Red Wing to Wabasha Minnesota, Great River Road Scenic Drive
While the Upper Mississippi Great River Road continues north to Hastings, Minnesota and Prescott, Wisconsin the two routes are most often without sight of the actual river. North of Hastings & Prescott, the scenic drive splits at the junction of the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers. At that point I believe the St. Croix might carry more water than the Mississippi. The St. Croix, a designated National Wild & Scenic River, is in my opinion is the more scenic of the two and especially further north between Stillwater, Minnesota and Taylor Falls & the St. Croix Interstate Park.
But for most travelers Red Wing is the northern terminus of the Great River Road Scenic drive and on this stretch between Red Wing and Wabasha it is a real toss-up to decide which side of the River (Minnesota or Wisconsin) is the most scenic road. Many people sample both sides and is an especially popular scenic drive day trip from Minneapolis-Twin Cities area. Travelers take the Minnesota Great River Road from Red Wing to Wabasha on the Minnesota side, cross over to Nelson, Wisconsin and north to Pepin and all the way to Hager City, Wisconsin on the Wisconsin Great River Road before crossing back over to Red Wing.
We had previously profiled Red Wing in our Part 4 Section of the Great River Road Scenic Drive, so I won’t repeat it here.
Frontenac & Frontenac State Park
After leaving Red Wing and passing Mississippi National Golf Course, the road moves away from and out of view of the river. But when you arrive at the village of Frontenac, you can get some great scenic vistas from the top of Garrad Bluff in Frontenac State Park. In addition to 14 miles of hiking and nature trails, the State Park has 58 campsites (19 electric) and a large day use picnic area. frontenac-park-map
Alternately you can explore the historic community of Old Frontenac which traces its roots back to 1727 where the French Fort Beauharnois was built near the current location of the town. Later when the French ceded control of the territory, a trading post was erected and evolved into the present day town. Today the entire community is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a worthwhile visit to see all the lovingly restored homes, many dating back to the Civil War.
Another option is to drive up to the top of Mount Frontenac Golf Course for some great views of the Mississippi River Bluffs and Lake Pepin (Mississippi River).
Lake City Minnesota
After leaving Frontenac, the highway returns to running along the river to Lake City, which has a large waterfront harbor with a gazzilion sailboats, a pleasant riverfront park and picnic area, and a river walk. The resort community offers an interesting collection of shops and galleries to browse and a good choice of restaurants, cafes and pubs. Two golf courses are located in or adjacent to Lake City and two more a few miles away. Lake City Visitor Website.
Many people have seen parts of Wabasha without knowing it. It was the site of the movie classic “Grumpy Old Men” starring Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau and Ann-Margret. The city celebrates its Grumpy Old Men heritage with annual festival in February of each year. Slippery’s Tavern, gaining fame due to the movie, has a bunch of movie memorabilia sprinkled throughout the place. Good views of the river and the food and service is pretty good.
Wabasha’s annual fall festival Wabasha SeptOberfest runs from early September to late October. The entire town is decorated in a fall harvest-Halloween theme with carved pumpkins, scarecrows, corn shocks, hay bales, etc. Lots of entertainment, events, contests, special exhibits, and more throughout the weeks of the festival.
Several historic buildings in the downtown area have been restored and offer some interesting shops, boutiques, cafes, and pubs.
The #1 attraction in Wabasha is the National Eagle Center. Located on the river front with an attractive plaza overlooking the river, it is a must-see stop for Wabasha visitors. From its observation decks overlooking the river you are likely to see bald eagles soaring over the river. But inside, there’s no question about seeing eagles as there are five resident eagles living in the facility who are stars of the Live Eagle Programs offered three times daily. (PETA Alert. Due injuries or other maladies, all of the eagles were “rescue birds” and none of the eagles at the Center are able to sustain themselves in the wild) Numerous educational exhibits inform visitors about eagles and the Mississippi River habitat that is so attractive to them. The Center also features educational events and demonstrations of other raptors.
Depending on your time schedule, you can continue south on the Minnesota Great River Road to Winona, cross the river to the Wisconsin side and return north to Hager City and Red Wing. Or for a shorter day drive, cross the river here at Wabasha to Nelson, Wisconsin and then return north on the Wisconsin River Road.
This scenic drive loop is one of the most popular fall color drives along the Mississippi. See our map for more details.