Apple Blossom Scenic Byway: Apples, Bluffs and River Views
Every season beckons road-trippers to the Great River Road and Mississippi River Valley. One of the prettiest times to go is spring. That's when acres of orchards burst into delicate white blooms blushed with pink. You can drive through them with a side-trip up the 19-mile Apple Blossom Scenic Drive.
The drive starts a few miles south of Winona, which is also one of the most striking stretches of the Great River Road. You can see islands to the east. And deep ravines, and lush, wooded ridges rising from both sides of the river. Look for County Road 3 on the right, heading up to the bluffs.
Millions of years ago, when glaciers flattened much of the state, this section - the driftless area - was left intact. Drink in the views at Great River Bluffs State Park, where picnic areas overlook the Mississippi River and Wisconsin's Black River delta. Hiking trails thread through the hardwood forest, thick with maples, basswood, oak and hickory. They flame into full glory by late September.
Most of the Apple Blossom Scenic Drive hugs the ridges above the river, curving through horse and hobby farms, and passing historic red barns. As the byway meanders southeast, it nears the orchards, thick with blossoms in early May and apples by late summer.
At one time, there were more than 40 apple farms in the area. While the numbers have shrunk, apples remain a key part of the area's economy and identity. Stop at the scenic overlook, then head down the valley into La Crescent, considered the apple capital of Minnesota.
Produce stands start filling with early asparagus and morel mushrooms in May, but the best time to visit is when the bins spill over with apples in every shade of red, pink and green with hints of gold and yellow in the fall.
The town of 5,000 doubles in size the third weekend in September when folks pack the streets for the Apple Festival parade, savor fresh-pressed cider and shop for jams, jellies and pies galore. One of the favorite treats is a Queen Apple, covered in caramel and dressed up with whip cream, cherries and nuts.
You can score bags of sweet apples and stunning scenery no matter which way you head home thanks to LaCrescent's location at the intersection of the three scenic byways: Apple Blossom Byway to the north, Bluff Country Scenic Byway to the west and Great River Road to the north and south. Sweet indeed.