Are you looking for an interesting autumn trip that won’t be too expensive but will still be scenic and also historic? If so, may I suggest a trip down the Upper Mississippi starting on the Wisconsin-side of this great river and then returning on the Minnesota-side. Besides the river itself, there will be old river towns to explore, each with their own personality, and a great number of overlooks allowing commanding views of this beautiful stretch of river.
My suggestion is to start your trip at Prescott, Wisconsin, located just across the lovely St. Croix River on U.S. 10. Prescott is at the confluence of the St. Croix and the Mississippi and was the site of much lumbering in the old days. After leaving Prescott, follow the signs to Diamond Bluff and Hager City while traveling through many sharp hills and rolling farmland on State 35. Once you arrive at Hager City, you will be on the most scenic section of the east side of the Mississippi. Thus, you will be passing through several very small towns including Hager City, Maiden Rock, Stockholm, and Nelson. Take time, especially, to stop at Maiden Rock and learn about the tragic legend of the sorrowful maiden who gave this village its name.
The small town of Nelson can be your crossover point to the Minnesota side of the Mississippi at Wabasha. You should plan extra time at this tidy city to enjoy its history and ambiance. Wabasha is also the location of the National Eagle Center where injured or abandoned young eagles are rescued and cared for. There are daily learning sessions where eagles are brought forth to view and to admire. The center is located right on the Mississippi and the views from this site are fantastic.
The next attraction as you head north on U.S. 61 is beautiful Lake Pepin, which is a significant Mississippi River wide spot. There are plenty of opportunities to enjoy a picnic on its shores and view the waterfowl and the raptors. Soon afterwards you will be in “Bluff Country” as you head to Red Wing. Indeed, this unique area is still of intense interest to geologists as they try to understand what made these dramatic land forms. If you feel adventurous, consider a hike to ”Barn Bluff” for a tremendous view of both the river and of the bluffs.
Highway 61 leaves the Mississippi now and will head inland until it reaches Hastings which is another very old, interesting river town. At one point, Hastings was even considered as a possible Capitol for Minnesota before losing out to St. Paul. It still was chosen as the Dakota County Seat and its historic courthouse is well worth seeing. Main Street is vibrant and has several good eating places. If time allows, drive up West 2nd Street and view the historic homes still very much occupied along this route. If you need some scenic exercise, walk or bike the paved trail to Lock and Dam Number Two, and if you are lucky, you might even enjoy a very close encounter of barge traffic coming through this lock.
Of course, additional information on all of these towns and river sites may be accessed via the internet. Also, I do confess a bias to this section of the Mississippi River after living in both Hastings and Prescott. Nevertheless, the Upper Mississippi is wonderful country and certainly is not too far away for travel from Mille Lacs County.
I do hope sometime in the near future that you will be able to make this very scenic and historic Mississippi trip possibly even during our beautiful Minnesota autumn.
John Holbrook is a former teacher, coach and counselor at Onamia High School. He now resides on Lake Hubert near Nisswa and does part-time writing.