Brainard: Take a winter hike for spectacular Mississippi view

LISA BRAINARD/BLUFF COUNTRY READER One of the SNA’s bluffs towers above the Mississippi River. View from Great River Bluffs State Park last September.
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Just when you thought you knew every location that the Minnesota DNR oversees – such as state parks, state forests, and wildlife management areas, to name a few – you find out there’s still more. Scientific and Natural Areas (SNAs) is another site-based program the agency administers. Details on the Scientific and Natural program is at

These locations preserve something special to Minnesota in some way. And they’re a treat to visit. On occasion, SNAs may offer low-key recreational activities. So, you may want to jump at an upcoming guided hike at an area SNA containing both a goat prairie and stunning views of the Mississippi River.

The location is King’s and Queen’s Bluff SNA, part of Great River Bluffs State Park southeast of Winona. Details are offered at:

The site says: Join SNA site steward Gina Cherny for a winter interpretive hike at King's and Queen's Bluffs SNA, in Great River Bluffs State Park. Meet in the parking lot .4 miles past the state park office at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 15. The hike will go out to King’s Bluff from there, to enjoy some fresh air, snowy bluff prairies, and spectacular views of Queen’s Bluff and the river valley beyond.

Perhaps best of all, it notes these hikes will be ongoing on a monthly basis, typically on the second Saturday of the month. Wear warm clothes, good hiking shoes, and bring water, and a walking stick if you would like to have one. Contact Gina for more information by e-mailing

The website tells you how to get there from Winona. Since I visited Great River Bluffs to camp overnight this summer, I can hopefully give you better directions from our area. Rest assured, it will be a more direct route than the windy, quaint, and ultimately pretty and satisfying county roads I took to get there.

I mean, you can always make that backroads choice, but maybe make sure you have a good map – or a cell phone signal (which can be iffy in the valleys) and a good map app. Trust me on this. If it’s a cloudy day and you can’t see the sun to ascertain direction, you might get lost for a long time otherwise. That can be fun in and of itself, trust me on that, too – you know, the journey vs. the destination, like this column’s title. Just make sure you don’t need to be somewhere in a hurry. Take your time and enjoy.


From its website,

“This SNA is comprised of two parcels totaling 178 acres in the northern section of Great River Bluffs State Park. The parcels protect dozens of rare and significant natural features associated with two bluffs long known as local landmarks – King’s Bluff and Queen’s Bluff – that rise 660 and 500 feet, respectively, above the Mississippi River.

“Queen's Bluff supports a bur oak savanna atop the bluff and goat prairie on its southerly slopes, grading to deciduous forest at lower levels. Of special interest is a disjunct population of white cedars anchored in rock crevices just below the dry cliffs at the top of the bluffs, a species more typically found in the northern part of the state. Queen's Bluff is designated as an educational unit and requires a permit for access.

“King's Bluff features goat prairies on its southwest slopes and deciduous forest on its northeast slope. Readily accessed by an interpretive trail, it offers a tremendous view of the adjacent Queen's Bluff and river valley beyond.

“More than 70 years ago, the eminent University of Minnesota Prof. Walter Breckenridge brought botany students here to study this ecologically significant site. Or, one could instead back up to 1883, when Mark Twain wrote of Queen’s Bluff as being ‘…just as imposing a spectacle as you can find anywhere.’

“Better still, rather than in cultural terms, one might consider the value of this blufflands habitat for the native species of the blufflands who were once common rather than rare,” including peregrine falcons nesting on cliff faces, “reptiles basking on rocky outcrops, or butterflies whose emergence from their cocoons coincided with the blooming plants of the goat prairie.”

The SNA was established in 1991. Take a hike there this year – and be sure to take your camera.

Lisa Brainard still enjoys lifelong pursuits of the outdoors, history and travel as able following a serious accident and stroke in September 2012. She’s written this Journey vs. Destination column weekly for over 15 years.