King's Bluff Hiking Club Trail

Great River Bluffs State Park, Minnesota

Trip Date: Monday, June 3rd, 2019
Last Updated: Thursday, July 18th, 2019
By Ricky Holzer

Hike Information

Rating ★★★★☆(4/5)
Overall Difficulty Easy
Navigation Difficulty     Easy
Distance 2.5 miles roundtrip
Time 1.5 hours
Terrain Mostly flat
Best Seasons All
Family Friendly Yes
Dog Friendly Yes
Accessible No

Highlights

Hike Walkthrough

Great River Bluffs State Park is one of those parks that I've seen on many lists, yet I haven't met many people who have been to it. Unlike most hikes in hilly bluff country, this trail is mostly flat yet still provides you the amazing views you expect in this area. This hike is the centerpiece of the park, a family-friendly affair that introduces you to the lovely nature found in this part of the state.

The trail starts alongside a restored prairie, as pictured below, with forest on the other side. Pay attention to the variation in vegetation as you transition from one part of the trail to the next; these various zones showcase the past, present, and future of the landscape. As described on a few interpretive signs along the way, the forest used to be an oak savanna, an environment of prairie grasses with big oak and hickory trees that covered southeastern and central Minnesota before human settlement, a gradual transition from the Great Plains to the forests of the east. The prairie to your left represents the first step in transformation of this land to its original state.

The tall grasses of the restored prairie near the start of the trail

The tall grasses of the restored prairie near the start of the trail

Continue straight at the first trail intersection -- note that all intersections have a map installed to help you navigate. At another fork ahead, you can choose to veer left through a natural woodland or to continue straight into a pine plantation. The overgrown woodland to the left typifies today's state of this Minnesotan forest ecosystem: now that grazing bison and wildfires no longer regulate plant growth, a dense canopy grows and the forest floor is covered in numerous types of plants and shrubs. The pines ahead, as pictured below, were planted by the original settlers to sell as timber since the rugged topography is not suitable for farming. As mentioned on a sign along the trail, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources eventually plans on harvesting these trees and replacing it with oak savanna.
The orderly rows and needle-strewn ground of the pine plantation

The orderly rows and needle-strewn ground of the pine plantation

Whether you went the fast way through the pines or the meandering woodland route, the trails converge and the hike continues northward towards King's Bluff. Shortly you'll enter King's and Queen's Bluff Scientific and Natural Area, a special designation protecting rare natural features and two local landmarks. As you near the end of the trail, you'll emerge from the forest to the vistas afforded by the (mostly) treeless prairie on the western slope of King's Bluff, as shown in the first picture below. The trail ends at a bench overlooking Queen's Bluff and the Mississippi River Valley, the magnificent view you've been waiting for, shown in the second picture below.
Wildflowers and green bluffs to the west of the trail

Wildflowers and green bluffs to the west of the trail

Overlooking the lush Mississippi River Valley with bare Queen's Bluff on the right

Overlooking the lush Mississippi River Valley with bare Queen's Bluff on the right

When you're done soaking in the view, simply turn around and head back the way you came. Watch again as you pass through the various landscapes and appreciate how one park can support such biodiversity. Enjoy the hike and check out some other viewpoints in the park before you leave! Let me know what you think in the comments section below and be sure to use #nocoastbestcoast on Twitter and Instagram!

Important Information

Dogs are allowed on leash. As a part of the kid-oriented Hiking Club, this is an excellent hike for families. You can hike this trail in any season, including winter; fall colors here are particularly amazing thanks to the topography and overlooks here and throughout the park. I visited on a Monday and saw several people, so I would expect to see many more especially because the park is only an hour from Rochester and 2 and a half hours from the Twin Cities.

Directions

From the Twin Cities, take U.S. Highway 52 south towards Rochester. Take the exit for Interstate 90 heading east towards La Crosse. Take the exit for County Highway 12, turn left, then turn right on County Highway 3. Turn right on Kipp Drive and continue into the park. Pay the entrance fee, then continue straight. Park in the dirt lot on the left side of the road.

Google Maps Directions

Parking, Fees, and Facilities

Vehicle permits are $7/day or $35/year (the annual pass pays for itself after 5 visits!). There are no facilities at this lot, but restrooms are available at the picnic area or campground further down the road.

External Links

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