With its abundance of lakes, rivers, and wild forests, Minnesota is famous for its natural beauty and rich history. Minnesota is the 12th largest state in the United States. To the north lies the Canadian border, Wisconsin and Lake Superior to the east, and the Dakotas to the west.
The state is full of unique attractions, historic towns, untouched forests, rolling hills, prairies, and, of course, countless freshwater lakes. People make road trips in Minnesota to indulge in some excellent hiking, mountain biking, or camping in a terrific state or national park.
People come for the good food and the small-town living and to spend time among the state’s natural wonders and historical or art centers.
I recently spent some time in Minnesota, driving through the state’s incredible scenic byways and checking out some of the best attractions. I had such a great time and wanted to share the best Minnesota road trips.
Table of Contents
- Best Road Trips in Minnesota to Take
- 1. North Shore Scenic Drive
- 2. The Gunflint Trail National Scenic Byway
- 3. Minnesota Waterfalls
- 4. Great River Road Scenic Byway
- 5. Lake Mille Lacs Scenic Byway
- 6. Haunted Minnesota Road Trip
- 7. Bluff Country Byway
- 8. Christmas Towns in Minnesota
- 9. Minnesota State Parks
- -Minneopa State Park
- -Sibley, Monsoon, and Lac qui State Parks
- -Itasca State Park
- -Wild River State Park
- 10. Sunflower Farms
- 11. Wine Trails
- -Grand River Road Wine Trail
- -Upper St. Croix Wine Trail
Best Road Trips in Minnesota to Take
1. North Shore Scenic Drive
Along this 145-mile scenic route on Highway 61 are acres upon acres of untouched forest, charming small towns, and breathtaking parks.
This road trip will start in the underrated city of Duluth in Northern Minnesota. Duluth is one of Minnesota’s largest cities, home to a bustling downtown and port, quiet lakeside neighborhoods, shops, bars, pubs, breweries, and some of the best restaurants in Minnesota.
Here, you can check out Lake Superior fish and wildlife at the Great Lakes Aquarium or the Lake Superior Zoo, or take a dinner cruise on the lake.
Plus, there are plenty of parks and hiking trails scattered throughout the city to enjoy. Once you’ve had your fill of Duluth, hop in the car and head north on the North Shore Scenic Drive.
This route will take you along the craggy beaches of Lake Superior, through Lutsen, Grand Marais, and Grand Portage. These towns are known for their access to outdoor adventures, from mountain biking and fishing in the summer to skiing and snowmobiling in the wintertime.
Stop at Grand Marais to experience and explore the cliffs, lakes, and wilderness present in the beautiful Superior National Forest. This magical woodland area has several waterfalls, smaller inland lakes, and some breathtaking vistas I thoroughly enjoyed. It is open to campers, ice fishers, and outdoor sports enthusiasts all year long.
Grand Marais is also a hotspot of artists, galleries, and workshops. Unique restaurants and coffee shops offer a variety of tasty cuisine and live entertainment, and plays can be seen at the Grand Marais Playhouse.
At the end of the North Shore Scenic Drive, sits Grand Portage, 35 miles north of Grand Marais. Grand Portage is home to the largest waterfall in the state of Minnesota, Pigeon River High Falls.
This glorious waterfall is 120 feet tall and is managed by both the state and the Grand Portage Band of Ojibwe. To get the most out of this magnificent drive, I recommend taking this road trip between mid-September through the end of October to enjoy the fall colors.
See Related: Best & Fun Things to do in Cottage Grove, MN
2. The Gunflint Trail National Scenic Byway
Just off of the North Shore Scenic Drive is the Gunflint Trail, a 63-mile long, two-lane highway that cuts through the Superior National Forest. It has been in operation since 1884 and has a fascinating history.
To access the Gunflint Trail, or County Road 12, hop on Highway 61 in Grand Marais and head northwest. Along the way, you’ll drive through rolling hills and catch glimpses of untouched deciduous forests through your car windows.
Although there aren’t any towns or cities along the Gunflint Trail, there are numerous campgrounds, boat ramps, and plenty of hiking trails for exploring and wildlife watching.
