From prairie to river valleys to pine forests, Minnesota covers a range of landscapes, and the state’s 21 scenic byways traverse them all. But the best parts of these three drives is what you can do outside the car.
Lake Country Scenic Byway
Walker to Detroit Lakes and Itasca State Park (88 miles).
The historic Chase on the Lake hotel in Walker perches above Leech Lake with a perfect front-row view that tugs at the attention of outdoor diners. Boats hum and growl at the dock. A sailboat skirts across the blue expanse. The horizon stretches out and disappears.
The 112,000-acre Walker Bay is only a fraction of Minnesota’s third-largest lake. Old-fashioned resorts dot the shores, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe runs a casino, and the Chippewa National Forest blankets the region with white pines, campgrounds and more than 1,300 lakes.
In short, the Lake Country is a classic Minnesota corridor. While anglers have coveted this area for decades, it’s also a pivotal crossroads for anyone who prefers hiking boots and bicycles to boats and bait.
The North Country Scenic Trail winds its way through woods, along lakes and wetlands, adding to the 160-plus miles of state and national forest trails. Bicyclists can tap some of Minnesota’s longest treks: the 115-mile Paul Bunyan Trail and the intersecting, 49-mile Heartland Trail.
The Heartland Trail winds its way west through the Shingobee Hills, past the Crow Wing Chain of Lakes and through towns such as Akeley, where tourists take selfies sitting in Paul Bunyan’s giant hand.
A 22-mile spur of the byway takes travelers to 32,000-acre Itasca State Park, home to the Mississippi headwaters. The visitor center maps out the river’s northernmost tributaries, encourages kids to put on forest fire-fighting gear, and hums with the familiar tremolos of loons that nest at the park’s 100 lakes.
Allow a day or more to take the park’s scenic drive, walk across the headwaters, paddle or pedal along Lake Itasca, hike to Preacher’s Grove with its sacred forest ambience, or climb the fire tower for an above-the-trees view.
Detroit Lakes, Minn. — the byway’s western bookend — boasts big beaches, downhill mountain biking at Detroit Mountain, prairie and forest birding and We Fest, the legendary country music festival that returns Aug. 2-4.
Where to stay
Borrow bikes, kayaks and other boats while staying in one of the four suites at Leech Lake Bed and Breakfast on Steamboat Bay (leechlakebb.com).
Where to eat
Follow the smell of woodsmoke to Piggy BBQ for a casual meal or celebrate a special occasion at the Boulders in Walker. Grab an ice cream cone at Muskie Waters or sweet rolls and kuchen at Chop and Pop’s in Nevis. The Good Life Cafe serves wild-rice hot dish and bison-and-wild-rice meatballs in Park Rapids while Necce’s Ristorante brings bubbling dishes of lasagna to the table.
Take a trail
An easy stretch of the Heartland Trail runs 12 miles between Nevis and Park Rapids, where candy stores stir up fresh fudge and caramel, and the movie marquee lights up with summer blockbusters.
Gunflint Trail National Scenic Byway
Grand Marais to Trails End Campground (55 miles).
As the Gunflint Trail climbs above Grand Marais and begins its 55-mile trek into the deep wilderness, cellphone signals sputter and disappear. The daily pings, dings and buzzes go quiet.
The scenic byway ambles past foggy lakes and shrouded pines until blue sky finally reappears, a few miles before the small but charming Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center.
While hiking a trail up a nearby bluff, I marvel at colorful mosses and lichen and the vibrant blue water of Lake Saganaga that sparkles amid the thick forest on the cusp of the Boundary Waters. It feels like being on the top of the world, or maybe the edge of it. Only the riffle of leaves or a crow’s squawk interrupts the quiet.
With the exception of the Towering Pines Canopy Tour, a zip-line attraction based at Gunflint Lodge, resorts along the Gunflint Trail cater to folks who want to slow down. Many are embarking on wilderness paddling trips, or seeking a taste of those adventures without having to rough it.
“People are here for a reason, and it’s not to be buzzing around in a boat,” said Craig Danielson, who manages Clearwater Lodge, built in the early 1900s. “The thing that gets people is the quiet and silence.”
