by Marcia Ratcliff, Winona Daily News
On a recent summer morning, I jumped on my bike and pedaled to the boat launch at Lions Park on St. Charles Street, in bike-friendly Winona, MN. The sun, several hours high, bent between scuttling clouds, and the river gleamed with muted light. Above my head, turkey vultures rode the wind currents, and around my feet, yellow and white wildflowers trembled in the wind. As I stopped, I took a deep breath, smelling the river mud the floodwaters left behind. I watched the water swirl between the rocks for a few minutes. Then I got on the bike again.
Biking options in and around Winona
I’ve been using a bike to get to the parks here in Winona for as long as I can remember.
I do have one tricycle memory, in which I careened down a gradual hill and fell near the bottom, prey to the tricycle’s lamentable lack of brakes. But soon after, I learned how to use two wheels. My first bike was a $1 Goodwill find. The second one, with 20-inch tires, was a $10 garage-sale bargain. I loved each one. There was nothing quite like the freedom of biking to the park with my mom and brothers or going around the neighborhood looking for kids to play with or riding to meet Dad on his way home from work. No license required.
Riding a bike in a place creates a sense of belonging and Winona is no exception. With its many quiet streets lined with trees, some of which arch over the road like the name of a cathedral. I could spend hours looking at the Victorian and Queen Anne architecture of the houses near downtown. On my bike, I catch glimpses of wildlife, if they’re not startled by the whir of the chain. Once, as I rode, a bald eagle banked against the wind just a few dozen feet above my head. I’ve seen turtles and deer. Once I almost ran over a squirrel.
I’ve biked and run most of Winona’s streets over the past few years, thanks to a marathon training regimen, lack of a car and a general sense of curiosity about the place in which I live. I’ve racked up quite a list of favorite streets and trails.
Now that it’s summer in Winona again, long days call for long adventures to fill them and lukewarm weather means it’s not too hot to jump on a bike and call it a day trip. So I mapped out a route that hits many of my favorite spots and offers ample opportunities to take it slow, grab a snack, or spread a blanket and take out a book.
The length of this loop I designed is about 16 miles, and I completed it at a medium pace in about 2½ hours. I don’t go very fast on my bike, a hand-me-down hybrid with a jerky front brake and a milk crate tied to the rack behind the seat (perfect for a picnic.) The route is mostly flat and paved, and I tried to include many of Winona’s more bike-friendly streets on this route.
St. Charles Street boat launch
I start the loop at the boat launch at Lions Park because it’s just a few blocks from where I live on the east side of town. It’s a perfect sunrise and sunset spot because it provides a rocky perch and a distant view of the interstate bridge and smaller bridge behind Latsch Island. Here look for wild morning glories on the rocks.
Then, from the launch, take St. Charles Street and turn right on Second Street. At Walnut Street, take a right to get to Levee Park.
I love to swing by Levee Park at least a few times each week to look at the river. When I lived on campus at Winona State University, it was the perfect 20-minute out-and-back run to get me going in the morning. I love to catch the sun rising here as well, slowly leaking over the river and onto the rooftops of Winona.
Riverview Drive/Minnesota Marine Art Museum
Return to Second Street, and then head right on Riverview Drive. Ten minutes from downtown, you can stop at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, for the art of course, or the view of Yeomans Pond. There’s also a preponderance of wildflowers and birds. Then it’s back on the road again.
This part of the bike tour requires a Whitmanic excitement toward commerce and industry, with its views of soaring grain elevators and constant truck traffic. Plenty of interesting distractions, anyway — or you can keep your eyes on Prairie Island Road until you get there.
Prairie Island Road
Turning right off Riverview Drive onto Prairie Island Road takes you away from the traffic and straight into sprawling views of wetlands and backwaters. Wild morning glories bloom over the banks leading down to the water, and water lilies abound. When I run or bike back here, I usually can’t keep a goofy grin off my face. Prairie Island itself offers ample opportunities to take a breather, spread a picnic and watch some deer or bald eagles. There’s a handy water fountain by the picnic shelter — and a portable toilet.
Mississippi River Trail
The Mississippi River Trail is a bike route that follows the Mississippi from Lake Itasca to New Orleans. Signage was completed in Winona last fall, and my route includes a short piece of it. Turn right out of Prairie Island Park and follow the left fork of the road (the right leads to McNally’s Landing) down a long straightaway. Watch for waterfowl — the National Wildlife Refuge surrounds you.
The view of the backwaters here is unreal, with miles of lily pads and bulrushes beneath a full sky. Take in the sight of Wisconsin’s bluffs, and watch for eagles. On calm mornings, the water makes a perfect mirror, as it did for my latest visit. Continuing on your way, take a right out of the parking lot and follow the Mississippi River Trail as it loops up a steep hill into a neighborhood. Then go left on Wenonah Road.
This part of the route is more of a connector, but it still offers a low-traffic, mostly low biking environment and views of the bluffs on either side. As you bike through Goodview back toward Winona, you’ll come to a stop sign that features Airport Lake on the left and Penguin Zesto West on the right. Here you will find a couple of choices for a mid-route refreshment on your ride.
I close my eyes every time I let go of that rope. Reflexes, I guess.
From the lake, take 54th Avenue to West Sixth Street, and make a left. After going through Goodview past Goodview Park and Pelzer Street, the road will come to a Y-intersection, and I suggest the left fork, continuing onto West Fifth Street. This road is busier than most of the others, so stick close to the shoulder and hop in the bike lane once it starts.
Bob Welch Aquatic Center
If jumping off a rope into a lake is not your idea of fun, you can also cool off here. Just turn left on High Street and go two blocks north.
This park, set at the intersection of Fifth and Huff streets, always feels European to me. It’s fun to run the diagonals, but I would not suggest sailing through on a bike. Instead, take time to sniff the flowers and avoid mowing down pedestrians.
From Fifth Street, take a right on Main Street and use the bike lane to get to the lake. I find the lake another excellent spot for daydreaming and catching my breath after a long day.
Back home — or a wild card
At this point, you’re back in town, sweaty, happy — so it’s time to add your personal stop to the bike route, then head to wherever home is.
Other popular Winona bike touring loops
Rollingstone Route: 12 miles
Arches/Farmer’s Park Route: 17 miles
Gilmore Valley Route: 16 miles
Pleasant Ridge Loop: 18 miles
East Burns Valley Loop: 13 miles
Pickwick Loop: 25 miles
Richmond Ridge Loop: 16 miles
Apple Blossom Loop: 17 miles
Prairie Island State Park
Great River Bluffs State Park
For more information on biking and visiting here, see HaveFunBiking’s At A Glance Winona to plan your next trip.