While I was a student at Winona State University, I made the drive to and from the Twin Cities dozens of times, on most occasions opting to take the quicker, more generic, highway route. However, the times I chose to take the slightly longer, but more beautiful route down Highway 61, I always wished I wasn’t racing to school, but could stay and explore the charismatic towns that line the Mississippi Bluffs portion of the Great River Road. This approximately 140-mile drive takes you through southeastern Minnesota, along the river and through the bluffs. While there are certainly a number of river towns you could stop at, here is a closer look at five that dot the roadway.
Hastings: Here you’ll find impressive architecture and scenery, as well as options for shopping and dining. Take a self-guided walking tour through downtown and see some of the 63 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including the Fasbender Clinic, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and the LeDuc Historic Estate, which was home of William LeDuc, a Civil War officer and former U.S. Commissioner of Agriculture. While downtown, you’ll find a number of quaint antique, specialty, and clothing stores, as well as restaurants, coffee shops, and delis. If you’d rather dine outside, take a picnic to Vermillion Falls Park, which contains a 35-foot urban waterfall and has grounds equipped with grills and a shelter. After dining, take a ride on the 15-mile bike trail that loops the city, or head over to Alexis Bailey Vineyard to sample wines made from Minnesota grapes.
Red Wing: In this town you’ll find examples of classic Minnesota business ventures, including shoes and pottery. Visit the Red Wing Shoes store and museum to take a tour of the factory and see the world’s largest boot. Learn the process of producing stoneware on a tour of Red Wing Stoneware Company, or watch potters wheel-throw at Red Wing Pottery. After your tours, grab a bite to eat at one of the three restaurants located at the historic St. James Hotel. For food and drinks, check out Falconer Vineyards, where you can gaze out onto the property while sampling wines and dining on wood-fired pizza. If you’re looking for kid-friendly fun, make a stop at Red Wing Water Park, the largest of its kind in the area, complete with water slides, a zero-depth pool, and sand beach area.
Lake City: The birthplace of water skiing, Lake City is a great place for all things water. Situated on the shores of Lake Pepin, the largest lake on the Mississippi River, the area is said to offer the best fishing in southeastern Minnesota. There are a number of ways to get out on the lake, including taking a sailing lesson or charter, or an excursion on the Pearl of the Lake paddlewheel boat. At the Lake City Marina, you’ll find tennis courts, a swimming beach, and the entrance to the only working lighthouse on the river. For lakeside dining, check out Skyline on Pepin, which offers a wide-ranging menu and overlooks the lake. Take to the green at one of the town’s four 18-hole golf courses, including Lake Pepin Golf Course, a Scottish links-style course that’s located on top of the bluffs.
Wabasha: Grumpy Old Men may have made the town famous, but believe it or not, Wabasha is home to more than just the characters played by Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Occupied since 1826, Wabasha is one of the oldest cities on the upper Mississippi River and has more than 50 buildings that have a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. Also making its mark on history is the National Eagle Center, an interpretive facility that allows you to learn about the birds while either viewing some in their natural habitat or those rescued and living at the center. For kids or kids at heart, make a stop at LARK Toys, one of the largest family owned and operated toy stores in the country. You can browse through their famous wooden toys, or take a ride on their hand-carved carousel.
Winona: The largest Mississippi River town in Minnesota, Winona is home to several museums, five state parks, two national wildlife and fish refuges, and a number of spots for soaking in the scenery. For art lovers, a visit to the Minnesota Marine Art Museum is a must. Here you’ll find a collection of 19th and 20th century water-inspired works of art, including pieces by Monet, Renoir, and van Gogh. To learn about river town and its lumber baron history, head over to Winona County History Center. For more insight into the town, check out Winona’s Polish Museum, the Watkins Museum and Store, or Pickwick Mill. For awe-inspiring views, hike up to the top of Sugar Loaf or drive up to Garvin Heights for a bird’s eye view of the “island city.”
So, whether you have a day, weekend, or week, take the drive through the bluffs and experience all that these river towns have to offer.