Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Eagle center, riverwalk await in Minn. town

Chief Wapasha III statue on Mississippi Riverwalk
in Wabasha, Minn.
Mississippi Riverwalk map
Hikers can learn all about bald eagles and explore an urban stretch of Ol’ Man River on the Mississippi River in Wabasha, Minnesota.

The 0.8-miles round trip walk is easy, educational and scenic. You may even want to bring along a picnic basket.

To reach the riverwalk, park in downtown Wabasha. Finding a spot on Big Jo Alley near Pembroke Avenue is best, as the National Eagle Center is at the corner of those two streets.

Make the center your start point. It offers two floors of interactive exhibits about bald and golden eagles and every day offers a variety of programs featuring live eagles. Among the exhibits are a life-size replica of an eagle’s nest and an opportunity to see the world as if you had an eagle’s eyesight.

The stretch between Wabasha and Red Wing on Lake Pepin is an eagle lover’s paradise. Every winter, hundreds of migrating bald eagles nest there because the current from the Chippewa River keeps the Mississippi River open. This offers ample opportunities for eagles to catch and dine on fish, one of their favorite menu items.

Bald eagles are impressive raptors with an average wingspan of 6 to 7.5 feet. They have incredible vision and can see an object as small as a rabbit up to three miles away. To catch their prey, they can fly up to 30 mph and dive at 100 mph.

After taking in the center’s sights, head north on Pembroke Avenue. In the circular area jutting into the river is a statue honoring the city’s namesake, Chief Wapasha III. The head of the Mdewakanton (Dakota Sioux), Wapasha signed treaties in 1851 and 1858 that ceded southern Minnesota to the United States. His band moved to a reservation on the Minnesota River and then the Crow Creek Reservation in the Dakotas.

The oldest continuous city in Minnesota, Wabasha boasts 50 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. Mark Twain described it as the “City of the Healing Waters.”

From there, head northwest behind the National Eagle Center and onto the riverwalk. Here the Mississippi River narrows. The opposite shoreline are bottomlands, created as sediment brought downhill from the Chippewa River pile up in the Mississippi’s main channel. These bottomlands effectively mark the end Lake Pepin as they squeeze the Mississippi’s channel just north of Wabasha. The bottomlands are larger than the city itself.

Past the eagle center’s backside, the riverwalk passes a small park that often hosts fun children’s activities for the city’s annual harvest festival, a multiweek event that runs each September and October. A few small boat slips follow the park.

Next the riverwalk crosses under the Wabasha-Nelson bridge connecting the city with Wisconsin. The 2462-foot bridge rises six stories over the Mississippi River. It opened in 1988, replacing a 1931 bridge that included two right angles on the Minnesota side and was narrow by modern standards.

Upon reaching the bridge, the riverwalk officially ends, but you can extend your walk by continuing onto little-used Lawrence Boulevard. In short order, a small beach appears along the river, and stone steps lead from the street to the sand.

The beach can be taken past a few more small boat slips. After passing under the powerlines, you arrive at Beach Park, which has picnic tables (remember that picnic basket!), playground and a gazebo on a small point where a back channel of the Mississippi River flows off the main channel.

After playing and resting at the park, retrace your steps back to your vehicle.

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