explore the pristine natural resources there.
Road riding and mountain biking have attracted some international attention for the city. International legend Greg LeMond has used the city’s bluff roads to train for Tour de France Numerous national-caliber road and mountain biking races have taken place there in recent years. More than 100 miles of trails crisscross the bluffs and river valley that cradle Winona. These include gentle doubletracks over rolling terrain to adrenaline-pumping singletracks that rocket from high in the bluffs.
Exposed rock faces extending hundreds of feet in the air have lured climbers from across the Midwest. A pinnacle called Sugar Loaf that rises some 500 feet over the city has numerous routes placed by professional climbers. And a new ice park for winter climbing keeps the fun going year-round. A local guiding company is also on hand to help newcomers scale the bluffs and ice flow safely.
Paddlers here enjoy the backwaters of the Mississippi River. A maze of quiet trails runs around islands and sandbars where thousands of migratory birds can be spotted. Even better, virtually every island and sandbar on this stretch of river is public land and paddlers are welcome to pull up anywhere and sit for a spell or even pitch a tent and camp if they like. Seasonally, Prairie Island Campground has canoes, kayaks and standup paddleboards available for rent with access to the backwaters via their beach.
Winona has a hefty list of new and long-standing eateries and drinkeries to wind down after an excursion. A downtown brewery and a collection of local wineries add even more eclectic flavors to the landscape. The city is also known for its music and arts scene. Ten annual festivals and live music venues across town will fill the hours not spent on the bluffs or river.
Looking ahead, city leaders recently unveiled a $23 million parks plan that aims to take Winona even further as a premier recreation destination. The time to discover this area is now. With everything that’s happening, down the road it’s likely to be the Midwest’s least-kept secret.