Great River Bluffs Park offers great views of Wisconsin

By Gregg Hoffmann, Beyond Milwaukee

Great River Bluffs Park (GRBF) actually sits in Minnesota, but it offers some of the most spectacular views of Wisconsin in the region.

Located at the junction of Hwy. 61 and I-90 across the river from and north of La Crosse, GRBF hiking trails take you right along the bluffs hanging over the Mississippi River. To the east, you can see the bluffs of Wisconsin, La Crosse to the south, Trempelau County to the north, and the backwaters of the Great River along the Badger State's "West Coast."

The drive you take into GRBF is called Apple Blossom Scenic Drive. It is one of two scenic drives in the state specially designated by the Minnesota Legislature. Naturally, the best time to take the drive is spring, when the apple trees are indeed blossoming.

Winter offers groomed cross country (8.7 miles) and hiking trails (6.5 miles) in the park. Summer is beautiful, but you will encounter more hikers and tourists in general. Camping is popular during summer. GRBF has 31 sites, but reservations end at the end of October.

An especially great time for the drive and hiking in GRBF is autumn. You can buy apples at one of the orchards along the Scenic Drive and once you start hiking in the park the colors are spectacular. You also have the park relatively to yourself.

"This drive offers charming river towns and wooded bluffs along the Mississippi," writes GORP, the national outdoor recreation Web site.

"In autumn the steep hillsides dress up in brilliant hues of red, russet and gold. Stop at one of several scenic overlooks, including those at Frontenac and Great River Bluffs state parks. Munch apples from roadside stands."

If you get tired of peering east to Wisconsin and at the bluffs from a distance (and eating all those applies), you might just look around you in the 3,000 acres of the park. GRBF sits within the driftless area that also includes southwest Wisconsin, northeast Iowa and northwest Illinois.

Most of the bluff land displays no glacial drift. You get a view of what much of the area must have looked like during pre-glacial times.

Perhaps the most popular view from GRBF is from King's Bluff, a short hike from a picnic ground park area. You can see south down the Mississippi best from there.

This writer's favorite is from near Queen's Bluff. You can take two different routes from the trail head and get views of Mississippi and our beloved Wisconsin in three directions.

One caution about the trails along the bluffs. They are steep. "Hikes in Southeastern Minnesota are noted for their spectacular views of the Mississippi River Valley, great expanses of farmland, and nearby cities," wrote Mary Jo and Kristin Mosher in their guide book "Hiking Minnesota II."

"Most of the hikes at Great River Bluffs are easy trails the whole family can enjoy. However, watch children closely near bluff edges. Trails can be slippery when wet, and the bluff hikes take you 500 to 600 feet above the river."

In addition to the wooded bluffs, "goat prairies" -- which are under restoration -- can be found in the west part of the park. The prairies were named such because their slope is severe enough that it is said only goats could graze them.

When you hike in GRBF, you are moving through history. Native Americans lived and built mounds on the bluffs and terraces. Some of the mounds were for burial. Others were for purposes unknown.

Several generations of people, including several tribes, built these mounds over thousands of years. Each was built with precision and symmetry. Some of dome-shaped, some classic effigy mounds and yet others are in the shapes of objects, usually animals and birds.

Father Louis Hennepin, one of the first European explorers, is said to have traveled down the Mississippi in 1863 and gazed up at the bluffs, noting that the river "runs between two chains of mountains that wind with the river."

Once settlers came, many farmed the upland and flood plain of what now is in the park. That left the soil subject to erosion.

In the early 1960s, the Minnesota Forestry Division purchased much of the land in what now is GRBF. In 1976, the land was transferred to the Division of Parks and Recreation and the park opened as O.L. Kipp State Park, named for a former assistant commissioner of highways in Minnesota. The name was later changed.

There is plenty of wildlife in GRBF. Possum, spotted skunk, black squirrels, coyotes, eagles, vultures, wild turkeys and deer are plentiful. GRBF also has a population of timber rattlesnakes. They are on the Minnesota endangered list and offer virtually no danger to park visitors.

Deer population is so plentiful in the park that two special hunting seasons have been scheduled for Nov. 19-21 and 25-27.

GRBF sits within the Richard J.Dorer Memorial Hardwood Forest. So, the land around the park also is quite natural. Charming small towns can be found up and down the river on both sides. Winona and La Crosse are bigger nearby towns that offer more activities.