10 Best Summer Drives in the Midwest


“Are we there yet?” are four words you won’t hear from your restless backseat drivers (or, more truthfully, you won’t hear those words every five minutes) when you embark on one of the 10 scenic summer drives we’ve outlined for you in the following pages. These routes offer so much to see (and do) that even the most tireless passengers will be speechless.



You could argue that the scenic town of Stillwater—located on the Lower St. Croix National Scenic Riverway—is the perfect summer drive destination because it’s less than 30 minutes from the Twin Cities; and you would be right. At least partially right. The short drive and prime location on the St. Croix (one of the last unspoiled rivers in the country within close proximity of a major metropolitan area) are two appealing reasons to visit, but that’s only part of the story. The historic character of the valley’s community is another main draw. Many of the buildings in Stillwater are listed on the National Register of Historic Places—even the Stillwater Lift Bridge, extending over the St. Croix River from Minnesota on the west to Wisconsin on the east, is on the National Register. Drive up into the hills to see the lumber baron’s mansions from the early 19th century before parking your car and wandering down Main Street, featuring several blocks of unique gift and antique shops, then walk along the river before enjoying a malt at Leo’s. 


Head just 50 miles northeast of the Twin Cities to the sister cities of St. Croix Falls, Wis. and Taylors Falls, Minn. for the wild and scenic St. Croix River, phenomenal hiking trails, music festivals, live theatre, artists of all kinds, paddleboats, waterparks, wildlife, and wineries. Drive from Stillwater north on Highway 95 to Highway 8 before turning north and winding your way down into the valley. “After all these years, I still get a thrill coming down the hill and catching my first glimpse of the St. Croix from the bluffs near Franconia,” says Danette Olsen, a founding member of the St. Croix Marketing Alliance and the executive director of the Festival Theatre in St. Croix Falls. The options for enjoying a summer afternoon in the area are as varied as the steamboats that travel down the river. Visit the National Park Service headquarters and interpretive center, hike the trails in over 2,000 acres of park preserve, go on a riverboat cruise, check out the galleries, shops, live theatre, Franconia Sculpture Park, and the art of wine-making at Chateau St. Croix, zip down a waterslide at Wild Mountain, or dine at a variety of nearly 20 restaurants, many with outdoor seating. Lodging choices include everything from campsite and cabin rentals to hotels and B&Bs. Come on a Friday for music in the park, play a game of mini golf, tour the Folsom House, bike down the Gandy Dancer trail, view domestic and wild animals at Fawn-Doe-Rosa, or board the historic Osceola train.


Drive an hour south of the metro, where the crossroads of Highways U.S. 14, U.S. 218 and Interstate 35 meet, to Owatonna, home to the first Cabela’s World’s Foremost Outfitters store in Minnesota, built in 1998—the second largest tourist attraction in Minnesota only to the Mall of America. Classic, small town charm can be found in the town square, with its picturesque fountain and Central Park Bandshell (featuring outdoor concerts all summer long), downtown shopping, dining, 24 parks, numerous trails, an aquatic center, and three championship golf courses, in addition to being home to the Minnesota State Public School for Dependent and Neglected Children (the only state school orphanage in Minnesota’s history), the Steele County Historical Society’s Village of Yesteryear, and the RAD Zoo, featuring creatures of the reptile and amphibian world. Visit during the Steele County free fair, the largest county fair in the state, Aug. 16-21, 2011.


Drive along Highway 52 south of the Twin Cities on to Minnesota’s bluff country. A descent into the Root River Valley comes complete with hairpin curves that feel like you’re in the mountains. Just south of Preston, County Road 16 branches off to the historic town of Lanesboro, one of the prettiest towns around. If you want to continue seeing amazing scenery, get on a bike and ride along the Root River and Harmony-Preston Valley Trails, ranging from level terrain to more challenging trails that opens up to gorgeous vistas. See a play at the nationally recognized Commonweal Theatre, check out the Cornucopia Art Center, tour Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park (a restored historic fur trade center and village) in nearby Preston, visit the Amish community of Harmony, and spend time in the charming shops and restaurants.


Most people, when thinking of South Dakota, think only of Mount Rushmore—and while that national memorial is truly awesome, there’s so much more to see in this great state.

Watertown, South Dakota—the state’s fourth-largest city—is one of those must-see cities, located on Interstate 29 100 miles north of Sioux Falls and 140 miles south of Fargo. Home of the Redlin Art Center (housing over 150 of world-famous wildlife artist Terry Redlin’s original paintings), internationally acclaimed artist Josh Spies (his gallery is located uptown in the historic Goss Opera House), the Bramble Park Zoo and Discovery Center, the Mellette House, built in 1883 by Arthur C. Mellette and restored as a memorial to South Dakota’s first governor, the Kampeska Heritage Museum, and specialty retail shops in the hip Historic Uptown district, and water recreation on Lake Kampeska and Lake Pelican, Watertown has something for everyone.


