Fall in Minnesota, the Land of 10,000 Lakes, is the special time of year when you can see vibrant, diverse reflections in all of those lakes of the many stands of trees changing from the summer verdant sea of green to a tapestry of yellows, reds, and oranges.
Minnesota fall colors are fleeting. The short span of time between green and white is a time-honored season of fall foliage road tripping. These drives and destinations are some of our favorite spots to enjoy autumn. Fall colors? Ubetcha!
Best Places to Enjoy Minnesota Fall Colors
Vistas Near Duluth and Lake Superior
The land surrounding Lake Superior in the Greater Duluth, MN region is dramatic and broody. Cliffs drop off into the greatest of Great Lakes and hills fan out from her shores, peppered thick with oaks, aspens, and maples.
This part of the state is the middle of Minnesota, but is subject to Lake effect weather which can range from bluebird skies to squalls of rain in the fall.
The Thompson Hill Welcome Center is a stop with all the pamphlets and maps you could possibly need to plot your fall foliage pilgrimage, but is also a lovely (and underrated) spot for colorful vistas of the area stretching out along Lake Superior in the Twin Ports harbor area.
It is just a few hundred yards off I-35 at Mile Marker 250. The detour will take you no more than 20 minutes but affords some stunning views!
It’s located along Skyline Parkway which is another lovely, twisting drive up in the hills of the Greater Duluth region, overlooking the lake and expanses of fall color.
Just down the road is the Lake Superior Zoo, and silly as it may sound, for fall foliage photos this is a really great spot to go! There are old stone bridges, weeping willows, water features, and all sorts of trees in various stages of vibrant color transformation so you can snap away while the kids look for lions and smiles are the default!
In the same general area (Greater Duluth west toward Proctor) sits a proper ski hill by winter and mountain bike mecca and adventure park when the ground isn’t frozen and white.
Spirit Mountain Adventure Park allows you to fly through the blazes of color on the Timber Twister, a long and speedy alpine coaster–great fun for everyone in the family!
The same adventure park has mini golf, a bouncing pillow, a zip line ride and a scenic chair lift for those who do not want to zip along, but still want to see the sites from above the trees.
From the scenic chair lift you can glimpse ships and barges progressing across the lake afar and enjoy a smooth ride back up the mountain, catching flashes of colorful bikes and riders dashing between trees and down trails.
Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory is a perch outside the port city of Duluth which is lovely for fall colors and bird viewing. In addition to breathtaking views, you can actually take in the wonder of raptor migrations, most commonly as the name would suggest, that of hawks.
Fall happens to be the time of year they wing on through, so you may just get to peep leaves and gawk at hawks all in one stop.
This could easily be a day spent driving the outskirts of the city and perhaps enjoying the sandy beaches of Park Point and framing the iconic Lift Bridge in your fall color photos. It could also simply be the jumping off point in your Lake Superior fall color tour, continuing up the entire northerly shoreline. Read on, if that’s your idea of a fun weekend!
Read our full guide to finding Duluth fall colors.
North Shore Road Trip along Lake Superior
Highway 61 is not only the resplendent backdrop of the infamous Grandma’s Marathon in the spring, it becomes a slow and steady race of recreational vehicles in autumn, and is where you can enjoy the chilly Beargrease dog sled race festivities, too.
Everyone starts in Duluth and heads toward Grand Portage to the east, following the shore of Lake Superior the whole way along MN State Highway 61.
Some of the places you’ll want to include in your itinerary (and you really need to leave a full weekend to do this right) will be the Splitrock Lighthouse, Tettegouche State Park, and a stop at Betty’s Pies. Splitrock Lighthouse is both a Minnesota Historical Society site and is located within a Minnesota State Park.
History buffs will delight in the area’s maritime stories, including the tragic sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Additionally, you can book a room in the Keeper’s quarters or other quirky lodging along this trip. Y
urts and A-frames dot the vacation rental sites and there is a super kitschy train car hotel up the road a little further. No shortage of campy northwoods flair on this trek.
Explore more of the state! Here are the 10 best things to do in Minnesota with kids.
This vast area which abuts the ever more vast Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is also known for towering lookout points that burst with color such as Pincushion Mountain, Mt. Josephine, and Minnesota’s tallest waterfall, found at the end of the road (or at least the end of the road in the US) within Grand Portage State Park.
Expect lodging prices to be inflated all of September and October because of the fall color influx of tourists to the area.
You should purchase a MN State Parks permit for this road trip, since you hit a whopping EIGHT state parks along Lake Superior’s quintessential north shore!
NINE if you count Jay Cooke State Park which is another spot you should undoubtedly go for the best autumnal ambience. It’s not technically on the shore, but it’s rugged and offers insane leaf spotting. There is a swinging bridge visitors can cross for the best juxtaposition of manmade infrastructure with Mother Nature’s beauty for a truly interesting picture.
