My favorite secret

I’ve been holding out on you.

After all these months I haven’t told you about my number one favorite place in Winona – what I think is its best kept secret. But you weren’t ready. Or, well, it wasn’t ready.

It’s a place where you can go to feel the sun on your face and the wind in your hair, where you can gaze across everything that is great about Winona. It’s a place where you can fall in love with nature and Winona and your date, if you bring one. And I suggest you do.

Sound big? Try 500 feet big.

I call it Date Rock.

Garvin Heights isn’t such a big secret – it’s a majestic overlook about 500 feet or so above the city of Winona. Lots and lots and lots of people snake their way up the road at the base of the bluff and Huff Street to get up to the Garvin Heights overlook. It’s great. It’s cool. But we’re not talking about that.

Go up to Garvin Heights, walk out to the overlook, but while everyone else is ogling Winona from the big wall, take the footpath that leads off to the left. It’s okay, you’re not trespassing, but wear good shoes or you’ll break your ankle. What you will hike past is a restored goat prairie, the pride and joy of biologist Carol Jefferson and her Winona State University students. Through an incalculable amount of work, they cleared away garbage and buckthorn to coax the native goat prairie back into existence. Mingled into this prairie is an oak savanna, gnarled oak trees that look like they just stepped out of a spooky movie, especially in the fog. In fact, I’ve scared myself silly up there a couple of times. But that’s another story. Anywhoo, it’s  an ecosystem so endangered there are only about 1% of nature’s original oak savannas left in the world, and Carol Jefferson found one buried on Winona’s bluff.

As you head down the path about 100 feet or so you will see a steepish slope off to the right – it holds a tower of rocks and a little bitty cave. Peek down there if you have sturdy footwear, you can even take a break from the sun by lounging on an enormous boulder hidden there by the trees. It’s pretty, and sort of other-worldly, but this is not your final destination.

Back out on the path, continue just a little farther past that stand of rocks and you will see it – Date Rock, spread out right on the edge of the bluff. It is actually two big, flat rocks, either one big enough for two people and a picnic blanket. On one side, the goat prairie and oak savanna roll off down the bluff, sprinkled with songbirds and brilliant prairie flowers. On the other side is Winona and the Mississippi River in all their glory sprawling into the distance as far as your eye can see. Overhead, red tail hawks and eagles catch the breeze, and as you lay on your back and close your eyes, you might spend a minute or two wondering how a place can be so beautiful.

You take your honey here for a picnic and I’m telling you, it’s a romantic home run. And if you’re afraid of heights, don’t worry, the rock is big enough and set back just far enough from the edge that even babies like me can handle it. There wouldn’t be any way in the world you could fall off unless you do something stupid like hang your toes over the edge, and if you do please don’t come running to me with your broken legs, because I told you not to.

This is IT, folks. The most magical place in Winona. I cannot drive down Huff Street and not look up and see it, reminiscing my wonderful hours whiled away there. Want to know how to spot it? Look up at Garvin Heights, then look to the right for a strange, squat little tree that looks like it’s sitting by itself. What you’re looking at is the tree right next to Date Rock, but trust me, the view is better from up there.

A prairie flower near Date Rock

Misty Oak Savanna

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