If you crave a bird’s-eye view of Minnesota’s wooded and prairie landscapes as a reward for a hike, bike trek or scenic drive, you’ll find plenty throughout central Minnesota’s oft-rolling terrain, dotted with lakes and threaded by the Mississippi River. Look for prairie flowers by midsummer, ruby-red sumac in early fall, and trees that flame into orange, gold and bronze from mid-September to mid-October.
Don’t forget to bring your favorite tool to capture these inspirational sights, whether it’s a camera, sketchbook, GoPro, or your phone and selfie stick.
The view from Portsmuth Overlook, in the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area near Crosby, unfurls with sky-blue lakes, steep green hills and a hint of iron-red dirt. You’ll see a lot of that colorful soil on the wheels of enthusiastic mountain bikers who join paddlers, anglers and even scuba divers to explore the former mining area, where 15 open pits transformed into extra-deep, spring-fed lakes.
With lakeside camping spots, a beach, trails and great birdwatching, the 3,400-acre Sibley State Park near New London ranks among central Minnesota’s favorite destinations. Even if you’re just passing through, make time for the visitor center and a hike to Mount Tom, where an observation tower 1,375 feet above sea level—the highest point for 50 miles—offers an expansive view of prairie knolls, grasslands and oak savanna.
As you’re climbing Mille Lacs Kathio State Park’s 100-foot-tall observation tower for stellar views from the south shore of Lake Mille Lacs, ponder this: Humans have been camping, fishing and gathering wild rice in this region for more than 9,000 years. At 10,000 acres, Minnesota’s fourth-largest state park includes exhibits and programs on Ojibwe traditions and culture, and you can drive to the Mille Lacs Indian Museum north of the park to learn more.
In addition to seeing the forest’s fall colors, don’t miss the park’s bog walk when the tamarack turn gold.
The Paul Bunyan Fire Tower stands 1,334 feet tall, just east of Pequot Lakes. Imagine life as the tall-tale lumberjack and stretch your legs along the 54-mile Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway that winds around the Whitefish Chain of Lakes north of Brainerd.Or, pack a picnic and savor the views 10 miles south of Clitherall, where Inspiration Peak—the state’s second-highest point—offers a view of nine lakes and three counties.
Near Pelican Rapids, a half-mile hike up Maplewood State Park’s Hallaway Hill leads to a 1,600-foot vista that sweeps across eight lakes and a landscape where western prairie and eastern forests come together in the rolling Leaf Hills. Catch it during a crisp fall day for the most spectacular colors.