Minnesota River Valley bike trail in Bloomington

Things to Do Along the Minnesota River Valley During Fall

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Minnesota River Valley bike trail in Bloomington

Things to Do Along the Minnesota River Valley During Fall

By Lisa Meyers McClintick

For fall-loving travelers looking for more than foliage, the Minnesota River Valley Scenic Byway is full of eclectic adventures just waiting to be explored, whether that means zip lines whirring across forests, military tanks plowing through puddles, or bicyclists heading up and down hills. 

Start your journey heading southwest on Highway 169 and pick your favorite way to experience this 300-mile scenic drive — a "nature-filled trip through the Midwestern heartland" according to AFAR — below.

Kerfoot zip line in the fall

Kerfoot Canopy Tours, Henderson

See Fall From the Treetops

The height can make newbies wary when climbing up to zip-line platforms, but the snug harness and exhilaration of speeding above the trees — with fall colors on fast forward — make any nerves vanish in a blink.

Sand Creek Adventures, a 4-mile detour off the byway along Highway 21 south of Jordan, guides visitors through its high ropes course and the zip line across Sand Creek. Kerfoot Canopy Tour tucks into the woods above the Minnesota River with its zip lines set up between Belle Plaine and Henderson.

Yellow sign that says Minnesota's Largest Candy Store

Minnesota's Largest Candy Store is a yellow beacon off the highway in Jordan

For a fall treat and thirst quencher post-adventure, two of the most beloved stops on the byway are found between Jordan and Belle Plaine. Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store, with its can’t-miss-it yellow buildings, offers sweets and sodas galore, plus fall pumpkins, apples and pastries. Emma Krumbee’s also specializes in fresh-picked apples, cider, baked goods and family-friendly activities, from hay rides to petting zoos.

Upper Sioux Agency State Park teepee

Upper Sioux Agency State Park, Granite Falls

Learn About Native American History & Heritage

St. Peter’s Treaty Site History Center discusses a pivotal treaty between Europeans and Dakota Indians that allowed settlers into the valley, but led to starving tribes and an uprising that sparked the U.S.-Dakota War in 1862. Sites throughout the valley reflect this painful part of Minnesota's past, with extensive exhibits at New Ulm’s Brown County Historical Society; Reconciliation Park in Mankato, where 38 Dakota were hanged; and battlefields and ruins at Fort Ridgely near Fairfax.

Tours of the Lower Sioux Agency, and a chance to camp in teepees near Granite Falls’ Upper Sioux Agency State Park, allow visitors to imagine life on the prairie before settlers arrived.

Father and daughter at Minneopa State Park Mankato

Father and daughter at Minneopa State Park in Mankato / Jim Henderson

Go Hiking, Biking & Paddling

Hikers can check out the cool, wet gorges at Mankato’s Minneopa State Park with its 39-foot waterfall and a resident herd of buffalo. When rain has been plentiful, Minnemishinona Falls on the other side of the Minnesota River drops 42 feet into a ravine. To the west, Redwood Falls boasts the state’s biggest municipal park: Ramsey Park, which also has camping through mid-October, a 20-foot waterfall and a small zoo with bison, elk and deer.

Mankato offers numerous bike loops throughout the river valley, plus the Sakatah State Trail that stretches to Faribault. The most popular local ride follows the Red Jacket Trail to historic Rapidan Dam, where a tiny cafe serves up old-fashioned burgers and pies. It’s also the sweetest rest stop for cyclists on the annual Mankato River Ramble.

Bent River Outfitter rents canoes, kayaks and paddleboards and offers shuttles to paddlers who want to explore local rivers, including the Blue Earth River with its deep grottos and gorges. They also host guided paddles by appointment only and require a group of six or more.

Hermann the German fall New Ulm

Hermann the Germann, New Ulm / Carolyn Marti Smith

Celebrate the German Way

New Ulm, known for its distinctive and historic German architecture and culture, embraces a traditional Oktoberfest celebration the first two weekends in October, tours at sixth-generation Schell’s Brewery, music, dancing, wine-tasting and a grape stomp at Morgan Creek Vineyards, and the chance to shop early for German Christmas ornaments at Domeier's German Store. 

Don’t miss climbing the Hermann the German statue that rises 102 feet high for a sweeping view of the Minnesota River Valley cloaked in its brightest colors.

Lisa Meyers McClintick

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