Along the narrow country lane, rolling waves of autumn color covered the hills. I was cutting through bluff country on my way from the National Eagle Center, in Wabasha, to Whitewater State Park, in Altura, about 30 miles apart. But I didn't take the straightest route. It was autumn, after all, and the sun was shining.
I wish I could recall the exact route so you — or I — could replicate it. The best I can offer, though, is this advice: Fill your gas tank, turn off your navigational devices and don't be afraid to get lost in the woods when fall blazes across the land. If a dirt road looks appealing, take it. It's the back roads that lend a trip its adventure. Where will you land? What unexpected beauty will you find?
My trip in bluff country roughly traced the path of the Whitewater River. While it flowed toward the Mississippi, I headed against the current. I passed ponds sprouting cattails, farm fields whose golden stubs suggested a season of rest, and the town of Elba, where a fire tower is one of 10 National Historic Outlooks in Minnesota and is its own worthy autumn stop for its views from the top.
The North Shore
On the drive up Scenic Hwy. 61, along Minnesota's North Shore, Lake Superior commands much of the attention, its dark blue waters shining between towering evergreens. But turn off the iconic roadway onto dirt roads that climb away from the great lake, and you'll quickly be engulfed in hardwoods, the kind that turn brilliant red in autumn. Chances are good that you'll happen upon the Superior Hiking Trail. That 310-mile footpath runs from south of Duluth to the Canadian border roughly following Superior's shoreline. Many trailheads, noted by small gravel parking lots, are tucked off a number of those dirt roads from Duluth on up. If you see one during your back-roads wanders, stop. There's no better place to crunch freshly fallen leaves than on a hiking path.
Where to stay: Grand Marais is a classic overnight stop, with its art galleries, the five-and-dime and World's Best Donuts, which is open through Oct. 19. Cobblestone Cove Villas overlook the town's harbor (cobblestonecove.com). East Bay Suites looks out onto a bay (eastbaysuites.com). Hip newcomer the Mayhew Inn has a rooftop patio (themayhewinn.com), and just outside of town, the Hungry Hippie Farm and Hostel offers private rooms on a farm with sweeping views (hungryhippiehostel.com).
Don't miss: Along Hwy. 61, Gooseberry Falls grabs much of the attention, perhaps because it is the first of eight state parks tucked along the highway. Of course, its spectacular and accessible falls likely have much to do with its appeal, too. But farther up the road, beyond Grand Marais, Judge C.R. Magney State Park (open through Oct. 20) gets my vote for best fall hike. A park trail leads to Devil's Kettle Falls, where swirling waters plunge into the earth to reappear downstream.
Minnesota River Valley
Other rivers grab more attention from weekend travelers: The Mississippi, for its grandeur; the Root, for its winding path through bluff country. But the placid Minnesota River runs through countryside filled with history and pastoral beauty on its more than 300-mile course from its source at Big Stone Lake in Ortonville to its confluence with the Mississippi, near Fort Snelling. Part of the waterway, from Lac qui Parle Dam to Franklin, is designated a Wild and Scenic River. A driving route that shadows its course, the Minnesota River Valley National Scenic Byway, passes near many significant sites. In New Ulm, Schell's Brewery, the oldest in the state, is open for tours. Peacocks on the grounds add their own brilliance to fall color displays. Nearby, the Harkin Store acts as a time capsule of an 1861 general store (open noon to 4 p.m. on weekends through Oct. 20). Down the road, Fort Ridgley State Park and the Lower Sioux Agency, managed by the Lower Sioux Indian community, both give witness to the tensions between Dakota and new settlers as Minnesota became a state.
Where to stay: In the quaint college town of St. Peter, Konsbruck Hotel upstaged the standard lodging options when it opened in 2013. The boutique inn, in a historic building downtown, has well-designed rooms with exposed brick walls, marble countertops, antique pieces — and a restaurant on the main level (konsbruckhotel.com).
Don't miss: For a bird's-eye view of the Minnesota River Valley — and to see fall colors in a blur as you whiz by trees — stop in Henderson, Minn., at Kerfoot Canopy Tour. The 14-line tour hopscotches over a mile into the valley, and includes a 170-foot suspension bridge (kerfootcanopytour.com).
Itasca State Park
Itasca, Minnesota's first state park, is a rare jewel. It fueled the state park system when it was created in 1891, and it contains the headwaters of the Mississippi as well as a 10-mile Wilderness Drive lined with autumn beauty and offers an abundance of recreational opportunities, from boating to biking. But one of the aspects I like most about the park is the approach. In the Heartland Lakes region near Park Rapids, the landscape is dotted with towering pines and sweet lakes, and looks like a nature park even before you enter the park boundaries. Inside the park's 32,000 acres, though, you'll find more than 100 lakes, and stands of old-growth forests. Quaking aspen, birch, red pine, white pine and a mix of northern hardwoods all rise into the skyline from the park, making for a kaleidoscope of autumn color.
Where to stay: The park's venerable and affordable Douglas Lodge, a rustic-style log building that dates to 1905, offers single and family rooms. It is open through the first Sunday in October. The park also has year-round cabins for rent.
Don't miss: A short hike through the woods and a steep climb up stairs at the Aiton Heights Fire Tower inside Itasca State Park provides a gorgeous view of trees blazing with fall colors. The 100-foot structure is nestled in a maple and basswood forest. A half-mile trail begins at the fire tower parking lot. Hikers can also make a stop at the tower part of a 3-mile loop from Douglas Lodge.