In pursuit of fall colors — and the best route for seeing them — I nearly forget about the season’s other special effect.
The changing temperatures, meeting warmer waters, can make a beautiful scene.
I recall one morning, staring out a window with a mug of hot coffee. Elbow Lake appeared to steam, as much as my freshly poured cup. The morning sun stirred the crisp night air that had settled near Xanadu Island, a 1920s lodge a short drive from the town of Battle Lake, Minn. The mist swirled, and lifted to reveal trees perfectly mirrored on the water.
It was the kind of serene moment many of us crave when we hit the road for a fall drive.
Other must-haves for the ideal autumn road trip: winding, scenic roads and intriguing diversions along the way. Check out these three drives in northwestern, central and southeastern Minnesota for a colorful and diverse glimpse of the state’s many landscapes and sky-blue waters.
Fergus Falls & Otter Tail County
Length: 80 miles.
Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
Main roads: U.S. Hwy. 59, Minnesota Hwy. 108, County Hwys. 41, 115 and 45, Minnesota Hwy. 210.
In this northwestern corner of Minnesota, quiet rural roads curve through a mix of hardwoods and prairie, a patchwork of farmlands and smattering of small towns. A soybean field turns bronze while rows of drying corn fade to papery yellow husks, and thistles add dots of purple in front of an abandoned, weathered farmhouse.
This route follows parts of the Otter Trail Scenic Byway, a 150-mile loop that coaxes visitors through the region that played a key role in Minnesota’s wheat-growing glory days. Late 1800s harvests would fill warehouses in Minneapolis, dubbed Mill City, supplier of flour for bread across the globe. Sound effects and life-size dioramas immerse visitors in Indian encampments and pioneer towns at Fergus Falls’ Otter Tail County History Museum.
Phelps Mill, circa 1888, perches along the Otter Tail River east of Fergus Falls, near Underwood, Minn. Its self-guided interpretive displays make it possible to imagine the chug of machinery and dry earthy scent of chaff in the air.
A hike up Maplewood State Park’s Halladay Hill, a former ski hill near Pelican Rapids, can likewise frame up the perfect fall postcard. Lines of maroon sumac rise up from a sea of bronzed prairie grasses while red blazes among the maples that are plentiful enough for a spring sugar shack.
Don DelGreco, park manager, estimates up to 1,500 cars come for peak fall weekends.
“You throw in the [Leaf] Hills and the blue of the lakes,” he said, “and you have a recipe for unbelievable scenery.”
Where to eat: Grab a gooey caramel roll and coffee roasted by Stumbeano’s, a grilled sandwich, sesame noodle salad or locally made Terroir chocolate bars at Café 116 in Fergus Falls (1-218-998-3780; cafe116.com). Order a wood-fired pizza, shrimp scampi ravioli, walleye fingers and salads at Stella’s Bistro and Wine Bar, Battle Lake (1-218-862-5576; stellasbl.com).
Where to stay: Xanadu Island rents rooms in the historic lodge and some of the cabins on the Elbow Lake peninsula near Battle Lake (1-218-998-3780; xanadu.cc). In Ottertail, Minn., Thumper Pond Resort includes a water park, suites and golf course (1-218-367-2000; thumperpond.com). Otter Tail Beach Resort’s red cabins sit near Otter Tail Lake (ottertailbeachresort.com). Maplewood and Glendalough state parks both have camping.
Worthy detour: To climb the highest spot in the Leaf Hills, head to Inspiration Peak near Urbank, about 15 miles northwest of Lake Carlos State Park and the Alexandria area. The 1,750-foot elevation makes it one of the state’s highest overlooks, rising about 400 feet above the surrounding countryside (www.co.otter-tail.mn.us/592/Inspiration-Peak).
More information: Visit Fergus Falls (visitfergusfalls.com).
Brainerd Lakes & Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway
Length: 80 miles.
Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.
Main roads: Minnesota Hwy. 371, County Roads 77, 11, 3 and 16.
Excitement for lake country builds as soon as Hwy. 371 funnels through the Hwy. 210 intersection at Baxter and Brainerd. Enticements lie to the north, from restaurants and funky shops to pirate-themed mini-golf and the Brainerd International Raceway, but I always watch for County Road 77 and head west and north first.
It’s the road-trip equivalent of putting on your flip-flops. The road wiggles and winds and ever-so-mildly roller-coasters its way around Gull Lake. It passes turnoffs to some of the state’s most venerable resorts, lauded golf courses, the Brainerd Zip Line Tour at Mount Ski Gull, and a tunnel of trees with Pillsbury State Forest on one side and pretty lake homes on the other.
Sherwood Forest and Grand View Lodge, each within a few miles of the other, draw fans of vintage log lodges, the walls seasoned by a hundred years of crackling wood fires. To walk through the doors is to feel draped in the history of generations who came for vacations, birthdays, proposals, anniversaries and reunions.