The Great River Road from Lake Itasca (the source of the Mississippi River) east to the Chippewa National Forest makes for a memorable drive up North to the Bemidji area, a cultural oasis in the heart of the wilderness. 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. Check out the Camp Rabideau historic site, a Civilian Conservation Corps camp built in 1935 to house the men that constructed fire towers, bridges, roads, and trails in the area. Four of the camp’s 15 buildings have been restored and are open to the public for touring during the summer. Other attractions include the interpretive Bog Walk in Bemidji State Park; the famous Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox statues; the Paul Bunyan Playhouse; excellent biking and hiking trails; and phenomenal golfing and horseback riding.


Built into a steep, rocky hillside, Duluth, two and a half hours north of the metro, overlooks the sparkling blue waters of Lake Superior. Most visitors see the vista unfold as they crest the hill of Interstate 35, and what a view it is.

“You never get tired of watching the lake and it’s many personalities,” says Gene Shaw, director of public relations for Visit Duluth.

The town is full of outdoorsy activities:  You can skip rocks along the shoreline, walk along the Lakewalk, get an overview of the scenery from Enger Tower, tour the grounds at the historic Glensheen Mansion, or visit Leif Erickson Park. Perhaps one of the most unique Duluth activities is watching the Aerial Lift Bridge and the massive ships coming into port. 

Continue cruising along Scenic Highway 61 to Lutsen, a drive that takes about 10 minutes longer than the Expressway, but definitely worth the extra time. Rather than just a drive, Highway 61 is a destination in itself. As you approach the Lutsen–Tofte area, the scenery begins to shift. The ancient Sawtooth Mountains signal your arrival.

Whether you’re seeking solitude, family time, recreation, or romance, Bluefin Bay on Lake Superior, in the Lutsen–Tofte area, has the right ingredients for the perfect North Shore vacation. Once you arrive at Bluefin Bay, enjoy a plethora of outdoor recreational opportunities ranging from high-adrenaline mountain biking to kayaking on Lake Superior to guided Lake Superior fishing charters to endurance hiking along the Superior Hiking Trail. Other attractions include the family-friendly Lutsen Mountain alpine slides, golfing 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,” says Lori Schaefer, marketing director for Bluefin Bay on Lake Superior. “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.”


Stay along Minnesota 61 until the road leads you deeper into the wild boreal forest. With Lake Superior stretching off into the distance and the Sawtooth Mountains rising in the background, a trip to Grand Marais feels like a trip to the sea shore. “After the first glimpse of Grand Marais from the Cutface Creek overlook, you’ll understand why so many people consider Grand Marais the ‘Jewel of Lake Superior,’” says Kjersti Vick, events and communications coordinator for the Grand Marais Art Colony.

Grand Marais is an arts destination with numerous galleries and arts organizations encouraging visitors to get involved. Visit the Grand Marais Art Colony, Minnesota’s oldest colony, for a tour of the campus, or better yet—sign up for a visual arts, ceramics, glass, printmaking or plein air painting class (available year-round for all skill levels). Complete the day with the outdoor activity of your choice and dinner at one of the eclectic locally owned restaurants. Visit July 9–10 for the 21st Annual Grand Marais Arts Festival, when over 70 local and regional artists will set up by the sparkling shores of Lake Superior to showcase their unique handcrafted work, and August 26–September 2, 2011 for the Plein Air Painting Competition & Exhibition, when artists move from the studio to the great outdoors to celebrate the unique beauty of the North Shore landscape.


Quick quiz: What has thousands of acres of cherry orchards, vineyards and farms, 300 miles of shoreline, more than 100 art galleries, studios and museums, over 50 beaches, 19 county parks (and excellent camping), 10 lighthouses, five state parks, plenty of outdoor recreation, an old-fashioned drive-in, a world class fishery, eclectic local cuisine (hint: think fish boils), and glorious waterfront sunsets? If you answered Door County, Wis., you are correct. As a result of the area’s numerous tourism-related amenities, Door County was named by Money magazine as one of the top 10 vacation destinations in North America, and it’s less than a six-hour car ride away.


Thanks to Madeline Island, located near Bayfield, Wis. (about a four-hour drive north of the Twin Cities) it is possible to have an island vacation without booking a flight to Hawaii. Madeline Island, a ferry ride from Bayfield to LaPointe, Wis. is one of 22 Apostle Islands and the only island not part of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, meaning it is the only developed island of the bunch. This means more opportunities to golf, visit museums, charter a sport fishing boat, sailboat, sea kayak, or canoe, and plenty of shopping, dining, and lodging options. The Madeline Island Ferry Line provides daily transportation to and from the island every 30 minutes during the summer.

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