June is not the month we would normally choose to go camping. Freshly hatched, Minnesota mosquitos rule the woods in early summer, making any hiking activity quite unpleasant. But last year our work schedules allotted a nice chunk of free time right about mid-June. Not wanting to waste it, we decided on a trip into the southeastern part of the state where we've found the pesky insects to be at a minimum.
U.S. Highway 61 is one of the best scenic drives in the state. The farther south you travel, the wider the Mississippi River becomes, bringing with it the great bluffland of southeastern Minnesota.
On this particular day, the farther south we went the higher the temperature rose. By the time we reached Great River Bluffs, it was 97 degrees. I have to say that the drive to the campgrounds is one of the most unusual drives I've ever taken. After leaving the park registration office, the road moves through a series of cornfields. As you continue from field to field, one seriously questions the park's assertion of, "half-dome bluffs and sheer rock cliffs."
Not to fear. After the cornfields, the road begins to climb steadily. But a solid wall of hardwood trees prevents everything but the briefest of glimpses at what lies ahead. The anticipation is fun, and when we finally reach the top there are plenty of exclamations at the 200-foot drop.
We park the camper and begin to explore. The first stop is an overlook near the campgrounds. As we strike out in that direction, we have to pass through a patch of forest. To our great pleasure, there are no bugs of any variety, and the coolness of the dense woods is a temporary relief from the soaring temperatures. Immediately I am struck by the beauty of the first birds I see: a scarlet tanager and an indigo bunting. The bunting flees instantly, but the tanager remains, flitting back and forth and showing off its magnificent red plumage.
At the overlook, we are greeted by a high drop to the fertile valley below. The drop is significant, and I find myself cautioning the kids even though they can see the danger quite perfectly for themselves. Later, we sit on the wooden guard rail and watch the sun set slowly behind the hills. It's really too hot to do much else, and the haze that covers the valley is enchanting.
The next morning we begin hiking the seven miles of trails within the park. Many of these trails provide scenic vistas of the Mississippi River Valley from trail overlooks. Along the way we notice numerous warning signs advising to take extreme care. Many signs warn to hang onto children. Because the temperature hovers near 90 degrees, there is a permanent haze in the air. At one point huge thunderheads build in the west and mushroom thousands of feet into the sky. A half hour later they have moved on.
Many of the trails skirt steep slopes. Early Native Americans built mounds on these bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. They used some mounds as graves, but the purpose of others has yet to be determined. Most mounds are domed-shaped; others are effigies, or images of objects, usually animals. When the settlers came, much of the upland and floodplain was plowed for crops. The slope of the upland and the weakness of the soil caused severe erosion. Many fields had to be abandoned. Then in the early 1960's the DNR purchased most of the land that makes up the park. Immediately, plantations of red and white pine, green ash and walnut were started. But the most unique plant community within the park is the "goat prairie," so named because the slope is so great that only goats could graze it. However, we learned that these prairies are natural solar collectors; they receive as much direct sunlight as any place in Minnesota.
Great River Bluffs is also the home to timber rattlesnakes. But while the rattlesnake lives in the park, they are not numerous and offer little or no threat to park visitors. I wish we could have seen one...from a safe distance. It's always exciting to see a animal in its natural habitat. Because of the heat, we were moving pretty slowly on our way back to camp. Even so, I had to take one more look at the Mississippi River from the overlook. One could only imagine how beautiful the vista would be come fall...??
Copyright ©1996 Judi Schiller, Richard Schiller
Aug. 3, 1996