Visit Great River Bluffs State Park in Minnesota for forest hikes and scenic views

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(Last Updated On: November 22, 2018)

To visit Great River Bluffs State Park near Winona, Minnesota, is to enter a world where rugged bluffs are covered with a mix of woodlands and rare goat prairies and easy hiking trails lead to sweeping views of the Mississippi River far below.

group of people walking down a narrow road through a forest

Strolling through Minnesota’s Great River Bluffs State Park

Fall will soon bring brightly colored leaves to Great River Bluffs State Park, making it a great time to follow the Mississippi River to this park near Winona, Minnesota.

But I visited during the summer, when the trees were green and so full of leaves they almost completely obscured views of the river far below. Still, summer was also a good time to visit Great River Bluffs, when shaded paths provided relief from the sun’s heat. Any time of year would be a good time to check out this small gem of a park perched high above the river valley.

We only explored a small part of the park on our first visit here. But even a short visit was enough to guarantee we will return someday!

The North Overlook

For visitors with limited time, the North and South overlooks pack a lot of scenery into a quick and easy walk.

Located just a short stroll from the picnic area and parking, two trails run along the top of the Mississippi River bluff to the scenic overlooks.

We took the North Trail. It’s a mostly flat trail through a mixed hardwood forest. The mostly flat path is a tangle of roots from the trees overhead. Trees that assure the hiking trail will be cool and shady even on a hot summer day. But those leaves that provide protection from the sun also obscure views of the river below.

Because I haven’t actually seen the river valley as we walked above it, it was a bit of a surprise to walk out onto one of the sturdy overlooks.

platform with rails and sky beyond

Suddenly the Mississippi River and its backwaters and marshes were spread out below and across to the distant bluffs on the Wisconsin side almost as far as I could see.

overview of hillside and river valley far below

forest and marshland seen from above

It’s a gorgeous place.

A focus on preservation at Great River Bluffs State Park

Great River Bluffs is a “natural” state park. As such, the emphasis here is on the protection, perpetuation, and restoration of natural resources.

In keeping with this focus, the park includes protected Scientific and Natural Areas (SNAs) on both King’s and Queen’s Bluffs. Both areas are home to rare plants and unusual ecosystems.

Here the river bluffs rise to more than 500 feet above the Mississippi River. (King’s Bluff is 660 feet high and Queen’s Bluff is 500 feet.) They’ve long been important landmarks and tourist attractions. Mark Twain was aware of them and mentions Queen’s Bluff in Life on the Mississippi:

You’ll find scenery between here and St. Paul that can give the Hudson points. You’ll have the Queen’s Bluff–seven hundred feet high, and just as imposing a spectacle as you can find anywheres . . . .

sketch of Queen's Bluff

Drawing from Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens), published in 1883. Reproduced by the British Library and published on Flickr.

While King and Queen’s bluffs have long attracted attention for their stature, they are also notable for the rare plants and unusual ecosystems they support.

A living remnant of Minnesota’s glacial history

Great River Bluffs State Park is within Minnesota’s “driftless” area, a small part of the state left untouched by glaciers during the last ice age. This landscape provides a hint of what Minnesota looked like before the glaciers reshaped it.

But the impact of the glaciers was felt beyond their physical reach. Here the most obvious sign of this indirect impact is the formation of the Mississippi River gorge, which was created as floodwater raced away from the melting glaciers. But there are other signs too.

One of those is a living remnant of the glacial past still found in the rocky slopes of the park’s Mississippi River bluffs.

These are white cedars.

Cedars first grew here during the cool, damp glacial period. But as the glaciers retreated, the climate changed. Over time, southeastern Minnesota became too warm and dry for cedars and they became a tree of the north.

But there are still cedars here in the park, where small stands cling to sheltered rocky slopes. In these protected spaces, the cooler, wetter micro-climate allows them to continue growing where they have always been. A living remnant of the last ice age.

Goat prairies

While few visitors will be aware of the tenacious cedars, most will notice the unusual “goat prairies” found on the southern-facing slopes of both bluffs.

bluff hillside with forest and prairie

These small prairies got their nickname because they were found thought to be too steep for any animal except a goat!

But they aren’t unusual just because they are steep.

With steep slopes that face south to southwest, these small patches of prairies (also called hill prairies, dry prairies, or bluff prairies) get as much sunlight as any solar panel. And all that sunlight makes these small prairies hot and dry. It also causes them to continually freeze and thaw, freeze and thaw throughout the winter. Those harsh growing conditions are compounded by thin soils that barely cover the bedrock below. Trees and other woody plants find it almost impossible to get a foothold here, which allows a wide variety of prairie plants to thrive.

Mixed hardwood forests

While not rare like the cedars or goat prairie, the mixed hardwood forests that cover protected slopes and the valleys are filled with wildflowers in spring. And, of course, the trees themselves burst into color each fall.

