Summer Drives

10 weekend adventures

It’s road trip time! Roll the windows down, turn the music up, and make the journey part of the adventure.

North Shore Scenic Drive

Stingrays at the Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth, Minnesota.
Great Lakes Aquarium

Photo by Allison Iacone

Duluth, Minnesota

The Destination: You’ll know you’ve arrived in Duluth (about a 2.5-hour drive from the Twin Cities, along I-35) once you come around a bend at the top of a hill, opening up to expansive views of the city and Lake Superior below (especially pretty in the evening, when the glow of city lights illuminates the landscape). With its cobblestone main street, 4-mile lakewalk, lighthouse pier, and harbor views, Duluth feels like a European seaport. One of the most unique aspects of this busy town is watching the city’s landmark Aerial Lift Bridge and the massive oceangoing freighters coming into port. 

Favorite Stops: Attractions include area breweries, Glensheen Mansion, and the Great Lakes Aquarium, positioned along the working harbor, between the DECC and Bayfront Festival Park. The deck and balcony provide some of the best views of the big ships, while the 12 major exhibit galleries and 140,000 gallons of water provide an in-depth look at the freshwater habitat in the Great Lakes Basin. Visit this summer for Unsalted Seas, featuring the largest sturgeon touch tank in North America. “Visitors are encouraged to stick their fingers in the water and discover what it feels like to pet a sturgeon,” says Allison Iacone with Great Lakes Aquarium.

Canoes on the water at North House Folk School.
North House Folk School

Photo Courtesy of North House Folk School

Grand Marais, Minnesota

The Drive: After leaving Duluth, drive on the National Scenic Byway/Scenic Highway 61 north-bound to Grand Marais, where the road hugs the rocky Lake Superior shoreline. The driving doesn’t get much better in Minnesota than pine, birch, and aspen on the inland side of the road, and the world’s largest freshwater lake on the other. Besides the stunning lake views, multiple state parks break up the drive and you get a peek at the Split Rock Lighthouse.  

The Destination: Head to Grand Marais, the only North Shore community whose downtown is within walking distance of the lake. Not only is the location unique, the attractions are, too. Take a summer mini-course at North House Folk School: Wood-fired baking on Thursdays, timber farming on Fridays, instructor-in-residence courses on Saturdays, or book a two-hour sail on the school’s 50-foot schooner, Hjørdis.

Paradise Beach near Grand Portage, Minnesota.
Paradise Beach near Grand Portage

photo by jeremy nelson

Grand Portage, Minnesota

The Drive: The drive along Highway 61 between Grand Marais and Grand Portage (approximately 35 miles) is one of Cook County’s best-kept secrets. Grand Portage borders Canada, and is home to the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, one of the earliest Ojibwa settlements in Minnesota. 

Favorite Stops: Hike to Devil’s Kettle in Judge CR Magney State Park, where the Brule River splits in two, hunt for agates at Paradise Beach (the Superior Hiking Trail’s only beach, near Hovland), enjoy some gaming action in the 15,000-square-foot Grand Portage Lodge and Casino, and stop at Grand Portage State Park, where you can hike along an accessible trail to High Falls of the Pigeon River, “the Niagara Falls of Minnesota.” Visit during the second full weekend in August for the National Park Service’s Rendezvous Days and the Grand Portage Band of Chippewa Powwow.

Great River Road National Scenic Byway – North

Paddling the Mississippi in Grand Rapids.
Paddling the Mississippi in Grand Rapids

Photo courtesy of visit grand rapids

Grand Rapids, Minnesota

The Drive: To get to the small town community of Grand Rapids, Minnesota (not to be confused with Grand Rapids, Michigan), take Highway 169 north and follow the Great River Road National Scenic Byway, following the Mississippi River from the Headwaters at Itasca State Park, the only place you can step across “Old Man River.” (From the headwaters at Lake Itasca to the bluffs of southeast Minnesota, the Great River Road National Scenic Byway follows the Mississippi River through some of the state’s most scenic regions.)  

Scenic Byway: Another scenic summer drive is the Edge of the Wilderness Scenic Byway, the oldest scenic byway in the state, with 14 hidden natural and cultural landmarks along the 47-mile route running from Grand Rapids to Effie.  

Area Attractions: Once at Grand Rapids, visit the historic Forest History Center, where historic guides demonstrate life in a 1900s-era logging camp. Guests can board the moored river “wanigan,” a floating cook shack, take a seat on the porch of a 1930s Minnesota Forest Service patrolman’s cabin, climb a 100-foot fire tower (wear tennis shoes), and explore the site’s self-guided trails. Other popular attractions in Grand Rapids include the Judy Garland Museum (with a 3,000 piece Wizard of Oz exhibit), the Reif Center, showing free independent films Thursdays in June and July, and the free art walk at MacRostie Art Center. “Grand Rapids is the perfect setting for a family to reconnect and recharge their souls,” says Megan Christianson with Visit Grand Rapids.

