Best Minnesota Road Trips
Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes (and more than 150 miles of Lake Superior shoreline), promises intriguing road trip destinations including Duluth and the North Shore, Brainerd Lakes, Park Rapids, Ely, Lanesboro, Stillwater and a group of charming small towns along the Mississippi River.
Duluth and the North Shore
Sprawling parks and maritime marvels line the Lake Superior shore between Duluth and Grand Portage, just over the border from Canada. The best way to see it all? The 154-mile-long North Shore Scenic byway (State-61). Start your road trip in Duluth—home to the Aerial Lift Bridge, Canal Park, Glensheen mansion and Great Lakes Aquarium— and make your way up to Grand Marais and back, detouring to see waterfalls, rocky beaches, lighthouses and more. Don't rush this relatively short journey; you'll want plenty of time to explore all the parks along the way and to take in Lake Superior's many moods.
Brainerd Lakes area
For generations, dozens of resorts in the Brainerd area—130 miles northwest of the Twin Cities—have drawn travelers seeking laid-back lake escapes. Book a weekend or a week at lodgings like Cragun's Resort and Hotel, Grand View Lodge, Kavanaugh's Sylvan Lake Resort, Madden's on Gull Lake or Quarterdeck Resort. All offer a variety of room types as well as lakeside activities; guests at some resorts can also enjoy golf, tennis, trap shooting and organized family games.
Park Rapids and Itasca State Park
Visits to Park Rapids (190 miles northwest of the Twin Cities) aren't complete without a walk across the headwaters of the Mississippi River at Itasca State Park. But that's just part of a weekend adventure here; you can bike the Heartland State Trail, go swimming at Itasca, buy sweet treats at Aunt Belle's Confectionary and try ziplining at Character Challenge Adventure Park.
Ely and the Boundary Waters
The yodel of loons, splash of paddle strokes and creak of swaying pines create the soundtrack to the heart of Minnesota's North Woods. In Ely, visit the International Wolf Center, the Ely Folk School and North American Bear Center. Then head to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, where several thousand lakes and streams spread over more than 1 million acres to create almost endless canoeing, kayaking and hiking opportunities.
A pedal along the Root River Trail reveals southern Minnesota's finest—scenic landscapes, food and drink, even native trout. Explore Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park, the Root River State Water Trail, and the National Trout Center, as well as galleries and restaurants that help round out a road trip.
More than 400 lakes lie within 25 miles of this west-central Minnesota town. You'll find espresso and Wi-Fi, but also old-school resorts like Fair Hills and Five Lakes where the calendar seems stuck in the '60s—and that's a good thing. Also nearby: Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge, home to more than 250 species of birds and 40 species of mammals.
As a quiet neighbor to St. Paul, historic Stillwater lures Twin Cities locals and vacationers to the scenic banks of the St. Croix River. It's a perfect destination for a quick road trip from the Twin Cities—or a great stopover on a longer exploration of southeastern Minnesota, which could also include towns like Red Wing, Wabasha, Winona and Lanesboro.
The 5.9-mile Brown's Creek State Trail leads bikers and walkers to the heart of Stillwater. Shoppers will find plenty of stops on the charming Main Street; for a taste of the countryside, buy (or pick) apples at Aamodt's Apple Farm or taste wines at Saint Croix Vineyards. Check out Gondola Romantica for a soothing ride along the river, and leave time to walk (or bike) across the newly reopened historic lift bridge.
Red Wing, one of a string of appealing towns on the Mississippi, is best known for its namesake pottery and boots. While Red Wing pottery is no longer manufactured, the Pottery Museum displays more than 6,000 pieces of vintage ceramics. You can take a photo with the world's largest boot inside Red Wing Shoe Store and Museum. And be sure to hike up Barn Bluff or drive up Sorin's Bluff for views of downtown and the Mississippi River Valley. You can easily combine Red Wing with stops in Wabasha and Winona for a Mississippi River-focused road trip.
Wabasha and Lake City
Bird-watching, boating on Lake Pepin and dining from waterfront cafes round out a stay in these 1800s towns on the Great River Road. Most people come to Wabasha's National Eagle Center to watch wild eagles from an observation platform, but the programs about the resident bald and golden eagles are also worth checking out. Ride one of the whimsical creatures—dragons, pigs and more—on a hand-carved carousel at LARK Toys in nearby Kellogg. In Lake City, see artifacts from the button-making industry at Lake Pepin Pearl Button Company, and spend the night at Turning Waters Bed, Breakfast and Brewery.
If you've got more than one night, string together a Great River Road getaway by also visiting the towns of Red Wing and Winona.
A mix of culture and nature flows through Winona, on a Mississippi River sandbar about 120 miles southeast of Minneapolis. Take in marine art at the acclaimed Minnesota Marine Art museum or get a bluff-top perspective from Garvin Heights Overlook and Park. From the park, you can see the Watkins factory, which has been making extracts, seasonings and spices since 1868. A small museum traces the evolution of J.R. Watkins' company.
Combine Winona with stops in Wabasha, Lake City and Red Wing for a Great River Road trip along the Mississippi; or add in towns like Stillwater and Lanesboro to explore more of southeast Minnesota.
Great Minnesota State Parks
So many parks (66), so many choices: Minnesota's state park system includes sites on the prairie, among rolling hills and on the cliffs of Lake Superior. A road trip to any—or several—will appeal to nature lovers.