Thursday, April 28, 2016

Hike to skyscraper view of Mississippi River

View of west side of Barn Buff from downtown Red Wing,
Map of Barn Bluff trails, courtesy City of Red Wing.

Barn Bluff rises
forty stories
in Minnesota

A 360 degree view of the Mississippi River awaits day hikers on the Barn Bluff Trail in Red Wing, Minn.

The 1.75-mile loop takes you to the top of the ancient bluff that rises 40 stories over the river. A steep trail, it’s best done in summer, autumn or after several dry days in spring.

To reach the trailhead, from U.S. Hwy. 61 in downtown Red Wing, turn southeast onto Plum Street. Next, go left/northeast onto Fifth Street. When the road crosses under Hwy. 61, find a parking spot along the street. The trailhead is on the road’s left/northwest side.

Barn Bluff actually consists of four trails – the South, the Midland, the North and the Prairie. The route here is a combination of three of those trails.

Half-billion year-old rock
From the trailhead, head north on a staircase. At the top is an interpretive rest area, where you go right/north onto the North Trail. The trail heads through a forest of oak and maple.

The bluff has long impressed those who’ve seen it. According to Dakota legend, when two tribes fought to control the bluff, the Great Spirit split it in half, so both of his peoples could have it. The other half, legend says, is the famous Sugar Loaf rock formation overlooking Winona, Minn., about 60 miles to the south.

In just under 0.1 miles the trail passes a stone arch with a tunnel into the bluff. Though entering it may be tempting, for safety reasons don’t go beyond the arch. At this point, you are about seven stories above the Mississippi River.

The trail soon passes the Midland Trail junction. Continue north. This heads by a popular rock climbing area.

Sandstone making up the bluff begin piling up about 540 million years ago. It continued to grow for another hundred million years. During the last ice age when the Mississippi River, swollen with glacial meltwater, ran hundreds of feet higher than it now does, Barn Bluff would have been an island in the cold river.

West Outlook and summit
After the rock climbing area, the trail begins to gain some real elevation. As the trail finally curves west, it is just below the East Overlook.

Barn Bluff got its name from the French, who claimed this area during the 1600s through the early 1700s. They named it “La Grange,” which translated to English as “The Barn.”

The trail next curves gently around the bluff’s north side through a wooded area. A natural rock wall runs the length of this segment. These are the base of the rocks that cap the bluff, slowing its erosion and allowing it to remain high on the horizon.

As the trail curves south, it traverses the bluff’s western side. A staircase of 200-plus steps switchbacks up to the West Outlook, which offers commanding views. Immediately below the overlook is the Eisenhower Bridge that connects Minnesota to Wisconsin over the Mississippi River. The city of Red Wing stretches to the north and the river’s back channels, which are part of Wisconsin, along the entire eastern horizon.

From the overlook, the trail ascends about 30 feet to the bluff’s grassy summit, a long plateau with even better views. From there, the trail loops back to east. This is the beginning of the Prairie Trail segment of the hike.

Red Wing Fault
Upon reaching the South Trail junction, go right/southeast onto it. The trail then begins a gradual descent down the bluff’s south side.

Along the way, a staircase heads directly south. This takes you down about 50 feet over 54 steps. The trail then runs east, passing a secluded campfire area.

At the Midland Trail junction, go right/east, staying on the South Trail. This stretch parallels Hwy. 61.

The rock on this side of the bluff belongs to the Franconia Formation, which formed 540 million years ago. On the north side of the bluff, this formation sits below the Mississippi River. An ancient fault line, known as the Red Wing Fault, raised the Franconia Formation on the south side about 150 feet higher than that north of the fault.

Upon reaching the staircase at the trailhead, go right/southeast back to street where you parked.

Learn about trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.