Great River Road National Scenic Byway – South

Biking around Lake Winona.
Biking around Lake Winona

Photo courtesy of Visit Winona

Winona, Minnesota

The Scenic Route: If you like historic river towns and towering bluffs, street-side antique shops and small town boutiques, then the Great River Road to Winona, less than two hours south of St. Paul, is the perfect drive on a lazy summer day. “The Great River Road is one of the most spectacular drives in the state, and we are blessed to have it pass right through Winona,” says Cynthya Porter with Visit Winona. “Along the way, see sailboats bobbing on the blue Mississippi while eagles are soaring overhead. Scenic overlooks provide spots to stop and take it all in.”   

The Appeal: Once in Winona, hike up into the bluffs to the top of Sugar Loaf and get a bird’s eye view of the area at Garvin Heights’ overlook (while you’re out exploring, stop in at the Garvin Heights Vineyards and sample some wine). You can walk, bike, or rollerblade around Lake Winona, or take a We-no-nah canoe or fishing line to the waters. The water was also the inspiration behind the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, featuring world-class works by greats like Picasso and Renoir inside and a spectacular river view from the outdoor mezzanine (every other Tuesday evening the museum hosts “Mississippi Sipping,” complete with food and drinks on the mezz). Another draw to the area in summer? The Minnesota Beethoven Festival and Great River Shakespeare Festival— attracting national talent every June and July. “Ticket prices for these festivals makes them astonishingly accessible, just a fraction of what someone would pay in the metropolitan areas where these artists and musicians usually perform,” Porter says.

Hawks View Cottages.
Hawks View Cottages

Photo courtesy of HAWKS VIEW COTTAGES

Fountain City, Wisconsin

Take the Scenic Route: Take the Great River Road down to Winona, then head six miles north to Hawks View Cottages in Fountain City, Wisconsin.  

The Destination: Hawks View Cottages are not your typical summer cottages; they are better described as five beautiful two-story luxury treehouses built halfway up a bluff, overlooking the Mississippi River backwaters in the midst of a vineyard. The cottages feature bright, airy, open spaces with comfortable beds, full kitchens, private decks and porches, and whirlpool tubs for two. Each cottage is located in a peaceful, wooded site. Prepare for stairs.   

Area Attractions: Bird-watching is abundant. Look for bald eagles, pelicans, and arctic swans. Bike down the Great River State Trail, visit The Monarch Public House Irish pub and tavern for a “taste of the past” (and a pint of their own Prairie Moon Red), do a wine tasting at Seven Hawks Vineyards (less than a mile away), visit the five museums of Elmer’s Auto and Toy Museum, or check out the 320-acre Merrick State Park.

Brainerd Lakes Area

Paul Bunyan Land
Paul Bunyan Land

photo Courtesy of Explore Minnesota

Pequot Lakes, Minnesota

The Appeal: For more than 100 years, the Brainerd Lakes area has attracted tourists. The earliest visitors traveled by train from as far away as Kansas, looking for a relaxing destination that would allow them to escape the heat of the plains. 

Favorite Stops: Take Highway 10 to Highway 371 north, stopping at the Minnesota Military Museum at Camp Ripley before journeying north again.   

The Destination: Rent a cabin or villa at Wilderness Point Resort on Middle Cullen Lake, 3 miles north of Nisswa on County Road 107. The resort, on the Paul Bunyan State Trail, is a great destination for biking, relaxing on the private sandy beach, fishing, and swimming (there’s an indoor pool in addition to the lake). Walk to town for coffee, a cold beer, or lunch. Pets are welcome.  

Area Attractions: Visit Paul Bunyan Land (with rides and attractions), mini golf amidst 18-century pirates at Pirate’s Cove Adventure Golf, or go antiquing, biking, boutique shopping, fishing, or boating. Golf is also popular in the area: There are eight scenic courses within 15 minutes of Wilderness Point Resort and eight more within 30 minutes. (Golf packages are available.) 

Turtle Races: Every Wednesday throughout the summer, a crowd gathers around the Official Nisswa Turtle Track downtown to watch the Nisswa Turtle Races. For only $5, anyone can race a turtle and compete for prizes.

