Complete Autumn Traveler: 20 Reasons to Get Away

Discover brilliant fall foliage, impressive orchards, fun autumn festivals, scenic golf courses, and romantic getaways this fall. Our guide will help you experience the season in all of its glory.

METRO/EAST

The river vistas along the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers burst with color this time of year. Depart from Harriet Island in St. Paul and see the changing leaves from the water during a Padelford Riverboat “Fall Sightseeing Cruise” ($20-plus tax and port fee for adults; $10 for kids 3-12).

If you’d rather experience the view from a canoe (or kayak), you can rent a boat at Taylors Falls Canoe and Kayak Rental, about an hour’s drive from the Twin Cities. The most popular trips last anywhere from two to six hours, and start in Taylors Falls then continue downstream on the St. Croix—an easy class-1 river, with no rapids—to either the Osceola Landing or William O’Brien State Park. Keep an eye out for beaver, otters, white-tailed deer, and bald eagles. Local one-way canoe or kayak rentals are available seven days a week. One-way trips start at $45-plus tax (walk-in price); $40-plus tax if you buy online. Group and military discounts are available.

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WEST

Located just two hours west of the Twin Cities on the shore of Lake Darling, beautiful fall scenery is worth a trip along I-94 to Arrowwood Resort and Conference Center in Alexandria. In addition to prime color viewing, Arrowwood guests can enjoy the indoor waterpark, on-site spa, scenic 18-hole golf course, horseback riding, seasonal hayrides, evening bonfires, and much more. Accommodations range from lodge rooms and suites with lakefront views to luxurious four bedroom townhomes.

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CENTRAL

In the autumn months, the Mille Lacs area really comes alive. Not only are the fish biting in Mille Lacs, the state’s second largest lake (home to 40 species of fish, including walleye, smallmouth bass, northern pike, perch, and muskies), but the state park campgrounds, golf courses, hiking and biking trails, and small-town attractions are at their prime. The weather is perfect when the leaves are at their peak—not-too-hot and not-too-cold, there are fewer crowds, and many places offer seasonal discounts.

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NORTH SHORE

New England might get credit for having the best fall color, but autumn on the North Shore is equally beautiful. Stay in a cozy lodge room, cabin, or lake home at Grand Superior Lodge, a pretty drive along Scenic Highway 61, just north of Two Harbors. The beauty of Mother Nature is minutes from your door at Gooseberry Falls State Park, on the Superior Hiking Trail, along the Gitchi-Gami Bike Trail, and at the historic Split Rock Lighthouse. The Castle Danger Trailhead is just two miles away, with stunning Lake Superior overlooks from the top of Wolf Rock. Reserve a complimentary canoe for a peaceful morning ride on Lake Superior, and warm up by a beach bonfire at night.

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The cool lake breeze, backdrop of blazing maples and golden birch, and dazzling blue horizon of Lake Superior makes autumn the most “breathtaking time of year” at the Bluefin Bay Family of Resorts, says Lori Schaefer, marketing director.

Sisters resorts Bluefin Bay on Lake Superior and Surfside on Lake Superior—both located in the Lutsen-Tofte area—are perfectly situated as not only an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise, close to the Superior Hiking Trail, Superior National Golf Course, Carlton Peak, Oberg Mountain, and Tofte Charters (complimentary kayak, bike, and canoe rentals are offered to guests), but also as romantic destinations. Book the Romance Package this fall and enjoy breakfast, a candlelight dinner, and optional add-ons like in-room appetizers, a couple’s massage, and a rose-petal welcome.  

Guests can receive color-viewing updates, and take advantage of complimentary shuttles to area trailheads and daily-guided hikes. Lutsen Mountain Ski Area is a short drive away, with excellent mountain biking terrain and beautiful Mountain Tram views of the changing leaves. According to Schaefer, “Visitors can’t help but to pause a bit, breathe deep, and simply absorb this incredible beauty.”

