Home > Favorite Rides > Riding Minnesota’s Historic Bluff Country Scenic Byway

Riding Minnesota’s Historic Bluff Country Scenic Byway

Susan BentonApril 26, 2016
Majestic churches like this one near Lanesboro, Minnesota, are as common a sight in rural Minnesota as Iowa. (Photos: Susan Benton)

Majestic churches like this one near Lanesboro, Minnesota, are as common a sight in rural Minnesota as Iowa. (Photos: Susan Benton)

Ah, autumn, mid-October. Cool mornings, mild midday temperatures, low winds—perfect.

We set our sights on a new-to-us scenic byway in Minnesota. The route is not planned but because it is leaf-looking season, we reserve a room before heading out.

My husband, Mike, sits ready for a quick getaway as I snap pictures from a No Parking area.

My husband, Mike, sits ready for a quick getaway as I snap pictures from a No Parking area.

I climb onto our Honda ST1300 behind my trusted pilot, my husband Mike. This co-pilot is bundled for the morning chill in sheddable layers. Iowa Route 1 leads us away from Iowa City north toward Minnesota. At Mount Vernon, we jog west on State Route 30, then north on State Route 13. The bumpy route takes us to State Route 20, a smooth, divided road and the best way to travel east-to-west in northern Iowa. As we glide by, farmers are harvesting Iowa’s golden bounty in the warming sunshine. Soon Iowa’s fields will become cornstalk graveyards.

We are in Decorah for lunch by way of State Routes 150 and 52. I free myself of my stiff Gore-Tex pants and my neck warmer. Decorah is nestled in a valley of tree-covered bluffs in northeast Iowa, the leaves barely beginning to turn. The city was named for Waukon Decorah, a leader of the Winnebago tribe and a U.S. ally during the Black Hawk War of 1832.

We zigzag west on State Route 9 and then north on U.S. Route 63. With about 200 miles behind us, we ride into Spring Valley, Minnesota, where the acrid odor of fresh asphalt fills the air. Workers are putting the finishing touches on a fresh road surface for State Route 16, the Historic Bluff Country Scenic Byway, and our destination.

After seemingly endless acres of corn, suddenly, around a bend, a breathtaking view opens up. This is what we have been waiting for. Awe-inspiring bluffs dot the landscape in every direction. In no time, we have climbed to the top of a ridge with 360-degree panoramic views of coulees and bluffs stretching to the horizon.

The curves and hills begin on State Route 16 in Minnesota, the Historic Bluff Country Scenic Byway.

The curves and hills begin on State Route 16 in Minnesota, the Historic Bluff Country Scenic Byway.

Then the road falls away and we weave our way down to the Root River valley. Here, leaves are tinged yellow and red. The Root River peeks through trees and bushes, at times looking more like a mountain stream. What follows is uninterrupted eye-popping fall beauty. We are in the Richard J. Dorer Memorial Hardwood State Forest, which covers more than one million acres.

We rise and fall gliding on the Zamboni-smooth new roadway, minus the ice, never noticing that we have transitioned from country bluffs to Mississippi River bluffs at the end of Route 16 near La Crescent, Minnesota. Our only regret about this beautiful scenic byway is that there weren’t many safe places to pull off, enjoy the view and snap pictures.

We turn south onto Minnesota’s section of the Great River Road, also marked here as County Road X52. This is familiar territory to us. The road is a wavy rollercoaster ride through dense woods. As the sun lowers to the west, we are chilled in the eastside shade of limestone bluffs. We cross back into Iowa and at Marquette cruise over the blue-gray bridge into Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, where our room awaits at an AmericInn. We are glad to have a reservation when we see a tour bus parked in the lot.

Dinner is within walking distance at the Fort Mulligan’s Grillpub, known for its cheese curds. The moderately priced menu varies from burgers to pork loin and walleye, and it has a good selection of beer. Back at our motel, freshly baked cookies serve as dessert.

Like many small river towns, McGregor's "downtown" is a strip along the Mississippi.

Like many small river towns, McGregor’s “downtown” is a strip along the Mississippi.

Next morning we cruise by the Villa Louis, a place we visited years ago when it was about to be remodeled. With great attention to historical details, the completed home is now the finest example of a British Arts and Crafts interior in a rural setting in the United States. But guided tours do not begin until 10 a.m. We’ll have to revisit it in the winter when perfect weather does not beckon as it does today.

Morning fog lifts on the Mississippi to reveal small islands reminiscent of Tom Sawyer descriptions.

Morning fog lifts on the Mississippi to reveal small islands reminiscent of Tom Sawyer descriptions.

We begin the ride home, rumbling on the bridge high over the Mississippi back into Marquette. McGregor, Iowa, is only a few miles south on X56. Morning fog is lifting from deserted Tom Sawyer-like islands just a short raft ride from the riverfront.

Mike knows how to find a little piece of State Route 76 up behind McGregor, where there is a spectacular scenic overlook above a slough that features a heavily populated island. We meet another couple from California who are on a two-month car trip across the entire United States. Our enthusiastic description of the Bluff Country Scenic Byway may have convinced them to drive it on their way home.

We make our way back onto X56, the rising sun filtering through the mixed forest, and rejoin a southerly part of U.S. Route 52 at Guttenberg. Saying farewell to the Mississippi River, we merge with Iowa Route 136 and reconnect with U.S. Route 151 near Cascade. This divided highway through rolling hills is a signal that we are close to home. Route 1 is the last leg to Iowa City.

Historic Bluff Country Scenic Byway has catapulted onto our top 10 list of favorite Upper Midwest rides. If you can reach this road, you owe it to yourself to ride it and enjoy unspoiled nature for 88 spectacular miles.

Map of the ride route, by Bill Tipton, compartmaps.com.

Map of the ride route, by Bill Tipton, compartmaps.com.

Zoomed in for more detail of State Route 16 in Minnesota.

Zoomed in for more detail of State Route 16 in Minnesota.

Fall colors explode behind our parked motorcycle in McGregor, Iowa.

Fall colors explode behind our parked motorcycle in McGregor, Iowa.

Limestone outcroppings jut up in the hilly countryside near Decorah, Iowa.

Limestone outcroppings jut up in the hilly countryside near Decorah, Iowa.

As we cross Iowa, farmers harvest seemingly endless rows of corn.

As we cross Iowa, farmers harvest seemingly endless rows of corn.

No river city is complete without steamboats, and Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, boasts this one.

No river city is complete without steamboats, and Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, boasts this one.

One comment

  1. Great ride, looks like you just missed the best place for pictures, right above La Crescent is parking for a vista of the valley. Follow Apple Blossom Drive. Be careful not to look to much in the big sweepers atop the bluff!

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