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43 Beautiful Overlooks
From May 2009, By Reggie McLeod

Standing on an open blufftop above the river on a warm spring afternoon is a glorious pleasure.

Later in the year, you can escape the humid heat of the river valley on a summer evening to sit on a blufftop and watch the lights of cars and boats crawling through the night, and perhaps spot a campfire on a distance island beach. However, many people rank autumn as the best time to visit the blufftops to marvel at the colors and look for migrating raptors. A few might favor the winter, when the blufftop visitor is rewarded with a clear, crystalline view across the sparkling vastness of the frozen valley.

Whatever your preference or preferences, there are some great new overlooks that you have probably never looked over. Several have recently been opened to the public, thanks mainly to land trusts and generous landowners. The La Crosse, Wis.-based Mississippi Valley Conservancy (MVC) has acquired a good portion of the bluffline overlooking La Crosse, including some river overlooks. Many of these tracts adjoin each other, accommodating an extensive and growing trail system. MVC will eventually turn this land over to the city for parks. Easements will protect it from development.

MVC has also acquired conservation easements and land upriver and downriver from the city, including overlooks at Ledebuhr Bluff, across the river from Winona, Minn.; Sugar Creek Bluff, near Ferryville, Wis.; and Cassville Bluff, near Cassville, Wis., which has an effigy mound in the shape of a bird with a 270-foot wing span.

Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation also recently acquired two river overlooks near Galena, Ill., with effigy mounds.

These land trusts are members of the Blufflands Alliance, a partnership of seven organizations in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois working to protect land and resources along the Upper Mississippi River.

Watch Your Step

While exploring river overlooks don’t walk off a cliff or step on a rattlesnake. In addition to protecting yourself, help protect the rare and restored habitats in many of these areas. Use care when parking and don’t drive vehicles where you shouldn’t. Prairie restorations are underway in many of these places, such as Maiden Rock Bluff, so stick to the designated paths. The organizations and agencies that manage these places are trying to balance the conflicts that arise when you protect and restore wildlife in places open for the enjoyment of the public. Restrictions are often listed at trailheads and parking lots.

If you appreciate these places and you really want to get off the beaten path, consider joining one of the organizations working to protect these wild places and volunteer to help restore prairie, remove buckthorn, raise funds or pitch in with other tasks that contribute to acquiring and caring for these places.

Many of these sites also contain burial mounds and other historical features that should be enjoyed and respected. State and federal laws prohibit disturbing many of these features, especially human burials.

The list of overlooks has grown so long that we don’t have the space to give detailed directions to them. Visit the Big River website for more information and links for finding and enjoying the sites.