A sunny autumn day may find Jay Arrowsmith DeCoux kicking up dust on a gravel road — his wife, Rose, riding shotgun and son, Ennis, in his car seat — as they travel a backwoods road outside Grand Marais, Minn., their car a small speck in a gigantic Technicolored forest. Shannon McKeeth winds along a river valley, marveling at the lost-in-time quality of quaint farms and historic sites cast in a golden light by autumn leaves. Marc Sather heads out in Bluff Country, where hardwoods glowing yellow and red carpet the bluff tops. To find the best spots for viewing fall color, we asked the experts: innkeepers from around the state who know their region well and relish sharing their finds with others. Gas prices are low. Trees promise full and gorgeous displays, healthy as they are from a mild summer. If ever there was a year to head out in search of autumn’s distinctive rainbow, this is it. Turn to G4 to learn where to go when those colors peak — in Grand Marais, Pengilly, Pequot Lakes, New Ulm and Preston.
Drive #1: Grand Marais
Innkeeper: Jay Arrowsmith DeCoux of Art House B&B.
Shoot for: Mid Sept. to early Oct.
Route: From Grand Marais, head north on the Gunflint Trail. Turn left on Devil Track Road, about 4 miles from town. Proceed 12 miles; the pavement ends and eventually the road dead-ends at Bally Creek Road. Take a right and drive another 3 miles. Where the road ends, you’ll find the trailhead to Eagle Mountain.
Why: DeCoux operated a canoe camp at the end of the Gunflint Trail and regularly runs trails up and down the North Shore, so it’s no surprise that his favorite fall drive culminates in a 3-mile hike. The drive offers nice sights, but the real beauty comes from heading up Eagle Mountain, the highest point in the state. Take your time with the 3½-mile (one way) hike — you’ll want to pause for the views. “You see for miles across valleys full of birch and maple and aspen. There are splashes of green from all the conifers,” DeCoux said. He suggests bringing a picnic lunch, and hanging out under pine trees whistling in the breeze. “There is really nothing else out there, which is part of what I like about it.”
The inn: The Art House B&B, run by DeCoux and his wife, Rose, is two blocks from Lake Superior and near downtown Grand Marais. Each of the four bedrooms has its own bath. Also available: a rehabbed 1975 Winnebago for $65 a night. Early autumn rates for rooms start at $85 (8 W. 7th Av., Grand Marais, Minn.; 1-218-370-1625; firstname.lastname@example.org).
Drive #2: Pengilly
Innkeeper: Sarah Master, Mr. Roberts Resort.
Shoot for: Mid Sept. to early Oct.
Route: From Pengilly, travel southwest on Hwy. 169 about 10 miles to Scenic Hwy. 7. The road leads to Big Forks, in the Edge of the Wilderness Area.
Why: There’s a reason why the word “Scenic” precedes “Hwy. 7.” It’s a densely forested area, “and you can veer off at points to see abandoned mine pits that are filled with this crazy crystal-blue water,” Master said. Adding to the colorful show are birch and aspen trees, whose yellows pop against the green of pines and balsam firs. Master also recommends a twirl around Swan Lake; Mr. Roberts Resort sits on a quiet bay along the southeast side. “There are tons of maples and birch on one side of the road; the lake side has lots of pines.” The trip around is 11 miles.
The inn: Mr. Roberts has garnered attention lately, since Master, who grew up in Pengilly, and her business partner, Dan Beckwith, bought the business. Master, a chef, helmed stoves in Minneapolis, New Orleans and on ABC’s “The Taste,” where she advanced to the semifinals, before returning to her hometown. Now she displays her talents in a cozy red clapboard bistro overlooking Swan Lake. The resort has four cabins and eight RV hookups. Also on site: games, grills, fire pits, a sauna — and North Woods charm. Rates start at $50 a night for a cabin (28179 East Shore Dr., Pengilly, Minn.; 1-218-215-2015; mrrobertsresort.com).
Drive #3: Pequot Lakes
Innkeeper: Dick Frieler of Oliver Acreage.
