Fantastic Fall Drives

8 amazing trips for enjoying autumn colors, apple pie, eagles, hiking, crafts, shopping, smoked fish, and more

Mile by Mile

Lake Pepin

Start: Downtown Red Wing. Stop for baked goods and coffee at Braschler’s Bakery and Coffee Shop (410 W. Third St.). If it’s late and you’re  already hungry for lunch, try Smokey Row Café and Jenny Lind Bakery (1926 Old West Main St.).

Mile 12.2: Head southeast on Highway 61 to Frontenac State Park. Frontenac is one of the best places around to spot migrating songbirds. Trails wind through patches of prairie, lowland forest, and upland hardwoods. The Point-No-Point overlook towers 400 feet above the mighty Mississippi River.

Mile 18.7: Buy apples for the road at Pepin Heights’s retail store at the south end of Lake City. Pepin Heights orchards raise the University of Minnesota-bred SweeTango, one of the tastiest apples you’ll sink your teeth into. 

Mile 30.8: Peak viewing at the National Eagle Center in downtown Wabasha (50 Pembroke Ave.) is in winter, when bald eagles congregate around open water. But not to worry: you’ll still find a few bald eagles on the river in autumn. Daily programs offer close-up views of the center’s captive eagles, taken in due to injuries or other handicaps making them unable to survive in the wild. Lunch is just a short walk away, down the block at Flour Mill Pizzeria (146 W. Main St.).

Mile 37.3: Whether you have kids along or not, you’ll be impressed by LARK Toys on County Road 18 in Kellogg. The centerpiece of the 20,000-square-foot store is a hand-carved carousel, which runs every half-hour and costs $2 to ride. The rest of the store is filled with toys of every kind for every age, from trolls to tea sets.

Mile 57.9: Backtrack and cross the Mississippi at Wabasha. Then head south down Highway 35 along the Wisconsin shore. If you’re traveling in late October, stop at Riecks Lake, three miles north of Alma, where more than 1,000 migrating tundra swans stage until freeze-up, usually in November. If the swans haven’t arrived yet, continue on to Buena Vista Park in Alma, with a parking area and overlook 540 feet above the Mississippi.

Mile 59.7: Sample fruit and wine in the tasting room of Danzinger Vineyards and Winery (S2015 Grapeview Ln.) on the bluff above Alma.

Mile 77.9: Backtrack north up Highway 35 to Pepin, a compact town on its namesake lake. Savor a surprisingly sophisticated dinner (a rare treat in small towns) at the Harbor View Café. Note: Hours are limited, and the restaurant is closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Call ahead to verify the café is open.

Mile 86: Continue up Highway 35 just past the tiny town of Stockholm, and stay the night at the River Road Inn. The inn, with refurbished carriage houses and a new main lodge, is located on an old apple orchard with views of Lake Pepin.

Amish Country

Rural Arts Near Decorah

Driving through through the hills and valleys of southeastern Minnesota, my wife, Susan, and I climb and sail down undulating backroads. To flatlanders from the Twin Cities, all this up and down is exotic and seductive. Whenever I visit, I want to move here, which puts my entire existence in disequilibrium.

It’ll pass. We’re on our way to Decorah,  a picturesque college town nestled in the hills of northeastern Iowa. We’re trying to establish a theme, one that encompasses making the most of a few warm days in autumn; seeing colorful woodlands, farm fields, and prairie grasses—a picture of old-time rural America (at least as we imagine it); dallying with the Amish, visiting galleries, and buying some Christmas presents. And so we settle on something like, “Holiday Shopping for Rural Arts and Crafts.”

We spot our first buggy outside the town of Harmony, where the shoulders of Highway 52 (dubbed the Amish Byway) are marked with horse pucky and thin tracks of steel-buggy wheels. We drive on to tiny Canton and our appointment with Charlie Staub, owner of Old Crow Antiques, who hops in our car and leads us on an afternoon tour of Amish farms and businesses.

