Begin in Belle Plaine, where you can hop aboard a tractor-driven wagon on its way to U-Pick orchards and colorful pumpkin patches at Emma Krumbee's. Stroll past more than 100 playful scarecrows and try to pick a favorite during the annual Scarecrow Festival. Outside the bakery, the sugary aroma of caramel drizzled Dutch apple pie, pumpkin bars and flaky apple flips drift through the air.
Apple stands pop up throughout the drive south. Look for colorful barns and the chance to sample and discover a fresh favorite such as newcomer Zestar, huge Connell Reds, mellow honeygolds or the University of Minnesota's hugely popular and sweetly explosive Honeycrisp. New varieties ripen each week from mid-August to late October.
The byway parallels Minnesota Highway 169, using slower county roads that meander through historic Henderson tucked into the hills with an old-fashioned soda fountain and an affinity for ruby-throated hummingbirds that pass through here before migrating south. Give a wave to the Jolly Green Giant that looms above his hometown of Le Sueur before heading to St. Peter, a picturesque college town once in the running to be the state's capitol. Grab an on-the-go meal made from local foods at the St. Peter Co-op or satisfy a sweet tooth and thirst for history at the Soderlund Village Drug pharmacy museum and soda fountain.
Roads continue south through the deep river valley and colorful sweeping hills as they near Mankato. Stop at Minneopa State Park to see one of Minnesota's few double waterfalls, then follow the river west to New Ulm, where German heritage is enthusiastically oom-pah-pahed for Oktoberfest and other celebrations. Enjoy the culture and nationally recognized historic architecture any day of the year with a do-it-yourself downtown walking tour. Just check out a free iPod at the visitor center.
Wind down by sampling the suds at Schell's Brewery, the second-oldest family brewery in the nation. It's still going strong with 14 of its own brands, along with Minnesota's Grain Belt beer. Leave time to stroll the pretty gardens on this historic estate tucked into the densely woods hillside.
Descendants of the Schell Brewery founders resurrected another family craft when they opened Morgan Creek Vineyard on the sunny slopes near Cambria. They're among a growing number of wineries using use Minnesota-developed cold-hardy grapes that give wines a distinctive northern bouquet. On Friday nights through mid-October, visitors can sip a favorite wine, eat wood-fired pizzas and listen to live music while enjoying autumn's crisp caress in the Minnesota River Valley.