Some of Minnesota's most stunning views can be found along the 19-mile Apple Blossom Scenic Drive each spring. This byway, tucked above the Mississippi River Valley in southeast Minnesota, celebrates the apples which have thrived along these bluffs for more than 150 years.
Bluffs, like the hillsides along the Minnesota River or St. Croix River , shelter orchards from cold temperatures that sink into the valleys. The bluffs' rich limestone soil also nourishes the fruit and gives the area’s 30-some apple varieties a distinct taste.
Meander by farms, orchards
Catch the drive at County Road 3 a few miles south of Winona. This is one of the most striking stretches of the Great River Road. Look for a maze of islands to the east, along with deep ravines and lush, wooded ridges rising from both sides of the Mississippi.
From the picnic area and overlooks at Great River Bluffs State Park, you can even seen Wisconsin’s Black River delta on the opposite shore. The park’s hiking trails thread through the hardwood forest, thick with maples, basswood, oak and hickory. They flame into full glory by late September and early October. If you want to camp here, reserve these spots early.
Most of the Apple Blossom Scenic Drive hugs the ridges above the river, curving through horse and hobby farms and passing historic red barns. As the byway meanders southeast, it nears the orchards. They’re showered with delicate white blossoms in early May (a little later this year) and thick with apples by late summer.
Find morels and wildflowers
As a tasty spring bonus, watch for stands along Highway 61 selling tender asparagus and coveted morel mushrooms. Check in with morel fanatics for advice and tips if you want to do your own foraging, or check out this feature by Beth Gauper, creator of MidwestWeekends.com.
Now through Memorial Day or the first week of June also is an ideal time to enjoy woodland wildflowers in Minnesota state parks thick with hardwoods. Look for white trillium, bright yellow marsh marigolds, false rue anemone, delicately striped spring beauty, sturdy Jack in the Pulpit, wild plum blossoms, trout lilies and more.
Some of the best parks for wildflowers include Nerstrand Woods by Northfield, Whitewater State Park outside of Rochester, and Frontenac State Park along the Mississippi River. I spotted my first ever yellow lady's slipper on the steep bluffs of Frontenac. Be forewarned: If you hike down, you have to hike up. Pace yourself accordingly.
Keep an eye out for returning songbirds, eagles and wild turkeys, too. Our son got the scare of a lifetime helping me find woodland flowers and startling a turkey that was as big as he was at the time.
That's the best part of exploring Minnesota's byways and hiking trails. You never know what kind of treasures and surprises you'll find.
For more information, check out the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for park updates or Explore Minnesota Tourism.
|Lupine growing along Lake Superior.|
Here are my favorite picks for scenic spring blossom drives in Minnesota and Wisconsin:
You can't beat the gorgeous Lake Superior setting, artsy shops, great cuisine and views of the Apostle Islands. The month-long Bayfield in Bloom festival kicks off Friday. Besides orchards, there are 54,000 daffodils. Our favorite Bayfield flower? June-blooming lupine which fills the ditches with an explosion of purple and tinges of pink.
Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, Chaska, Minn.
A great option if you don't have time to travel far from the Twin Cities and want to research planting your own apple or fruit trees. This year's funky sculpture exhibition, Steel Roots, opened last month and runs through October. Call the Bloom Line at 612-625-9791 to find out what's blooming.
Door County, Wisconsin.
Another lovely Great Lakes setting and the chance to meander by both cherry and apple orchards. Door County's six-week Festival of Blossoms runs through June 5th and includes several package deals. It's a great time to visit before summer crowds hit.
Gays Mills, Wisconsin.
This hidden gem in southeast Wisconsin sits along the Kickapoo River Valley and near the Great River Road region where roads meander and hills look like gumdrops. We found this town of 625 residents by accident one year. It was a fabulous find, especially in full swing of fall apple season.
--Photos and text by Lisa Meyers McClintick