Hiking Red Wing's Barn Bluff

  • Article by: TORI J. MCCORMICK , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 12, 2013 - 10:54 AM

It’s not easy hiking Barn Bluff, the outdoor playground towering above downtown Red Wing, but it’s worth it.

hide

Photo: Provided by Tim Alms, timalmsphotography.com

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

Cameraview larger

The first time I hiked Barn Bluff in Red Wing, I witnessed a heart-pounding mini drama I haven’t seen since: a mountain biker descending a steep, winding, rock-strewn trail, at a speed that screamed death all day.

How he didn’t somersault over the handle bars, shatter his skeleton and total his designer mountain bike, I don’t know. He whirred by in blurry silhouette, hooting euphorically and mischievously as he defied gravity and snubbed the obit gods.

I chuckled at the memory, now rusting after more than a decade, early one sultry, windswept morning last week as I climbed the same section of Red Wing’s most famous and steeped-in-history landmarks, today a hub for outdoor recreation including rock climbing, birding, nature photography and hiking. Indeed, it’s a trek I’ve made many times before.

Barn Bluff is one of the upper Mississippi River’s geological epicenters, an endearing, picturesque and well-traveled limestone leviathan whose formation can be traced back to when glacial melt waters carved out the river valley. Sparred by the powerful erosion, Barn Bluff is an anomaly — a vertical island, if you will, whose view from the top is at once historically significant and achingly beautiful.

A recommendation: There’s no point in hiking Barn Bluff unless you’re willing (or able) to go to the top. Every trail has its own rewards and challenges, but you want to reach its summit. To see is to believe and never forget.

I started my hike on the South Trail, a flat section that gradually winds and ascends to the steep and somewhat daunting Kiwanis stairway, concrete steps that city elders helped construct years ago for easier access to the summit and the Prairie Trail.

From the start, the South Trail felt different underfoot: torrential spring and early-summer rains had roughed it up badly, particularly just before and after the Kiwanis stairway. The combination of exposed tree roots, deep grooves and scattered rocks and pebbles turned the moderately challenging ascent into a slippery, broken-ankle-waiting-to-happen climb.

Within 20 minutes, and accounting for every step, I reached the summit and the half-mile-long Prairie Trail, which runs the length of the bluff and is bookended with spectacular east-west lookouts.

Stopping for a moment to catch my breath and wipe the flop-sweat from my brow, I finally looked upward into the peerless blue sky and watched two bald eagles ride the thermals and patrol Red Wing’s airspace.

A nearby photographer, with a lens as long as an arm in tow, shot photos near the West Scenic Overlook. Still other hikers reached the summit, some of whom, with their chests expanding and contracting like accordions, clearly had climber’s remorse.

I quickly headed east on the Prairie Trail and found something I had neither seen before nor anticipated: a ganglia of head-high vegetation that effectively obscured most of the trail and made for slower-than-normal foot travel. Buoyed by copious rainfall, the thick, dense prairie vegetation deadened the breeze and concentrated the mosquitoes. I felt trapped, hemmed in, claustrophobic. I wasn’t alone.

“I’ve been climbing Barn Bluff my entire life and I’ve never seen growth like this on top,” said one forty-something male, as his female climbing companion nodded affirmatively. “This is supposed to be the Prairie Trail, not Southeast Asia.”

Down the trail apiece, I could hear the conversation, however muted, of another group, but that didn’t stop me from (literally) bumping into its lead trail-breaker. “We need machetes,” she said, laughing. “This is absolutely crazy.”

Five minutes later, I finally reached my preplanned destination — the East Scenic Overlook, which showcases a truly stunning view of the Mississippi River, its braided back channels, assorted islands and the mouth of Lake Pepin. I sat on a rock ledge, drank from my water bottle and soaked it all in. Indeed, to see is to believe and never forget.

To step back into history, you can see why Mdewakanton Dakota used Barn Bluff’s lofty vantage points in the early 1800s as lookouts and safe havens from approaching enemies along the Mississippi; why the region’s earliest white settlers beginning in roughly the 1850s used the bluff to spy the spring’s first steamboat, and why explorers like Henry David Thoreau and other luminaries climbed Barn Bluff and waxed endlessly about its scenic beauty and arresting views of the Mississippi River valley.

