Fall Color Road Trip: Don’t Let the Season Pass You By

By James Riemermann

Don’t let Minnesota’s most colorful season pass you by without a road trip—the rest of the year just won’t feel right. Below are some fine options for a fall color drive, from a loop through northern Minnesota’s beautiful and historic Iron Range, to Grand Rounds Scenic Byway along Minneapolis’ waterways, to the colorful hardwood bluffs towering above southeast Minnesota’s streams and rivers.

Iron Range Loop

Route: Hwy. 169 from Virginia to Tower, Hwy. 135 through Biwabik back to Virginia

Peak color: Mid-September to early October

Wynne Lake near Biwabik and Giants Ridge fall
Wynne Lake near Biwabik

The rich history, old immigrant culture and natural beauty of Minnesota’s Mesabi and Vermilion iron ranges make the Iron Range Loop one of northeast Minnesota’s most attractive fall color destinations. In the midst of Superior National Forest, the region is heavily forested with birch, maple, pine and more, and dotted with countless cool, clear lakes.

On the southern shore of Lake Vermilion is Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park. The underground mine portion of the park offers fascinating guided tours beginning with an elevator ride a half-mile underground into Minnesota’s oldest mine, offered daily through September and weekends through mid-October. Guides take visitors to where miners last worked before the mine closed in 1962. Other tours visit a working underground physics laboratory where physicists and engineers from around the world are trying to answer questions about how the universe works.

Several years ago, the park added 3,000 acres of land on the shores of Lake Vermilion, one of Minnesota’s most beautiful, island-studded lakes, with excellent fishing and boating. Services are minimal while the park is under development, but a day-use area has opened on Armstrong Bay, with picnic tables and shelters, fire rings, boat docks and a fishing pier.

In Biwabik, Giants Ridge Resort sports two highly ranked, championship 18-hole golf courses, The Legend & The Quarry, with spectacular scenery and rugged beauty.

For bicyclists, a 68-mile leg of the scenic, paved Mesabi Trail runs west from Virginia to Grand Rapids through the Mesabi Iron Range, passing by fields, streams, lakes and forests. For motorized fun, Minnesota's premier off-highway vehicle recreation area spans 1,200 acres and has 36 miles of scenic trails. Scenic overlooks offer views that stretch for miles, and riders will find spectacular off-road riding for all skill levels.

Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1945 within a 40-acre city park, Virginia’s Olcott Park Greenhouse and Botanical Garden contains one the most extensive and beautiful collections of exotic plants, large tropical palms, cactus and succulents in northern Minnesota.

Brainerd Lakes & Mille Lacs

Route: Hwy. 371 and 6, and the county roads between them, plus Hwy. 169

Peak color: Late September to early October

Heartland Paul Bunyan Trail bike
Paul Bunyan State Trail

This route passes through prime lake resort country in central Minnesota, where large lakes such as Gull, Pelican, Cross and the Whitefish chain, as well as dozens of smaller lakes, sparkle amid woods of maple, oak, birch and aspen. Mille Lacs Kathio State Park is an expanse of colorful forest at the edge of Lake Mille Lacs’ vast waters, and an observation tower here offers fantastic views. Unsurprisingly, fishing, boating and relaxing at the beach are favorite activities.

Many top golf resorts operate in the area, such as Madden’s, Cragun’s, Grand View Lodge, and Izatys on Mille Lacs.

The Paul Bunyan State Trail, at 115 miles, is the longest of Minnesota's state trails, and the longest continuously paved rail-trail in the country. Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area has world-class mountain biking for all levels of bikers, with more than 25 miles of single-track trail riding spread across 800 acres, in addition to camping and fishing. Crow Wing State Park offers easy paddling on the calm waters of the Crow Wing and Mississippi rivers, plus camping and 18 miles of hiking trails along the river and through the woods.

Mississippi Headwaters & Lake Country

Route: Hwy. 71 between Park Rapids and Bemidji, plus numerous other roads around these towns

Peak color: Mid-September to early October

Mississippi headwaters at Itasca State Park, photo by the Democratic Travelers
Mississippi headwaters at Itasca State Park / Photo by Democratic Travelers

The jewel of this route through northwest Minnesota is Itasca State Park, Minnesota’s oldest and second-largest state park, at the source of the legendary Mississippi River. In addition to the old-growth red and white pine the area is famous for, maple, basswood, oak and aspen add to the colors. The park is also home to tamarack, Minnesota’s deciduous conifer, with needles that turn bright yellow before dropping in the fall (typically a bit later than leaf-bearing trees).

