Come fall, instinct draws many Minnesotans to the Grand Rounds National Scenic Byway in Minneapolis. The 55-mile loop follows the Mississippi River southeast from downtown before snaking back to the green spaces on the city’s west side. Locals tend to visit separate segments of the route—a hike here, a bike ride there—so many never realize they’re enjoying pieces of the country’s only official urban scenic byway.
But seeing the route in small doses means you miss out on its continuous, magnetic beauty. The Mississippi, her banks trimmed in harvest colors, cuts through Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Huge parks, such as 759-acre Theodore Wirth, offer a total fall immersion. The byway’s lakes have personalities as different as siblings’—showy Calhoun, quiet Brownie, family-oriented Harriet.
In some places, the skyline glimmers alluringly above the treetops, but that distance is an illusion. Minneapolis and Saint Paul are right there when you need them. Hike to a waterfall in Minnehaha Park, then try fried oysters at Sea Salt Eatery. Walk your dog at Lake Harriet, then browse kids’ books at Wild Rumpus. Settle in for dinner around the fire pit at W.A. Frost in Saint Paul, then reminisce about how you took one of Minnesota’s prettiest fall drives without ever leaving the metro.
What to do
Grand Rounds National Scenic Byway Check out the byway's website for details on the seven byway districts, access areas and points of interest. (612) 230-6400; minneapolisparks.org/grandrounds 
Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary The country’s oldest public wildflower garden is in Theodore Wirth Regional Park. (612) 370-4903; minneapolisparks.org 
Erik’s Bike and Boards A few blocks from the byway, this shop in the University of Minnesota’s Dinkytown neighborhood has bike rentals. (612) 617-8002; eriksbikeshop.com 
Wheel Fun Rentals Rent canoes and kayaks on Lake Calhoun. Open weekends in September and early October. (877) 273-2453; wheelfunrentals.com 
Where to eat
Sea Salt Eatery Steps from the Minnehaha Falls overlook, this indoor-outdoor spot serves fresh seafood and adult beverages. Open April–October. (612) 721-8990; seasalteatery.com 
The Strip Club Meat and Fish The Saint Paul neighborhood is a little dodgy, but the grass-fed beef, seasonal sides and fab downtown view are anything but. (651) 793-6247; domeats.com 
W.A. Frost and Company This Saint Paul classic serves high-end fare—and wallet-friendly sandwiches. (651) 224-5715; wafrost.com 
Where to stay
Covington Inn All rooms have fireplaces and deck access on this docked Mississippi River towboat in Saint Paul. From $150. (651) 292-1411; covingtoninn.com 
For more information: Meet Minneapolis (888) 676-6757; minneapolis.org 
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® September/October 2010. Prices, dates, and other details are subject to change, so please check specifics before making travel plans.)