Members of the Schwartzentruber sect, among the most conservative Amish, began settling the area in 1975. Many have been here a generation. The men still wear flat-crowned straw hats and full beards without mustaches. The women wear long dresses and tuck their hair beneath plain bonnets. Throughout the afternoon we chat with farrier Levi Yoder. We buy fresh tomatoes and pickled green beans and beets at Menno Mast’s roadside stand. We pick up homemade pastries, a handmade rug, and canned cherries and egg noodles. The Amish way is slowly changing, says Charlie. They rely more on rides from the “English” to conduct business. More use cell phones. More work off the farm and in the community as carpenters or roofers. Rebellious teens crank up head-banger rock or country music on forbidden boomboxes as they ride alone in their buggies. Says Staub, “The hardest thing is preserving the traditions.”

That evening we drive down a gravel road to Amish Country B & B, where we meet Jerry Youngkin and a young Amish woman, who chooses to remain anonymous because working so closely with the “English” is frowned upon in the community. Once owned by the woman’s sister and brother-in-law, the house is simple and open. When the young family needed more land, they found no buyers in the Amish community. Youngkin, a retired widower from Indiana, bought the place and decided to open a bed and breakfast. The young woman decided to stay and help. She arrives by buggy at 6:30 each morning to start the wood-fired cookstove, make breakfast, clean the house, and cook dinner. Youngkin is 50 years older than she, yet they joke and quarrel like an old married couple. After arriving, we talk for more than an hour before she shows us to a spartan-yet-spacious bedroom upstairs. The next morning, we feast on seasoned beef patties, boiled eggs, homemade bread and cinnamon rolls, and “coffee soup,” a pudding of milk, coffee, and soda crackers. We linger for two hours, talking about Amish and “English” ways.

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,
Hart’s Tea and Tarts, Decorah, 563-382-3795,
Winneshiek Hotel, Decorah, 800-998-4164,
Quarter Quarter Restaurant and Wine Bar, Harmony, 507-886-5500,
Winneshiek Wildberry Winery, 563-735-5809,
Seed Savers Exchange Heritage Farm, 563-382-6104,


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.


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 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.

Mile by Mile

Superior’s North Shore

Start: Canal Park, Duluth. Spend your first night at South Pier Inn on the Canal, which bills itself as Duluth’s best “shipwatching hotel.” Located next to the iconic aerial lift bridge, it provides a great view of the Twin Ports harbor. In the morning, grab breakfast at Amazing Grace Bakery Café (394 S. Lake Ave.) then take time to explore Canal Park: watch ships arrive and depart, walk along Park Point, visit the Great Lakes Aquarium, tour the ore boat S.S. William A. Irvin. Then, hop in the car and drive northeast.

Mile 18.3: Visit Tom’s Logging Camp on Scenic 61, the re-creation of an early 1900s logging camp and Northwest Fur Company trading post.

Mile 19.4: Buy smoked whitefish and trout to nibble on while driving at Russ Kendall’s Smoke House in Knife River.

Mile 28.0: Leave the highway to drive to the Two Harbors waterfront. Moored near the docks is the Edna G. tugboat. Built in 1896 and retired in 1982, Edna G. was the last coal-fired, steam-powered tug in operation on the Great Lakes. (Tours available through the Depot Museum.) Also be sure to check out the Yellowstone Mallet 229. Used to haul iron ore from mines to the lakeshore, it was one of the most massive and powerful steam locomotives ever built. Tour the Two Harbors Lighthouse, where the keepers quarters are now a bed and breakfast.

Mile 40.9: Stop at Gooseberry Falls State Park and browse the Joseph N. Alexander Visitor Center, where you’ll find state-park information, interpretive displays, and the Nature Store. Then, hike some of the 20 miles of trails, including the spectacular route along the upper, middle, and lower falls of the Gooseberry River.

Mile 47.3: Continue up Highway 61 to Split Rock Lighthouse Historic Site. Perched on a cliff rising more than 100 feet above the water, Split Rock is one of the most beautiful and imposing of the many lights on the Superior shore. It’s open for tours every day into mid-October. If you need more North Shore scenery to get your fix, continue north 50 miles to Lutsen Mountains. There, ride the gondola to the top of Moose Mountain, where, 1,000 feet above Lake Superior and Poplar River, the best view of the drive awaits.