In 1908, local protesters successfully stopped the fledgling, nearly 40-year-old lime industry from using Barn Bluff as a limestone quarry ever again. Explosives had defaced the bluff enough to stir the passions of locals who grew weary of the endless concussions and falling rock.

Two years later, Barn Bluff was donated to the city of Red Wing as a public park. Everyone who plays on Barn Bluff today, either on foot or mountain bike, owes those forward-thinking citizens a debt of gratitude.

  • related content

  • The summit of Barn Bluff rewards hikers with this glorious view.

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

Click here to send us your hunting or fishing photos – and to see what others are showing off from around the region.

ADVERTISEMENT

Philadelphia 12/20/14 3:30 PM
Washington
San Diego 12/20/14 7:25 PM
San Francisco
Minnesota 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Miami
Baltimore 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Houston
Detroit 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Chicago
Cleveland 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Carolina
Atlanta 12/21/14 12:00 PM
New Orleans
Green Bay 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Tampa Bay
Kansas City 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Pittsburgh
New England 12/21/14 12:00 PM
NY Jets
NY Giants 12/21/14 3:05 PM
St. Louis
Buffalo 12/21/14 3:25 PM
Oakland
Indianapolis 12/21/14 3:25 PM
Dallas
Seattle 12/21/14 7:30 PM
Arizona
Denver 12/22/14 7:30 PM
Cincinnati
Utah 101 FINAL
Orlando 94
Charlotte 109 FINAL
Philadelphia 91
Brooklyn 91 FINAL
Cleveland 95
Washington 105 FINAL
Miami 103
Minnesota 98 FINAL
Boston 114
Toronto 110 FINAL
Detroit 100
Chicago 103 FINAL
Memphis 97
Portland 101 1st OT 0:52
San Antonio 104
LA Clippers 70 3rd Qtr 2:53
Denver 64
Oklahoma City 0 1st Qtr 10:22
LA Lakers 2
Tampa Bay 2 FINAL(SO)
New Jersey 3
Anaheim 2 FINAL
Ottawa 6
NY Islanders 2 FINAL
Detroit 1
Boston 1 FINAL
Winnipeg 2
Dallas 2 3rd Prd
Calgary 1
Wilberforce 71 FINAL
Youngstown St 92
Jackson State 49 FINAL
Tulane 56
Siena 66 FINAL
Radford 76
Stillman 49 FINAL
Alabama 69
Case Western Reserve 65 FINAL
Bucknell 88
Niagara 62 FINAL
Buffalo 88
SD Christian 46 FINAL
UC Santa Barbara 69
Concordia (MI) 60 FINAL
Central Mich 97
Northern Ill 55 FINAL
Dartmouth 58
North Florida 83 FINAL
Florida A&M 65
Hiwassee 71 FINAL
Gardner-Webb 91
Tennessee St 54 FINAL
Hampton 66
NC A&T 57 FINAL
Kent State 71
Central Penn College 65 FINAL
Liberty 94
Eastern Ky 72 FINAL
Miami-Florida 44
Northern Ky 83 FINAL
Morehead State 60
Northern Ariz 62 FINAL
Norfolk State 81
MD-Eastern Shore 43 FINAL
Old Dominion 60
St Marys-CA 47 FINAL
St Johns 53
Clemson 45 FINAL
South Carolina 68
Tenn Tech 58 FINAL
Tennessee 61
Washington-MD 46 FINAL
William & Mary 86
Bethune-Cookman 46 FINAL
Mercer 67
Furman 78 FINAL
Fla Gulf Coast 83
South Dakota St 53 FINAL
CS-Bakersfield 49
Milligan 53 FINAL
Lamar 80
LSU-Alexandria 71 FINAL
ULM 76
Southern Utah 57 FINAL
Loyola-Chicago 73
Chattanooga 58 FINAL
Middle Tennessee 68
