Anytime is a great time for a road trip, but none is better in Minnesota and the Midwest than autumn, when the forests and woodlands are alive with color. Any of these five routes will keep you occupied for a weekend. And each will take you to an iconic corner of the region, from the wooded river valleys of south-central Minnesota to the sandy southern shore of Lake Superior in northwestern Wisconsin. So pack your bags, gas up the car, grab the atlas (or set the GPS), and go!
Minnesota River Valley Scenic Byway
Route: Belle Plaine to Ortonville
Distance: 287 miles
The Minnesota River Valley was carved in ancient times by a swirling deluge draining from glacial lakes. Even today, you can’t get away from that fact. The valley is the dominant attraction as you drive, first southwest from the Twin Cities and then northwest at Mankato. In summer, I feel as though I’m swallowed up in a dazzling green trough of forests and farms. But the valley becomes most stunning in fall, when it’s filled with the eye-popping hues of golden aspen and cottonwoods, russet oaks, and flaming sumac. And way down at the bottom of the gorge is the descendant of that old glacial torrent, the comparatively puny but still mighty-in-its-own-right Minnesota River.
If you’re setting out from the Cities, pick up the road at Belle Plaine and drive southwest to the river’s elbow, down at Mankato. Then turn sharply to the northwest, following the river into the upper reaches of the valley near Ortonville, on the Minnesota-South Dakota border. The highway twists, rises, and falls as it skirts the river bluffs. Hardwoods mix with cornfields and riverine wetlands. Watch for deer and flocks of turkeys.
It’s the smaller towns that are most charming along this route: Henderson, St. Peter, Kasota, New Ulm, Morton, Granite Falls, Montevideo. The artery of the river valley eventually reaches into the prairies of western Minnesota, where crumbling foundations, repurposed-log buildings, and even a stone obelisk memorializing those killed during the Sioux Uprising of 1862 testify to old settlements in the valley—European and Dakota.
Find a map for this adventure at Minnesota River Valley National Scenic Byway
STOPS ALONG THE WAY
- Autumn is apple season. Buy a bushel or sample a slice of pie at Jim’s Apple Farm (952-492-6380), between Jordan and Belle Plaine.
- In the attractive town of St. Peter, pick up a fresh sandwich at the St. Peter Food Co-op (507-934-4880) or some tasty quiche at the River Rock Coffee Shop (507-931-1540). Then visit the Linnaeus Arboretum (507-933-6181), on the campus of Gustavus Adolphus College, to see some vibrant foliage.
- Minneopa State Park (507-389-5464), just west of Mankato, was named with the Dakota word for “water falling twice,” a reference to the picturesque waterfalls on Minneopa Creek, just a short walk from the parking area.
- New Ulm’s ethnic heritage finds expression in the giant Hermann the German monument in Hermann Heights Park. Hermann, otherwise known as Arminius, led Germanic tribes in a successful ambush of Roman legions 2,000 years ago. Ascend the 99 steps of the monument’s base for a sweeping view of the Minnesota River Valley. After your climb, enjoy a beer in the formal gardens of the August Schell Brewery (507-354-5528).
- A roadside stop at the Harkin Store State Historic Site (507-354-8666), eight miles northwest of New Ulm on County 21, takes you back to the glorious 1870s, when the river port of West Newton had aspirations to be the biggest town on the upper Minnesota.
- Near Redwood Falls, the Lower Sioux Agency State Historic Site (507-697-6321) explores the roots of the Dakota War of 1862, when starving Indians battled troops and settlers in the Minnesota River Valley.
- Getting hungry? In Montevideo, grab a cappuccino, a quesadilla, or a panini (or all three!) at the cute little coffee shop Java River (320-269-7106).
- Each fall, usually at the end of October, thousands of migrating geese gather at Lac qui Parle State Park (320-734-4450), which lies at the southern end of a dammed section of the Minnesota River. Birdwatchers also stand a good chance of seeing bald eagles.
- Fans of Scandinavian crafts should stop by the Trestuen Gallery and Studio in Milan (call for an appointment: 320-734-4715).
- The main attraction in Ortonville, which sits at the lower end of Big Stone Lake, named for the rock outcroppings that lie along its shoreline, is the Big Stone County Museum (320-839-3359), which features, among other things, a collection of more than 500 stuffed birds.
St. Croix Scenic Byway
Route: Afton to Sandstone and back
Distance: 280 miles
If there’s a signature scene of fall driving in Minnesota, it may just be the view from Highway 95 approaching Taylors Falls as you begin the descent into the valley of the St. Croix River. The scenery taps into the Americana section of our brains—a shapely river valley cloaked in flaming maples, a scattering of conifers, a 19th-century town greeting us at the bottom of the hill. It is the closest Minnesota comes to New England.
