Best Summer Drives in the Midwest
Time to pack up the car and hit the road — summer is finally here! By planning ahead and choosing the scenic route, a road trip with friends, family, or your significant other can actually include more enjoyable moments than chaotic National Lampoon’s Vacation ones. We did the work for you and found 10 scenic routes in the area. With our recommendations, all you have to do is sit back and enjoy the drive!
THREE RIVERS WINE TRAIL
The Three Rivers Wine Trail, Minnesota’s first wine trail, is comprised of five of Minnesota’s oldest wineries located within the Saint Croix, Mississippi, and Cannon River Valleys. Spend a weekend exploring the wine trail with a total distance—north to south—of approximately Start your summer drive at the northernmost winery on the trail, WineHaven Winery and Vineyard in Chicago City, about an hour north of the Twin Cities. From WineHaven, drive about 30 miles down Highway 95 to Stillwater to Northern Vineyards Winery, located on Main Street and then to St. Croix Vineyards, one of the largest wineries in the state. Stay overnight in the historic river city of Stillwater at a Victorian-era B&B before resuming your adventure on Saturday, when you head south to Red Wing and Falconer Vineyards. The last stop on the trail is 20 miles east of Red Wing along Highway 52 at Cannon River Winery in Cannon Falls. You will have a whole new appreciation for Minnesota wine (and small Minnesota towns) after exploring the Wine Trail. 3riverswinetrail.com
GREAT RIVER ROAD
If you like river towns and bluff country, street-side antique shops and small town boutiques, then the Great River Road is the perfect drive for a lazy summer day. Take Highway 61 south to Prescott along Highway 10, then head south on Highway 35/the Great River Road to the village of Stockholm, Wis.—about 60 miles southeast of St. Paul—and witness “one of the most scenic stretches of road in the country,” says Alan Nugent, co-chair of the Stockholm Merchants Association and owner of Abode Stockholm. “The Great River Road follows the Mississippi from Prescott on down, with beautiful bluff vistas as you move south. Then, as you come down the Bay City Hill, Lake Pepin opens before you.”
According to the late 19th century poet William Cullen Bryant, Lake Pepin is so breathtaking it “ought to be visited in the summer by every poet and painter in the land.”
Stockholm not only has the good fortune of being tucked between the bluffs and Lake Pepin, it has a ton of personality—home to unique mom-and-pop shops, galleries, cozy and peaceful B&Bs and eateries like The Stockholm Pie Company. The fact that it has been relatively untouched by commercial development only adds to the city’s charm.
While visiting, check out the Maiden Rock Bluffs, with some of the best views of the river valley (the site is open to the public for walking, bird-watching and other low impact recreation), Stockholm Park, with beautiful lakeside camping, and Village Park, where a 700-foot pier juts into the Mighty Mississippi. Other attractions in the area include the Laura Ingalls Wilder “Little House in the Big Woods” museum, the old-fashioned cash-only Harbor View Café, which has gained notoriety as a legend in the town of Pepin, the Mississippi River Flyway (the largest bird migratory route in the northern hemisphere), and fun festivals/fairs such as the Stockholm Midsommer Swedish Festival (June 26), 37th Annual Stockholm Art Fair (July 17), Lake Pepin Food and Farm Tour, Taste of Stockholm, and so much more. stockholmwisconsin.com
The most scenic route to Bemidji is also the most direct — follow U.S. Highway 10 northwest out of the Twin Cities area to Motley, then take Highway 64 north to Akeley. If you want to see the famous statues of Paul and Babe, go through the Kabekona State Forest to Highway 200, follow Highway 71 north and take a left on Bemidji Avenue (County Road 21) then follow it to the lakeshore. There you will also be able to pick up a map of historic sites at the Tourist Information Center. The drive to Bemidji is a good four hours, so plan accordingly.
While visiting the area, stay at Ruttger’s Birchmont Lodge on the northwest shore of Lake Bemidji. Accommodations include lakefront rooms, suites, townhomes, a romantic whirlpool suite with a fireplace, and cottages with anywhere from one to four bedrooms, all spread out along 1,700 feet of natural sand beach. Area attractions include phenomenal golfing on nearby championship courses, biking along the Paul Bunyan Bike Trail, the Putt-N-Go Amusement Park (with go karts, mini golf, a waterslide, and bumper boats), and the Paul Bunyan Playhouse. Guests staying at Ruttger’s spend sunny summer days fishing, swimming, sailing, waterskiing, sailboarding, canoeing, playing tennis and basketball, and going kayaking. Parents of little ones love the resort’s complimentary supervised children’s recreation program with activities such as hiking, bonfires, and treasure hunts, most provided at no additional charge. ruttger.com
THE NORTH SHORE
Start your scenic tour in Duluth at Beacon Pointe Resort. Right on the water’s edge, adjoining with the Lake Walk, views include the famous Duluth Lift Bridge and the expansive harbor. After a good night’s rest and complimentary continental breakfast, head north on London Road to Scenic Highway 61. Stop to check out the Lester River, enjoy a picnic lunch on Brighten Beach (complete with a play area for kids), then get back in the car and head north to Two Harbors.
“It takes about ten minutes longer than the Expressway, but it’s definitely worth the time,” says Barb Swenson, marketing director of Odyssey Resorts.
The French River is the next scenic stop—watch for Marina Road and turn right. Drive across the railroad tracks into a park area and look for agates on the beach.
