Waiting for a single fall weekend for hiking is a bit like choosing just one day to pick apples. You miss out on a lot of varieties. The best advice? Get out as much as you can to catch the many waves of fall color rippling through Minnesota.
Pick a strategic destination, and you can enjoy bonus colors in places such as Maplewood State Park, east of Pelican Rapids, where eastern hardwoods edge up to almost 600 acres of restored western prairie.
Park manager Don Del Greco compared the season to a symphony starting, with flashes of scarlet sumac and yellow ash and rustling russet prairie grasses up to 5 feet. It’s followed by bursts of neon orange, deep red and even purple on the crowns of the park’s maple trees before moving downward.
“It’s been nothing but a crescendo,” he said in recent weeks. “We’re seeing some of the best color all fall.”
In other parts of the state, you can find golden birch, copper tamarack and bronzed oaks as the season progresses. Many trails and forest or park roads tug travelers forward with tunnels of color, but the most spectacular views usually require a hike up to one of Minnesota’s river bluffs, glacial hills, ridges or the North Shore mountains.
That’s also a good way to ditch the steady flow of sightseers.
Maplewood can draw up to 1,500 cars a day on good-weather weekends when leaves blaze the brightest. Southeastern Minnesota’s Great River Bluffs State Park can draw up to 500 cars a day, which is four times more than they get on a busy summer day.
The 500-foot bluffs southeast of Winona provide expansive views of the Mississippi River and the maze of backwaters and islands on the Wisconsin shore near the Black River delta. Rick Samples, park manager at Great Bluffs, said visitors can watch for newly re-established pheasants, along with bluebirds, indigo buntings, scarlet tanagers and goldfinches, which add more color to the landscape.
“It’s a pretty special place when you combine fall colors and scenic views,” Samples said.
Up-to-date color information and detailed park trail maps can be found on the state Department of Natural Resources’ special Fall Finder web page here.
1. Maplewood State Park: The popular Hallaway Hill Trail in the northwest corner of Minnesota’s sixth-largest park rewards visitors with a view of sizable Lake Lida, plus smaller lakes and ponds nestled into the Leaf Hills. The park’s more than 20 miles of trails include the Grass Lake Interpretive Trail on the east side and the Star Loop through the steeper southern hills.
2. Shingobee Recreation Area: Six miles of trails thread through this piney section of Chippewa National Forest west of Walker and the Leech Lake area. The hills overlooking the Shingobee River Valley drop so steeply that it was a long-ago ski resort before a downshift to a high-thrill sledding hill and Nordic trails.
3. Big Bog State Recreation Area: Start with a climb up the fire tower for a big overview from this perch in Waskish, then drive to the trailhead for a boardwalk that ventures into this yawning bog where tamarack turn brilliant before dropping their needles.
4. Lutsen Mountains: Take the Summit Express gondola across the Poplar River valley and up the dramatic cliffside of 1,000-foot Moose Mountain at Lutsen Mountains. The loop trail at the top with includes an overlook facing Magic Mountain and a carpet of fall foliage. Hikers can return on the gondola or hike back on foot, which can take about two hours. (1-218-663-7281; lutsen.com)
5. Temperance River State Park: Hikers can park northwest of the Temperance River, south of Tofte on the North Shore, and follow its dramatic gorges and potholes inland. The trail connects to the Superior Hiking Trail and winds north to Carlton Peak, an exposed rock dome close to 1,000 feet high.
1. Sibley State Park: Take a hike up to Mount Tom, a sturdy lookout tower with a 360-degree view of oak savanna and prairie that rolls through the hills of this Minnesota favorite in New London.
2. Banning State Park: Near Sandstone, the 1.7-mile Quarry Loop Trail overlooks the Kettle River known for its many rapids loved by skilled paddlers. A spur trail leads to Wolf Creek Falls.
3. Interstate State Park: You may need extra time to find a parking spot at this popular park near The Dalles of the St. Croix River in Taylors Falls. It’s worth it for the river trail that follows the dramatic rock canyon and shows off the distinctive glacial potholes.
1. Blue Mound State Park: The main trail from the visitor center at this park in Luverne follows a quartzite cliff that juts up from the prairie about 100 feet. Visitors may be able to spot the park’s bison herd. An additional 13 miles of trails explore the rose-pink rocks and tallgrass prairies.
2. Minneopa State Park: Fall leaves drop into the river here and gently cascade down the ledges of Minneopa’s waterfall, which can be admired from above or by hiking down into the shady, mossy gorges found in this region. As a bonus, you may catch sight of the park’s bison herd.
1. Frontenac State Park: Birders enjoy these trails along the Mississippi River flyway for fall migration. The 2.7-mile Bluffside Trail offers a workout with its loop through lower and upper stretches of the more than 400-foot bluff overlooking Lake Pepin between Red Wing and Lake City. Some of the best birding can be found on the southern end of the park where a mostly flat Sand Point Trail follows a boardwalk covering seven-tenths of a mile through flood plain forest to a sandy spit reaching into the river.
2. Great Bluffs State Park: The King’s Bluff Nature Trail draws the most visitors with its five overlooks. The park’s seven miles of hiking trails thread through red, white and pin oak, hickory, basswood and sugar maples, which are part of the million-acre Richard J. Dorer Memorial Hardwood Forest. The park’s sister site, Beaver Creek Valley State Park, offers a second place to catch late- fall colors.
Lisa Meyers McClintick (lisamclintick.com) is a freelance writer from St. Cloud.