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Rainbow Routes: 10 Fall Color Drives in Minnesota

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Take a fall drive on the Scenic Byway in Bemidji State Park

Rainbow Routes: 10 Fall Color Drives in Minnesota

Hit the road for an unforgettable drive through a rainbow of colorful fall foliage in Minnesota this autumn. The list includes some well-known favorites, and some lesser-known gems where you don't have to share the view with a crowd.

  1. North Shore of Lake Superior
    North shore roads fall colors

    North Shore back roads fall colors / Micah Kvidt

    North Shore of Lake Superior

    This route along America's largest Great Lake is known for its great fall color and great lake views, making it very popular with fall color fans. Several state parks with wilderness rivers, waterfalls, hiking trails and scenic overlooks make for marvelous pit stops. Yellow aspen and birch hug the shoreline, with scarlet maples inland along forest roads. Make sure you have a reservation for a place to stay, and try planning midweek trips to avoid the busiest travel periods. This has been designated as an "All American Drive," one of only 15 routes in the country so noted for their outstanding scenery. For an inland view, take Hwy. 1 through the colors of the Superior National Forest to Ely.

    • Route: HWY. 61, Duluth to Grand Portage
    • Peak Color: Mid-Sept. to early Oct.
  2. Iron Range Loop
    Iron Range fall Embarrass Lake near Biwabik

    Iron Range fall colors

    Iron Range Loop

    There's a beautiful mix of color on this circle drive, but plenty of other highlights as well: a tour of the Soudan Underground Mine, two major golf courses at Giants Ridge—The Legend and The Quarry—and the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame at Eveleth. At Virginia, there's an overlook of the area's deepest open pit mine and the popular Mesabi Bike Trail.

    • Route: HWY. 169 from Virginia to Tower, HWY. 135 through Biwabik back to Virginia
    • Peak Color: Mid-Sept. to early Oct.

     

  3. Edge of the Wilderness
    Chippewa National Forest fall colors

    Fall is fantastic in the Chippewa National Forest

    Edge of the Wilderness

    This super scenic byway winds over hills through the colorful mix of pine and hardwoods of Chippewa National Forest. Return via Co. Rd. 7 and make a side trip to beautiful Scenic State Park. Or take one of the back roads through the forest, with stops at lakes and hiking trails along the way.

    • Route: HWY. 38, Grand Rapids to Bigfork
    • Peak Color: Mid-Sept. to early Oct.

     

  4. Mississippi Headwaters
    Couple Itasca State Park Mississippi Headwaters

    Crossing the Mississippi Headwaters at Itasca State Park is a Bemidji-area tradition for many / Democratic Travelers

    Mississippi Headwaters

    Itasca State Park, the source of the mighty Mississippi River, is the star attraction on this route. Lake Bemidji State Park, with its birch and pine, is another highlight. There's a paved bike trail in Itasca, and mountain bike trails in Bemidji State Park. You'll also find scenic biking along the nearby Heartland Trail.

    • Route: HWY. 71 between Park Rapids and Bemidji, plus numerous other roads around these towns
    • Peak Color: Mid-Sept. to early Oct.

     

  5. Otter Tail County
    Glendalough State Park Annie Battle Lake fall

    Glendalough State Park / Jenny Anderson/@Girlof10000Lakes

    Otter Tail County

    The rolling countryside between Fergus Falls and Perham is a blend of wooded hills, lakes and farmland. Highlights include Maplewood and Glendalough state parks, the historic Phelps Mill, and the view from Inspiration Peak off Co. Rd. 38.

    • Route: HWYS. 108 and 78, and numerous county roads
    • Peak Color: Late Sept. to early Oct.

     

  6. Brainerd Lakes & Mille Lacs
    Fire tower Mille Lacs Kathio State Park

    Climb the 100-foot fire tower at Mille Lacs Kathio State Park / @katiehadleyxo

    Brainerd Lakes & Mille Lacs

    Gull, Pelican and Cross lakes and the Whitefish Chain of Lakes sparkle amid woods of maple, oak, birch and aspen. Mille Lacs Kathio State Park is an expanse of colorful forest at the edge of Mille Lacs, and an observation tower here offers fantastic views. Fishing, boating, golfing and biking the Paul Bunyan Trail are favorite activities in this lake country.

    • Route: HWY. 371 and 6, and the county roads between them, plus HWY. 169
    • Peak Color: Late Sept. to early Oct.

     

  7. St. Croix River Valley
    Taylors Falls Interstate State Park fall couple hiking

    A couple overlooks the St. Croix River from a rock cliff in Interstate State Park / Paul Vincent

    St. Croix River Valley

    The scenic St. Croix River winds through wooded hillsides and sheer cliffs. Four state parks feature great river views: InterstateWild RiverWilliam O'Brien and Afton. The charming towns of Stillwater, Taylors Falls and Afton have numerous antique and gift shops. Boat excursions on the river are a great way to see the fall color. This drive is very popular in the fall; consider a midweek visit to avoid weekend traffic.

    • Route: HWY. 95 from Taylors Falls to Afton
    • Peak Color: Late Sept. to mid-Oct.

     

  8. Twin Cities Touring
    Minneapolis skyline in fall

    The downtown Minneapolis skyline from Boom Island Park / Greg Riekens aka Harry Wells

    Twin Cities Touring

    Few major cities can boast such beautiful drives, all of which are even prettier in the fall. Circle Lake of the Isles, Maka Ska, Harriet and Nokomis lakes, and visit Minnehaha Falls. They're all along the Grand Rounds Scenic Byway. The Lake Street and Ford Parkway bridges have great views of the Mississippi bordered by colorful, wooded hillsides. St. Paul's tree-lined Summit Avenue is bordered by stately homes.

    • Route: Parkways around Minneapolis lakes, along Minnehaha Creek, Mississippi and Summit Avenue
    • Peak Color: Late Sept. to mid-Oct.

     

  9. Mississippi River Valley
    Mississippi River bluffs Weaver Bottoms fall driving

    Mississippi River Bluffs near Weaver Bottoms / Paul Vincent

    Mississippi River Valley

    Charming river towns and wooded bluffs border the Mississippi River on this colorful route, characterized by steep hillsides dressed in brilliant autumn hues of red, russet and gold. Several scenic overlooks, including those at Frontenac and Great River Bluffs state parks, are must-stops. You'll also find several roadside apple stands for a tasty afternoon snack. This is a popular fall drive, so book your stay ahead of time.

    • Route: HWY. 61 between Red Wing and La Crescent
    • Peak Color: Mid-Oct.

     

  10. Minnesota River Drive
    Minneopa Falls fall colors

    Minneopa Falls / Dave Tapia

    Minnesota River Drive

    Follow the bend in the river, and the ribbon of yellow and gold hardwoods that borders the Minnesota River. Along the way, you'll find riverside parks in Le Sueur, St. Peter, Mankato and New Ulm, as well as bluff-top overlooks in New Ulm. At Minneopa State Park, a trail follows the riverbank, and there are 45- foot double waterfalls along a creek as well as a herd of native bison.

    • Route: Co. Rd. 6 and HWY. 93 from Belle Plaine to Le Sueur, then HWY. 169 to Mankato, then HWY. 68 to New Ulm
    • Peak Color: Late Sept. to mid-Oct.