As summer fades in the rearview and leaves crunch beneath our feet, Minnesota transforms into a breathtaking canvas of autumn colors. To make the most of the season, take a road trip through the Land of 10,000 Lakes — but freshwater isn’t the only thing this state has to offer.
From North Shore’s rugged charm to stunning river valleys surrounded by rolling farmlands, Minnesota’s picturesque drives are like nothing you’ve ever seen before. With 22 scenic byways to choose from, Minnesota provides the perfect weekend getaway for adventurous couples, big families, and solo travelers alike. Here are 15 can’t-miss fall drives in Minnesota, each offering a unique blend of cultural charm and natural beauty, listed in no particular order.
15. North Shore Scenic Byway
Starting in Duluth and meandering along Lake Superior’s rugged shoreline, the North Shore Scenic Byway is a 154-mile journey that unveils Minnesota’s glorious fall foliage. Stop at Split Rock Lighthouse and Gooseberry Falls State Park for iconic Minnesota views.
Split Rock Lighthouse, a historic structure overlooking Lake Superior, has some of the best views in the state. They’re nothing short of spectacular and provide a perfect opportunity for a candid Minnesota photograph. Another essential stop on your journey is Gooseberry Falls State Park. This natural wonderland houses winding hiking trails through the forest. There, you can witness the roaring waters of the falls. These two landmarks are perfect examples of the North Shore’s autumnal beauty.
14. Minnesota River Valley National Scenic Byway
Last but not least, explore the Minnesota River Valley National Scenic Byway, which takes you through the Minnesota River Valley’s lush landscapes, offering opportunities for bird-watching, hiking, and enjoying the autumn foliage. The valley’s rich ecosystems, including wetlands and woodlands, create a thriving habitat for birds, particularly during the fall migration season.
For those who seek outdoor adventures, hiking trails wind through the valley’s rolling terrain, inviting you to explore the rich natural landscapes. The valley’s waterways also provide opportunities for fishing and other water-based activities. Plus, you’ll encounter small towns offering museums, historical sites, and local events that provide insights into the region’s past and the traditions that have shaped it.
13. Gunflint Trail
(image via Wikipedia)
Venture further north into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on the Gunflint Trail. This 57-mile drive takes you through dense forests painted in shades of red and gold, with opportunities for hiking, bird watching, and various relaxing activities.
This scenic drive offers more than just visual delights; it’s an opportunity to connect with nature on a profound level. Hikers will find numerous trails along the way, perfect for exploring the forested terrain and experiencing the crisp, refreshing air. Wildlife enthusiasts will be delighted by the chance to spot creatures like white-tailed deer, moose, and various bird species that call this wilderness home.
12. Great River Road
(image via Wikimedia)
Follow the Mississippi River south from Itasca State Park, where the Great River Road covers approximately 575 miles in Minnesota, offering picturesque bluffs, river towns, and historic sites. As you set off from the park, the Mississippi River flows gently from Lake Itasca, and the surrounding forest is a sea of yellow as the leaves change color.
Along the way, explore cozy Midwestern towns. These communities are inviting places to stop, stretch your legs, and soak in the local culture. From historic sites and dine-in restaurants to boat tours, the Great River Road is the perfect pit stop to appreciate the Mississippi River’s greater influence on the region’s culture.
11. St. Croix River Valley
Head east of the Twin Cities to explore the St. Croix River Valley. This region features charming river towns like Stillwater and Marine on St. Croix, where you can take in the stunning river views and explore antique shops.
Whether you’re strolling along the riverwalk, savoring a meal at a waterside restaurant, or exploring the local boutique shops, Stillwater provides an idyllic setting for a leisurely day trip or a weekend escape. Marine on St. Croix, another gem nestled within the valley, exudes a different but equally captivating ambiance. This historic village is a haven for those seeking a glimpse into the past, with well-preserved 19th-century architecture and a serene riverfront setting.
10. Scenic Highway 61
Take a leisurely drive along Highway 61, also known as the “All-American Road.” This route offers captivating views of Lake Superior and charming towns where you can indulge in fresh seafood and local art.
You’ll be immediately struck by the breathtaking vistas of Lake Superior, but the charming towns along the way are equally inviting. Grand Marais, a quaint gem nestled on the North Shore, beckons travelers with its unique blend of artistic flair and outdoor allure. Here, you can immerse yourself in local art galleries, showcasing the creativity inspired by the area’s natural beauty. It’s also a place to savor fresh seafood, indulge in warm beverages at cozy cafes, and take in the warmth of small-town hospitality.
9. Northwoods Drive – Highway 38
To truly immerse yourself in the woodlands, a journey along Highway 38, known either as Northwoods Drive or Edge of the Wilderness National Scenic Byway, is an exceptional choice. This route takes you through the heart of the Chippewa National Forest. This vast expanse of unspoiled wilderness makes it a perfect getaway from the hustle and bustle of urban life.
One of the most remarkable features of this route is the abundance of serene lakes. Many of these lakes offer picturesque spots for picnics, hikes, or a moment of quiet reflection. It’s an opportunity to reconnect with nature and recharge your spirit while taking in the breathtaking landscapes that make fall in Minnesota so enchanting.
8. Apple Orchards and Wineries
(image via Aamodt’s Apple Farm )
Fall isn’t just about the leaves; it’s also apple-picking season! Visit one of Minnesota’s many apple orchards, such as Aamodt’s Apple Farm or Minnetonka Orchard, where you can savor apple cider and pick your own apples. Many orchards also offer apple-based treats like apple pie, caramel apples, and apple cider donuts, providing a delightful end to your visit.
