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Observing the Mississippi River: high ground in Minnesota is the perfect spot to watch the mighty Mississippi wander by.

There's a high place in Minnesota's Frontenac State Park that looks out over the slow-moving, dark-watered Mississippi River, past sandy-gold, crumbly bluffs and down a 22-mile river valley

A visitor wouldn't even know that the high place existed but for a small, imperceptible gap in the autumn-leaved paper birches and red maples that were growing across the top of Point-No-Point Bluff. At 450 feet above the river, it is one of the best views along the Great River Road.

When exploring the Mississippi River's Hiawatha Valley and Lake Pepin, one finds lots of interesting spots and backroad scenery, and the Mississippi River of legends and myths. It takes only one look from that place to convince a person that it is the place to watch the world pass by.

One can feel the strained, low, pulsating rumbles of towboats as they push their loaded 22,000-ton barges. Pilots use Lake Pepin's length to slow their massive loads; just a dozen river-miles below the naturally formed lake, a lock and dam will demand their absolute attention.

It was easy to imagine that the barges would put in at St. Louis, Memphis or Vicksburg along the way south, unloading their Midwest grain, intended for some mystical-sounding foreign port, and returning upstream with oil or coal.

From the high vantage point, it is easy to track the progress of the day sailors, as their red and blue sails billow in the wind. Cutting back and forth across the water, the small boats look as if they are playing tag with the mammoth barges. Paralleling both riverbanks, red-engined freight locomotives pull their hundred-car loads up and down, one after another, adding the clack, clack of their wheels to the deep rumble of the barges.

It doesn't take long to understand why this stretch of the Upper Mississippi River is touted as one of the most scenic spots in America.

The entire Great River Road repeatedly has been called one of the nation's greatest undiscovered scenic drives. It hugs the Mississippi's 2,500 miles from northwest Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. Conceived in 1938, the official route is marked with green and white paddled-wheel signs and runs the entire length of the river.

In Wisconsin, the route runs north and south, mainly along Highway 35, and goes from Prescott to the Illinois border. In Minnesota, the official route runs along Highway 61, from La Crescent to Hastings.

Stories, history and legends are larger when they refer to the Mississippi. French voyageurs, huge canoes packed with furs and trade-goods, sang rhythmic paddling songs as their canoes silently cut through the waters. Noisy paddle-wheelers, queens of the river, churned their cargos and passengers from the Midwest to the Gulf. Frail timber forts, each marking the start of a new community or a new dream, suddenly appeared, and just as suddenly disappeared, as land claims were made and lost.

Lake Pepin, with its wide open water and small harbor-like communities, is a rare place. Mark Twain, in his "Life on the Mississippi," called it "... the grandest conception of nature's work, incomparable Lake Pepin."

About halfway up the valley, about an hour southeast of Minneapolis, is Lake City Minn. The first view of it is a panoramic harbor, full of sail- boat masts and bright-striped sails.

The view is just a tease.

Years ago, Lake City learned that its most important natural resource was the river, so just about everything is river-oriented. It is centrally located in the river valley so it's an excellent midpoint for daytrips up or down the river road.

One daytrip worth taking is to La Crosse, Wis.--it's one of the biggest cities along that section of the river.

The large paddleboats--the Delta Queen, the American Queen and the Mississippi Queen--dock several times each summer and fall, and any of the arrivals is cause for a full-blown riverfront festival, with old-time music and ceremonies. The paddleboat Julia Belle Swain, also based in La Crosse, is a smaller working replica of the old-time steamboats. It offers both daytrips and overnight excursions.

Maybe it's the Mark Twain stories everyone has enjoyed over the years, or some romantic images from history but nothing says Mississippi River more than the image of. an old-time steamboat. Watching the American Queen as it maneuvers slowly toward the 'landing, it isn't too difficult to imagine a young Samuel Clemens up there, at the wheel in the pilothouse, studying the La Crosse riverbank.

There's a lot, more of the river road to explore south of La Crosse, and the most difficult thing is stopping--you just want to keep on going.

Points of Interest

* Pepin, Wis., is the birthplace of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House books. Laura Ingalls Wilder Days annual celebration is held the third weekend of September.

* Alma, Wis., is the perfect place to see one of the river's locks and dams up close. Lock & Dam No. 4 is just down river from the town.

* Wabasha, Minn., is famed for its bald eagle watching and Eagle Watch program.

For more information, contact the Minnesota Department of Tourism at 1 (800) 657-3700 and the Wisconsin Department of Tourism at 1 (800) 432-8747.
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Author:Iushewitz, David
Publication:Grit
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 16, 2003
Words:864
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