Barn Bluff is one of the best-known natural features along the upper Mississippi River. It is significant for its geology and its association with prehistoric and native peoples. It is also significant for its association with the exploration of the Upper Mississippi in the early nineteenth century, and for its mid-nineteenth century through present day association with travel, industry, tourism, and recreation. A many-layered interpretation of the feature is evident in local legend, as well as in published historical and scientific accounts, works of art, and photography.
This is a hike you’ll want to take at a slow pace due to its steady climb. Even with the elevation gain and several sets of steps, this hike is worth the effort needed to reach the top of the 340-foot bluff. The cliff showcases a spectacular view of the Mississippi River on one side and Red Wing on the other. It’s a pretty trail through a scattering of trees on the south side and, on the north side, a more thickly wooded, rocky trail wedged between the Mississippi and the towering bluff. The main highlight of these trails is to experience the view from the top, where miles of Wisconsin’s and Minnesota’s urban and rural countryside are visible with the backdrop of the beautiful Mississippi River.
A map of the trails is available by clicking here. All trails begin at the end of East Fifth Street. The following CAUTION applies to ALL TRAILS: Loose Rocks, Steep Slopes, Vertical Drops. Proceed at Your Own Risk. Children should be accompanied by an adult.
North Trail (Difficult) - This trail starts at the Main Park Access and ends at the West Scenic Overlook. The trail overlooks the Mississippi River and takes you through abandoned limestone quarries. At the very end of the trail you will climb up the remaining steps of the original Kiwanis Stairway. Due to steep slopes and the northern exposure along this trail: Caution should be taken when hiking this trail, especially on wet days and early in the spring. Trail Lengths as follows:
Prairie Trail (Moderate) - This trail runs along the summit of the entire bluff and must be accessed by first hiking the North Trail or South Trail. On both ends of this trail there are scenic overlooks which offer magnificent views of the area. Due to vertical cliffs: Caution should be taken at both scenic overlooks, especially the East Scenic Overlook. Trail Lengths as follows:
Midland Trail (Moderate) – This primitive trail runs parallel to the South Trail and offers an alternative route along the south base of Barn Bluff.
South Trail (Easy/Moderate) - – This trail starts at the Main Park Access and leads to the Prairie Trail. The trail runs along the southern edge of the bluff before rising to the summit on the new Kiwanis stairway, which runs along the eastern edge of the Linne Quarry. This trail is the easiest way to reach the summit of Barn Bluff. Trail Lengths as follows:
Carlson Lime Kiln Trail (Dead End) - .30 miles round trip. Rock climbing on the Kiln Structure is strictly prohibited. Violators will be prosecuted.
Barn Bluff, the City of Red Wing’s most famous landmark, began forming over a half billion years ago as part of the floor of a shallow inland sea; taking its current form as the result of raging glacial melt waters, which carved the Mississippi River Valley. Barn Bluff and its nearby neighbor, Sorin’s Bluff, withstood most of the powerful erosion and became islands in the river.
Prehistoric humans lived in the area and built burial mounds on top of the bluff. About 800 years ago, the Mississippian culture thrived in the Red Wing area and archeologists believe that the many sites in and around Red Wing served as a northern trading terminus.
Sometime around the year 1815, the Mdewakanton Dakota, led by Tatankamani (Walking Buffalo) also known as “Red Wing” by early Europeans and Americans, moved their camp to a place they called Khemnichan (Hill, Wood, Water) – close to Barn Bluff. The Mdewakanton used Barn Bluff as a lookout for approaching enemies and as a place of safety for women and children in time of war.
Explorers and visitors including Zebulon Pike, Major Stephen H. Long, Henry Schoolcraft, and Henry David Thoreau climbed the bluff and remarked about the beautiful scenic views Barn Bluff offered of the Mississippi River valley.
Red Wing’s early Euro-American settlers used the bluff as a lookout each spring in anticipation of the arrival of the first steamboat of the season. During the great immigration period of the 1850s’ to 1880s’, thousands disembarked at the base of Barn Bluff to begin a new life on the frontier.
From the mid 1800s’ to 1908, stone from Barn Bluff was used as a building material, rip-rap by the railroad, and for the production of lime. Although the stone industry was important to the local economy, residents protested the resulting defacing of the bluff and eventually saved Barn Bluff. Several abandoned quarries and the G.A. Carlson Lime Kiln (at the northeast corner of the bluff) remain as reminders of Red Wing’s limestone industry.
Over the years, citizens of Red Wing pondered ways to improve the Mdewakaton’s path to Barn Bluff’s summit. Charles Webster led an 1889 effort to carve an improved route into the bluff’s west face. Nineteen years later Red Wing business owners took time off from work to improve the trail they called “Webster’s Way”. In the mid-1920s the city proposed a stairway that would allow easier access to the top. Red Wing Kiwanis Club members led a 1929 movement that produced a 450 step concrete stairway. High school students assumed the job of keeping the pathway clear. The easy-to-climb stairs became an immediate tourist attraction.
The stairway might still be there if the massive late-1950s bridge and road building program around Barn Bluff hadn’t shattered it. In 1983 another Kiwanis effort resulted in a new route to the bluff’s summit.
At the base of the steps on the south side of the bluff stands a plaque that reads in part: “The benches on either side of this section contain thirty five of the steps which were removed from the original Kiwanis stairway. One hundred fourteen steps still remain where they were placed initially on the upper west end of the bluff.”
The G.A. Carlson Lime Kiln, built in 1882 on the northeast end of Barn Bluff (Mt. LaGrange), is typical of approximately thirty such kilns in use in the Red Wing area during the period of 1870 to 1908. Gustavus Adolphus Carlson at one time operated 12 lime kilns in Red Wing.
Limestone taken from the many quarries in and around Red Wing provided a significant source of building materials for the city and surrounding areas as far away as St. Paul and Minneapolis. Quarry products included cut stone for buildings, basements, walls, bridges and bridge abutments; rough stone for rip-rap; and lime.
The kiln was used for the transformation of Barn Bluff’s raw limestone into commercial lime, quick lime or unslaked lime for use in mortar and plaster. Wood was used to fire the kiln. The lime burning process started with the raw material, a calcite limestone (calcium carbonate) which was placed in the kiln to be “burnt” or roasted at a temperature of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit for several hours. The carbon dioxide was driven off in the burning process, leaving lime (calcium oxide). One ton or 2,000 pounds of limestone made 1,000 pounds of quicklime.
The Carlson Kiln on Barn Bluff often employed crews of 40 – 60 men in its limestone operation for quarrying, stone-cutting, loading and unloading the kiln, and shipping. The Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad had a spur track or siding in front of the kiln, and lime was loaded onto the rail cars by wheelbarrow.
Working in a limestone quarry was difficult and dangerous. Sledge hammers, chisels, pry bars, and muscle were used in the early days, but the introduction of dynamite changed that. The use of explosives sped the removal of limestone from the bluff and also caused concern among residents who grew annoyed by the noise, vibrations, and falling rock. It was reported that some of the larger explosions could be felt as far away as Ellsworth, Wisconsin, approximately 12 miles to the north.
After close to forty years of quarrying, local citizens protested the resultant defacing of Barn Bluff, and coupled with the weakening of the lime industry, they succeeded in stopping all stone quarrying on Barn Bluff in 1908. In 1910 Barn Bluff was donated to the city of Red Wing to be used as a public park.
The G.A. Carlson Lime Kiln was placed on The National Register of Historic Places on September 27, 1976.