Scenic Summer Drives 2015


Photo courtesy of Visit Rapid City

12 Weekend Adventures

It’s road trip time! Roll the windows down, turn the music up, and make the journey part of the adventure. 

Rapid City, South Dakota

Photo courtesy of Visit Rapid City

Distance from the Twin Cities:

It’s about an 8.5-hour drive from St. Paul to Rapid City, South Dakota, along I-90.

Take the scenic route:

Explore the unspoiled beauty of the Black Hills via the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, a 68-mile series of stunning, twisting roads created (against all odds) through the mountains in the 1900s—considered the “gateway to Mount Rushmore.” Needles Highway (SD 87), Iron Mountain Road (US 16A), Horse Thief Lake Road (SD 244) and Sylvan Lake Road (SD 89) make up this oval-shaped route through the most rugged real estate in the Black Hills. Along the route, see cathedral spire rock formations, picturesque lakes, lush valleys, buffalo herds, and pine forests, and drive through tunnels framing Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Depending on how many photos of wildlife and scenery you want to snap—and whether or not hiking is on the agenda—the drive could take as little as four hours or as long as you have. The byway is named for the late Peter Norbeck, a South Dakota conservationist, governor, U.S. senator and visionary who inspired development of Custer State Park, Norbeck Wildlife Preserve, and the always popular Mount Rushmore National Memorial. 

Area attractions:​

  • Mount Rushmore National Memorial (massive granite-carved profiles of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and George Washington, only 30-minutes from Rapid City).
  • Crazy Horse Memorial (the world’s largest mountain sculpture, still a work in progress).
  • Custer State Park (over 200 buffalo and other wild- life, Harney Peak, Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway).
  • Downtown Rapid City. Kids also love Dinosaur Park and viewing the world’s largest reptile zoo at Reptile Gardens. 

Summer events:

Head to Rapid City’s Main Street Square Monday evenings from June 1-August 17 for “Movies Under the Stars,” Thursday nights from May 28-August 27 for the Summer Concert Series, and July 4 for a memorable Independence Day celebration. Art Night Downtown takes place every second Friday from June 12-September 11, and nationally-acclaimed graffiti artists from around the country will converge on Art Alley during Red Can Graffiti Jam on July 11. For more information about Rapid City (and other scenic summer drives), check out

Photo Courtesy of Visit Rapid City

Photo Courtesy of Canoe Bay

Chetek, Wisconsin

Distance from the Twin Cities:

Approximately 100 miles east.

Take the scenic route:

You need to rely on good old-fashioned handwritten directions to find the 300-acre estate of Canoe Bay, located just outside the town of Chetek, Wis. off US Highway 53. Your GPS will get you within 10 miles of the driveway, but won’t get you the rest of the way. (The hidden location adds to its allure, a true “escape” from reality.)

Romance & relaxation:

Canoe Bay was designed as a romantic getaway for adult couples—no children are allowed. For maximum seclusion, stay in one of the cottages with a private entrance. If you prefer to be less sequestered, check into one of the rooms at The Lodge or The Inn, both of which have common areas for all guests. Summer activities include hiking through the forest or canoeing across the quiet, glassy lake. 

Dine like royalty:

The hotel is the Midwest’s only member of Relais & Châteaux, a renowned hotel and restaurant company, and as such offers a variety of great dining options. Complimentary breakfast items are brought to your door daily (you can have lunch delivered as well). For dinner, the hotel’s chef creates a new pre-fixe menu nightly, served in the lakeside dining room. For a fun twist, schedule a private meal in the resort’s wine cellar. 

Photo courtesy of David Thoreson, Blue Water Studios, and Okoboji Tourism Committee

Okoboji, Iowa

Distance from the Twin Cities:

Approximately a three-hour drive.

The appeal:

Okoboji and the Iowa Great Lakes Region is a resort community positioned along a chain of five interconnected lakes in Northern Iowa. In the summer months, visitors are drawn to the water—boating, waterskiing, wakeboarding, sailing, fishing, canoeing, kayaking, and paddleboarding. When not on the water, take to the 60+ miles of hard surface trails. Other attractions include the summer stock playhouse, theaters, museums, galleries, restaurants, boutiques, and a very lively nightlife. A visit wouldn’t be complete without a trip the Historic Arnolds Park Amusement Park. 

Summer events:

Okoboji has one of the best Fourth of July fireworks displays in the Midwest—set off from barges in the center of the lake and timed to music. And don’t miss Dickinson County Nature Center’s outdoor amphitheater evening concerts July 11 and September 4. 

