Southeast Minnesota is Bluff Country. Here, the Mississippi River carves out the eastern border between Minnesota and Wisconsin drawing waterfowl, eagles, hawks, and a wide range of wildlife sustained by this rich environment. Great River Bluffs State Park carves out a particularly scenic stretch of landscape around the King’s and Queen’s Bluff blending brilliant views of the Mississippi below with ample opportunities for hiking, camping, wildlife viewing, and more outdoor recreation.
About Great River Bluffs State Park
For all its expansive vistas and recreational opportunities, when Great River Bluffs was established in 1963 it was only a narrow strip of land along the highway. And it wasn’t actually called Great River Bluffs. Heck, it wasn’t even located at its current site. Instead, this roving reserve was called O.L. Kipp State Park, after Orin Lansing Kipp who had been instrumental in the development of the state highway system. And that narrow strip of land could be found one mile north of LaCrescent, Minnesota. Granted, that doesn’t allow for much room for visitors or many recreation opportunities. And with no land available for purchase to expand the acreage, the entire park was relocated to 1,000 acres of forest land in 1971.
In 1997, the park was renamed the Great River Bluffs State Park, and it certainly lives up to the title. The park itself is set atop a series of bluffs that offer panoramic overlooks of the Mississippi River and the inland valleys. These peaks also house the park’s main amenities: a well-equipped campground, a scenic picnic area, and a labyrinthine network of trails that connect key vistas. The park’s layout is informed by the natural terrain with the campground, picnic spots, and trails all perch on the loftiest points.
A Trail for Every Gaze
The trail network of Great River Bluffs connects the park’s notable overlooks and facilities through a network of dirt single-track trails and grassy double-track. The trails wander past the eastern bounds of the campground, traverse the heart of the forested bluffs, and culminate at the Kings Bluff Overlook to the west. While much of the trail system is relatively flat, there are occasional steep, rocky, and rooted transitions up and down the bluffs.
By the time we reach Great River Bluffs, we have our own formula to explore Minnesota’s State Parks. We settle into our campsite and then immediately hit the trails for an evening walk to the Orchard Overlook and the East Overlook. It’s just a precursor, though. After a relaxing dinner and rejuvenating sleep, it’s time for the grand tour. We lace up our running shoes for an eight-mile loop from the campground to King’s Bluff Overlook including the Kern’s Overlook, North Overlook, and South Overlook along the way. The route is a shaded affair for the most part, with occasional rock outcroppings and a loop through some high prairie grasses.
There’s a reason that the trail to King’s Bluff Overlook is highlighted on the park map. This panoramic view from a rocky outcropping includes the best of what the park has to offer: valleys filled with wildflowers, rocky bluffs, and the Mississippi River below. If there’s only one trail to hit, this is it.
In Closing: A Kingdom of Peaks and Valleys
Great River Bluffs State Park preserves an exceptionally scenic stretch of Minnesota bluffland for the enjoyment of all. The vistas and trails offer year-round delights. Its varied landscapes deliver experiences as diverse as the flora and fauna that inhabit them. From the comfort of a well-appointed campground to the rustic charm of forested trails, the park accommodates a range of adventure tastes. And for those of us who strive to stitch together the vistas into one grand narrative, the extensive trail network provides the perfect script. All one needs is a good pair of hiking boots and an appreciation for nature’s grandeur.