In total, the journey is about 150 miles one-way, but could easily take three hours to drive with traffic and few stops. Factor in hiking or lingering at pretty overlooks and you have a full day there and back.
Edge of the Wilderness National Scenic Byway & Chippewa National Forest
Fall color is everywhere and you will enjoy much less traffic on this northern Minnesota fall foliage road trip.
The Chippewa National Forest boasts a booming timber industry, so you can marvel at towering Red, White, and Jack pines while also enjoying the array of color in the many hardwoods rolling over the landscape.
As a special bonus, this span of land has a deciduous conifer – the Tamarack or larch – which has soft needles that turn a dazzling goldenrod yellow and then drop their needles for the winter, leaving only brown twigs behind.
When you drive past the many swamps in the lowland forests, you’ll spy a sea of golden tamaracks and it’s only right to pull off the road and capture some lovely photos.
This stretch of highway is one of the more unknown places to drive for the colors – it stretches from Grand Rapids to the teeny tiny town of Effie, the same route Voyageurs and loggers used in days gone by. MN State Highway 38 extends only 47 miles, but you’ll bob and weave through exquisite countryside, where color abounds and crowds dwindle.
Make a stop at the nearby Lost Forty – an error of surveying efforts which mistakenly left 144 acres of virgin red and white pine which are nearly 400 years old today! You can take a hike and see just how grand those trees can be!
The stand is a living example of old growth timber and the hike is short (one mostly flat mile in a loop) to see what the area may have looked like before the logging industry exploded and changed the landscape to what it is today.
This is about 45 minutes from the end of the Edge of the Wilderness National Scenic Byway, but worth the detour.
There is an antiquated map you can get online or at any of the Chippewa National Forest Ranger District outposts in the area which is simply titled the “Chippewa Adventure Auto Tour.” It covers 17.5 miles (much of it is dirt roads) in the Chippewa National Forest, in the same vicinity as the Edge of the Wilderness National Scenic byway, with 10 stops, specifically crafted as a fall color auto tour.
St. Croix River Valley Autumn Transportation Adventures
Keeping with the theme of blending water features with shades of red, orange, yellow, and green, the St. Croix River Valley is about one hour northeast of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area and sits on the border of the state, looking into Wisconsin.
This trip is all about the myriad WAYS to see the colors of the St. Croix River Valley. Starting in Taylors Falls, which is a charming town playing host to the geologically intriguing Interstate State Park, you can park the car and lace up your hiking shoes. The path is manicured but there are several steps and slick rocks on the trail leading to the glacial potholes.
Next, and stepping across the border for just a moment, you should travel to Osceola, WI, and venture to 114 Depot Road to board the Great Northern Train for a 90-minute rail tour of the bluffs and witness the beautiful autumn scenery as you wind down the tracks. Book tickets online and show up 30 minutes earlier than the departure time to check in.
Nearby in Stillwater – “the birthplace of Minnesota–” walk around town and step out onto the newly opened pedestrian lift bridge or enjoy the shops and breweries along the downtown city streets.
The Historic Stillwater Trolley tour is about 45 minutes long and will take you through the urban landscape of ornamental trees changing color for the year, peppered across the sprawling lawns of the Victorian era mansions of the town.
To round out your transportation adventures in the St. Croix River Valley – which is a National Parkway, your ticket to fall colors from the river itself is aboard the paddlewheel Stillwater Riverboats.
There are many options for lodging in the St. Croix River Valley’s surrounding area – from opulent Victorian B&Bs to contemporary hotel chains. Book early, leaf peeping season is popular!
Find Color That Flourishes on the Great River Road National Scenic Byway (Bluffs Region)
The ‘Mighty Mississippi’ makes an impression on Minnesota in several regions, shaping the land and lending itself to lore about Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox.
The Mississippi River also has an entire roadway–more properly, a National Scenic Byway associated with it: The Great River Road, which winds through parts of 10 states with thousands of miles and like the river itself, has its beginnings in Minnesota.
This Scenic Byway really traces through 75% of the state, but we’ll focus here on the section in Bluff country, from Hastings, MN to the Iowa border, about 140 miles in length. This region is in Southeast Minnesota, outside the Twin Cities metro area. Beyond the town of Hastings, follow U.S.Highway 61 south all the way to LaCrescent, the “Apple Capital of Minnesota.”
You must stop at Vermilion Falls Park situated right in Hastings. With rugged, rocky falls and the beautiful reds and yellows of the surrounding trees, it’s a picture perfect stop!
In the border town of Red Wing, you can take a roughly three-mile trail which leads up to the landmark “Barn Bluff,” offering Mississippi River and city views from its summit.
