An iconic rock pinnacle tops Sugar Loaf Bluff in Winona. The whole eye-catching site, towering above Hwy. 61 and the Mississippi River, is so well known that it earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. But for a certain group of outdoor enthusiasts, a nearby gem on the same bluff line is even more noteworthy.
The Winona Ice Climbing Park draws thrill- and chill-seekers all week long, and 50 or more on winter weekends. The wide man-made ice wall has three distinct areas for varied levels of challenge and experiences. The main route stretches upward 100 feet, but at the peak, climbers tower 650 feet above Winona and the Mississippi.
"On a clear day, you can see 60 miles, easy," said Eric Barnard, one of the volunteer ice farmers who create the park on the bluff each year. He is a member of the Recreation Alliance of Winona, which partners with the city to manage the park.
In its fifth year, the ice park occupies a former quarry site in the city's Sugar Loaf Bluff Park. A test site at Bluffside Park hosted the ice wall for the park's first two years, but that required parking on city streets and potentially crossing private property to get there. At Sugar Loaf, climbers park at the Sugar Loaf trailhead lot and walk to the base of the slick bluff to start their climbing challenge.
The walk takes about 15 minutes, but the payoff is a rare ice-climbing wall that is open to the public for free. The site is so uncommon that weekend users tend to include climbers from as far away as Chicago and St. Louis. There are four ice parks in the country, two in Colorado and two in Minnesota (the other Minnesota location is Sandstone Ice Park, in Sandstone's Robinson Park, about 200 miles north of Winona).
"I tell people it's like living in a ski resort if you're a skier," said Barnard. "To be able to hike the bluff every day and then have the ability to climb is just amazing. I live in a really special town."
If you go: Two guiding operations in Winona offer gear and training: Big River Climbing Guides and the Winona Outdoor Collaborative. For information on the park and guide contacts, go to cityofwinona.com/237/Ice-Park.
Kerri Westenberg • 612-673-4282