Mississippi River Overlooks
Upper Mississippi Stories from Big River Magazine
By Duke Addicks

Wyalusing State Park, Wis.

Big River is an independent magazine about the people, places, life and events on the Upper Missisippi River.

Big River Magazine, July-August 2004

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Looking Down on the River

Where is the Highest Blufftop and the Highest Overlook on the Upper Mississippi?

By Duke Addicks

Have you noticed that in these parts, every other town claims to have the highest bluff or most majestic overlook?

Drive from one end of the Great River Road to the other and you'll come across a dozen such claims.

Most of these places truly are majestic and awe-inspiring, but they couldn't all be the highest, could they? I decided to do some research to find the truth: what is the highest public overlook on the Upper Mississippi? What is the highest bluff above the river, with or without a public overlook?

I thought it would take just a few phone calls to find the answers. Not true. No one at the Army Corps of Engineers or the U.S. Geological Survey knew the answers. Obviously, tourist brochures were not to be trusted, as they all made similar assertions. So I had to do my own calculations.

Where to start?

The Mississippi River Valley south of St. Paul began as a drainage way for a vast inland ocean that existed millions of years ago. By the time the glaciers started to form (more than a million years ago), this valley and its tributary valleys were well established.

Between 11,000 and 9,000 years ago, the largest glacial lake in North America, Lake Agassiz -- located in the northwest corner of Minnesota and in North Dakota and Manitoba -- melted and drained through the Minnesota River Valley, into the ancient Mississippi Valley. At that time the meltwater completely filled the Mississippi River Valley, from blufftop to blufftop, from Mendota southward, and it backed up into the tributary valleys as well. The rushing water and debris scoured deeply into the bedrock. The bedrock bottom of the river valley actually lies 300 feet below the present-day river bottom, because the valley filled halfway up with gravel, sand and silt carried by the glacial river.

Early European explorers thought the bluffs were mountains, although the bluffs are really level with the land behind them. The bluffs appeared to be mountains because the river flowed so far beneath them that the surrounding lands could not be seen from the river.

Doing the Math

To do my calculations, I had to decide how to measure the height of a bluff or a scenic overlook -- by its elevation above sea level, by its elevation above the bedrock or by its elevation above the normal water level of the pool below. I chose the latter.

I got the normal pool levels from the Army Corps of Engineers, which keeps pool elevations relatively constant, except during the spring flood. (In the case of a few overlooks that are above locks and dams, where the water level of the pool above the dam is higher above the dam than below it, I used the level of the water below the dam in calculating the height of the bluff above.)

Of course, some overlooks are not actually at the peak of the bluff, because the public couldn't even get to the top of the bluff, nor would most of us want to. This presented another small problem.

Although USGS topographic maps (in 7.5-minute quadrangles) provided elevations of the bluffs above sea level, sometimes I wasn't sure about the exact elevation of the overlooks. Over the last few years I have visited every overlook on the accompanying map, so I used topographic maps to estimate the elevations above sea level. The maps have elevation contours at 20-foot intervals, so my determinations may lack absolute precision. Someday, I'll visit the overlooks with a GPS (global positioning system) unit that measures altitude, but that's a future project.

The Winner is:

The overlook just off the picnic grounds parking lot in Great River Bluffs State Park in Minnesota wins the award. That overlook is 631 feet above the river. The overlook at King's Bluff, in the same park, at about 560 feet above the river, is the third highest overlook on the river.

Second highest is the new Winona County Apple Blossom Overlook Park on Apple Blossom Scenic Drive between La Crescent and Great River Bluffs State Park. It's just over 600 feet above the river.

Across the Mississippi, the overlook at Grandad Bluff in La Crosse is about 150 feet below that bluff, which towers 700 feet above the river.

The overlook at Buena Vista Park in Alma, Wis., is about 540 feet above the river. The overlooks in Garvin Heights City Park, Winona, Minn.; John A. Latsch State Park, Minneiska, Minn.; Pike's Peak State Park, McGregor, Iowa; and Point Lookout at Wyalusing State Park, near Prairie du Chien, Wis., are all about the same height, between 500 and 540 feet above the river.

The rest of the overlooks along the Upper Mississippi are less than 500 feet above the average level of the water.

The bluffs gradually diminish in height the farther north one goes from Alma or the farther south one goes from Point Lookout at Wyalusing State Park.

Which is the highest bluff?

It's more difficult to determine which bluff is the highest. There are a variety of claims. Some assert that Eagle Bluff, near Fountain City, at 550 feet over the water and an elevation of nearly 1,200 feet, is the highest point on the Upper Mississippi. Called "Cap Kiliou" by the French-Canadian fur traders, this is where Native Americans came to capture golden eagles, which still inhabit the valleys behind Fountain City. But even a casual glance at the topographic maps of the Upper Mississippi shows that there are higher bluffs, whether measured by elevation above sea level or height above the river.

As close as I can tell, the highest bluffs are in Wisconsin, just north and south of where the La Crosse River enters the Mississippi. There are areas of Grandad Bluff to the east of the overlook that have elevations of over 1300 feet and are almost 700 feet above the river. Likewise, Sugarloaf and Camelhump Bluffs and the bluff north of North Kinney Coulee Road have areas that are almost 700 feet above the river behind Lock & Dam 8.

Across the Mississippi, the bluffs west of Apple Blossom Drive in the New Hartford and Nodine areas above Dakota and Dresbach have heights of over 650 feet.

Of course, height is not as important as what we experience when we contemplate the great river from these scenic spots. We all have our reasons to find the high places. Some of us come to think deep thoughts and ponder the meaning of nature. Others come to rest, reflect and remember. Still others of us just like the vertigo, as we imagine ourselves flying right off the edge.

Meanwhile, if anyone is aware of higher bluffs, I’d certainly welcome this information. And, if anyone wishes to contest my determination of the heights of the overlooks or bluffs, any challenge is welcome.

Enjoy the view!

Duke Addicks tells Mississippi River Tales. His complete calculations as to the heights of the bluffs and overlooks can be found in a table on his website.