The 280-mile route essentially proceeds north along one side of the river, which forms much of the Minnesota–Wisconsin border, and returns south on the other side. If you’re starting in the Twin Cities, begin at Afton. Follow the state’s official designated St. Croix Scenic Byway north as far as Banning State Park near Sandstone. Then cross over to Wisconsin and wend your way south to Grantsburg—farther south than Sandstone and Banning State Park, according to your preference, on a combination of rural highways and back roads.
The river is one reason I like this route as much as I do. The St. Croix is special—relatively clear, swift, wooded. It is one of the nation’s original wild and scenic rivers, and the only one to flow through Minnesota. But I also love the towns. Built along the river, where riverboats first disgorged settlers, they are solid, well organized, and pretty in a way that newer towns can’t quite match.
Find a map for this adventure at St. Croix Scenic Byway
ROUTES ALONG THE WAY
- Afton dates to the 1850s and takes its name from a Robert Burns poem. Looking for a place to eat or stay? Try the Afton House Inn (651-436-8883).
- Stillwater, the self-proclaimed “birthplace of Minnesota,” founded in 1843, is a tourist town that offers restaurants, bars, antique shops, and retail shopping. A few miles north on Highway 95 is Marine on St. Croix, an impossibly quaint town of clapboard buildings that claims it is even older than Stillwater.
- Where Highway 95 meets U.S. 8, you may notice surprising metal sculptures rising from a field. It’s the Franconia Sculpture Park (651-257-6668), 20 acres devoted to a rotating collection of more than 75 contemporary sculptures.
- At U.S. 8, take a short detour three miles west to Eichtens Hidden Acres (651-257-1566), where family farmers raise bison, make artisanal cheeses, and run a terrific small restaurant.
- In Taylors Falls, yet another old river town, stop for some joe at Coffee Talk (651-465-6700), located in a renovated Victorian home. Afterward, head up the hill and tour the Angel’s Hill Historic District, where the earliest homes date to the 1850s. At nearby Interstate State Park (651-465-5711), which straddles the Minnesota–Wisconsin border, take a short walk through the Minnesota portion to tour the giant “potholes” carved by the swirling waters of Glacial Lake Duluth.
- Follow rural highways through Rush City, Pine City, and Sandstone. Save time for Banning State Park (320-245-2668). Have a picnic on the sandstone outcrops flanking the spectacular rapids of the Kettle River. And hike the trail to an abandoned quarry.
- Backtrack southward to Hinckley, turn east on Highway 48, cross the St. Croix, and follow a route southward down the Wisconsin side of the river.
- Crex Meadows Wildlife Area (715-463-2739), a 30,000-acre state wildlife-management area just north of Grantsburg, provides some of the best wildlife viewing in the region on a 24-mile drive.
- At St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin’s much larger counterpart to Taylors Falls, is the headquarters of the St. Croix National Scenic River (715-483-2274). The facility has exhibits about the St. Croix and Namekagon rivers and their watersheds.
- Farther south on Highway 35, in Osceola, you can catch the Osceola & St. Croix Valley Railway (715-755-3570) for an hour-and-a-half, 20-mile round trip to Marine on St. Croix and back.
Wisconsin North Woods
Route: Hayward to Bayfield
Distance: Roughly 250 miles
There’s no north woods like the Wisconsin north woods, a classic combination of rustic roads, tall pines, scrubby sand barrens, famous muskie lakes, backwoods taverns, and Leinenkugel’s beer. (Don’t indulge in the last two while driving.) As a tourist and resort area, it came of age in the era of fedoras and getaways by train. The region is riddled with hideouts of Prohibition-era Chicago gangsters. The cabins and roadside taverns seem to belong to illustrated magazine ads of a half-century ago. Indeed, some have hardly changed.
This north-woods route, about 250 miles, begins in northwestern Wisconsin’s lake country, circles up to Lake Superior, and heads back again. Start in Hayward, Wisconsin, an archetypical fishing and resort town with a compact downtown surrounded by a sprawling mess of tourist-oriented businesses. From Hayward, scoot eastward on Highway 77, a.k.a. the Great Divide National Scenic Highway, through Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest to Highway 13 near Glidden. Turn north to Ashland.
Then begins the best part of the route—around the shoreline of the Bayfield Peninsula through the Lake Superior towns of Washburn, Bayfield, Red Cliff, Cornucopia, Herbster, and Port Wing. While Minnesotans have gotten used to a North Shore that has become ever busier and ever more developed with highways, tunnels, and condos, the Wisconsin counterpart has remained more isolated, a taste of what the Superior shore used to be.