Seattle 57 FINAL
Minnesota 92
Lipscomb 55 FINAL
Princeton 77
Winthrop 71 FINAL
SE Louisiana 81
Dickinson State 48 FINAL
North Dakota 78
New Orleans 56 FINAL
Southern Ill 52
TX-Pan American 51 2nd Half 4:50
Creighton 69
Colorado State 78 2nd Half 0:48
Denver 71
Alabama A&M 46 2nd Half 1:11
Marquette 83
Ark-Pine Bluff 44 2nd Half 5:11
Texas Tech 60
Eastern Wash 24 1st Half 3:38
California 29
Idaho State 20 1st Half 3:43
Utah State 26
Arizona 10:00 PM
Texas-El Paso
Hawaii 10:59 PM
Chaminade
Nevada 12/20/14 10:00 AM
Louisiana
Utah State 12/20/14 1:20 PM
Texas-El Paso
(23) Utah 12/20/14 2:30 PM
Colorado State
Western Mich 12/20/14 4:45 PM
Air Force
South Alabama 12/20/14 8:15 PM
Bowling Green
BYU 12/22/14 1:00 PM
Memphis
Marshall 12/23/14 5:00 PM
Northern Ill
Navy 12/23/14 8:30 PM
San Diego St
Central Mich 12/24/14 11:00 AM
Western Ky
Fresno State 12/24/14 7:00 PM
Rice
Illinois 12/26/14 12:00 PM
Louisiana Tech
Rutgers 12/26/14 3:30 PM
North Carolina
NC State 12/26/14 7:00 PM
UCF
Ohio Valley 33 FINAL
Youngstown St 84
East Tenn St 48 FINAL
UNC-Wilmington 61
Cal-Irvine 44 FINAL
Purdue 69
Campbell 63 FINAL
Stetson 76
Jacksonville St 70 FINAL
Charleston Southern 43
Louisiana 64 FINAL
Alcorn State 57
Denver 63 FINAL
Wright State 72
Blue Mountain 30 FINAL
Central Arkansas 71
Texas State 51 FINAL
Bethune-Cookman 40
Albany 62 FINAL
Pepperdine 36
TX-San Antonio 53 FINAL
Houston 56
Yale 66 FINAL
Bucknell 73
Northern Colorado 56 FINAL
Fla Gulf Coast 69
Belmont 86 FINAL
Mercer 83
Massachusetts 66 FINAL
Georgia State 71
George Mason 69 FINAL
Winthrop 57
Portland State 33 FINAL
Princeton 104
UCLA 71 FINAL
Samford 52
Mobile 30 FINAL
Alabama State 66
Nicholls 49 FINAL
Texas Tech 76
Toledo 65 FINAL
Nevada 56
UMass Lowell 48 FINAL
(13) Duke 95
St Marys-CA 49 FINAL
Virginia 62
McNeese State 55 FINAL
Rice 57
McMurry 49 FINAL
Houston Baptist 69
NJIT 62 FINAL
Seton Hall 74
(6) North Carolina 65 FINAL
Maine 36
Lafayette 58 FINAL
Stony Brook 60
Siena 62 FINAL
Binghamton 53
Longwood 56 FINAL
Clemson 72
Savannah State 51 FINAL
Florida State 97
(19) Syracuse 72 FINAL
(9) Baylor 74
Buffalo 68 FINAL
Manhattan 58
Canisius 43 FINAL
Michigan 79
Davidson 66 FINAL
NC State 82
Northern Ky 63 FINAL
Delaware 58
Saint Louis 81 FINAL
Austin Peay 86
(25) DePaul 64 FINAL
(2) Connecticut 98
Ohio U 74 FINAL
La Salle 63
Florida Atlantic 60 FINAL
Long Beach St 85
Miami-Florida 65 FINAL
Tulane 70
Miss Valley St 39 FINAL
Memphis 62
Ark-Pine Bluff 56 FINAL
UAB 65
Bowling Green 58 FINAL
Illinois State 54
Arkansas State 78 FINAL
Missouri State 62
ULM 42 FINAL
Wichita State 57
(16) Oregon State 67 2nd Half 2:21
Southern Ill 54
Pacific 28 1st Half 7:12
New Mexico St 13
No Dakota State 35 2nd Half
Cal State Fullerton 45
Utah State 39 1st Half 0:23
Sacramento St 44
Bethesda (CA) 17 1st Half 5:50
Fresno State 18
Utah Valley U 21 2nd Half
Montana 34
LSU 2 1st Half 17:05
UC Santa Barbara 2
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Should the lake where the albino muskie was caught remain a mystery?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close