The trip will take you to the Canadian border at Saganaga Landing. The Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center is a great place to stop and stretch your legs. I absolutely loved this museum.
Here, you can view a variety of interactive and interpretive displays, including canoe-making demonstrations, lectures, foraging courses, and learn about the history of the land.
See Related: 23 Best Things to do in Bemidji, Minnesota
3. Minnesota Waterfalls
Some of the most beautiful waterfalls in the world can be found along the shoreline of Minnesota. Luckily, a straight-shot road trip can take you to many of them in only 3 hours, with plenty of hiking trails and camping spots along the way.
This road trip kicks off in Two Harbors at Gooseberry Falls State Park. Here, an easy 3-mile looping hiking trail will take you to three wide falls on the Gooseberry River. There is a lovely footbridge that hangs over the Gooseberry River and offers lovely views of the water, the falls, and the forest.
From here, take MN-61 North and drive along the shoreline towards Silver Bay and Tettegouche State Park. On the way, be sure to stop at Split Rock Lighthouse, a historical lighthouse built in 1910.
At Tettegouche State Park, there are four glorious waterfalls to view. High Falls is the more popular of the available falls, accessible at the end of an easy 2-mile hike. They are the tallest falls in the state and empty into the Baptism River.
Cascade Falls is located closest to the mouth of the river and requires a state park pass to access. Two-Step Falls and Illgen Falls can be accessed via short trails. Both are such fantastic places I cannot recommend them enough. In the warm summer months, you’ll see swimmers swinging into the flat part of the river on ropes or jumping off rocky ledges.
Once you’ve had your fill of the sights at Tettegouche State Park, head inland to the George Crosby Manitou State Park. In addition to back-country camping and large, old-growth forests, the falls here empty into the Manitou River.
Up next is the Temperance River Falls, a wide-rushing fall that courses through rocky terrain and high drop-offs. A little farther north is the Cascades in Cascade River State Park. These falls are some of the most beautiful in the state, and should not be skipped.
Towards the end of this waterfall tour, you’ll want to check out The Devil’s Kettle and Upper Falls in Judge C.R. Magney State Park. Here, the water disappears into rock, begging the question where does the water go?
The road trip ends at the Grand Portage State Park. Here, waterfalls, also called the High Falls, thunderously empty hundreds of thousands of gallons along the US-Canada border.
4. Great River Road Scenic Byway
The portion of this All-American Road that sits in Minnesota stretches 565 miles from the old-growth pine forests of Itasca State Park to St. Paul and Minneapolis in Southern Minnesota.
The majority of the road trip runs through beautiful backcountry roads with views of hayfields, forests, and tree farms. After exploring Itasca State Park head south towards Grand Rapids. Follow the road down to the Twin Cities.
Along this road trip are must-see stops, like the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and the Judy Garland Museum, home to the largest collection of Judy Garland memorabilia. You also should stop by the statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox in Bemidji.
See Related: Best Things to Do in Delano, Minnesota
5. Lake Mille Lacs Scenic Byway
Another spectacular fall-color road trip is the Lake Mille Lacs Scenic Byway, a 68-mile loop that has long been known as one of the best scenic drives in the state. It is roughly 90 miles north of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
This road trip will start on MN 169 and take you around Lake Mille Lacs, a 200-square-mile lake with depths of up to 38 feet and over 80 miles of shoreline.
There are plenty of local and historical attractions on this scenic byway, including the Mille Lacs Kathio State Park.
In addition to the camping, outdoor sports, and nature programs available here, this state park is home to a 100-foot-tall observation tower. Climb this tower to take in the glorious nature views.
A little farther north sits the Mille Lacs Indian Museum and Trading Post, a wonderful spot to do a deep dive into the region’s original owners, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. Here you can learn about their agricultural and hunting practices as well as shop for indigenous arts and crafts.
In my opinion, the most beautiful part of this scenic road trip is the northern rim of the lake. This 18-mile stretch of road on MN 18 will take you around the beautiful lakeshore before taking you back south through dense forest.
The last stops on this road trip will be Isle and Wahkon, small towns with plenty of places to eat and relax. You’ll also be able to access Father Hennepin State Park from here, a lovely forested area with a public swimming beach and beautiful sandy shores.
