Sometimes it’s the little off-the-beaten-track things in a destination that give it that extra something that makes it stick in our hearts, right? You know, I’m talking about those quirky bars, great views, and other townie-type spots that are pretty much only known by locals who have been canvassing every inch of a community for years. In this regard, Winona does not disappoint, and I’m here to spill the beans on some of my favorite local gems that, while staying out of the general spotlight for tourism, deserve a place on any true explorer’s itinerary.
1. Date Rock
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.
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 because it’s city park, but wear good shoes or you’ll break your ankle. What you will hike past is a restored goat prairie and the remnants of an old oak savannah, the pride and joy of biologist Carol Jefferson and her Winona State University students who restored it from a tangle of garbage and buckthorn a few years back.
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, 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 large, 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.
2. Sunsets on Prairie Island Road
Driving along Winona’s River Road from downtown, you will reach a right turn called Prairie Island Road after a mile or two. It takes you to all kinds of wonderful things about Winona including several public boat launches to the Mississippi, Prairie Island Park where people picnic, romp on a terrific playground and fish from a spillway, Prairie Island Campground, which is open to the public for campfire concerts plus canoe and kayak rentals, the city’s really nice dog park, and hiking trails galore for exploring.
You would drive a couple of miles on Prairie Island Road to get to all of those things and, if you have the time, you should. But for this insider tip, you don’t have to go more than a few hundred feet.
Once you turn, to the left and right of the road – which is actually atop Winona’s levee wall – you will see Mississippi River backwaters teaming with lily pads, water birds and fishermen trying to work around them. And every night a spectacular show goes on here – every night when the sun is visible going down anyway – because it lights up the backwaters on the west side of the road with a jaw-dropping array of colors and reflections.
Locals can often be found parked here, sitting in the grass with a picnic blanket and a bottle of wine to admire the show with their sweetheart. Some of the most fantastic sunsets I’ve ever seen have happened right here and because the space is wide open, they seem to go on forever. It’s the best free show in town.
3. WNB Financial Safari Exhibit
It sounds like an unlikely pairing, but one of Winona’s historic hometown banks is also home to a safari exhibit that is free to tour as long as you can find it. The space is tucked away on the second floor of WNB Financial – an extravagantly beautiful Egyptian Revival-style bank that towers over Main Street in Winona’s downtown area.
With 32-ton monolithic granite columns framing its entrance, the bank is hard to miss (okay, impossible), and it alone is one of Winona’s most architecturally important buildings. The stained glass windows throughout were created by Tiffany Studios (yes, THAT Tiffany) and gleaming white marble rimmed with metalwork and mahogany accoutrements is a show-stopper. The building more or less looks like it did when it opened just over 100 years ago, including a pretty ominous 22-ton vault door that is still in use today.
So anyway, this is a beautiful building and plenty of people walk inside to have a peek at the grand lobby. But what many don’t know is that one of the bank’s early presidents and his wife were avid hunters – like African hunting – and they filled the upstairs with a bevy of stuffed trophy animals plus an elaborate gun collection. The space is absolutely free to wander through – you don’t even need to ask for permission – and you can ponder the odd collection for as long as you want.
Bonus – stepping out of the museum chambers, the view from the balconies over the grand lobby areas is pretty fantastic.
4. The Mankato Bar
If you like to rub elbows with the locals, there is no place more local than the Mankato Bar. Draped in twinkly Christmas lights year-round, the U-shaped bar serves a regular stream of locals who come in for a cold one and to shoot the breeze. Pull tabs are a thing here, as are very traditional domestic beers and mixed drinks.
But what’s NOT so traditional is a crazy, crazy bloody Mary the bar serves up every Sunday until the ingredients run out. I lost count at something like 25 different things jabbed with a stick and stacked in my drink – which negated the need for a meal of any kind with my beverage. It’s kooky, it’s yummy and it’s definitely Instagram-worthy, and it’s also big enough to share with a small softball team.
This cozy watering hole sits in the far east end of Winona on Mankato Avenue – which locals affectionately know as “the hog line.” Why? The east end of Winona was typically home to a very blue-collar, working-class families who would also keep a few animals in their humble yards for feeding the family. The rarified middle and upper class thought that farm animals in the city was unseemly so they got an ordinance enacted saying that people couldn’t have hogs in their yard past Mankato Avenue – hence “the hog line”. Ha! History is kind of fun, right?
Anyway, most of the people you’ll meet in the Mankato Bar are lifers – as in been in Winona forever. There are some interesting folks to mingle with, fun stories to be had, and one heck of a bloody Mary on the menu if you time your visit right.