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By Chris Rogers, editor, Winona Post

 

If Minnesota winters sometimes make us wonder, why do we live here? Spring and the promise of summer remind us, oh yeah, that’s why. 

But when it comes to hiking muddy bluffs or playing on soggy athletic fields, it’s easy to jump the gun in spring. When soccer fields get trampled to mud in April, those ruts set like hard concrete by July. My ankles hurt just thinking about it. The same goes for wet bluff trails. Churning up the mud on steep bluffs is a recipe for erosion slowly turning that path into a gully. North-facing bluffs take especially long to dry out in spring, such as the Sugar Loaf Trail the city recently had to close due to muddy conditions, Garvin Heights Trail, and much of Holzinger Trails. If your boots or bike tires leave imprints in the mud, it’s probably too wet.

During this soggy period, there are plenty of places to go hiking that won’t hurt the dirt. Here are my recommendations.

The Flyway Trail — About a mile of gravel trail stretches from Winona’s Aghaming Park (just across the Wagon Bridge from Latsch Island) and runs out to the Town of Buffalo Park. It’s got nice views of the backwaters, and you can extend the outing at the Trempealeau Wildlife Refuge’s River Bottoms Access (a couple hundred feet down Highway 35 from the park).

The Trempealeau Wildlife Refuge — Speaking of the refuge, its gravel paths are the perfect place to hike in early spring, especially since the river is fairly low right now. The refuge’s main entrance is closed due to a washout at the moment, but the refuge opened up the Marshland Access (just past the Hillside Fish House) to vehicles, so visitors can either start walking from there or drive in to check out prairie trails or my favorite, Kiep’s Island Dike. Find a map at www.fws.gov/refuge/trempealeau/map.

The Bronk Unit (aka Cherry Hill) — This section of state forest land on the bluffs above Lake Goodview is a hidden gem. It’s a bit of a climb from either Hidden Valley or County Road 23, but the view is worth it. (Vehicles can drive up the hill from the County Road 23 side, but I’d recommend four-wheel drive.) The side trails here are likely to be as muddy as anywhere, but a nice gravel path snakes along the ridge for over a mile, with blufftop prairies and vistas of both the Mississippi River and Garvin Brook valleys.

John Latsch State Park — From a small picnic area off Highway 61, a set of wooden stairs climbs straight up the bluff to a rocky pinnacle at this fee-free state park. It’s a real workout, but the lookout over the river valley and backwaters is even better than Sugar Loaf and Garvin Heights in my opinion.