Spend a Weekend in Bluff Country
Minnesota’s Bluff Country is an incredible part of our state. While it’s a great place to visit any time of the year, it’s most breathtaking in the fall with bursts of orange and yellow trees along the bluffs surrounding wide sections of the deep blue Mississippi River winding along the Minnesota and Wisconsin border. Although much of these stops can be done in a packed day trip, I recommend you spend at least 48 hours visiting this region.
If you’re coming from the Twin Cities, I suggest you make your first stop in Red Wing, then continue on to Frontenac State Park for sweeping views of Lake Pepin. Then, check out Lake City, Wabasha, and finish in Winona. If you have time to hop over to the Wisconsin side, Pepin and Nelson are great places to stop. You’ll find restaurants, a winery, a sunflower field, and great views of the yellow and orange Minnesota bluffs.
I was invited by Explore Minnesota and Visit Winona to visit this region. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
1. Red Wing, Minnesota
Red Wing is about one hour Southeast of downtown Minneapolis. Known for its beautiful bluffs, historic sites, and world-famous boots, it’s a great spot to begin your bluff country adventure.
Hike Barn Bluff
The Barn Bluff hike is an absolute must-see, especially during the fall. The bluff overlooks the Mississippi River and is considered sacred by the Dakota people.
It’s very steep and it’s a workout to get to the top. But once you’re there, it is well worth it! The hike itself should take you just over an hour, which allows for time to stop, take photos, and enjoy the expansive view.
Red Wing Pottery Museum
Red Wing has a historic clay industry, so be sure to check out the Pottery Museum. There are more than 6,000 vintage pieces of stoneware, art pottery, dinnerware, and folk art. Admission to the museum is free, and it’s quite interesting! Some of the pottery even dates back to the 1800s!
Red Wing Brewery
If you’re getting thirsty, stop by the Red Wing Brewery. It’s a great spot on the outskirts of town. The beer selection is varied and delicious. They also serve pizzas and calzones if you’re wanting a meal.
If you’re looking for many more ideas, read my full blog post on Red Wing here.
2. Frontenac State Park
If you’re looking for incredible views of the bluff region, and specifically Lake Pepin, stop at Frontenac State Park. Drive right up to the lookout point for beautiful views of Lake Pepin, or continue on for a hike in the woods. Dense trees along the bluff’s edge complement the expansive views of fields and prairies stretching out before you.
3. Lake City
There are many things to do in Wabasha, and you could easily spend a whole day exploring this cute town. With a historic downtown area and a lot of shops, restaurants, and a waterfront park, there is a surprising amount of things to do here.
National Eagle Center
Walk Around Town and Grab Ice Cream
Grab Lunch at Slippery’s
We’ve been to Winona a few times, however, going in the fall is the best time because of the vibrant fall foliage on the steep and winding bluffs. The bursts of orange, red, and yellow alongside the Mississippi River continue to be stunning here.
Minnesota Marine Art Museum
Kickoff the day with the Minnesota Marine Art Museum. It’s a gorgeous building next to the Mississippi River with wildflower gardens. The museum has many different rooms, including an exhibit that includes a chair from the Titanic as well as handwritten letters from one survivor. Another room has incredible photographs of animals underwater, like alligators, sharks, and whales. My favorite room had colorful paintings from Picasso, Mattise, Renoir, Degas, Monet, Van Gogh, and other famous artists. I highly recommend this museum, which costs only $9.
Hike Sugar Loaf Bluff
If you can only do one thing in Winona, it should be Sugar Loaf Bluff. The trail takes about 45 minutes round trip, including time for photos and stopping to enjoy the view along the way. It’s a very steep hike up, but the expansive view of bright fall colors makes this hike one you won’t want to miss.
Enjoy Authentic Italian Food
Winona has a lot of restaurants so it may be hard to choose a good dinner spot. However, if you’re looking for high-quality Italian food at a great price, and with a unique story, Sapori di Sicilia is the spot for you. The owner and chef trained in Italy and did a fabulous job bringing his skills back to Minnesota. All the kitchen equipment was brought in from Italy and the cafe is designed to replicate Italian cafes. They make fresh bread and pastries daily and offer wine from Italian vineyards. I enjoyed a glass of delicious and light red wine from Sicily for just $5! The framed photos of Italian scenes are from an Italian photographer, and even the music playing is streaming in from a radio in Sicily. It’s a very thoughtfully curated experience and one that I highly recommend.
If you’re looking for many more ideas, read my full blog post on Winona here.
6. Hop Over to Wisconsin
For beautiful views of the Minnesota bluffs, hop over to the Wisconsin side for a unique experience. You’ll find two cute towns called Nelson and Pepin that can provide for a fun stop along the way.
The Nelson Cheese Factory
The Nelson Cheese Factory, previously called Nelson’s Creamery is a great stop for hot and cold sandwiches, salad, soup, and pizza. They also have a wine room and a kitchen pantry with sauces, cheese, cookies, meat, and more so you can bring your favorite items home.
The Pickle Factory
Stop by the Pickle Factory for lunch in Pepin. They have excellent burgers and cheap beer. Sit inside, or find a spot on the outdoor patio, which is just a few steps from Lake Pepin.
Continue the adventure with a glass of wine at Villa Bellezza. I had the Chardonnay, which is light and refreshing. Sit outside on the beautiful piazza, walk around the vineyard and feel transported to Italy. They also sell Italian-inspired food, like lasagna if you’re looking for a meal.
Another great stop along the way is Village Edge Farms Organic Sunflowers. There’s something so stunning about a sunflower field in full bloom. Everyone is welcome to take photos and enjoy the view. Be careful not to trample the flowers and give a donation in the donation box if you can.
Minnesota’s Bluff Country Is a Must-See
Minnesota’s bluff country is absolutely incredible during the fall season. If you’re coming from the Twin Cities and want to take the scenic route, drive south on Highway 61 on the Minnesota side, then on the return trip, take Highway 35 on the Wisconsin side back up to the Cities so you’ll get great views of the Minnesota bluffs.