Girl looking out an open car window onto the open road

Take a Road Trip on Central Minnesota's Scenic Byways

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Feel the breeze in your hair on a Minnesota road trip / Roy Son

Take a Road Trip on Central Minnesota's Scenic Byways

By Lisa Meyers McClintick

All along central Minnesota's scenic byways, the fragrance of lilacs and clover-scented countryside mingles with pine and spruce forests and whiffs of campfires at campgrounds and state parks. Soak it all in: Roll down the windows, lean into the breeze and joyfully inhale.

Feeling more adventurous? Strap on a helmet, rev up a motorcycle and hug roads that curve along wetlands and rural steepled churches, then follow the glittering blue of Minnesota’s famed lakes and rivers.

Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway

There are few landmarks as easy to spot as Pequot Lakes’ water tower painted like a giant red-and-white bobber. Fittingly, it offers a good spot to start the 50-mile Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway, named for the tall tale hero. It double-loops through the northern end of the Brainerd Lakes area starting with County Road 11 as it heads east to Breezy Point and Pelican Lake. The byway heads north through the Crow Wing State Forest and to Crosslake, a charming boutique town and recreation area.

Travelers can choose a northern or southern route around the Whitefish Chain of Lakes, a hub for boating, fishing, exploring and staying at classic resorts near towns such as Manhattan Beach and Jenkins.

Mississippi Headwaters Itasca State Park

Mississippi Headwaters, Itasca State Park / @lexi4o6

Great River Road

With a humble start in northern Minnesota’s Itasca State Park and wiggling its way east across the Chippewa National Forest, the Mississippi River cuts through the Brainerd Lakes area where Crow Wing State Park offers campsites and a chance to get on the water. Travelers can follow the Great River Road National Scenic Byway to Little Falls to see famed aviator Charles Lindbergh’s historic boyhood home or the Minnesota Fishing Museum.

Just a little further down the byway in St. Cloud, you can wander the historic Munsinger Gardens or take a picturesque bike ride along the river. Keep going southeast along the road, and a feast of fritter bread and summer berries you picked yourself awaits in Clearwater. Winter visitors shouldn’t miss the seasonal spectacle in neighboring Monticello, where trumpeter swans gather on the open water until northern lakes thaw and they can nest again.

Scenic road in Maplewood State Park

Take the scenic route through Maplewood State Park

Otter Trail Scenic Byway

Birders love the 150-mile Otter Trail Scenic Byway that circles a rolling region of more than 1,000 lakes plus prairie potholes where pelicans, herons and swans can be seen nesting and feasting along the shores. Fergus Falls’ Otter Tail County Museum offers a good overview of how the area evolved from native tribes to bustling pioneer towns thanks to places such as historic Phelps Mill, also on the byway.

Hiking trails thread through Pelican Rapids’ Maplewood State Park with sweeping views of Lake Lida. Families can camp here and at Glendalough State Park between scenic Otter Tail and Battle Lake. Head up the 1,750-foot Inspiration Peak west of Urbank for Otter Tail County’s most dramatic view.

Field of wildflowers and colorful birdhouses

Signs of spring pop up along the Glacial Ridge Scenic Byway

Glacial Ridge Scenic Byway

Meandering more than 200 miles, the Glacial Ridge Scenic Byway starts in the Willmar Lakes area with Spicer and New London, home to Green Lake, a winery and taproom, the Little Crow Ski Team’s weekly water ski shows, and Sibley State Park, with a hike to Mount Tom for a sweeping view of the landscape carved by melting glaciers.

Prairie flowers dot the ditches as the byway ambles through farmlands and Glacial Lakes State Park. Take a leisurely drive around the shore of Lake Minnewaska at Starbuck, Long Beach and Glenwood before branching east to Sauk Centre (home of author Sinclair Lewis) or north to Alexandria, a hub for more lakes, shopping, Nordic history and the Legacy of the Lakes Museum with its vast collection of vintage and wooden boats.

Lisa Meyers McClintick

Lisa Meyers McClintick is a prolific travel writer for outlets including USA Today, Midwest Living, the Star Tribune and her website A mom of three, she especially enjoys family travel, hands-on learning vacations, local food and farms, living history and outdoor adventures.