Mississippi River gorge

Aside from the occasional clusters of forest and scattered lakes, we live in a flat expanse of citified prairie that bears a disturbing resemblance to greater Des Moines. There are, however, exceptions, and none is more striking than the Mississippi River gorge. It's no accident that the first white settlers--and the Dakota before them--were drawn to the banks of the Mississippi. There were practical reasons: The river made for easy travel and trade, and it provided raw power for the grain and saw mills upon which the 19th-century economy was built. But the mighty river offered something else, something equally important: a whopping dose of natural beauty. Despite the heavy industrialization of the river, you'd be hard-pressed to find a stretch of the Mississippi in the entire metro area that doesn't offer some enticement to the ambitious hiker. For our money, nothing beats the Winchell Trail. It was originally blazed as a footpath by the Dakota tribe, then improved by city workers in 1912; a second round of renovations was performed under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration program in the Thirties. By the looks of things, not much has gone on since then. Some of the stairways are crumbling. The old chainlink fences have sunk into the earth. Handrails are missing. And guess what? We don't care. In fact, the generally decrepit conditions ensure that the Winchell Trail isn't used much by joggers, rollerbladers, or mountain bikers. Which means a hiker can soak up the breathtaking vistas, uninterrupted by some loutish exercise fiend whizzing by and shouting, "On your left!"


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