The main park drive goes by the towering, centuries-old red pines of Preacher’s Grove overlooking Lake Itasca and to the Mississippi Headwaters Center for a short walk to (and across) the Mississippi headwaters, where the great river leaves Lake Itasca and begins its 2,552-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico.

The park has 45 miles for hiking and biking along almost 30 trails through a wide variety of habitat. The Chester Charles tour boat offers two-hour naturalist-guided tours daily through Sept. 12, and Wednesday-Sunday through Oct. 2. Douglas Lodge has a full-service restaurant, and the Headwaters Cafe is located in the Mississippi Headwaters Center. Both are open daily through the first Sunday in October.

Lake Bemidji State Park, on the northeast shore of Lake Bemidji, offers diverse trees, wildflowers, grasslands, bogs and wildlife in a lakeside setting. For a beautiful view of the lake and the colorful canopy of pine, birch, maple and other species, take a short hike to the bluff at Rocky Point high above the blue waters.

If you didn’t pack warm enough clothes for the cool fall evenings, stop by Bemidji Woolen Mills, with a wide variety of locally crafted wool blankets, sweaters, shirts and hats. Or pick up some wool yarn and fabric by the yard to make your own! Also worth a visit in town is the newly expanded Bemidji Brewing, with a variety of year-round and seasonal ales, porters and other brews.

Historic Bluff Country

Route: Hwy. 16 between LaCrescent and Dexter

Peak color: Late September to mid-October

Amish horse-drawn Buggy near Preston
Amish horse-drawn Buggy near Preston

This lovely road in southeast Minnesota winds for 90 miles among the lushly wooded limestone bluffs of the Root River Valley, through charming river towns that seem like they’re from an earlier era. Minnesota’s largest Amish communities settled in this area, and their simple black horse-drawn buggies are common sights along the roads. Shops in Lanesboro and Harmony carry lovely Amish crafts, and outfits in both towns operate Amish tours that, with the permission of the Amish community, visit farms and settlements to learn about the culture and purchase crafts, preserves, baked goods and more.

Explore the Root River Trail by bike, stopping for pie or lunch in a town along the trail. Or, enjoy the same route by water; several towns have outfitters and shuttles for a canoe or kayak trip.

Many rivers and streams in the region offer excellent brown and brook trout fishing. Some of the state’s most charming bed-and-breakfasts are found in this area, as well as motels, hotels and a few resorts. A short drive south of the highway are two state parks: South of Houston is Beaver Creek Valley State Park, where brown and native brook trout inhabit the creek, flowing between hardwood-covered bluffs that rise as much as 250 feet overhead; and underground cave tours are offered at Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park at Preston. Niagara Cave at Harmony has a 60-foot waterfall as well as the pools, stalactites and stalagmites found in both caves.

Lanesboro has plentiful arts, shopping and dining opportunities, including several fine galleries, antique shops, and one of Minnesota’s best small-town professional theater companies, the Commonweal Theatre. Plays this fall will include “The Three Musketeers,” “Prides’ Crossing” and “A Christmas Carol,” opening Nov. 18.

Grand Rounds Scenic Byway

Route: Minneapolis, a 53-mile drive along the parkways

Peak color: Late September to mid-October

Minnehaha Falls Fall Jeff Lundgren 800 wide
Minnehaha Falls / Photo by Greg Lundgren

With a park system as extraordinary as that of Minneapolis, St. Paul and surrounding suburbs, it’s hard to pick a favorite route, but Minneapolis’ Grand Rounds Scenic Byway is a great place to start exploring. The nation’s longest continuous system of public urban parkways, the byway encompasses about 50 miles of tree-lined streets, connecting with more than 100 miles of biking and hiking trails. The historic Longfellow House near Minnehaha Park houses an interpretive center with information about the route.

The longest sections are along the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes (Cedar Lake, Lake Calhoun, Lake of the Isles and Lake Harriet), Minnehaha Parkway and the West Mississippi River Parkway. The route also loops around Lake Nokomis and through Theodore Wirth Park, home to the lovely Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary.

The Twin Cities Nice Ride system offers bike rentals at self-service racks along the route. Replenish your energy at either of two excellent seafood restaurants with outdoor seating on Minneapolis park property: Tin Fish on the shore of Lake Calhoun, and Sea Salt, a stone’s throw from Minnehaha Falls. Lines can be long on a nice day, but it’s worth the wait.

Find more scenic fall drives and other things to do this fall in Minnesota.