Shoot for: Late Sept. to early Oct.
Route: Travel County Road 1 north out of Pillager and turn east on 72nd Street, a gravel road. Make a loop by turning south on 25th Avenue SW. and west on County Road 29.
Why: A profusion of fall color lines this bucolic route, but the stretch on 72nd Street offers the peak peek. “Last year, that first mile on 72nd was the most fall color I have seen anywhere,” Frieler said. County Road 1 winds past lakes and through a speck of town called, fittingly enough, Maple. Turn onto the gravel of 72nd, and you get a “sweet lane with hobby farms and some abandoned farm buildings and grazing cattle.” Maples paint the sky red here if you hit the right weekend. “It’s pretty colorful.”
The inn: The Oliver Acreage, in a rural area near Nisswa and Pequot Lakes, has two main buildings, both newly constructed for the purpose of a bed-and-breakfast. The farmhouse has three bedrooms, all on the second floor and with their own bathrooms. Hearty country breakfasts are served to farmhouse guests. The barn lodge, designed as a group space, sleeps up to 10 guests in three bedrooms. It has a large kitchen and an event area, free to those who are renting the barn lodge (think book clubs and scrapbooking groups). Rooms start at $79 a night (7396 45th Av. SW., Pequot Lakes, Minn.; 1-218-568-8560; theoliveracreage.com).
Drive #4: New Ulm
Innkeeper: Shannon McKeeth of Bingham Hall.
Route: Head out of New Ulm traveling north on Hwy. 15 and just after the bridge over the Minnesota River, take a left on County Road 21, which follows the Minnesota River all the way to Fort Ridgely State Park. Loop back to New Ulm through Sleepy Eye by taking Hwy. 4 south to Hwy. 14, or just turn around and take what McKeeth calls “the river road” back.
Shoot for: Late Sept. to mid Oct.
Why: Drive this curvy, lazy two-lane, past the hills and valleys of the Minnesota River Valley, and you’ll wonder if a horse-and-buggy will come clomping around the next bend. It feels lost in time. A stop along the road — the 1870s Harkin Store with silk shoes, farm implements and lanterns on display — adds to that effect. The drive leads to another historic site: Fort Ridgely State Park, a training ground for Civil War soldiers that was attacked by the Dakota in 1862. “There is even a weathered old Kent cigarette sign along the road,” McKeeth said. “The road is very cozy, very quaint.”
The inn: Bingham Hall, on a ridge overlooking the valley, has four rooms, each with its own bathroom and pillow-top-like beds. Rates from $119 (500 S. German, New Ulm, Minn.; 1-507-354-6766; bingham-hall.com).
Drive #5: Preston
Innkeeper: Marc Sather of Jailhouse Inn.
Route: Take the 88-mile Historic Bluff Country Hwy. 16 Scenic Byway, which passes through Lanesboro, Preston and other sweet towns.
Shoot for: Late Sept. to mid Oct.
Why: “Drive west from La Crescent and you pass through an area that was untouched by glacial Lake Agassiz,” Sather said. “There are deep valleys and beautiful vistas.” Tall bluffs, limestone outcroppings and hardwood forests make this one of the most iconic routes in Minnesota. It is pretty in any season, but outstanding in fall, when autumn hues bring new dimensions to the bluffs and farmscapes. Before Interstate 90 cut through the state, this was the route west to the Black Hills. The road parallels the Root River and passes Peterson State Fish Hatchery, which spawns more than 100,000 trout annually and is open for self-guided tours. For sustenance and more gorgeous views, stop at Four Daughters Vineyard in Spring Valley, where tapas are served along with top-notch pours.
The inn: True to its name, the Jailhouse Inn began life as the Fillmore County jail, and also housed the courthouse and the sheriff’s home and office until 1970. Now you can stay in rooms offering luxuries that belie their past, with names such as the Detention Room and the Drunk Tank. Rates begin at $85 a night (109 Houston St. NW., Preston, Minn.; 1-507-765-2181; jailhouseinn.com).