Don’t forget to sample wines at local wineries like Alexis Bailly Vineyard or Cannon River Winery. The vineyards themselves are often nestled in stunning rural settings, providing a serene atmosphere for wine tasting.
7. Mankato to New Ulm
Explore the scenic beauty of southern Minnesota with a drive from Mankato to New Ulm. This route takes you through picturesque farmlands and charming small towns. The best destination along the way is Flandrau State Park, nestled in the city of New Ulm. This serene park provides an ideal escape into nature, featuring beautiful wooded areas, walking trails, and the lakeshore. The fall foliage here is nothing short of stunning!
For those with a penchant for craft beer, the August Schell Brewery in New Ulm is a fascinating stop. This historic brewery offers tours where you can learn about the art of brewing and the history of this iconic Minnesota institution. It’s an opportunity to sample local brews and experience a taste of the region’s beer-making heritage.
6. Voyageurs Nationals Park
Journey to the northernmost reaches of Minnesota to visit Voyageurs National Park. Here, you can take a scenic drive along Rainy Lake Road, which offers breathtaking views of pristine lakes, forests, and wildlife. The park, named after the French-Canadian fur trappers known as voyageurs, is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts. It encompasses over 218,000 acres of water and land, with a network of interconnected waterways, including Rainy, Kabetogama, Namakan, and Sand Point lakes.
To fully appreciate the park’s splendor, take a scenic drive along Rainy Lake Road. This winding route provides breathtaking vistas of Rainy Lake. It’s perfect for boating, fishing, and wildlife photography. As you embark on your road trip, you might catch sight of bald eagles soaring overhead, loons gliding across the water, and perhaps even a moose or a white-tailed deer.
5. Itasca State Park
Drive through the Itasca State Park and take a stroll across the iconic Mississippi Headwaters, where you can dip your toes in the river that flows southward to the Gulf of Mexico. This park, often referred to as the “Crown Jewel of Minnesota,” is a place of both natural beauty and historical significance. Located in the heart of the state, this expansive park provides a unique opportunity to witness the humble beginnings of the mighty Mississippi River, and the highlight of any visit is a stroll across the Headwaters, where you can quite literally stand with one foot on either side of the Mississippi River.
Beyond the headwaters, the park offers a multitude of hiking trails, which, during the fall season, are blanketed in rich hues of red, orange, and gold. You can explore the park’s diverse ecosystems, with opportunities to spot wildlife, such as deer, beavers, and various bird species.
4. Root River Valley
Explore the Root River Valley in southeastern Minnesota, known for its charming towns like Lanesboro and Peterson. One of the most significant draws of the valley is the Root River State Trail. This 42-mile-long trail takes you through the region’s stunning landscapes, following Root River. For those who appreciate outdoor activities, biking along the trail is a superb way to enjoy the breathtaking fall foliage. The trail also connects two towns, making it easy to explore the valley at your own pace.
Lanesboro, often referred to as the “Bed and Breakfast Capital of Minnesota,” is a quaint town with a vibrant arts scene. Its historic downtown is a pleasure to explore, featuring beautifully preserved 19th-century architecture. Art galleries, boutique shops, and charming cafes are tucked away on the town’s streets, making it a delightful place to amble and soak in the local culture.
Not far from Lanesboro, you’ll discover Peterson, another charming town in the Root River Valley. Known for its strong connection to its Norwegian heritage, Peterson’s streets are dotted with shops, and it’s a place where you can immerse yourself in local tradition, and perhaps even sample Scandinavian cuisine.
3. Tettegouche State Park
Take a detour to Tettegouche State Park on the North Shore. The drive here overlooks Lake Superior, and the park itself boasts hiking trails that offer some of the best waterfalls in the country! Upon arrival, the park reveals itself as a haven for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts. A network of hiking trails winds through dense forests, leading to hidden waterfalls, dramatic cliffs, and awe-inspiring vistas.
A popular trail leads to the High Falls of the Baptism River, a towering cascade that plummets dramatically into a forested canyon. Seeing this powerful waterfall surrounded by vivid fall colors is a memory that lasts a lifetime. Additionally, the Shovel Point Trail offers another unique view of Lake Superior.
2. Lake Pepin Circle Tour
Discover the beauty of Lake Pepin by driving the Lake Pepin Circle Tour. This Mississippi River road trip offers opportunities to enjoy waterside dining, art galleries, and the picturesque town of Lake City.
Lake City exudes a welcoming atmosphere with its vibrant arts scene, historic architecture, and a host of dining options, many of which offer lakeside views. Waterside dining is a special feature of this tour. You can indulge in local cuisine while savoring the soothing sights and sounds of the river. It’s an opportunity to experience the region’s culinary delights, from fresh seafood to farm-to-table dishes, all while being enveloped by the tranquil ambiance of the river.
1. Superior National Forest Scenic Byway
Explore the Superior National Forest Scenic Byway, a 63-mile drive that traverses the forested hills of northeastern Minnesota. The fall colors here are a sight to behold, especially around the Sawtooth Mountains. Part of the dramatic Superior Hiking Trail, the mountains are a highlight of the weekend. Their rugged silhouettes and the rich tapestry of colors make for a breathtaking sight.
A drive through the National Forest also offers chances for hiking and exploration. Hikers can embark on trails that lead through dense forests, along cascading streams, and to serene lakes. Wildlife enthusiasts will be delighted by the potential for spotting animals such as white-tailed deer, moose, and a variety of bird species. The forested landscapes provide a habitat that’s rich in biodiversity, and fall is an excellent time for wildlife sightings.