Rainbow Routes: 10 Fall Color Drives

By Explore Minnesota

Fall drive in Bemidji State Park
Fall drive in Bemidji State Park

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.

Byway Map

1. North Shore of Lake Superior

Route: Hwy. 61, Duluth to Grand Portage

Peak color: mid-Sept. to early Oct.

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.

2. Iron Range Loop

Route: Hwy. 169 from Virginia to Tower, Hwy. 135 through Biwabik back to Virginia

Peak color: mid-Sept. to early Oct.

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.

3. Edge of the Wilderness

Route: Hwy. 38, Grand Rapids to Bigfork

Peak color: mid-Sept. to early Oct.

Fall colors in the Chippewa National Forest
Chippewa National Forest

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.

4. Mississippi Headwaters

Route: Hwy. 71 between Park Rapids and Bemidji, plus numerous other roads around these towns

Peak color: mid-Sept. to early Oct.

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.

5. Otter Tail County

Route: Hwys. 108 & 78, and numerous county roads

Peak color: late Sept. to early Oct.

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.

6. Brainerd Lakes & Mille Lacs

Route: Hwy. 371 and 6, and the county roads between them, plus Hwy. 169

Peak color: late Sept. to early Oct.

Heartland Paul Bunyan Trail bike
Paul Bunyan Trail

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.

7. St. Croix River Valley

Route: Hwy. 95 from Taylors Falls to Afton

Peak color: late Sept. to mid-Oct.

The scenic St. Croix River winds through wooded hillsides and sheer cliffs. Four state parks feature great river views: Interstate, Wild River, William 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.

8. Twin Cities Touring

Route: Parkways around Minneapolis lakes, along Minnehaha Creek, Mississippi and Summit Avenue

Peak color: late Sept. to mid-Oct.

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.

9. Mississippi River Valley

Route: Hwy. 61 between Red Wing and La Crescent

Peak color: Mid-Oct.

Mississippi Great River Bluffs
Great River Bluffs State Park

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.

10. Minnesota River Drive

Route: Co. Rd. 6 & 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.

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.

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