Mile 56.5: Heading back toward Duluth, eat dinner at the Rustic Inn Café in Castle Danger, an unpretentious place that got its start in the 1920s (but has since been rebuilt). Try the roast-beef dinner and a slice of five-
layer chocolate pie.

Mile 73.5: Back near Two Harbors, check in at Larsmont Cottages on Lake Superior for a prime view of Lake Superior from 40 acres of woods and 1,300 feet of private lakeshore. Oh, and don’t forget about the indoor pool, all-season outdoor Jacuzzi, and wood-fired sauna.   


Spirit Rocks Drive

Where the old bones of the continent poke through southwestern Minnesota’s farmland, the dramatic outcrops of Sioux quartzite have their stories.

The tour starts at Pipestone National Monument, long a sacred site to many American Indian tribes, who mined a layer of soft red “pipestone” in an exposed ridge of Sioux quartzite. Hike along the outcrop, take in the view of Winnewissa Falls, and watch local Native Americans, who still mine the pipestone with hand tools to produce pipes for their own use and for sale.

Drive south into Pipestone, where 20 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places are constructed of local quartzite. Fortify yourself at Lange’s Café (110 SE Eighth Ave.) with a hot beef sandwich and slice of sour-cream-raisin pie.

Follow Highway 75 south to Blue Mounds State Park, where another ridge of Sioux quartzite erupts from the prairie. Hike through fields of native prairie, and enjoy long views into Iowa and South Dakota, including bison grazing on the hilltop. 

Head east on I-90 and north on Highways 60 and 71 to the Jeffers Petroglyphs State Historic Site. Faint images of humans, deer, elk, bison, thunderbirds, turtles, atlatls, and arrows tell a mysterious story of human occupation spanning more than 5,000 years. The petroglyphs are located about eight miles northeast of Jeffers and seven miles west of Comfrey, on County Road 2.

Iron Range

Heavy Metal Holiday

A tour of a landscape that has been dug up, blasted, and rearranged by heavy industry doesn’t sound like much. But on Minnesota’s Iron Range, this combination of iron mining and the history of 19th-century immigration actually makes for interesting sights and stories.

Start at Soudan Underground Mine on Highway 169, where you can ride in an elevator cage nearly a half-mile underground. To get an above-ground look at a mine, head south on Highway 169 to Virginia’s Mineview in the Sky, a 20-story-high overlook of the Rouchleau open pit mines. On your way, play a round of golf in Biwabik at Giant’s Ridge, then stop at the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in Eveleth, where you’ll find interactive displays and a history of hockey in the United States.

Continue west from Virginia to Chisholm to take in the Iron Man statue, climb aboard mining trucks at the Minnesota Museum of Mining, and experience the multi-ethnic history of the Range at the Minnesota Discovery Center. A little farther west in  Hibbing is a panoramic view of the Hull Rust Mahoning Mine, the largest open-pit mine in the world. Get dinner at Sammy’s Pizza on Howard Street in Hibbing. The next day, if you’re traveling before Labor Day, catch a trolley tour at Hill Annex Mine State Park in Calumet (Thursday–Saturday).


Sherburne Wildlife Refuge

Considering it is located only 50 miles northwest of the Twin Cities, Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge is an exceptionally large sweep of wild land, encompassing 30,000 acres of woodland, prairie, oak savanna, and wetlands. It’s one of the best places in Minnesota to reliably watch sandhill cranes, which stage in and around the refuge by the thousands each October. Numbers usually peak about the third week of the month. The parking lot on County Road 70, on the northern edge of the refuge, provides good viewing at dawn and dusk, when flights of up to 20 cranes are leaving or returning to their nighttime roosts.

You might also spot other large birds, including bald eagles, trumpeter swans, ducks, wild turkeys, and Canada geese. Take time to follow the 7.3-mile Prairie’s Edge Wildlife Drive, stopping often and scanning the landscape with binoculars. (Download maps at Other options for spotting wildlife are hiking the Mahnomen Trail (about three miles) and Blue Hill Trail (about five miles). You might catch a glimpse of deer, black bears, and even wolves.