Photo by Bucklew photography

Hudson, Wisconsin

Distance from the Twin Cities:

Approximately 19 miles from St. Paul; 28 from Minneapolis.

Take the scenic route:

Take the Wisconsin Great River Road, a National Scenic Byway, on Wisconsin 35. From the north, enjoy the drive along MN 95 or Wisconsin 35, and follow the St. Croix River. There are plenty of quaint towns along the way. Once you get to Hudson, one of the best views of the city is
from Birkmose Park off Coulee Road. 

The appeal of Hudson:

Hudson—with its location on the banks of the St. Croix River—attracts not only nature lovers, but golfers (check out golf stay and play packages at, culture enthusiasts (Phipps Center for the Arts, across from Lakefront Park, hosts theater, concerts, and art exhibitions year-round), and anyone who appreciates eclectic shops and al fresco dining in a historic downtown. 

Summer events:

Celebrate Booster Days July 2-4 with music, fireworks, a parade, and a carnival at Lakefront Park. Head to the park for free summer concerts Thursday evenings from June through August. 


photo Courtesy Hawks View Cottages

Fountain City, Wisconsin

Distance from the Twin Cities:

105 miles downstream (six miles north of Winona).

Take the scenic route:

Named by the Huffington Post as the “prettiest drive in the United States” (edging out a highway in Hawaii!), Wisconsin’s Highway 35— otherwise known as part of the Great River Road National Scenic Byway—will take you through charming communities with views of dramatic limestone bluffs and the Mississippi River.

Hawks View Cottages:

Once you arrive in Fountain City, stay in a unique two-story “treehouse” at Hawks View Cottages, featuring bright, airy, open spaces with comfortable beds, a full kitchen, private deck, porch, and whirlpool tub for two. Each cottage is located in a peaceful, wooded site. Prepare for stairs.

Inside tips:

Bird-watching is abundant. Look for bald eagles, pelicans, and arctic swans. Appreciate the natural beauty of the area by biking down the Great River State Trail, or hiking in Merrick Park along the river.

Attractions in the area:

Seven Hawks Vineyards, just a mile away, offers wine tastings, dine at the Monarch House, shop in neighboring towns, or tour the Minnesota Lakes Maritime Museum across the river in Winona.

photo Courtesy of Peter Wong Photography

Nisswa, Minnesota

Distance from the Twin Cities:

Approximately two and half hours.

The appeal:

In the heart of the Brainerd Lakes Area, Nisswa is a favorite vacation destination for shopping and spending quality time with the family. Stay in a cottage or lodge room at Good Ol’ Days Family Resort, located on Lower Cullen Lake, right on the Paul Bunyan Trail, only six blocks from shopping and
activities in downtown Nisswa.

Once you’re at the lake:

Explore the Brainerd Lakes area via an 85-mile circle route around Gull Lake, through the charming small town of Pequot Lakes (Wilderness Resort Villas is a favorite lodging option, complete with a private, sandy beach on Middle Cullen Lake), and into the Cuyuna Iron Range.

Turtle power:

Every Wednesday throughout the summer, a large crowd gathers around the Official Nisswa Turtle Track downtown to watch the Nisswa Turtle Races, a longstanding tradition in the community.

photo Courtesy of Cragun’s Conference and Golf Resort

St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin

Distance from the Twin Cities:

Approximately 50 miles, or about an hour drive.

Take the scenic route:

Take I-35 north to Highway 97 near Forest Lake, then at 97, head east to the St. Croix River. Highway 97 goes through Scandia and reaches Highway 95—head north to Franconia Sculpture Park, then follow Highway 8 east down into the gorge leading to Taylors Falls. Interstate Park (on both the Minnesota and Wisconsin side) attracts hikers, campers, climbers, canoeists, and photographers.

Appeal of the summer drive:

In less than an hour, you can be away from your desk and on the bluff line overlooking the wild and scenic St. Croix River!

Your final stop:

The Upper St. Croix, where you can appreciate stunning views, wildlife, marvelous food, fun shops, a lively art scene, and outdoor recreation.

Summer events:

Every Friday from June through August, enjoy Music on the Overlook (MOTO), a free concert series held in downtown St. Croix Falls at the Overlook Deck.

Lanesboro Minnesota Bikes
Photo by Todd Buchanan

Lanesboro, Minnesota

Distance from the Twin Cities:

Approximately 120 miles; about a two-hour drive

Take the scenic route:

From Winona, go south on Highway 61 to Highway 16, then go west another hour to Lanesboro, named one of the “Top 20 Best Small Towns to Visit” by Smithsonian magazine.

