From the 500-foot bluffs at Winona's Garvin Heights, bright-red sumac rimmed the autumn scenery across a yawning valley cleaved by the Mississippi River. Sunlight rippled across the river with its maze of sandy islands and shaded backwaters.
Church steeples poked through the vibrant orange and red treetops that dotted the core neighborhoods and Victorian commercial district of Winona. From this vista, it was easy to grasp how this southeastern Minnesota community of 26,000 was nicknamed "The Island City." Main streets stretch between the Mississippi and Lake Winona, while bridges link travelers to Hwy. 61, hugging the Minnesota bluffs.
Winona buzzes with fresh energy in the fall, as college campuses bustle with activity, independent eateries let local harvests influence their menus and drinks, and a carpet of colors across the bluffs put on a show for hikers, paddlers, climbers and motorists.
Winona residents in search of a new moniker, or simply a bit of fun, also began calling the community "The Miami of Minnesota" a few years ago. Both cities sit in the southeastern corners of their states. Both tend to have their states' warmest temperatures. Never mind that "warm" is relative: Winona is still cold enough for blufftop ice climbing by January.
April Fool's-worthy videos at miamiofminnesota.com show ziplines whirring above river alligators and kids grasping onto flamingos in flight. The campaign's sassy humor was enough to persuade my teenage daughter to join me on a fall road trip last October, and the view from Garvin Heights was impressive enough to inspire a hike to the iconic Sugar Loaf pinnacle.
An uncommonly warm autumn day required a few rests as we zigzagged up the bluff. Trees shaded the climb until we hit the spine of the bluff, with spectacular views of the Mississippi and the Driftless Area's bluffs.
Straight ahead, the 85-foot-tall, buff-colored Sugar Loaf rock (chiseled by long-ago quarrying) drew steady visitors soaking up the 70-degree sunshine.
We ran our hands across names carved into the soft limestone, watched a young woman doing yoga poses to music, and hiked around Sugar Loaf's backside, where guides were introducing teens to rock climbing.
We planned to spend the next day paddling the Mississippi backwaters, but when temperatures plunged and winds rose, we pivoted to indoor diversions, including the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, Watkins Heritage Museum and meals with friends.
At Basecamp Provisions — a team effort between Winona Outdoor Collaborative and Sanborn Canoe — visitors can see one of the many ways the community's art and outdoor recreation overlap. Sanborn's vibrantly painted paddles make them popular for decor, but they're also built to use.
A scent of sawdust drifted from the adjoining production area, where staffers make the paddles, cribbage boards and cooking tools, and builds Merrimack Canoes. Winona also has been home to the Wenonah Canoe company for more than 50 years.
While we didn't make it onto the Mississippi, we still enjoyed shoreline scenery with the river reflecting fall colors, marinas lined with boathouses and backwaters shimmering with the light of a rising autumn moon.
Events and attractions
Next weekend's Boats and Bluegrass Festival (Sept. 21-24) is sold out, but upcoming events include the Winona Dakota Gathering, Homecoming and Powwow (Sept. 29-Oct. 1) and Sandbar Storytelling Festival (Oct. 12-14). You can also plan for February's Frozen River Film Festival, May's Mid West Music Fest and the summertime Great River Shakespeare Festival, Minnesota Beethoven Festival and Dixieland Jazz Festival.
Minnesota Marine Art Museum's impressive collection includes water-themed paintings from the 1800s through modern-day, but special exhibits often provide the most intriguing surprises. "The Big Catch" trio of exhibits runs Sept. 16 through January 2024. Featured artists include Dwight Hwang, who uses real fish, plants and more to make lifelike prints; Kristian Brevik, who crafts illuminated sculptural lanterns of fish that let viewers see their skeletons; and Kimble A. Bromley, whose expressive paintings are inspired by "Moby Dick" (mmam.org).
The municipal Prairie Island Campground rents bikes, stand-up paddleboards, canoes, kayaks and camping equipment from May through late September and features an 18-hole disc golf course. Its summer Campfire Concert Series offers free music and rotating food trucks (prairieislandcampground.com).
Lake Lodge Recreation Center along Lake Winona also offers canoe, kayak, SUP and bike rentals, along with lakeside trails and dock fishing. In the summer, bring your own chair for Wednesday concerts at the bandshell, and swing by Lakeview Drive Inn for the homemade root beer, burgers and sandwiches it's been serving since 1938.
Where to eat
Heirloom Seasonal Bistro's chefs craft locally sourced burgers, pastas, salads and sandwiches at this casual downtown eatery (facebook.com/HeirloomSeasonalBistro).
Nosh Scratch Kitchen, formerly in Lake City, now thrives in downtown Winona. Its seasonal fare and Mediterranean-influenced cuisine may include locally foraged roasted mushrooms and fiddleheads, house gnocchi or orecchiette pasta, sea scallops and risotto (noshrestaurant.com).
Sapori di Sicilia offers Winona's biggest dining surprise, with a sunny café that serves decadent gelato, creamy pastries, homemade pastas, soups and sandwiches on bread baked daily. The owner uses recipes and techniques mastered during four months of studying cooking and baking in Sicily (cafesaporidisicilia.com).
Revel in the scent of sugary glazed goodness emanating from Bloedow's Bakery, a neighborhood landmark celebrating its 100th year in 2024. Bismarks, Danishes, glazed croissants, peanut butter rolls, paczkis (a nod to the area's Polish heritage) and cookies fill the old-fashioned glass display cases (bloedows.com).
Where to sleep
Express Suites Riverport Inn has two rooms that cater to classic car lovers. Each was built around a late-1950s Chevy convertible that's been converted into a bed (riverportinn.com).
Some of the best river views can be found at Prairie Island Campground, where there are more than 100 spots to pitch a tent, park a camper or rent a camper or two tiny homes (prairieislandcampground.com).
Alexander Mansion Bed & Breakfast rents five rooms in one of the city's opulent Victorian houses and serves a four-course breakfast (AlexanderMansionBB.com).
Find more travel information, ranging from bike trails to historic architecture and stained-glass window walking tours, at visitwinona.com.
A St. Cloud-based freelance writer and author of "Day Trips From the Twin Cities," Lisa Meyers McClintick has written for the Star Tribune since 2001.