STOPS ALONG THE WAY
- In Hayward, visit the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame and Museum (715-634-4440). The focal point of the museum is the “Shrine to Anglers,” a giant muskie, half a block long and four-and-a-half stories tall.
- Follow Highway 77 through the scenic Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, then turn north on Highway 13 just before Glidden. Next stop: the sandy south shore of Lake Superior.
- In Ashland, at the tip of Chequamegon Bay, check out the stately Hotel Chequamegon (800-496-5555), pick up an expertly made latte at Black Cat Coffee (715-682-3680), and then head across the street to bag a fresh-fruit Danish or savory biscuit at the Ashland Baking Company (715-682-6010).
- Just west of Ashland, the Northern Great Lakes Visitors Center (715-685-9983) introduces tourists to the area with interpretive displays that play voyageurs’ songs and re-create the experience of mining underground.
- If you plan ahead and stay the night near Bayfield, you might take in a concert at the Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua, eight miles past Washburn at the top of Ski Hill Road (888-244-8368).
- Bayfield is nearly everyone’s favorite town on Superior’s south shore. Prowl the shops of painters, jewelers, and potters. Take a ferry ride to Madeline Island, ride a tour boat among the islands with Apostle Islands Cruise Service (800-323-7619), or even take a half-day kayak trip with Trek and Trail (800-354-8735). Then order beer and flamingo tenders at Maggie’s (715-779-5641). Tens of thousands will flock to Bayfield for the Apple Festival in early October.
- Cornucopia, “Corny” among boaters, is as tiny and charming as a music box. All is focused on the small marina, home port to many sailboats. If you’re looking for a place to tie up for the night, check out the Fo’c’sle Bed and Breakfast Inn (715-742-3337) on the edge of the marina.
- When you’ve circled the Bayfield Peninsula, find your way to Highway 13 and head south. For the fast way back to Hayward, continue along Highway 27. Or, to drive along the upper reaches of the Namekagon River, jog east and head south on U.S. 63.
- Back in Hayward, stop for the fish-fry and a pint of freshly brewed beer at the Angry Minnow (715-934-3055). But save room for dessert: West’s Dairy (715-634-2244), a local institution, has been serving up small-batch ice cream since 1951.
Historic Bluff Country Scenic Byway
Route: Dexter to La Crescent
Distance: 88 miles
What is so delightful about the topsy-turvy, southeastern corner of the state—bucking hills, deeply carved valleys, twisting roads—is that it is so unlike the rest of Minnesota. And every time I see it, whether I’m biking, trout fishing, or simply sightseeing, I think it’s the most beautiful corner of the state, a land so rugged it’s almost mountainous.
The 88-mile Historic Bluff Country Scenic Byway begins south of Rochester and follows the Root River east as it burrows deeper and deeper into the geology of the southeast corner of the state. The tour starts at Dexter near the upper reaches of the river. Here the agricultural landscape looks “Minnesotan” enough. But as the Root digs its valley ever deeper, the hills and cliffs begin to soar all around. By the time you pass through Spring Valley (where Laura Ingalls Wilder used to attend church), Fountain (named for the abundant springs in the area), and Rushford (which prides itself on its converted railroad depot, now a museum) and reach the river’s terminus at La Crescent, the limestone bluffs tower hundreds of feet above it.
A bonus to this spectacular scenery are the old valley towns such as Preston and Lanesboro, with their handsome main streets and stout brick and stone buildings. Along the route, watch for Amish buggies. You can even buy crafts and butter made by Amish farmers at the weekly farmers’ market on Saturday mornings in Lanesboro.
Explore Minnesota has additional information on the Historic Bluff Country Scenic Byway
STOPS ALONG THE WAY
- Near Spring Valley, Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park (507-352-5111) gives visitors a way to see this country with a different perspective—historical and underground. Take a one- or two-hour tour of one of the most spectacular caves in a region honeycombed with subterranean passages. As for history, the Minnesota Historical Society has restored a portion of the townsite of Forestville (507-765-2785). Step back to the days of 1899 as costumed guides show off merchandise in the Meighen family store and tend to chores in the garden and farm.
- South Branch Root River is one of Minnesota’s biggest and best trout streams. For information, contact Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (651-296-6157).
- Just east of Preston on U.S. 52 and Highway 16, pick from among 28 varieties of apples or try some homemade apple pie at the Preston Apple and Berry Farm (507-765-4486).
- Much of the Bluff Country Byway parallels the Bluffland State Trail (better known as the Root River Trail), one of the most popular rail-to-trail projects in the state.