After I reconnect with Hwy. 371, Nisswa or Pequot Lakes always tempts me to get out of the car again. Boutiques with books, cabin decor, kitchen gear, candy and coffee beckon to visitors. The Paul Bunyan Trail, which goes through both towns, offers a way to enjoy fall color by bike, pedaling just over six miles town-to-town, then back again.
Pequot Lakes’ giant bobber-themed water tower provides a fitting landmark as travelers approach County Road 11 and take a left onto the Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway. The route heads toward Breezy Point Resort and angles north on County Road 3 through Crosslake, where the U.S. Army Corps campground draws vacationers and day visitors to its Cross Lake playground and swimming beach.
From Crosslake, continue north on County Road 66 as it approaches County Road 16. At Moonlite Bay Restaurant and Bar, a patio overlooks Cross Lake and provides another spot for soaking up fall sunshine and warmth. Follow 16 as it ambles along the scenic Whitefish Chain of Lakes, where resorts might tempt you to stay more than a day.
Where to eat: Settle in for slow-smoked chicken spring rolls, citrus-crusted walleye or a Thursday-night crab boil at Sherwood Forest. Try the walleye chowder, Hole in the Day burger with brisket, walleye with bacon-braised sweet corn or rib-eye at Grand View Lodge’s restaurants, the Northwoods Pub and Char, with a patio facing Gull Lake through the pines.
Where to stay: Kavanaugh’s Sylvan Lake Resort near Gull Lake offers lakeside cottages, townhouses and suites (1-800-562-7061; kavanaughs.com). Good Ol’ Days Resort offers lakeside cottages and rooms near Nisswa (1-218-963-2478; goodoldaysresort.com).
Worthy detour: Take or rent bikes for a spin on the 115-mile Paul Bunyan State Trail with an easy stretch from Nisswa to Pequot Lakes. Life Cycle (formerly Trailblazer) rents bikes at Nisswa, plus half-wheelers and trailers for children.
More information: Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce, explorebrainerdlakes.com; Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway, paulbunyanscenicbyway.org.
Winona & the Root River Valley
Miles: 80 miles.
Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.
Main roads: U.S. Hwy. 14, U.S. Hwy. 61, Minnesota Hwy. 43, County Hwy. 8 and U.S. Hwy. 52.
Southeast of Rochester, Hwy. 52 spools past hints of bluffs and farm valleys dotted with classic red barns. The terrain steepens near the first crossing of the Root River and continues with an eastern turn onto Hwy. 8. It dips dramatically into Lanesboro, a longtime small-town charmer wrapped in bluffs and the Root River. There are Victorian homes and historic buildings with rooms to rent, places to dine, a handful of shops and the Commonweal Theater.
This is the place to downshift and soak in the fall colors at a more leisurely pace. Local outfitters rent kayaks, canoes and bikes for exploring the river. The Root River State Trail takes bikers and in-line skaters to Whalan, where the Aroma Pie Shoppe beckons with a reward of apple and berry pies. Connected with the Harmony-Preston State Trail, the paved trail runs for 50 miles. Towns along it take turns hosting Taste of the Trail events Saturdays Oct. 15 and 22.
Historic Bluff Country Scenic Byway (Hwy. 16) wiggles and winds east through the Root River Valley, enveloping travelers with fall colors from the Richard J. Dorer Memorial Hardwood Forest. As the drive reaches Hwy. 61 (Great River Road) and Winona, plan a grand finale vista.
Garvin Heights Park near Winona’s iconic Sugar Loaf bluff offers views that sweep across the “island city,” the Mississippi River and fall colors blanketing the Minnesota and Wisconsin shores.
Songbirds flutter by at eye level, preparing for a more than 2,000-mile journey down the Mississippi flyway.
It makes a 45-mile drive west along Hwy. 14 to Rochester feel leisurely as fall colors spill across the countryside.
Where to eat: Enjoy Norwegian meatballs and homey hot beef commercials at Lanesboro’s Pedal Pushers Café (1-507-467-1050; pedalpusherscafe.com). In Winona, hoagies and soups may come with live music at the Acoustic Cafe (1-507-453-0394; acousticcafewinona.com).
Where to stay: Habberstad House B&B in Lanesboro offers a Scandinavian-themed room, plus others in this 1897 Queen Anne Victorian (1-507-481-1065; habberstadhouse.com).
Worthy detour: About 19 miles north along the Mississippi, Great River Bluffs State Park also beckons with stellar views. The 1 ¼-mile King’s Bluff Nature Trail follows the ridge above the river.
More information: Lanesboro Area Chamber of Commerce (lanesboro.com) and Visit Winona (visitwinona.com).
Lisa Meyers McClintick (@lisamcclintick) is a St. Cloud-based freelance travel writer. She is the author of the books “Day Trips From the Twin Cities” and “The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path.”