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A private cobblestone beach is just part of the charm of the clean, reasonably priced, and smoke-free Best Western Superior Inn & Suites, located in Grand Marais. During the day, stroll along the shore of Lake Superior; at night, sleep with your windows open and listen to the waves lap against the rocky shoreline. (Many of the rooms have a private balcony overlooking the lake.) Stay in the Renewal Steam Suites, featuring a luxurious, spacious walk-in shower with five showerheads, a steam unit, built-in tiled bench, and a picture window offering dramatic views of Lake Superior. The hotel is conveniently located within walking distance of Grand Marais restaurants, shops, and galleries, only two blocks from the North House Folk School, and close to the Gunflint Trail, Sawtooth Mountains, and kayaking or canoeing adventures. Visit from Oct. 19-21 for the Grand Marais Moose Madness Family Festival, a family-friendly weekend including a scavenger hunt, moose-themed activities, a race, and much more.

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NORTHWEST

With Bemidji State Park, Itasca State Park, the Chippewa National Forest, and the Continental Divide encompassing the area, anywhere is a good place to see brilliant shades of red, orange, yellow, and green during Bemidji’s autumn season.

Explore the Leech Lake-Red Lake Trail a mile south of Turtle River on Highway 71 for a taste of history. “The trail is worn to over a foot deep by early travelers and explorers,” explains Denelle Hilliard, Visit Bemidji executive director.

Other must-see sites include the Fur Trading Post, memorial of Count Beltrami, and beautiful Lake Julia, where you’ll find the Continental Divide, with water flowing north to Hudson Bay and south to the Gulf of Mexico. Take a narrated ride on an authentic covered wagon along a historic trail overlooking the Continental Divide. “Bemidji’s fall colors are spectacular,” Hilliard says.

The city is also home to many talented artists. Visit from Oct. 19-21 for the free “First City of Arts: Studio Cruise,” providing a unique opportunity to visit the studios and meet the artists in person.

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Big gaming options. Check. Big-name entertainment. Check. A large hotel. Check. Excellent restaurants. Check. A spa, on-site daycare, a swimming pool, and an arcade. Check, check, check, and check. When looking for your next get-away, consider Shooting Star Casino Hotel and Event Center in Mahnomen, just north of Detroit Lakes.

Shooting Star is home to a 386-room well-appointed hotel (complete with access to an indoor pool and hot tub), over 1,000 slot machines, a bingo hall, 16 blackjack tables, the Sereniitee Spa (great for a massage or facial), four on-site dining options, interesting events, and big-name entertainment. Visit Shooting Star this fall for the Paranormal Convention Oct. 12, or to catch the “hillbilly jedis”—country duo Big and Rich—perform Oct. 26.

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A variety of deciduous trees (think maples, elms, and oaks)—combined with the right climate—create a stunning kaleidoscope of color in Detroit Lakes. While visiting the area, stay at The Lodge on Lake Detroit, a lifestyle hotel on the shore of Big Detroit Lake, less than two miles from downtown, and near golf courses, city parks, fishing hot-spots, biking trails, shopping, and great restaurants. Each of the large, modern smoke-free rooms and suites face the lake and the sunset, with a special focus on pampering and positive energy. Other unique lodge features include sunset serenades, eco-friendly initiatives, a full-service spa, indoor pool and hot tub, fitness area, sandy beach, dock, and boat slips.

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WISCONSIN

Spend a cool autumn day in Chippewa Falls, Wis., about 90 miles from the Twin Cities, and drive through the countryside visiting apple orchards before sampling locally-produced beer or wine at the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company, Autumn Harvest Winery, River Bend Vineyard & Winery, or O’Neil Creek Winery. Other fall activities include visiting the free Irvine Park and Zoo (over 300 acres of natural beauty, with cougars, bear, bison, tigers, a museum, and picnic shelters), paddling down the Chippewa River, pedaling along the Old Abe State Trail (19.5 miles of paved bike trail from Chippewa Falls to Cornell), or celebrating at the 10th annual Oktoberfest Sept. 21-23.

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Instead of zoning out to the TV, tune in to one another at Hawks View Cottages and Lodges, located about 45 minutes north of Lacrosse in Fountain City, Wis. The five well-appointed cottages are set high up on a steep, wooded bluff—prepare for stairs—with “hawk’s eye views” of the Mississippi. You’ll forget about the real world as you relax in this peaceful setting. The two lodges overlook Seven Hawks Vineyards—with wines made from 100 percent locally grown grapes. If you feel like venturing out, visit the tasting room and wine bar, grab a pint at the Monarch Irish Pub, visit the historic sites in town, or take a side trip to Alma, Nelson, or Wabasha, home of the National Eagle Center.

