Exploring Minnesota’s Great River Road


Great River Road
Injured eagles find a home at the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minnesota.

Starting deep in the Northwoods of Minnesota and running 3,000 miles south to the Delta, the Mississippi River is perhaps America’s most famous waterway. Ten states border the river. Each is part of the Great River Road scenic byway. So, the chance to take a trip along Minnesota’s section of the byway is only scratching the surface of a beautiful area.

From a toy shop to an eagle habitat, as well as a chance to see the world’s largest boot, the southeastern section of the state offers beauty and quirky scenery. Our visit covered a small portion of Minnesota’s section of the byway.

LARK Toys in Kellogg offers an eclectic look into the world of games and toys. The store is home to a museum, taking a look at the history of games and toys. Exhibits hug the walls of the main hallway at the store. Visitors can relive their childhoods through the displays, which include dolls, small action figures, automobiles, robots and games.

Great River Road
An Archie Bunker card game? Yep. You can see it and more at the toy museum inside LARK Toys in Kellogg, Minnesota.

LARK Toys was created in the early 1980s, when Sarah and Donn Kreofsky created wooden toys, which they sold at art fairs. They developed a following and soon were selling toys to about 2,500 stores nationwide. They eventually opened their own store. Wooden toys are on display at the store. The Kreofskys sold the store in 2008. The current owners have maintained the toy tradition.

Great River Road
LARK Toys grew from the founders’ love for making wooden toys.

Besides toys and the museum, LARK has a unique carousel. The characters are far from your typical merry-go-round horses. They are specially designed animals, including otters, roosters and flamingos.

Great River Road
The otter is one of several interesting characters on the toy store’s carousel.

The store is known for its stegosaurus carving. The dinosaur was carved from Minnesota basswood. It took four years to create the attraction, which weighs more than 800 lbs.

Great River Road
It took four years to complete the stegosaurus character at LARK. It weights more than 800 lbs. and is a crowd favorite.

Our next stop on the Great River Road tour had a personal connection to me. During a stop at the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, I learned that a statue standing alongside the Mississippi River was a tribal ancestor. Chief Wapahasha II (also known as The Leaf) was a tribal ancestor. His father, Wapahasha I (Red Standard or Red Cap), as well as his son, Wapahasha III (Bounding Wind), served as leaders of the eastern Dakota (known by non-Indians as Santee Sioux). The city was named after Wapahasha II, considered by the United States government as the first chief of his people.

Great River Road
Chief Wapahasha II’s statue stands along the Mississippi River at the National Eagle Center. He is a tribal ancestor of my tribe, the Dakota (Santee Sioux).

Wapahasha III helped settle the Santee on to the tribe’s present-day reservation in northeast Nebraska. My brother, Roger (Santee’s longtime tribal chairman) participated in the dedication ceremony for Wapahasha II’s statue at the eagle center.

The National Eagle Center, itself, works to save and protect injured eagles. The center currently has four eagles at the center – three bald eagles and a golden eagle. Each eagle will remain at the center, as they’re unable to return to the wild.

Great River Road
This golden eagle joined the eagle center recently.

Visitors can view the eagles upclose, within a few feet of the giant birds. The eagles are used during exhibits and public displays.

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We love the fact that the National Eagle Center saves and protects eagles.

Wabasha has been home to the National Eagle Center since its inception as a conservation effort in 1999. The city is located among prime eagle viewing area. Several bald eagles live year round in the area. More bald eagles and golden eagles will spend the winter months there. The Mississippi River doesn’t freeze, but Lake Pepin, just north of the eagle facility, does freeze over. The area offers eagles a fertile feeding area.

The National Eagle Center’s overlook allows a great view of the Mississippi River. Visitors can check out scopes to eye birds in flight or along the trees.  The river is home to boats speeding up and down the river, as well as tugs moving loads.

Great River Road
A barge moves slowly down the Mississippi Rover near Wabasha.

After our visit to the eagle center, we made our way along the Great River Road to Red Wing. Perhaps you’ve heard the name before. It’s home to Red Wing Boots, some of the best American-made working boots.

Great River Road
Visitors immediately take in the smell of leather as they enter the Red Wing boot store in Red Wing, Minnesota.

Red Wing Boots is home to the world’s largest boot. The boot stands two floors high. It’ a size 638 ½ D. Maybe Paul Bunyan could use a pair that size?

Great River Road
The world’s largest boot. I lobe me some “world’s largest” attractions.

The store takes a look at the history of Red Wing Boots, from the original boot to how a boot is made. Red Wing Boots have been featured in several movies, including “Five Easy Pieces,” “North Country” and “Dukes of Hazzard.”

During our visit, the group we were with grabbed lunch at The Veranda, inside historic St. James Hotel. The menu offers interesting options to choose from – walleye fish sandwiches to BLTs. I went with the BLT. The sandwich featured thick-cut pepper bacon and beefsteak tomatoes. Lisa had a turkey and brie sandwich, which featured a slice of Granny Smith apple.

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Lunch was enjoyable at the St. James Hotel’s The Veranda.

Following lunch, we enjoyed a brief tour of the 140-year-old hotel. We checked out some rooms in the original section of the hotel, and a couple in the addition.

Great River Road
The group we were with visited some of the St. James Hotel’s older guest rooms.

We wished we could have continued our tour of the Great River Road, but we had to back to the Twin Cities. Minnesota’s Great River Road is a road worth traveling. I envision a future road trip where we try to take in more of the state’s attractions along the Mississippi River.

For more information on the Great River Road, please visit www.exploreminnesota.com, www.mnmississippiriver.com or www.experiencemississippiriver.com.

Disclaimer: Our trip was complimentary, as part of a pre-TBEX travel bloggers conference outing. TBEX is Travel Bloggers Exchange. However, all opinions and views are ours.