Road Trip Through Northwoods Minnesota on the Great River Road

Driving along the Great River Road is perhaps one of the greatest ways to experience the Mississippi River. Not only does the route offer scenic views, but you’re able to stop and see how the river has influenced the towns that line the roadway across the state. As the headwaters of the Mississippi River, Minnesota is home to the largest stretch of the Great River Road, spanning approximately 575 miles and warranting more than one road trip. A few months back I posted about traveling along the Mississippi Bluffs portion of the road; now see what you’ll find in Minnesota’s Northwoods on a route that stretches about 100 miles from Bemidji to Grand Rapids. 

Photo by Todd Buchanan

Start off your journey in the Mississippi River’s first city, established in 1888. In those days the area served as a trading post and lumbering center, which visitors are reminded of by the giant statues of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe. In continuation with the Paul Bunyan theme, visit Paul Bunyan Animal Land, the state’s largest wildlife park and petting zoo, or Paul Bunyan Playhouse, which is housed in the historic Chief Theatre and regularly offers musical and dramatic performances. For more arts and culture, take a tour of the sculptures and murals that are on display throughout the town on the Bemidji Art Walk, or see photographs, paintings, and arts and crafts on display at the Bemidji Community Art Center. If you’re looking to get outdoors, on the northern edge of Lake Bemidji you’ll find Lake Bemidji State Park, which spans 1,700 acres and offers opportunities for all fishing, hiking, biking, bird watching, and more.

Cass Lake
There are plenty of recreational opportunities here with three of Minnesota’s largest lakes, Leech, Cass, and Winnibigoshish, and Chippewa National Forest. This was the first national forest established east of the river and was once home to Dakota and Anishinabe people, French Voyageurs, and loggers who lived along the water. Current inhabitants include white-tailed deer, ruffed grouse, hawks, swallows, and sparrows. In its entirety, the forest spans 1.6 million acres, including 1,300 lakes, 925 miles of streams, and 400,000 acres of wetlands. Learn about the area’s history at Cass Lake Museum, one of the few remaining original Soo Line buildings in Minnesota where you’ll find artifacts from Native Americans and the 1800s. Adjacent to the museum is Lyle’s Logging Camp where you can see replicas of equipment used by loggers as well as logging relics. For adults, Forestedge Winery offers tours and tastings. Here you’ll find wines made from fruits and berries that survive northern winters.      

Grand Rapids
This area grew with the logging industry, but is also widely known for being the birthplace of Judy Garland. Learn all about the star’s past at the Judy Garland Museum, located in her childhood home. See the staircase landing where she conducted some of her first performances, as well as artifacts, personal awards, memorabilia, and the carriage from the Wizard of Oz. Learn about the logging history of the area at Forest History Center, where costumed guides recreate life in an authentic 1900s logging camp. Experience the other side of life in the 1800s as a fur trader at White Oak Fur Post. This reconstructed 1798 Northwest Company Fur Post also includes a natural trail filled with plants complete with descriptions of how they were used for medicine, shelter, and survival at the time. For even more learning opportunities, visit the Children’s Discovery Museum or take a tour of Blandin Paper Mill, one of the northern Minnesota’s largest employers.