As autumn's colorful season is getting underway, Minnesotans typically look north for a majestic leaf-peeping day trip. This year, we offer a road less traveled: Go south.

Southern Minnesota offers just as much fall color as the north — plus a longer, deeper and warmer autumn season, not to mention less tourist traffic (of both the vehicular and foot variety). From the puffy tree-covered bluffs of the Driftless Area along the Mississippi, to the Big Woods remnants up on the plains, to the broad, hardwood-filled Minnesota River Valley, the wide swath of the state south of the Twin Cities could be the idyllic fall journey you're looking for.

Fall foliage forecast

In order of closeness to the Twin Cities, here are seven of our favorite southern Minnesota destinations for fall (plus one just across the border in Wisconsin).

Belle Plaine: Zipping and sugar-crashing

Distance from Twin Cities: 38 miles

If you need something to excite older kids or kids at heart, get above the trees with the Kerfoot Canopy Tour west of Belle Plaine. The adventure park includes a four-story-high ropes course for stretching your courage and 14 zip line stations. The zip lines, which go as high as 175 feet above the Minnesota River Valley, are like pushing the fast-forward button on fall scenery ( From there, it's less than 15 minutes to the roadside attraction called Minnesota's Largest Candy Store, with pumpkins, dozens of fresh-picked apple varieties and pies galore, but good luck resisting the mind-boggling array of candy from around the world — or the quirky allure of eclectic automatons.

Faribault: Pedal along lakes, hike Big Woods

Distance from Twin Cities: 43 miles

For small towns and two state parks within 30 miles, head to Faribault, a straight shot down Interstate 35. Cyclists can pedal the 41-mile Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail to Mankato or enjoy a leisurely 14-mile stretch past Cannon Lake and Sakatah Lake on the way to Waterville. Break for a hike or a paddle at Sakatah Lake State Park. Find additional trails winding along Faribault's Straight River through River Bend Nature Center, or drive 12 miles to Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. Crunch through maple, oak and basswood leaves on the way to the park's Hidden Falls. If weather turns chilly, join a Friday or Saturday tour of historic Faribault Mill (

Red Wing: Choose your favorite bluff

Distance from Twin Cities: 53 miles

Check out Red Wing's newly improved Memorial Park for sweeping views of the classic town and the Mississippi River from Sorin's Bluff. Follow Memorial Park's Skyline Drive to a variety of vistas, plan a picnic with a view, play a round of disc golf, explore former limestone quarries, or set out on a hiking or mountain-biking trail. The Cowpath trailhead on Bluff Street lets you make the half-mile-plus climb to Sorin's Bluff on foot. Or head to the better-known He Mni Can (aka Barn Bluff) for more fall vistas. Time your visit for Oct. 14-15 to catch the Red Wing Arts Fall Festival (

Mankato: Seek bison, explore river valleys

Distance from Twin Cities: 75 miles

Hillsides burst into color where the Minnesota and Blue Earth rivers have carved their way through the Mankato area. Check out a 40-foot waterfall, prairie colors and bison herd at Minneopa State Park, and cruise Judson Bottom Road to Minnemishinona Falls. Mountain bikers can find trails through scenic ravines at Mount Kato, Kiwanis Recreation Area and Seven Mile Creek Park. The city hosts its popular River Ramble bike ride Oct. 8 (choose the 26-mile "pie loop" to Rapidan Dam Cafe) and Mankato Marathon Oct. 20-21. If you have kids, head to Sibley Farm, a charming farm-themed playground and petting zoo open through early fall (

New Ulm: Raise a stein to the scenery

Distance from Twin Cities: 89 miles

Follow the Minnesota River Valley National Scenic Byway to New Ulm, a town that hangs onto its German heritage. Enjoy the colored canopy from atop the 102-foot-tall "Hermann the German" monument and surrounding hills, and take a hike along the Cottonwood River at Flandrau State Park. Celebrate Octoberfest the first two weekends in October with traditional music, a parade, grape stomp and plenty of locally made beer, wine, sausages and more (

Alma, Wis.: Take in river history

Distance from Twin Cities: 89 miles

The drive down Wisconsin's Great River Road offers winding fall vistas, cute villages and Lake Pepin overlooks, but don't skip Alma, perhaps the most charming town in the area. Start with the curving drive up to Buena Vista Park for a sprawling view of both Alma and the island-strewn Mississippi. Then hightail it up into the country coulees of bluff country, and stumble upon the bustling Stone Barn pizza farm. Back in Alma, spend the night at the renovated Burlington Hotel, a historic lodging for rail passengers with a vintage bar that provides the perfect base for a girls (or guys) weekend (

Elba, Minn.: Get (really) high

Distance from Twin Cities: 100 miles

The journey to the Elba Fire Tower starts with nearly 700 steps up the leafy face of a Driftless Area bluff, leading to a panoramic view of the town and multicolored hills. Then it's just 120 more steps up a slender, delicate-looking 1933 fire tower for even more 360-degree beauty. But we'd be lying if we said we had the guts to make it all the way up. The faint of heart can drive three miles to Whitewater State Park, where the Chimney Rock Trail leads to the namesake standing rock and cave, and the high plateau at Inspiration Point provides another stunning view over the treetops (

Lanesboro: Step back in time

Distance from Twin Cities: 120 miles

In far southeastern Minnesota, Historic Lanesboro is like a live museum exhibit of a booming 19th-century village, surrounded on all sides by rich-colored bluffs in sharp relief. It's a great place to wander, dine and disappear for a couple of days at such main-drag lodgings as the classic Hotel Lanesboro and the updated Root River Inn. Motorcyclists are welcome, too. The 60-mile Root River State Trail system leads bicyclists in three directions through tight riverside tunnels of brown, red and gold foliage. For inclement weather, nearby Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park has tours of the largest cave system (13 miles!) in the state (

Correction: Previous versions of this story misidentified the Hotel Lanesboro.