Stairway Wandering Along the Mississippi – Part 2 (To Minnesota)


A year before he died Henry David Thoreau traveled to the frontier west of Minnesota in 1861 in hopes of improving his health. He reached the Mississippi across the river from Dubuque, Iowa and then went by riverboat north to Minnesota. Petey and I continued our road trip from Dubuque by driving north along the west bank of the Mississippi.

We went through very pretty and hilly country. We even found a few stairways along the way. This 50 step stairway took us to a path that brought us to the top of a bluff with over a dozen Indian burial mounds.

 If the presence of mounds on this bluff is typical for the area, a person living near here could make a lifetime project of exploring the bluffs.

We spotted this 60 step stairway on the side of the road just north of the small town of Brownsville, Minnesota.

The climb to the top took to us to this purple martin sanctuary and a nice view of the river.

The stairway continued for another 30 steps on the other side of the road. It went down to the river and railroad tracks. If it had only ten more steps the Brownsville stairway would make the 100 step minimum for inclusion in the database. Oh well.

We soon came into the small city of Red Wing, Minnesota the home of Red Wing Shoes. Red Wing was also a stop for Thoreau. Here he climbed the town’s most notable natural feature, Barn Bluff.

To improve access to the top of Barn Bluff the local Kiwanis club sponsored the building of a stairway in 1929. Donors contributing to the project were rewarded by having a step named after them. Highway construction in the 1950s removed or forced the relocation of many of the steps.

When Petey and I climbed to the top of the bluff we found two sections of steps. The bottom section had 67 steps while the upper section further up the trail had 94 steps. There could be more steps as I only explored one of the two routes to the top. I’ll have to wait for a future trip to see if there are stairs on the other route.

These are the lower set of stairs (67 steps)

These are the upper set of stairs (94 steps). If you look closely, you can see the names of the donors on the stair risers.

Here’s the view from the top.

In my research and correspondence prior to the visit I was led to believe that Barn Bluff had the only significant stairway in Red Wing. So when we finished our walk Petey and I headed north to continue on our Mississippi River road trip.

Just as we were picking up speed and almost out town, something flashed in the corner of my eye. It was a public stairway on the opposite side of town from Barn Bluff. After a quick U-turn and some substantial navigation we found the stairway on Buchanan Street just above 3rd Street.

After climbing the 60 steps to 4th Street, we did some additional exploring and found another set of steps a few blocks to the east on 4th Street. These steps wound up a steep bluff and even had a hiking trail sign.

As you can see the sidewalk on 4th Street becomes a stairway.


The stairs kept going up the side of the bluff for a total of 190 steps.

At the top of the stairs we had a nice view of Red Wing. That’s Barn Bluff in the distance.

The large park at the top of the stairs had a local history museum. I asked the people at the museum about the steps and they told me that there was another set of stairs not too far away off of College Street. Needless to say we were on our way to climb those steps.

Those 69 steps took us up into someone’s backyard. Rather than chase us off, the owner invited us to cross his property. Perhaps the expression “Minnesota Nice” is true.

After those steps we had to move on to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Who knows how many more stairways we might have found  in Red Wing if we had more time. So we now have another reason for a return trip.

The Mississippi River cuts through both Minneapolis and St. Paul. St. Anthony Falls on the Mississippi near downtown Minneapolis is where the great milling companies located their flour mills. My hope was that the combination of bluffs and hills in the area would make it a good place to find stairs.

In my research I contacted the St. Paul Public Works Department, and they offered to print me a map of the stairs they maintain from their GIS system. I picked up the map when I reached St. Paul.

We weren’t able to get to all of the stairs on the map but we were able to reach enough of them to get a good idea of what was available. Some stairs were built to accommodate a highway underpass and were not very interesting. But there were some neighborhood stairs that made for some very interesting walks.

Whether it has been Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Bisbee, Dubuque, Portland, or many other places, stairs have allowed me to explore incredible neighborhoods and to find something completely unexpected no matter where I have been. There is so much around you to see, feel and experience when you just start walking and wandering. St Paul was no exception.

If you only have time for one walk, I would start on Summit Avenue southwest of the St. Paul Cathedral. There you can find several stairways to stitch an amazing walk together.

Anywhere you start on Summit will be fine.

You’ll pass the baronial manors of 19th Century industrialists as you walk along Summit.

Depending on the route you select, this staircase off of Grand Hill Avenue might be your first. This one even has a house that can only be reached by the stairs and has 81 steps.


This small 29 step staircase will take you from Grand up to Ramsey.

When you get to Ramsey, you can cross the street and climb 55 more steps back to Summit. But don’t rush back there are still more steps.

As you continue you’ll find this 47 step staircase connecting Irvine and Pleasant.

This stairway will take you down from Pleasant to a pedestrian promenade above the expressway.

You’ll soon reach a pedestrian bridge over the expressway.

The 50 step staircase to the right leads you down to a hospital campus.

If you go left, it’s 125 stair steps back to your starting point on Summit. That huge house at the top of the stairs was built by the builder of the Great Northern Railroad, James Hill. While you’re here there’s no reason not do both set of stairs.

Heading back to Summit.

Here’s an example of what you might find when you wander through neighborhoods.

Ironically on the day we did this walk (April 17) the MinnPost (a local online newspaper) ran an article by Andy Sturdevant describing a walk very similar to one we took. Click here to read the article.

I didn’t learn about the article until I got home from the road trip. Had I known about the MinnPost, I could have read about a stair walk taken by Andy the week before in Minneapolis that I did not take on this trip. Click here to read that article. One more reason for a return trip.

We did, however, do a stair walk in Minneapolis at Minnehaha Falls. There you can see a spectacular 53 foot waterfall coming out of nowhere and have your choice of three WPA era staircases to get down to the base of the falls. All three staircases have over 100 steps and qualify for listing the database.


Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.