48 Hours in Minnesota’s Bluff Country

things to do in winona

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.

things to do in red wing minnesota
things to do in red wing minnesota
Things to do in Red Wing Minnesota

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.

Lake Pepin

3. Lake City

Lake City is a beautiful spot if you’re looking to spend time on the water. With a wide part of the Mississippi River and awe-inspiring bluffs, this stretch is quite unique from the rest of Minnesota. One popular way to get on the water is on a 90-minute boat tour with Pearl of the Lake. If you have your own boat, you can dock it at any one of the many docks available. Be sure to check online or call ahead for availability and pricing. We have friends who keep their boat at Lake Pepin, and we’ve been lucky enough to join them for a river cruise.
Lake Pepin

4. Wabasha

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
If you only have a little bit of time as you pass through the bluff region, however, the National Eagle Center should be high on your list. Spend time walking around and learning about these incredible birds, and why they are thriving in this region. You’ll even be able to see several bald eagles who have been rescued and are being cared for at the center. One bird is blind in one eye, and another survived a terrible car crash. If it wasn’t for the National Eagle Center, and the wonderful care they receive, they would never be able to survive on their own. You’ll learn a lot about our nation’s bird at this incredible place.
 
Walk Around Town and Grab Ice Cream
Afterward, walk around the main downtown area for cute shops and coffee spots. We love Chocolate Escapes, which has ice cream, coffee, and chocolate treats. They also sell beautiful jewelry and home decor items.
 
Grab Lunch at Slippery’s
Stop for lunch at Slippery’s a waterfront restaurant made famous by Grumpy Old Men. There is a large waterfront patio, and occasionally they have live music. Or, check out the large indoor space. They offer classic pub options, like burgers, fish and chips, and fried chicken sandwiches.
Winona, Minnesota
Winona, Minnesota
things to do in winona

5. Winona

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.

Villa Bellezza

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.

Sunflower Field

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.

Winona, Minnesota

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.

Looking for more fall inspiration? Check out my blog post on fall adventures in Montgomery and the Ten Best Fall Day Trips to Take in Minnesota. Happy adventuring!

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