Take a Fall Drive on the Lake Mille Lacs Scenic Byway

By Brian Fanelli

Lake Mille Lacs in the Fall
Fall trees from above Mille Lacs Kathio State Park / Angela Eldridge

Last summer, the 68-mile loop of gently curving roads around Lake Mille Lacs graduated from a “regionally known scenic drive” to the Ivy League of highways: a bonafide, official Scenic Byway.

Driving around the state’s second-largest inland lake has long been a popular activity for Minnesota travelers, but its designation as the Lake Mille Lacs Scenic Byway cements its reputation as one of Minnesota’s top fall color drives.

American Indian Heritage, Hiking & One Giant Walleye

Starting on the lake’s southern shore, follow MN 169 as it curves along the shoreline and takes you to Mille Lacs Kathio State Park, Minnesota’s fourth-largest state park and a hub of information about Ojibwe traditions and culture. The park features various exhibits and programs highlighting the indigenous nations that have called this land home for over 9,000 years, along with a 35-mile trail system for fall hiking and a 100-foot observation tower. Climb the stairway to the top for a panoramic view of the colorful treetops and the expansive lake below.

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

For a post-hike meal, check out The Launch Bar and Grill at Eddy’s Resort, or head up the road a few minutes to explore the many options at Grand Casino Mille Lacs.

Just north of the park on MN 169, the Mille Lacs Indian Museum and Trading Post provides an even deeper dive into the region’s history. The lakeside museum tells the story of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, from their communities on the East Coast over 1,500 years ago, to their slow westward migration and eventual arrival in the land currently known as Minnesota in the late 1600s. Dioramas depict the traditional Ojibwe activities of harvesting maple syrup, gathering berries, drying wild rice, fishing and hunting, while seasonal workshops allow visitors to partake in them.

Adjacent to the museum, a restored 1930s trading post is stocked with Minnesota’s largest selection of traditional and contemporary indigenous arts and crafts.

An exhibit at the Mille Lacs Indian Musuem
Visit the Mille Lacs Indian Museum and Trading Post for a closer look at the region's history / Brady Willette, courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

Back on the road, roll the windows down and take in the sights and sounds of the byway’s namesake, Lake Mille Lacs. If you squint your eyes a bit you can see all the way across the massive lake, the second-largest within the state at over 132,000 acres. A faint, multi-colored rim of trees lines the lake’s far shore like eyeshadow on the horizon, and if you’re lucky, you might see a bald eagle or sandhill crane soaring overhead.

Pull over when you see the giant walleye statue in Garrison, and step out of your car to appreciate the panoramic lake view and peaceful slosh slosh slosh of waves hitting the stone concourse. In case the massive fiberglass walleye statue was too subtle, an abundance of fishing boats on the lake reminds you that you’re firmly in fishing country. Lake Mille Lacs has long been a popular fall destination for anglers, renowned for its walleye, northern pike, muskie and bass.

Girl posing with the giant walleye statue in Garrison
Pull over when you see the giant walleye statue in Garrison / Mali Mish Family

Drive the Lake's Scenic Northern Rim

After taking in the view, get back in your car and follow MN 18 around the lake’s northern rim. While the entire byway is beautiful in its own right, the 18-mile stretch between Garrison and Malmo is easily its most spectacular segment.

Following MN 18 north out of Garrison, the road narrows as you drive up a shallow bluff and into a hillside wonderland beside the lake. The road rises and falls gently with the landscape, its shallow hills and valleys a relic of glaciers from the last ice age. The lake gleams brilliantly to your right, with a kaleidoscope of burnt yellow, orange and red leaves to your left. As you follow the highway’s slow curve, turn the music up and let the beauty of central Minnesota wash over you.

Fall hike in Father Hennepin State Park - Photo by Douglas Anderson
Make your way to the beach with a stroll through Father Hennepin State Park / Douglas Anderson

Back to Where You Started

As you crest the lake’s northern hump and start heading back south, continue on MN 18 as it moves slightly off the lake. Dense forest envelops the road on both sides, a multicolored canvas occasionally interrupted by the entrance to a resort or cluster of lakeside homes. For a meal on the lake, follow signs to Da Boathouse Restaurant and Bar at Mac’s Twin Bay Resort. Order the hand-breaded walleye or wild rice tater tot hot dish for the full Mille Lacs experience.

The last leg of the route takes you through Isle and Wahkon—two small towns with a variety of dining options along their main streets—but your trek’s grand finale comes by way of Father Hennepin State Park. Boasting the only public swimming beach on Lake Mille Lacs, the sandy shore of Father Hennepin is the perfect place to relax and reflect on your journey while soaking in the fall colors.