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It’s not Munich, Germany, but it feels awfully similar. La Crosse’s Oktoberfest, Sept. 28-Oct. 6, welcomes more than 100,000 attendees for general “merrymaking” in a carnival-like atmosphere each fall. The Oktoberfest lineup includes parades, pageantry, royalty, beer, brats, and world-famous entertainment. New this year, the event’s Northside Festgrounds will be family-friendly and alcohol-free, the site of a fun dance contest, strong man competition, and theatre performance.

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Designed exclusively for couples, Canoe Bay—the only prestigious Relais and Chateaux member in the Midwest—is a gorgeous, unspoiled, secluded fall retreat located in northwestern Wisconsin. Located in the town of Chetek, near Rice Lake, the 280-acre property includes miles of hiking trails, beautiful aspen, oak, and birch trees (admire the views from your private deck), and quiet Lake Wahdoon—no motorized boats or jet skis are allowed—perfect for canoeing, kayaking, or fishing. While you’re unwinding, why not treat yourself to an hour-long massage in the hotel’s spa, cuddle in front of your private fireplace, or relax in a two-person whirlpool? In the evening, head over to the lakeside dining room to enjoy a glass of wine (there are over 500 domestic and imported vintages to choose from) and an excellent four-course meal prepared by a talented chef.

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Located in northern Wisconsin —less than three hours from the Twin Cities—Hayward is an easy drive along Highway 53. With a population of less than 4,000, this former logging town offers the perfect disconnect from the hustle and bustle of city life. Golf at a course set within the natural beauty of the North Woods, shop or dine downtown, or walk inside a 143-foot-long, 41-foot-tall musky (otherwise known as the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame and Museum). Hayward is home to the Chequamegon (pronounced Sh-wah-mah-gon) Fat Tire Festival every September, “The Nation’s Most Popular Off Road Bicycle Adventure.” The Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest encom-passes more than 1.5 million acres, with more than 400 miles of impressive hiking/biking trails.

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SOUTH

Every autumn there is an energy and excitement in Northfield as college students get settled in at Carleton and St. Olaf. About a 35-mile drive from the Twin Cities, the town is the perfect distance for a day trip to Nerstrand Big Woods State Park (excellent hiking and biking), the Cowling Arboretum, restaurants featuring from-scratch kitchens, local pubs with tons of personality, and eclectic boutiques offering everything from clothes and shoes to rare books and kitchen gadgets. A multitude of arts and cultural activities take place in this pretty little city, like the Studio ArTour Oct. 20-21, featuring 24 open art studios with works of 52 artists and one-of-a-kind works including abstract paintings, landscapes, hand-made knitted items, jewelry, ceramics, welding, glass, and mixed media.

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New Ulm, about 85 miles from the metro area, is in the heart of the 287-mile Minnesota River Valley Scenic Byway—one of the most stunning fall color drives in the state. “We’re different than other prairie towns of Southern Minnesota by virtue of being in not one but two river valleys,” explains Terry Sveine, convention and visitors bureau manager for New Ulm. “And we have more trees and greenery than you’d expect in the southern part of the state.” See radiant fall colors from the top of the 102-foot tall Hermann Monument (15-mile views in any direction), from a hike in Flandrau State Park, or at Oktoberfest Oct. 6-7 and 13-14, when New Ulm will “crank up the accordions” and celebrate its German heritage. On Friday, Nov. 23, the city will mirror another German tradition with the Parade of Lights and ChristKindlmarkt, an outdoor craft and vendor market held downtown.

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With the Mississippi River on one side of town and majestic limestone bluffs on the other, a more beautiful place than Winona is hard to find. This charming city—located in southeastern Minnesota—is home to historically significant buildings, as well as a variety of dining, shopping, and lodging options, and numerous recreational opportunities. Winona has earned a reputation as an art and cultural mecca also, with four museums, a vineyard, and interesting festivals taking place throughout the year. Add to the list the “Voices from the Past Cemetery Walk” at Woodlawn Cemetery Oct. 13-14, and you have every reason to plan a trip to Winona this fall. Unless, of course, you’re scared of ghosts.

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