That solitude keeps days focused on hikes, paddles, swimming or sitting on docks with a book or binoculars. Lodges emanate history, too. Videos and books at the Chik-Wauk Museum tell stories from pioneering resort owners who carved out a living along the Gunflint and faced the dangers of the wilderness.
Hiking trails tug in different directions, and names such as Honeymoon Bluff attest to romantic settings. Danielson saw one couple return to Clearwater Lodge on their 60th anniversary and re-create a honeymoon photo. He’s also watched older faces as they relived childhood memories at a place where time has mostly stood still.
As an off-the-grid location or a timeless, well preserved destination, the Gunflint transports people into Minnesota’s earlier years.
Where to stay
Several of the historic cabins and lodge rooms at Clearwater Historic Lodge frame views of Clearwater Lake’s impressive palisades. The lodge also offers guided paddling trips or can outfit groups heading into the BWCA (clearwaterhistoriclodge.com).
Bearskin Lodge’s rooms and some of its 11 cabins overlook its namesake lake about 30 miles up the Gunflint Trail from Grand Marais (bearskin.com).
Where to eat
Fill up with bread pudding griddled as French toast for breakfast, a goober burger (peanut butter and mayo toppings) or prime rib tips served in Yorkshire pudding at Trail Center Lodge by Poplar Lake (trailcenterlodge.com).
New owners have taken over the former Windigo Lodge and revamped cabins and the restaurant now known as Poplar Haus with flatbreads, brat-loaf sliders and cocktails (poplarhaus.com).
Look for walleye chowder with wild rice and beer-battered walleye with a mango sweet-and-sour sauce at Gunflint Lodge’s restaurant or spend a week at the lakeside cabins (gunflint.com).
Take a trail
Hike up Honeymoon Bluff overlooking Hungry Jack Lake, or take the Big Sag Trail near Chik-Wauk Museum for memorable vistas.
Great River Road National Scenic Byway
Red Wing, Minn., to Alma, Wis. (88-mile loop) and beyond.
A resident raptor at Wabasha’s National Eagle Center cries out at a seemingly empty sky. With a little squinting, there’s a knowing “Ahh” from human visitors who, lacking “an eagle eye,” finally spot the wild eagle swooping across the water.
The museum uses live bird programs, hands-on exhibits and other media to weave together the natural and cultural histories of the iconic bald eagle, which thrives along the Mississippi River Valley.
It’s one of several themed museums and one-of-a-kind stops that beguile visitors to linger along the scenic route looping Lake Pepin in Minnesota and Wisconsin, dotted with villages, restaurants, wineries and breweries, and bluffs.
Most travelers start out in Red Wing, which showcases history through the lens of the town’s best-known eponymous products: work boots that helped build America, and pottery that adorned dining tables across the region.
South of Wabasha, Lark Toys has free and extensive toy exhibits that trigger nostalgia for every generation, while the eclectic carousel charms with carvings of wizards, moose and even a goldfish.
On the Wisconsin side of the river, Alma’s Castlerock Museum’s surprising collection of weapons and armor may appeal to fans of viking lore and medieval battles. Cast a line from the Great Alma Fishing Float or head up to Buena Vista Park for a bluff-top view of the river.
Leave time to kick around each river town, including Stockholm and Maiden Rock, Wis., where shops sell everything from freshwater pearl jewelry to handmade home decor and fresh seasonal pies.
Where to stay
Opened in 1875, the 67-room St. James Hotel’s wide hallways once accommodated hoop skirts, while an organ in the lobby provided entertainment. The Port Restaurant serves braised lamb and risotto made with farro, and walleye encrusted with hazelnuts (st-james-hotel.com).
Where to eat
On a sunny day, the patio at Reads Landing Brewing Co. fills up with diners ordering craft beer, pretzel-crusted cheese curds and shrimp and grits, but indoors also offers a sweet view of the river (rlbrewingco.com).
Take a trail
Get onto the river with Broken Paddle’s guided kayak or SUP tours that wind into quiet backwaters and channels. The company also offers biking tours (brokenpaddleguiding.com). Independent adventurers can climb up Red Wing’s 340-foot Barn Bluff for sweeping views, or take tamer trails through the wooded bluffs of Frontenac State Park.
Lisa Meyers McClintick (lisamcclintick.com) wrote “Day Trips From the Twin Cities” and “The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path.”