Fantastic Fall Drives
8 amazing trips for enjoying autumn colors, apple pie, eagles, hiking, crafts, shopping, smoked fish, and more
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Then it’s time to leave Minnesota, driving south on Highway 52—now recognized as both the Amish Byway and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway. But rather than visit the Masters Hotel in Burr Oak, Iowa, where the author’s family lived in 1876, we dodge west three miles to catch Highway W20, a rough, winding strip of asphalt that shadows the Upper Iowa River.
Past corn and soybean fields, dusty from the ongoing harvest. Past rolling hills and little creeks. Past prairie grasses and bright red sumac. All too soon, really, we arrive in idyllic Decorah, town of 8,000 and home of Luther College. We find an inspiring crash course in Norwegian immigration at the Vesterheim (Western Home) Norwegian-American Museum. We patrol Water Street galleries and gift shops. We have a delightfully refined lunch at Hart’s Tea and Tarts—I get a steak and Guinness pie; Susan orders a Stilton, pear, and walnut sandwich.
Heading north out of town on Locust Road, we sample the products of local varieties of grapes and other fruit at Winneshiek Wildberry Winery and walk out with a bottle of Limestone Bluff LaCrosse, a semisweet white. Susan indulges her armchair-gardener’s fantasies at Seed Savers Exchange Heritage Farm, which raises heirloom crops and sells traditional seeds at its visitors center in an idyllic valley.
On the way back to Minnesota, we stop at artists’ studios participating in the weekend Northeast Iowa Artists’ Studio Tour, picking up cards; homemade raspberry jam; and a ceramic jewelry box, vase, and coffee cup.
Following Big Canoe Road and then Highlandville Road, we come to Highlandville General Store, where we toss grasshoppers to the big trout that hover in the clear water beneath the bridge over South Bear Creek. It’s a short drive to the tiny town of Dorchester, where fly-anglers hang out on the main street in waders, ready to fish the nearby Waterloo Creek.
Crossing back into Minnesota, we find Bluff Country Artists Gallery in Spring Grove, where Susan scores our final purchase: a stylish contemporary black vase.
We head home with our booty of cards, ceramics, and sweets—holiday presents if we don’t end up keeping them all ourselves. But in addition to the gifts, we’ve acquired something even more memorable: the intention to return soon to explore fishing streams, canoe routes, and a charming college town. And, who knows, maybe the local real-estate listings as well.
Dining and Lodging
Amish Country B & B, Canton, 507-421-8429, livingliketheamish.com.
Hart’s Tea and Tarts, Decorah, 563-382-3795, hartsteaandtarts.com.
Winneshiek Hotel, Decorah, 800-998-4164, hotelwinn.com.
Quarter Quarter Restaurant and Wine Bar, Harmony, 507-886-5500, quarterquarter.com.
Winneshiek Wildberry Winery, 563-735-5809, wwwinery.com.
Seed Savers Exchange Heritage Farm, 563-382-6104, seedsavers.org.
Stillwater to Taylors Falls
A 120-mile loop from the Twin Cities, up the St. Croix to Taylors Falls, and down the Wisconsin side of the river, takes in some of the most picturesque driving near the Twin Cities. You’ll see grand views of the St. Croix as well as some handsome towns.
Start in Stillwater. Enjoy the historic town’s downtown and look for antiques in shops along Main Street.
Head north on Highway 95 through the pin-neat community of Marine-on-St. Croix. At the intersection of Highways 95 and 8, stop to see what new pieces of art have been erected at Franconia Sculpture Park. Head west 3.4 miles on Highway 8 for lunch at Eichten’s Market and Café. Try the Momba Chomba Tokeru Hoagie with garlic roast beef and Eichten’s peppercorn garlic gouda.
Continue on to Taylors Falls and, upon arrival, take a quick tour of the Angel Hill Historic District. Stop at Folsom House (272 W. Government St.) a New-England style home of a prominent lumberman and state senator. Park at the Interstate State Park lot near downtown and hike the Pothole Trail along the Dalles of the St. Croix.
Drive back through Wisconsin on Highway 35, to the pleasant town of Osceola. From the intersection of Highways 35 and 243 in Osceola, go 1.8 miles northeast on 35, then north on County S one mile to a parking area west of the road, a perfect spot to stretch your legs at the Osceola Bedrock Glades, a Wisconsin state natural area.
WATERS & WOODLANDS
Lake Country Road Trip
The 150-mile Otter Tail Scenic Byway winds through lake country and hardwood-covered hills—a luscious fall scene. (Download a route map at minnesotascenicbyways.com.) Pick up the Otter Trail at Urbank (about 160 miles northwest of the Twin Cities) and head west on Highway 38 for a short hike and beautiful view at Inspiration Peak, a forested knob that rises 400 feet above the surrounding countryside.
Head west on a winding route of county roads to Fergus Falls, a town of 13,000 situated on the rushing Otter Tail River with an attractive downtown. View the paintings, woodcuts, and sculptures of Charles Beck and other local artists at the nonprofit Kaddatz Galleries (111 W. Lincoln Ave.) housed in the century-old building that was once the Kaddatz Hotel. Walk the trails of the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center, a 300-acre U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service area on the south edge of town.
North and east on County Road 1 is Phelps Mill, which sits alongside a small dam on the Otter Tail. Follow the byway signs north to Maplewood State Park. A driving loop and hiking trails visit the more than 20 sparkling lakes nestled in the park’s hollows.
Follow the route to Pelican Rapids, where a sculpture of the town’s namesake bird stands, watching—expectantly, perhaps—a small waterfall. From here, the byway turns east to Perham, a farm town with a standout museum, In Their Own Words, which tells the story of war through the oral histories of local veterans. On your way back home, look for Ken Nyberg’s sculpture garden along Highway 210 near Vining. Nyberg has cobbled together metal scraps into roadside attractions, including a big foot, a giant coffee cup supported by pouring “coffee,” and a host of larger-than-life animals, including, appropriately, an otter.