- Take time to stroll the streets of the most scenic city on the trail, Lanesboro. Tucked in the folds of the Root River Valley, the town sprang up during the 1870s and ’80s around a dam and grain mill. As milling centralized in Minneapolis, Lanesboro withered. The combination of long quiescence and development of the bike trail turned out to be the little town’s good fortune. Its old buildings and facades survived because no one had money to mess with them. Restored century-old homes line the streets, some of them converted to B&Bs. The Commonweal Theatre (800-657-7025) stages plays in historic downtown.
- Everywhere, bikes are for rent, including tandems. And the Little River General Store (507-467-2943) offers canoe and kayak rentals, plus shuttles.
- For casual dining along the Root River in Lanesboro, try Riverside on the Root (507-467-3663). Another good bet: Old Village Hall Restaurant and Pub (507-467-2962). For breakfast, head to Pedal Pusher’s Café (507-467-1050). To spend the night, check in at Anna V’s Bed and Breakfast (507-467-2686).
- And don’t overlook tiny Whalan, on the banks of the Root, if only for the self-proclaimed “world’s best pies” at the Aroma Pie Shop (507-467-2623).
TWISTS AND TURNS
Glacial Ridge Trail Scenic Byway
Route: Willmar to Alexandria
Distance: 245 miles
I was looking forward to driving the Glacial Ridge Trail Scenic Byway because, as much as I’ve driven Minnesota highways, I feel I hardly know this out-of-the-way, profoundly hilly sector of central Minnesota.
Yet after hours of driving, much of it on dirt roads, my wife, Susan, and I were ready to cut the trip short. I joked that whoever designed this tortuous 245-mile route between Willmar and Alexandria clearly labored under the misapprehension that he was laying out a course for an off-road rally. The route tools along for scores of miles on rural dirt roads. Most of it is varied and fascinating—prairie lakes tucked among glacial hills, woodlands, wetlands, crops, and grasslands. But it’s exhausting—and so complicated it was tough to follow where we were without the aid of a GPS. We relied on the Glacial Ridge signs to thread our way through the countryside. Save for those indicators, we’d have been lost for sure.
So here’s a suggestion: Put your best navigator in the passenger seat. Start at Spicer. Take a direct route to New London. Follow the official route through Sibley State Park and up to the old mill in the town of Terrace. Freelance the rest, finding the highlights by the most obvious routes possible.
Find a map for this adventure from the Glacial Ridge Development Association
STOPS ALONG THE WAY
- In Spicer, check out Green Lake, which, despite its name, is one of the clearest and most popular fishing and boating lakes in this rolling farmland.
- On Highway 23 at the intersection of Old Mill Road stop by Glacial Ridge Winery (320-796-9463). If it’s past noon Thursday through Sunday, owners Kimberly and Ron Wothe will serve up tastes of six wines for $3 a person. Two favorites: Wicked, a blend of Foch, Frontenac, and Cabernet grapes, and Jimmy Appleseed, a medium-sweet apple wine.
- Follow Highway 9 through New London westward to U.S. 71 and the entrance to Sibley State Park (320-354-2055). Drive the blacktop (a scenic drive in itself) to the trailhead to Mt. Tom. It’s a short hike through a forest of gnarly bur oak to the highest point in the park. Climb the granite-and-wood lookout tower.
- Pick up the Glacial Ridge Trail (Highway 121) as you leave the park heading north. Hold on for a rough ride and watch for signs. Trail markers will lead you uphill and down, around sharp corners, along good blacktop and scrabbly gravel. But the view is worth it: Ancient glaciers dumped loads of ice, rock, and gravel in this region, creating abrupt hills and unexpected ponds and lakes.
- At Highway 104, turn east to follow a spur of the Glacial Ridge Trail to the remnants of Terrace Mill, including the preserved 1903 flour mill. Nearby are the Keystone Arch Bridge over the tiny Chippewa River and a 1930 stone house. The old general store houses Terrace Mill Store, an Italian restaurant (call for hours and reservations: 320-278-2233).
- If you’re up for hiking along conical glacial hills known as “kames,” make a beeline to Glacial Lakes State Park (320-239-2860). If you’d rather have a quick snack, bypass the park and visit the Pastry Shoppe (320-239-3898) or Dave’s Place (320-239-2950) in Starbuck.
- Drive north along the shores of Lake Minnewaska through Glenwood and then north to the prosperous town of Alexandria. Alex’s appeal stems from the interconnected lakes that surround it. At the Minnesota Lakes Maritime Museum (320-759-1114) inspect a dozen vintage mahogany Chris-Craft, three Garwood boats, and an exhibit about Alexandria Boat Works, an early local manufacturer.
- Drive north from town to Carlos Creek Winery (320-846-5443) to sip wine and stroll the expansive grounds of the vineyard and orchard. Tastings are $5 a person. Call ahead for hours.