The Pottery Museum of Red Wing traces the history of the local clay industry and tells the story of those gigantic “crocks” your grandma may have collected to store hats and mittens inside (this is true especially, if you’re a Minnesota kid).
This is also where the ever popular Red Wing boot factory is, and yes, the World’s Largest Boot statue as well inside the Redwing Shoe Museum, for a fun photo. It’s too big for even Lady Liberty to wear and would take a very specific Cinderella the size of Paul Bunyan to suit the sole.
This route takes you through Great River Bluffs and Frontenac State Parks, another reason to grab that State Parks permit! You can also find some familiar film references in the town of Wabasha if you ever watched the cult classic “Grumpy Old Men.”
Slippery’s Bar and Grill sits upon the riverbank and you can see the Green Hornet fishing rod on the wall. Most of the film was NOT in fact made in Minnesota, but this is a time-honored spot tender in my heart and a great spot to stop for a burger on your journey.
The National Eagle Center is perched upon the bluffs and offers information about raptor conservation, live eagles who are ambassador birds, and an eagle eye view of some of the most beautiful golden eagle wintering turf in the state. Golden eagles against the backdrop of golden fall leaves in the buttery colored bluff country – it really is a sight to behold!
Once you reach LaCrescent, the Minnesota Great River Road travels south on MN State Highway 16 and MN State Highway 26, ending at the Iowa border. It is an official All-American Road and considered one of the country’s premier driving destinations, which can only be elevated in experience by the autumn colors!
For another adventure along this route, look for Mississippi River Trail signs and rent bicycles for a pedal-powered trek through this lovely landscape.
Explore Fall Color City Scenery of the Greater Twin Cities
One cannot claim to have experienced the splendor of autumn in Minneapolis without a day spent at Minnehaha Falls. This is an incredibly popular destination year round, but there is a magical air about this little outdoor oasis within the Twin Cities. Find the waterfall and then enjoy hiking or rent a bike to really get around Minnehaha Regional Park.
Explore the Chain of Lakes (including Lake Harriet, Brownie Lake, Cedar Lake, Lake of the Isles, Bde Maka Ska.) All of these lakes are gorgeous in the fall with colors radiating around the shore and trails for hiking and biking galore. NICE bikes are found all around the Twin Cities, so renting is never a problem.
Witch’s Hat Tower offers lovely views – but get this: only ONE day a year. The Tower is on the National Register of Historic Places. It is located within Prospect Park (also called Tower Hill Park.) This should make your Minnesota Bucket list for sure!
Loring Park, one of the largest parks in the city, is full of large trees which boast bright colors in the fall (the park also sparks with color in the winter during the Holidazzle celebration.)
Boom Island is on the Mississippi and is a great picnic spot during a balmy fall afternoon with city views galore.
The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum certainly deserves an honorable mention for fall color – though you’ll have to drive about 30 minutes to get there.
The Arb, as it’s called affectionately, is home to manicured gardens and horticultural research with a three-mile drive through tour and lots of trails to stroll. Since there are countless ornamental varieties here, the colors are diverse and different from what you might see on the native landscape.
These stops within the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro and the surrounding area make autumn a delight for a day outside while still inside the city.
Hit the Road in Ottertail County
Ottertail County is a great place to spot September and October color change, with so many opportunities to experience the western side of Minnesota’s nature.
This area has no shortage of hikes including one vista to the highest point in the county called Inspiration Peak. Glendalough State Park has yurts which can be reserved through the MN DNR and a base camp for many trails in the park for exploring in autumn.
The North Country National Scenic Trail runs through the area, so even if you aren’t game for a through hike, you can snag a section and peep leaves as you amble along.
For a shorter scenic drive, hit the five-mile route at Maplewood State Park where you’ll see examples of prairie restoration (an official auto tour pamphlet is available at the park office) – fields of gold with hints of violet with stands of Big Bluestem grasses flagging in the wind.
Multi-colored tree canopies shadow the hollows of the drive. Stretching your legs, take a short hike up Hallaway Hill (½-mile, one way) is an impressive overlook.
If you’re looking to explore more, try the Otter Tail Scenic Byway. 150 miles of beautiful fall color with several small towns dotting the map for the necessities like gas, coffee, and pumpkin pie.
Brainerd Lakes Area
Gull Lake, which is minutes outside Brainerd and Baxter, is rife with well-manicured yards full of colorful trees. Take a lap around the lake to see vibrant fall colors and lovely lake homes.
For a relaxing drive around County Road 77 or Pine Beach Road, accessed by heading north five miles at the intersection of MN State Highways 210 and 371 North. Ernie’s on Gull Lake is a favorite stop for a juicy burger and a good beer, right on the lake.
The Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway is a 54-mile driving route that comprises all county roads (through Cass and Crow Wing counties) which will take you past trailheads, recreational parks and lakes, wildlife management areas, and historical points of interest.
Talk about off the beaten path! As the legend goes, Paul Bunyan traipsing through the countryside created all the many lakes of this area.
Since Brainerd Lakes is a premier resort mecca, there are endless opportunities to book a cabin, room, lodge, A-frame, tiny house, or glamping tent in the area to spend your whole weekend seeking the colors of fall.
The 50 or so miles of mountain biking trails in the Cuyuna Lakes State Recreation Area are fun if pedaling past groves of green, red, and gold is your idea of a great time. The trail to tiny cabin Cuyuna Cove offers not only spectacular value and cozy dwelling, but a locker for your gear full of red dirt after a day on the trail.
Or, for the underwater adventurers, try viewing fall colors from beneath the surface by scuba diving in the many reclaimed and flooded mines of the Cuyuna Lakes State Recreation Area. Believe me, it’s a really breathtaking perspective!
There are a few riding stables in the vicinity, if you’d rather travel slow and plod by hoof beats, enjoying the crisp air on the back of a trusty steed. One weekend may not even be enough because this area is vast and the adventures many. Perhaps, a week of all adventures will do?
Voyageurs National Park and the Canadian Border
Minnesota’s desolate, water-based Voyageurs National Park along the border Ontario, Canada welcomes visitors in the summer, but the real savvy travelers know fall is the time to go.
The lack of mosquitoes alone is worthy of a trip north, but with spectacular colors and no crowds, you can actually put yourself in the mindset of the fur trade era and early frontier times as you look out across quiet lakes and listen for the slap of a beaver tail across a bay.
If you’re near Kabetogama and Ash River Visitors Centers, try a hike around the Echo Bay Trail to gain a sense of solitude and the magnitude of how vast and dense the forests here are. The trail is not long (1.5 mile loop), unfailingly flat, and consists mostly of boardwalk. The park has 19 trails in total.
For a fun family challenge, check out the Hike to Health Trail Passport program at one of the three park visitors centers. Collect all the proofs in the form of metal trail rubbing stations and receive special recognition.
To truly experience this national gem, you should rent a boat or paddle a canoe. The stark contrast on a clear, cool fall day between the bright blue sky and the oranges and reds of the shoreline are remarkable.
You can even get the very artsy photo opp of reflected color from the lake surface and watch as the drips from your paddle shatter the perfectly mirrored trees and make a brightly colored abstract.
The area has all forms of watercraft rentals available from canoes and kayaks to gargantuan houseboats made for floating through the fall forest.
Sometimes, since you’re far north and fall can be very cold, especially in early October, you might experience fall colors by day and northern lights by night!
Itasca State Park – The Headwaters of the Mississippi
There are a plethora of potential places to go from the Headwaters of the Mississippi River. Take MN Highway 71 between Park Rapids and Bemidji to find this gem of the state park system.
There is a historic fire watch tower to hike to and a paved biking trail. Peak color in this park is late September into early October, but it can vary based on precipitation and temperatures of the season, just like all of Minnesota.
Here you’ll also find an impressive interpretive center, trails galore, camping, canoeing, and day-use spots for picnics. The ash, basswood and paper birch trees will be a showy yellow and gold while by October in Itasca State Park, the red and sugar maples burn red in the sun.
After getting your fill of the kaleidoscope of color at Itasca State Park, another really close stop (too close to not check it out) is Lake Bemidji State Park with 11 miles of hiking trails. You’ll see mostly hardwoods here, lots of gold and amber.
Bemidji is a progressive college town with a delightful co-op whole food store, many coffee shops, breweries and places to nosh. The lake is large and glitters in autumn sunlight and Diamond Point Park is free and easy to access within the city, just down the road from the giant statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox.
Lake Minnetonka, located in the western Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, is a beautiful destination for enjoying fall foliage. The lake’s serene waters, surrounded by a mix of deciduous and evergreen trees, provide a picturesque setting for leaf-peeping and outdoor activities during the autumn season.
One of the best ways to experience fall foliage on Lake Minnetonka is by taking a scenic boat tour. Several boat tour companies operate on the lake, offering narrated tours that provide insights into the lake’s history and the changing leaves.
You can also rent a canoe or kayak and paddle along the lake’s many bays and inlets. Don’t forget your camera to capture the reflections of the colorful leaves on the water.
Lake Minnetonka is surrounded by parks like Lake Minnetonka Regional Park and Wayzata Beach Park which are great locations for picnics, hiking, and enjoying the fall scenery. The Dakota Rail Regional Trail and Lake Minnetonka LRT Regional Trail are popular choices for hiking and biking in the area.