Head south on the Great River Road
Craving a Minnesota or Wisconsin road trip to celebrate the welcome end to winter? Let spring blossoms inspire your route. Some of Minnesota’s most stunning views can be found along the 17-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 pGreat River Bluffs State Park, you can even see 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 Minnesota’s Apple Blossom Scenic Drive hugs the ridges above Mississippi 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 and thick with apples by late summer.
Take a drive to Gays Mills
Because many of these bluff-top farms and orchards (given the proximity to La Crosse and great views) have become homesites, I actually prefer to head into Wisconsin and drive about 45 minutes south of La Crosse, Wis., along the Great River Road, where you may spot eagles and migrating waterfowl and an Amish buggy or two. At Wisconsin State Highway 171, head about 12 miles east to the tiny town of Gays Mills. It welcomes visitors with a burst of showy white blossoms then wows them on the east side as the highway climbs the high ridge above the Kickapoo River Valley where orchards have grown award-winning apples since 1905.While orchards aren’t open in the spring, wooden signs promise fresh-picked fruits and sweets from apple pizza to pies—a perfect reason for a return trip in the fall.
Loop back to La Crosse
If you head back to La Crosse via Viroqua on Highway 61, the approximately 100-mile loop drive meanders through steep coulees and past brooks squiggling through lush meadows. Viroqua’s also an ideal lunch stop with the Driftless Cafe. It serves tasty seasonally inspired meals with local ingredients, such as roasted root vegetables and trout.
For an elegant finish to the day, enjoy the riverfront views, drinks and date-night meals at The Waterfront Restaurant and Tavern. If the weather’s balmy, you can sit on the patio to catch warm spring breezes drifting along the Mississippi River.
Take more scenic spring blossom drives:
Here are my favorite picks for scenic spring blossom drives in Minnesota and Wisconsin:
Bayfield, 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 includes blooming orchards plus 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, Minnesota: 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. 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 early June and includes several package deals. It’s a great time to visit before summer crowds hit.
–Photos and text by Lisa Meyers McClintick