West Central Area

Big Splash Indoor Waterpark at Arrowwood Resort.
Big Splash Indoor Waterpark at Arrowwood Resort

photo courtesy of arrowwood resort

Alexandria, Minnesota

The Drive: The easiest route to “Alex” is along I-94, about a two-hour drive from the Twin Cities. 

Favorite Stops: Stop at Clearwater Plaza for mouth-watering bakery items, in Sauk Centre, the birthplace of legendary author Sinclair Lewis. Another stop in Osakis can include a tour of the whiskey distillery, Panther Distillery.  

Area Attractions: Bike along the Central Lakes Trail, a 55-mile rail trail that borders the historic downtown shopping district; visit the 28-foot tall “Big Ole” overseeing the bike park and farmers’ market; fish or swim in one of 500 lakes in Douglas County; shop at the charming independent boutiques.

The Destination: Even in the dog days of summer, it can be fun to splash, soak, and slide at an indoor waterpark (no sunscreen required!). The fun of staying at Alexandria’s Arrowwood Resort on Lake Darling, though, is not only the 38,000-square-foot Big Splash Indoor Waterpark, but the Atikwa Golf Course, Darling Reflections Spa, on-site restaurant and lounge, full-service marina (with boats available for rent), opportunity to go horseback riding, and nightly campfire and marshmallow roasts.

Views from Dickerson’s Lake Florida Resort.
Views from Dickerson’s Lake Florida Resort

photo courtesy of dickerson’s lake florida resort

Spicer, Minnesota

Appeal of the Drive: You won’t be inching along at an aggravating 5 miles per hour when you head 100 miles west from the metro to Spicer. Relax and enjoy the scenery: Rolling hills, trees, lakes, and crisp, clean air.

Favorite Stops: Stop at Crow River Winery near Silver Lake (Highway 7) or the Railroad Museum and Ball of Twine (on Highway 12 in Darwin).

The Destination: Dickerson’s Resort is a quaint beachfront resort with 13 cabins, an array of water toys, beautiful sunsets, and background noise as simple as the call of the loons. This fourth-generation, family-owned resort specializes in families and kids. One of the main attractions is a beautiful, flat, sandy beach on a clean, glacial lake full of fish. Head to Neer Park in New London and watch a Little Crow Ski Show on Friday nights during the summer. Top skiers perform pyramids, jumping, barefooting, ballet lines, and more.

Quick Escape

Boating on the St. Croix River in Hudson.
Boating on the St. Croix River in Hudson

PHOTO by ©Bucklew Photography

Hudson, Wisconsin

Take the Scenic Route: Drive north to Hudson on the Wisconsin Great River Road, a National Scenic Byway, on Wisconsin 35. From the north, drive south along MN 95 or Wisconsin 35, and follow the St. Croix River. Once you get to Hudson, one of the best views of the city is from Birkmose Park off Coulee Road. 

The Destination: Hudson, set on the banks of the scenic St. Croix River, is known for its stunning riverfront beauty as well as historic homes, a lively art scene, and charming locally-owned shops and restaurants. Stay overnight at the historic Phipps Inn Bed & Breakfast (the lodging is part of the experience) and dine at Pier 500, San Pedro Cafe, The Nova of Hudson, or Urban Olive & Vine. Shopping attracts some visitors (there’s outstanding boutique shopping downtown for antiques, fashion, art, or confections), while the natural scenery attracts others. Boat on the St. Croix River, hike to Willow Falls at Willow River State Park, golf on one of the area courses, or bring a lawn chair to Lakefront Park for free summer concerts Thursday evenings from June through August.

Summer Fairs & Festivals

Grand Marais Arts Festival
Grand Marais Arts Festival

PHOTO courtesy of grand marais arts festival

Summer Festivals Worth the Drive

July 6 – 23
Minnesota Beethoven Festival, Winona 

July 15
Freedom Fest, La Crosse, Wisconsin 

July 15
Bayfront Reggae & World Music Festival, Bayfront Festival Park, Duluth

June 23 – July 30
Great River Shakespeare Festival, Winona

July 29
All Pints North Summer Brew Festival, Bayfront Festival Park, Duluth 

July 28 – 30
Weekend of Wheels, Itasca County Fairgrounds, Grand Rapids   

August 3 – 6
Fisherman’s Picnic, Grand Marais 

August 4 – 6
Tall Timber Days, Grand Rapids 

August 5
Chokecherry Festival, Pequot Lakes 

August 11 – 13
Big Ole Bicycle Festival, Big Ole Central Park, Alexandria   

August 11 – 13
Rendezvous Days and PowwowGrand Portage 

August 18 – 20
Pepper Fest, Hudson