Between river, bluffs: pretty Red Wing, Minn.

What surprised us the most, before the uphill hiking began, was the size of the packs that people half our age had strapped onto their back.

Barn Bluff seemed steep, and although its height exceeds 340 feet, this wasn’t Everest. It was Minnesota, near the Mississippi River, and within easy view of downtown Red Wing.

We were about to see, from following the North Trail up and over to the other side of the limestone bluff, that this is serious rock climbing territory. Although one side is a fat hill of prairie grasses, sheer ridges and rock outcroppings dominate the Mississippi side.

“It’s like yoga in the air,” remarked a climber at rest. By late afternoon, this portion of Barn Bluff – its base heavier with trees and other vegetation, was filling with shade and patches of groups rappelling.

Our zig-zagging as hikers continued, up old cement stairs and through prairie, until the summit provided a sweeping view of the river and its backwaters, the town and its neat neighborhoods. Thoreau hiked to the same spot, in 1861.

The panoramic reward is worth the hour or so of exercise, and Red Wing is worth a night or two of patronage, especially as the weather warms. This Great River Road city’s history and diversions are rich.

Gentle terrain and pretty scenery make the 21-mile Cannon Valley bike trail an attractive option. The trail fee is $3, and a bike with helmet can be rented for $15. The route ends at Cannon Falls, passing an archaeological preserve, wildlife management area and the Anderson Center, an artists’ retreat with a sculpture garden and indoor collection of works by Matisse and Chagall to Picasso and Lichtenstein.

Near the retreat is a roomy barn that is home to Hobgoblin Music, where handcrafted folk instruments – especially Irish harps and mountain dulcimers – have been made for 30 years.

Musicians sometimes perform outdoors, or in the barn’s upstairs loft. Workshops teach how to make your own instrument from wood, and then play music on it.

Although Red Wing’s population is about 16,000, the city stretches five miles because it is between river and bluffs. Our base was the well-preserved St. James Hotel, which opened in 1875 as high-end lodging in the heart of downtown. Still just a block away is the train depot, where Amtrak stops twice daily.

Accommodations are homey and Victorian, with antique furnishings and handmade quilts. Boutique shopping, cool veranda dining, cocktails at the British-style Jimmy’s pub and fine dining at the hotel’s intimate Port restaurant combine to make the St. James a multi-purpose destination.

The $274 Victorian Getaway Package includes lodging, dinner and breakfast for two, plus nightcaps in the pub.

Three seasonal options for river cruising – at sunset, for a meal or for part of an afternoon – resume this month. Brochures for self-guided walking tours explain architectural significance of downtown buildings.

It’s also easy to watch pottery being made at the Red Wing Pottery store or during a tour of Red Wing Stoneware Co., which has been in business since the 1860s. Tours are not possible at the Red Wing Shoe Co., around since 1905, but a small shoe museum explains the company’s history.

The city also is the base for Riedell Shoes, which produces ice skates that can cost more than $1,200. Customers include Olympians.

For more about Red Wing: www.redwing.org, 800-498-3444. For more about the Great River Road: www.byways.org, 800-429-9297.

Upcoming Red Wing events include Bluegrass at Stoney End, 2-11 p.m. May 26, www.stoneyend.com, 877-866-3936, and the Red Wing Sculpture Crawl, an auto tour of public art, www.redwingarts.org, 651-388-7569. The sculpture event coincides with the Fresh Art Spring Tour of 18 Wisconsin art studios, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. May 18-20, www.freshart.org.

Thanks to the St. James Hotel for providing accommodations and meals during my recent book signing. For more: www.st-james-hotel.com, 800-252-1875.

Directly across from Red Wing – take the first left when heading toward Wisconsin on the U.S. 63 bridge – is the Harbor Restaurant, Bar & Marina, whose grilled jerk chicken sandwich made it onto the Food Network in 2002.

What makes the sandwich, topped with mushrooms and Swiss cheese, worthy of national attention? Restaurant owner Brad Smith’s recipes are from Jamaica, and he arranges for almost a dozen Jamaicans to move here seasonally and work at his place.

Raves from the Twin Cities make this laid-back, casual and potentially wild spot a popular stop for boaters. Look for chainsaw woodcarvings, and a grand view of the river.

For more: www.myspace.com/harbor bar, 715-792-2417. Harbor Bar is at N673 825th St., Hager City, but this is a city in name only.