Larsmont Cottages on Lake Superior, located in Two Harbors, features Scandinavian-style cottages tucked away in 40 acres of private woods. “Roughing it” is out of the question here. Guests enjoy modern conveniences in upscale cottages. Outdoor enthusiasts will enjoy opportunities to hike, bike (borrow complimentary bikes and head into Two Harbors, just a five mile ride, for coffee, lunch, or shopping), paddle, fish, or golf, while those wanting to stay put and unwind will appreciate the full-service Ledge Rock Grille and Lounge (offering an extensive wine list), heated indoor pool, and wood-fired sauna and massage cottage. larsmontcottages.com
Stay along the scenic route on Highway 61 until you reach Grand Superior Lodge. In addition to staying in cozy cabins, deluxe rooms, and suites within the main lodge, guests can also stay at Lake Homes North, authentic log homes on an expansion of prime lakeshore property. The three-bedroom homes feature over 2,000 square feet of wall-to-wall luxuries, complete with the amenities of a premiere resort. Grand Superior Lodge is down the street from Gooseberry Falls State Park, the Superior Hiking Trail, and Split Rock Lighthouse, a state historic must-see built 130-feet above Lake Superior (celebrating its 100th birthday this year). The Castle Danger Trailhead is just two miles away, with spectacular Lake Superior overlooks from the top of Wolf Rock.
After a day of hiking, guests are encouraged to light a lakeside campfire (there are several areas on the shore where the lodge has set up bonfire pits), listen to the waves, appreciate the sound of silence, and simply relax. grandsuperior.com
Another way to discover the rugged beauty of the North Shore is with a stay at Cove Point Lodge in Beaver Bay, a Scandinavian-style lodge surrounded by 150 acres of woods and rocks, complete with a perfect postcard view of Lake Superior.
Located just outside the Superior Hiking Trail, near Gooseberry Falls, Tettegouche State Park, and the Gitchi-Gami Bike Trail, Cove Point guests can hike, bike, kayak, canoe, fish, pick berries or catch up on a little rest and relaxation (all rooms face Lake Superior and include fireplaces and/or Jacuzzis). covepointlodge.com
As you approach the Lutsen –Tofte area, the scenery begins to shift. The ancient Sawtooth Mountains crest high in the distance, signaling your arrival.
“The pristine boreal forests of the Superior National Forest bracket the road with lush foliage and wildflowers, and with Lake Superior’s sparkling waters and crashing waves, it can be difficult to keep your eyes on the road,” says Lori Schaefer, marketing director. “Rather than just a drive, Highway 61 is a destination in itself.”
Bluefin Bay on Lake Superior, in the Lutsen - Tofte area, is located in the midst of outdoor recreational opportunities, from high-adrenaline mountain biking, kayaking on Lake Superior, guided Lake Superior fishing charters, or endurance hiking along the Superior Hiking Trail, to family-friendly Lutsen Mountain alpine slides, an early morning round at Superior National Golf Course, or naturalist-guided wildlife viewing excursions in Superior National Forest.
“But the real star of any vacation at Bluefin Bay is the greatest of lakes herself, and the way you feel when you’re this close to Lake Superior. That’s why we consider our lake-inspired spa treatments, lakeside campfires, summer Saturday night barbeques, and romantic lakewalk to be absolute musts for every North Shore vacationer,” Schaefer says, adding, “We provide the views, the warm and friendly hospitality, and the umatched natural surroundings, and then we leave it up to our guests and let them define the perfect vacation—and they do.” bluefinbay.com
Just up the road is Caribou Highlands Lodge on Lutsen Mountains. Hook up to the Superior Hiking Trail right from the resort property and enjoy nature’s best along the Poplar River, take a guided canoe trip (free to guests of Caribou Highlands Lodge), or get out on a mountain bike and enjoy a summer’s day from forest paths. Round out the afternoon by soaking in the sunshine on an outdoor patio at Moguls Grille and Tap Room. The lake’s vista will be to your left, with the mountain range from this slope-side location creating a full panoramic view. It’s a great place to watch the sun go down. caribouhighlands.com
The final stop for this Lake Superior North Shore scenic vacation is East Bay Suites in Grand Marais. This condo hotel offers lodging in the heart of Grand Marais, where shops and restaurants are within walking distance (or take the bikes for a spin around town). Watch the boats and ships from your room—just 15 steps from the door to the shore! eastbaysuites.com
You’ll be driving for approximately eight hours if you take I-90 heading west from the Twin Cities to Rapid City and the Black Hills/Badlands of South Dakota, so be prepared for a long drive (but one that’s worth every mile!) Once you arrive in Rapid City, you’ll run out of time before you run out of things to do. Explore the Black Hills, Badlands National Park, the Crazy Horse Memorial, Mount Rushmore (since its completion in 1941, Mount Rushmore has joined the Statue of Liberty and the Stars and Stripes as one of America’s most inspiring symbols of democracy), and Devils Tower National Monument.
Drive the scenic Needles Highway to Custer State Park. The spectacular drive includes 14 miles of knockout vistas, with so much more to see. The mountains and forests of the Black Hills include a treasury of six national parks, 101 miles of National Scenic Byways, waterfalls, watchable wildlife, acclaimed recreational trails, trout fishing, and Old West landmarks like Deadwood and Wounded Knee.
Badlands National Park, located in southwestern South Dakota, consists of 244,000 acres of sharply eroded buttes, pinnacles and spires blended with the largest protected mixed grass prairie in the United States. It is desolation at its truest, where you can look for miles and see no sign of civilization.
If you’re traveling with kids in tow, drive eight miles south of Rapid City to Bear Country USA, a drive-through wildlife park. The park includes a leisurely three-mile drive through several enclosures where black bear, elk, reindeer, deer, cougars, bobcats, rocky mountain goats, bighorn sheep, dall sheep and buffalo wander freely (some even come up to peek inside the windows of your car). blackhillsbadlands.com