BEST DAY TRIP - 2006
They had big plans. You have to give them that. The land speculators and the traders, the paddleboat magnates and the faro hustlers. After they tore down their claim shacks on the river flats, they built in the permanent stuff—brick and locally quarried limestone. They threw up houses in the steamboat gothic style that looked like wedding cakes, decorated for kids who couldn't get enough icing. A few paddleboats made a port call every day; the railroads followed. The town's leading men constructed warehouses near the wharves that were as big as the profits they imagined for themselves. Good times, good times! There are a few dozen of these cities, seeded up and down the big, muddy river: Galena, Dubuque, Muscatine, Hannibal. The places that could have been Chicago. Of course, they weren't and they aren't. So what's left for the daytripper? To start, there's the lay of the land. No one is going to mistake Winona's Sugarloaf—a limestone bump rising some 500 feet above Highway 61—for its more famous cousin in Rio de Janeiro. But the mound left behind by decades of mining lends Winona a geological landmark to match the Victorian and Italianate architecture in the downtown—a collection of historical districts that are listed in the National Register of Historical Places. (The banks, as they so often do in these towns, project a kind of sober grandeur that probably gave Sinclair Lewis indigestion.) If you wind your way around Lake Winona, you can zigzag up to the bluffs where the new homes are going. Hidden up there, and best found by blind reckoning, is the 61-acre Garvin Heights Park, which provides a panoramic view of the rolling river valley. And at night? Well, it is only the fact that you can't drive right up to the edge of the overlook that keeps us from declaring this site the finest make-out spot in the state.