By Mpls.St.Paul Magazine / Inspired by Dan Buettner's My North
For cultural anthropologist and explorer Dan Buettner, Minnesota being a great place to live isn’t just a hunch or a personal opinion—it’s science. The National Geographic Fellow and Blue Zones founder has built a career out of studying which places in the world are the happiest, which are the healthiest, and then determining why. Consistently in his research, he finds that Minnesota is a leader in both, and what better way to see that happy healthiness in action than getting in a car and driving around it? In honor of Dan Buettner’s global explorations that keep leading him back to Minnesota, here are five great byways by which to do some Minnesota exploring of your own.
Ever look at Minnesota’s jagged border with Canada and think, “I’d like to drive that someday, preferably on a road with a whimsical name?” Well then, consider your boxes checked with the Waters of the Dancing Sky Scenic Byway. Named after the aurora borealis, and running along the Canadian border from International Falls to Warroad and beyond, the drive offers swell views of the Rainy River, Lake of the Woods, the Pine to Prairie Birding Trail and even Voyageurs National Park.
The greatest urban bike path in the country is also one of the nation’s great urban drives—ironic, considering that in the 1880s, when Horace W. Cleveland first came up with the idea of lining all our urban waters with parks and paths, automobiles were still more than 20 years away from existence. The 55-mile loop puts you on top of almost every iconic Minneapolis spot, from the natural wonders like our urban lakes, Minnehaha Creek and the Mississippi River, to man-made ones like the Stone Arch Bridge, Guthrie Theater and Weisman Art Museum.
Just as Minnesota lays claim that, because it starts here, the great Mississippi River is ours—it is, dangit!—the national byway that more or less follows it from its Itasca headwaters all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico, also is. Sure, the Great River Road winds its way through 10 total states, but the most essential 565 miles of it make their way right down the heart of ours. On its journey, first north from Itasca, and then eventually south at Bemidji, driving along the great river on its great road is a veritable ‘who’s who’ of Minnesota sites, including the Chippewa National Forest, Cuyuna Rolling Hills, the Richard J. Dorer Memorial Hardwood State Forest and even the Twin Cities.
The rolling prairieland of western Minnesota is an ideal destination for travelers hungry for a slice of that iconic, Americana landscape, and the King of Trails is a well-earned title for this gorgeous stretch of road flowing through it. Highway 75—also known as The King of Trails Scenic Byway—runs 414 miles north to south along the state’s western border. While it’s worth exploring for the scenic prairie views alone, there are a ton of great stops along the way, too, including nearby Pipestone National Monument, the Brandenburg Gallery in Luverne and Far North Spirits Distillery & Cocktail Room in Hallock.
Avert your eyes if you don’t want to hear what might come as a shocking truth, because we’re about to get real. Paul Bunyan, the giant woodsman who cleared the northwoods and created all sorts of lakes and rivers by being clumsy with his axe while he was at it, is fictional. Yep. He and that blue ox, Babe, are merely characters in a long-spun fable. But there is still good news! While Paul himself might not be real, the scenic byway named for him is! And it’s glorious. Spanning fifty-four miles of pure, unadulterated central Minnesota cabin country, the byway winds its way from Pequot Lakes up around Pelican Lake, Crosslake, and the Whitefish Chain before finally depositing itself at Norway Lake in tiny Pine River.