Oak leaves overhead

Exploring the river bluffs

As a park focused on conservation rather than recreation, Great River Bluffs has few developed facilities. However, a series of hiking trails allows visitors of all abilities to see many of the park’s features.

River bluff trails

The trail system is the main focus of activity within the state park and hiking is the main activity in the park for most of the year.

Seasonal activities

While it’s possible to hike in the park throughout most of the year, a few seasonal activities make the park particularly attractive at specific times.

Plan your visit to Minnesota’s Great River Bluffs State Park

For many, a few hours will be enough time for a visit to Great River Bluffs State Park. It’s a great road trip stop – especially in fall when the trees put on their colorful fall finery.

That’s handy, because the Great River Bluffs is just one of a number of places to see along this section of the Great River Road as it follows the Mississippi River through southeastern Minnesota.

For serious hikers looking to spend more time exploring the Mississippi River bluffs, this is one of a number of Minnesota and Wisconsin state parks in the area. There are plenty opportunities to explore both the river bluffs and the watery valley below.

Are you a fan of Minnesota’s state parks, but Great River Bluffs doesn’t sound familiar? That’s because it used to be known as O L Kipp State Park. Kipp had a role in developing the state trunk highway system, but appears to have had nothing to do with this park and the name was changed a number of years ago to better reflect what the park is.

Getting to the park

Great River Bluffs State Park lies within the Richard J. Dorer Memorial Hardwood Forest in southeastern Minnesota. (The Dorer forest is also home to a number of popular water trails.) The segment with the state park is just off the highway connecting Winona, Minnesota, with La Crosse, Wisconsin.

At the park

You can visit Great River Bluffs State Park throughout the year.

The park office is located about a mile into the park. It has is a small gift shop and park information. A map is also available outside when the office is closed.

The map on the Great Bluffs website is a little less detailed than the one we picked up at the park. Unfortunately, the less useful online map seems to be the most current version.

All motorized vehicles are required to stay on designated trails.

Mountain biking, horseback riding, and snowmobiling are prohibited in the park.

Fees

Like most Minnesota state parks, there is an entrance fee.

All vehicles must display a Minnesota park permit in the front window. Visitors without a permit can pay the daily fee or purchase an annual permit at the park. There is a self-serve station available if the park office is closed.

Proceed with caution

Great River Bluffs park is on top of a bluff, so many trails have at least a few steep slopes and drop-offs along or just off the path. Stay on the trail and watch your footing and you’ll be fine.

Southeastern Minnesota is home to timber rattlesnakes. While you are unlikely to see one, if you do, just leave it alone and go around. It won’t hurt you if you don’t bother it. And snakes, like all wildlife, are protected in the park, so don’t try to catch or kill it.

Lodging in or near the park

Great River Bluffs State Park lodging options are pretty limited.

Further afield, a good variety of lodging options are available in Winona and La Crosse. A few camping, resort, and Airbnb options are also available in rural areas between the two cities.

Great River Bluffs State Park campground

Camping is available within the park, but given the park’s focus on resource conservation, facilities are more limited than in many state parks.

Other lodging options near Great River Bluffs State Park

For those who’d rather stay in a more substantial lodging, there are plenty of hotels available in both Winona and La Crosse. Most are functional, but forgettable. For a more memorable experience, consider staying at one of the area’s many bed and breakfasts. You can check your options and prices, read reviews, and (maybe) make your reservation on TripAdvisor. (Note that only a few of the B&Bs listed by TripAdvisor can actually be booked through them.)

Both the Winona and La Crosse visitor websites also list local lodging options – including B&B’s and camping – and can provide a good idea of what the options are.

Airbnb has a wide variety of options in this part of the state, from urban apartments to rural cottages. (If you’ve never tried Airbnb, use this link to save $40 on your first booking and give me a $20 travel credit. But you have to use the credit immediately or it vanishes.)

Of course, nearby public parks in both Minnesota and Wisconsin also have campgrounds. And there are a few private campgrounds in the area as well. You can’t make campground reservations through TripAdvisor, but you can check reviews for many of them. (Search for hotels near Great River Bluffs State Park and then hit the “specialty lodging” link on the left side of the page. There’s no way to link to it.)

Other things to do while you’re in the area

The Great River Road national scenic byway runs through this area on both the Minnesota and Wisconsin sides of the Mississippi River. Along this portion of the route you’ll find spectacular scenery and quaint small towns.

 

Visit Great River Bluffs State Park text and picture of Mississippi River backwaterThis post contains affiliate links. These links pay me a small commission if you use one to reserve a room or purchase certain goods or services. You don’t pay anything extra, but it helps keep this website running. To learn more, review this website’s policies and disclosures.

Exploring Minnesota

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Visit Great River Bluffs State Park text and picture of Mississippi River backwater
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