The appeal:

The city is a biking mecca, with the partially shaded Root River State Trail starting in town. Scenery includes river bluffs (wave to the people tubing and fishing along the river), woods, covered bridges, and quaint towns along the way. 

Scanlan House Lanesboro
Courtesy Historic Scanlan House

A charming retreat:

After a day exploring, stay in a restored Queen Anne Victorian home-turned-bed and breakfast, the Historic Scanlan House Bed and Breakfast Inn. (Guests can rent bikes or canoes from the Little River General Store for a special discounted rate.) For a romantic stay, book a room with a two-person whirlpool and fireplace and personalize the experience with hand dipped chocolate truffles, fresh roses, massage therapy, dinner for two at the Old Village Hall Restaurant and Pub, a bottle of bubbly on ice, and/or aromatherapy with turndown service.  

Northfield Farmers marketNorthfield, Minnesota

Distance from the Twin Cities:

38 miles south; about a 45-minute drive 

Take the scenic route:

Drive past farm fields in all of their summer glory, from the first green shoots to the final golden harvest—this is rural southeastern Minnesota farm country at its best.  Take US 52 South for 22 miles from St. Paul.  At Hampton, take County Highway 47 (Northfield Boulevard) 12 miles to Minnesota 3.  Turn left on Minnesota 3 and drive two miles to a stoplight at 2nd Street. Take a left on 2nd Street, a right on Division Street, and go straight ahead two blocks to Riverwalk Market Fair on Bridge Square. Street parking available.

Small-town hospitality:

If you’ve never been to the Riverwalk Market Fair, you’ve been missing out! Select fresh local produce and flowers, and browse among watercolors, prints, fused glass, wearable art, handcrafted jewelry, leatherwork and other fine crafts by local artists. The Fair is on Saturdays from June through October, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in dowtown Northfield.
While visiting, make sure to stop in at the retail shops for boutique clothing, home décor, kitchenware, jewelry, unique gifts, and more.

Summer events:

In addition to the Riverwalk Market Fair, Northfield is well known for the Defeat of Jesse James Days September 9-13, a lively reenactment of the day in 1876 when townsfolk halted the James-Younger Gang’s bank robbery. 

Photo courtesy of Riverwalk Market Fair

Grand Marais Lighthouse
Photo by Jeremy Nelson

Grand Marais, Minnesota


Distance from the Twin Cities:

Approximately 260 miles, 4.5+ hour drive

Take the scenic route: 

So beautiful it was officially named a National Scenic Byway, the North Shore Scenic Drive isn’t just a road; it’s a destination. Just beyond Duluth’s city limits, the ancient Sawtooth Mountains crest high in the distance. Scenic Highway 61 hugs the spectacular Lake Superior shoreline up to the Lutsen/Tofte area and beyond to Grand Marais, with forests of pine, birch, and aspen on the inland side of the road, and the world’s largest freshwater lake on the other.

East Bay Suites:

Once in Grand Marais, voted “America’s Coolest Small Town” by Budget Travel, stay at East Bay Suites. From three-bedroom suites with full kitchens that sleep up to eight, to hotel-like deluxe-business rooms that sleep two, to rooms that allow you to bring the family dog, to rooms that look out over Lake Superior and nearby Artist’s Point, to a location across the parking lot from World’s Best Donuts and an easy walk to restaurants and shops downtown, North Shore lodging doesn’t get much better than this.

Side trip:

Drive 40 miles north of Grand Marais to Grand Portage State Park, on the Minnesota-Canada border, home of Pigeon Falls, the tallest waterfall in the state (120 feet). Stop in the visitor center to learn about the rich heritage of the Ojibwe people before walking a flat half-mile trail to the falls overlook area. Just down the street is the Grand Portage National Monument Heritage Center, a reconstructed fur trade depot, interactive Ojibwe Village exhibit, and 8.5-mile historic Grand Portage trail.

Summer event:  The 25th annual Grand Marais Arts Festival is July 11-12 on the shore of Lake Superior.

This was a special advertising section published in Minnesota Monthly

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About This Blog

Whether you are a seasoned Twin Cities traveler or planning your first trip to Minnesota, this blog will introduce you to many new adventures to add to your itinerary. From day trips and scenic discoveries to luxurious girls weekends, travel tips, and insider scoops, our editors will give you all the information you need to enjoy your stay Up North.

Learn about the contributing writers.

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