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.