A canopy of bright orange leaves frames the road

A Family Road Trip in Central and Northwest Minnesota

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A canopy of bright orange leaves frames a scenic road in central Minnesota / Anthony Hanson

A Family Road Trip in Central and Northwest Minnesota

By Aegor Ray

The smooth, winding road is embraced on either side by trees, their leaves patterned in striking green, warm ochre and vivid crimson shades.

Just up ahead, Trout Lake stretches expansively underneath a sky that can only be described as impossibly blue. The dance of light and water dazzles my eyes as the breeze, tinged with a phantom of chill, refreshes both my lungs and my spirit.

Fall Colors & Wildlife Viewing on the Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway

My road trip on the Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway was autumn in Minnesota distilled. 54 miles of paved county roads loop through Pequot Lakes, Breezy Point, Crosslake, Manhattan Beach and Pine River to connect swaths of state forest, bike trails, wildlife management areas, parks and gardens.

Each town the byway weaves through boasts a unique array of antique shops, handicraft markets, bait and tackle suppliers, rustic lodging and leisurely resorts. Like its folk hero namesake, the Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway is defined by its stories and quintessentially Central Minnesota landscape.

On a pristine late fall morning, I packed a picnic and took a relaxing drive with my family, hoping to spot a park or lookout to wander into for a long lunch. We settled on Uppgaard Wildlife Management Area in Crow Wing County, a 150-acre tract of rolling hills, wildflower gardens and small marshes.

A short walk led us to a serene lookout over a pond, where a pair of swans nestled along the shore. Between cattails and lily pads, the water reflected the swans’ elegant necks, the midday sunlight and the iridescent fall foliage surrounding us.

A Paul Bunyan-Inspiried Pilgrimage to Bemidji

After a couple days exploring the idyllic townships along the byway, my diverse Minnesotan family appreciated our brief venture into Bemidji, the central city of Northwest Minnesota and midway point between the White Earth, Red Lake and Leech Lake Indian nations.

Our Paul Bunyan-inspired pilgrimage was complete when we reached the park on Lake Bemidji that boasted giant statues of the town’s lumberjack hero and his famous blue ox, easily one of the most Instagrammable spots in Minnesota. The park also features a playground designed to be accessible and inclusive to children with disabilities.

Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox statues in Bemidji

Find these iconic Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox statues in Bemidji / Abhishek Taralekar

We took our time exploring the Bemidji Sculpture Walk, which features 37 public sculptures throughout downtown. Our favorite was the 9-foot-tall statue of Shaynowishkung (”He Who Rattles”) in Library Park.

Nicknamed Chief Bemidji, Shaynowishkung was an Ojibwe leader, peacemaker and the first permanent settler in Bemidji. His great-great grandson Donny Headbird was instrumental in designing this special commemorative work, and the resulting statue is a beautiful bronze casting that honors indigenous stewardship of the region we now call Northwest Minnesota.

Highlights Along the Highways

Looking for antiques? Head to Veterans Street in downtown Jenkins, where Annie’s Attic, Finders Keepers Depot and Treasures-n-Tiques are all within walking distance of each other. Find a shapely green glass vase or a vintage leather motorcycle jacket—the sky’s the limit.

Or for a panoramic view of the region, climb the historic fire tower near Pequot Lakes. The hike up to the fire tower is great for intermediate hikers and anyone—two- or four-legged—feeling restless from the car ride. The tower is open to visitors (weather permitting) but there’s no need to climb all the way up to enjoy breathtaking views of the area.

Aegor Ray

Aegor Ray is a writer living in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is currently working on a collection of short stories.