Any time's a good time to get away with your sweetie. But there's something about fall in Minnesota that makes it feel as though you're really missing out if you don't hit the road, together, to get lost in autumn's fantastic weather and color.
The laid-back wineries, local restaurants, scenic parks and cozy inns that dot the state's southernmost stretch of the Great River Road, in the far southeastern triangle of Minnesota, make welcome stops for two. Hands-down the greatest attraction this time of year, though, is the river valley itself, looking like it caught the contents of Mother Nature's overturned jewelry box with its sparkling band of sapphire water cradled in bluffs bursting with shades of ruby, emerald and gold.
About a mile south of the historic little rivertown of Hastings, a few turns off Highway 61, Alexis Bailly Vineyard transports you far from all things urban-or Minnesotan, for that matter. David Bailly stubbornly carved this Napa-esque compound into southern Minnesota's corn and bean fields way back in the seventies, making it the state's oldest winery. Sip home-grown wines in the weathered-wood tasting room or on the back deck, shaded in grapevines twisting overhead.
About 20 miles down 61, the Falconer Vineyards tasting room perches on the edge of a lovely valley brimming with curly vines, heavy with grapes each fall. Both are also part of the Three Rivers Wine Trail, featuring multiple Minnesota wineries.
All along this stretch of road following the river down to Iowa, there are parks perfect for walks, picnics or just soaking in the view, hand-in-hand. Here in Red Wing, Colvill's known for eagle-watching, central Levee's the place for downtown river scenics, and Barn Bluff holds a bird's-eye vista of the valley--earn it with a steep 1.5-mile hike.
Further south on the Great River Road, tempting views emerge one after the other. In Lake City, stop for the sailboats on Lake Pepin, actually the Mississippi River swollen to a whopping 3 miles wide. Then there's Faith, Hope and Charity, the trio of pretty bluffs in John A. Latsch State Park--about 900 steps deliver you to a great view atop Charity.
Winona's Minnesota Marine Art Museum inspires with diverse works from the world's most renowned marine artists, as well as the mighty river, waiting out its front door. And the many orchards in and around LaCrescent, the Apple Capital of Minnesota, are a natural in the fall--some even sit on the blufftops overlooking the Mississippi.
All along the river valley at day's end, the lowering sun lights the russet-colored trees afire against the sky's fleeting pastel backdrop, adding to the allure of the southernmost section of Minnesota's Great River Road in fall. Make time, and bring your sweetie. You don't want to miss this show.