A fall walk on the wild side

It’s pretty freaking glorious to be us in Winona right now. I mean, it usually is, but now especially.

If you’ve looked at a travel mag lately, heck, even a newspaper, they’re all effusing over the best fall drives, the best fall getaways, and the best trails for seeing autumn in all her brilliantly hued glory. If your desktop looks like mine, you probably feel like you’re being beat over the head with a fall-leaf-colored branch right now, with everything in your inbox taunting you about all those pretty places out there.  Well I’m not going to do that.

OK, yes I am, but it comes with a funny story, so keep reading.

Invariably those fall color round-ups mention our little stretch of the Great River Road and how it’s one of the prettiest drives in the Midwest. It is – no question – but here around Winona we have something special, something worth getting out of the car for.

We have this:

Brilliant colors to hike through behind Holzinger Lodge

Brilliant colors to hike through behind Holzinger Lodge

In fact, we have miles of that, snaking up the bluffs on hiking and biking trails carved through some of the most spectacular scenery in Minnesota. Some of the trails are easy strolls, some are for adrenalin junkies, but here’s the thing about our trails… we have so many of them that you’ll most likely have any particular stretch of it to yourself. Except, of course, for the wildlife.

Now when I say “wildlife,” I’m gratefully not talking about Kodiak bears or wild boars or anything else that could attack you and make a hike decidedly unpleasant. Unless you count squirrels…but I’ll get to that in a minute. On my blissfully peaceful hikes through our bluffs I have scared up plenty of deer, a few wild turkeys, some owls, and a pair of badgers once (OK, those are a little bit scary). Sunlight dapples through the trees, the wind rustles leaves blushed with crimson and gold, a deer hops across the path, and it becomes this earth-affirming moment when you wonder at God’s creatures and feel like you are in this magic, special place. I mean seriously, look at this:

A secretive owl watches passersby from his perch

A secretive owl watches passersby from his perch

But if you’re looking for a little excitement, well, we just might have that too. I was having one of those “magic moment” kind of hikes a few weeks ago along the forested ridge line of a bluff – smelling the fresh air and wondering at the beauty of it all, when I heard a branch crack high overhead. A couple seconds later, something hit me in the head, then my shoulder, then my leg as I was moving to get out of the way. I stood there stunned for a second, blinking, realizing I’d been hit by a small piece of a falling branch or a big piece of bark or something that was now sitting at my feet. Then the “bark” got up and ran away, off the path and right back up the tree it had come out of.

I blinked again and looked up at my hiking partner 10 feet behind me, whose look of complete and utter shock confirmed that what I thought had just happened had indeed just happened. A squirrel fell out of the tree from 20 feet in the air, hit me in the head, then fell all the way down my body, grabbing for traction as he went.

I just stood there with my mouth agape and eyes like saucers, trying to process. “There’s no way in hell that just happened,” I stammered to my friend. He was on his knees laughing so hard he couldn’t stand up. This went on for quite a while.

I laughed too, so hard I thought I might throw up – or maybe that was from the shock. Eventually we regained enough composure to keep walking, but every 20 feet or so we would stop and relive it again and laugh some more. I couldn’t help but ponder the odds of the squirrel falling just as I passed beneath, but I couldn’t bear to think that he had jumped out on me on purpose…like because he had rabies or something. ..

Blood beaded up out of the worst scratch on my calf. Another light scratch down the entire length of my thigh just welted up slightly – which probably means I’m allergic to squirrels, by the way. But who cares, because it’s not like I pet them often. Or ever. Anyway, we poured some water on the scratch, and I said a little prayer that squirrels don’t carry rabies, and we hiked our way back out of the bluffs.

The moral of the story is this: If you’re looking for a peaceful hike, we have that. If you’re looking for an action/adventure hike, we have that too. Just stand under a tree and shake it to see if a squirrel falls out. I’m just kidding – don’t do that. But you want a thrill, you can bring your bike and ride some trails that I think would be appropriately called “gnarly,” and you can take in some of the most spectacular scenery in Minnesota while you do it.

The leaves are turning and our bluffs are tipped in gold. It’s about to get insanely beautiful – you need to get out there and see it for yourself.

Got a favorite trail? Share it in the comments and let me know. If you need advice on trails, leave a comment and I’ll hook you up, or check out the hiking and biking trails page at www.visitwinona.com.

Oh, and squirrels don’t carry rabies. I checked. So no horrifically painful death for me – unless a turkey vulture gets me next time or something. I’m just kidding – they don’t do that. Come hike.

Winona from bluffs

If you want to make the hike to the top, the view definitely rewards you

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3 comments on “A fall walk on the wild side
  1. Mandy Weilandt says:

    I love the Plowline trail. Great hike and perfect terrain to take my dog with!

  2. Mary Nelson says:

    I love the roads and hillsides in Woodlawn Cemetery. The monuments and statuary are wonderful to view and there is plenty of wildlife exploring along with you!

  3. Can’t wait to perform there in November! Winona looks like a really nice place to visit!

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