Head west into the bluffs between Winona and La Crescent, and you’ll feel the altitude in your ears before you can turn around and see how far you’ve climbed. Luckily, there’s a great spot just north of La Crescent on County Road 1 where you can pull over and soak in the sweeping view of woods and the Great River below. The overlook also links to a few trails for anyone who wants to explore the terrain and listen for songbirds.
This corner of Bluff Country was once home to 40 orchards, making La Crescent (population: 4,800) Minnesota’s Apple Capital. While there are only a handful of orchards left these days, they burst into a beautiful explosion of blossoms each spring. You can see a few hillsides of trees along County Road 25; the main byway, though, follows County Road 1 north along the bluffs past Dresbach and Dakota.
Byway markers are scant, but even if you make a wrong turn, the scenery doesn’t disappoint with glimpses of the Mississippi River, horse farms and country homes. Don’t miss the stretch east down County Road 12 toward Dakota, where the Southwind Orchard looks especially lovely in the spring. Fall visitors can reap the double reward of fall colors on the bluffs and crisp apples at Southwind’s apple barn and other area farm stands. (La Crescent has been celebrating Apple Fest each September since 1949.)
At the byway's northern end, some of the state’s prettiest hiking trails thread along the ridges at Great River Bluffs State Park. If you’re traveling south, you can loop onto the Historic Bluff Country Scenic Byway, which follows the Root River to Houston, Lanesboro and Preston.
Pack a picnic, and don’t forget the apples.