See Related: How to Go on a Roadtrip With Kids
6. Haunted Minnesota Road Trip
For those with brave hearts and a penchant for the creepy or macabre, Minnesota offers a haunted road trip with plenty of spooky places to stop and explore along the way. Overall, this trip will last just under seven hours and will take you on a 350-mile journey.
Most travelers start this spooky trip at the Greyhound Bus Museum in Hibbing. Here, windows and doors are said to open and shut by themselves, as though ghosts of travelers past are still making their way to their next destination.
From there, take MN 65 S down to the Palmer House and Restaurant, a historical hotel in Sauk Center. Rooms 11 and 17 are said to be particularly haunted, full of ghosts running through the halls, moving objects, and shadowy figures hovering over the beds.
I-94 E will take you a little farther south to Fountain Lake. Here, there are legends of Native American spirits who haunt the area’s lake. There are frequent reports of a woman screaming as she drowns.
Hop back onto I-94 E to check out the last stop on this haunted road trip.
First Avenue, a venue for music and live entertainment in Minneapolis, is said to have the ghost of a woman who can occasionally be seen hanging from a noose in the women’s bathroom.
See Related: Most Haunted Hotels in Minnesota
7. Bluff Country Byway
The Bluff Country Byway is an 88-mile stretch of highway that runs from Dexter, Minnesota to La Crescent on the Mississippi River.
The road will take you through Historic Bluff Country, a charming spot full of lovely small towns, quaint stops, and three state parks.
The three state parks you can expect to see on your way down the Bluff Country Byway include the Beaver Creek Valley State Park, the Mystery Caves State Park, and the Root River State Trail.
If you happen to be traveling near Beaver Creek Valley State Park in the spring, you’ll be able to witness a blinding array of colorful wildflowers that attract songbirds and campers alike.
If you feel like adventuring, Mystery Caves State Park can deliver.
It is the longest cave network in Minnesota, with over 13 miles of passages and a dazzling array of stalagmites, stalactites, and breathtaking underground pools. They offer a variety of different tours, such as the Wild Caving Tour of the Lantern Tour, which brings people through the caves by lantern light.
The Root River State Trail is a great stop off. It is 42 miles long and runs from Fountain to Houston, MN. The trail was built over an abandoned railroad and is handicap-accessible.
The trail is bracketed by towering limestone bluffs and winds through varied terrain, from farmland to pastoral hillsides. There are several historical buildings along the way, as well as restaurants and museums.
Along this drive, you can also experience many outdoor recreational activities, including mountain bike trails, hiking, horseback riding, fishing, and canoeing. The Root River Trail and Rushford Sand Barrens are great spots for these activities.
Along your road trip along the Bluff Country Byway, there are a plethora of educational opportunities and historical spots such as the Houston County Historical Society Museum or Schech’s Mill.
My personal favorite, The Houston County Historical Society Museum, showcases both the history of the land and the Native Americans that once lived there. Schech’s Mill is one of the final remaining water-powered mills in the state, and during one of their weekend tours, you can ground a sack of cornmeal.
There are plenty of camping spots and BnBs to stop at along this road trip as well.
The best time to experience this road trip is in the fall. It is a picturesque drive that is enjoyable any time of year, but the fall colors will elevate the experience tenfold.
See Related: Best Things to do in Minneapolis, Minnesota
8. Christmas Towns in Minnesota
Christmas is a magical time. From the festive, twinkling lights that adorn every lamppost and storefront to the general level of cheer the season generates, it is a special time that Christians look forward to all year long.
Luckily, there are plenty of Christmas-themed towns in Minnesota, all of which are accessible in a 275-mile long road trip along US Highway 63 South. The people in these towns go all out for the Christmas season. The route cuts through the southwestern chunk of the state along the Minnesota-Wisconsin border.
The road trip through Minnesota Christmas towns starts in Stillwater, Minnesota.
Stillwater has a charming downtown area with a wide variety of unique shops that will allow you to get a good chunk of your Christmas shopping done. Carolers dress up in Victorian garb and traverse the streets singing classic carols. There are also horse-drawn carriage rides.
Just a touch south from Stillwater is the town of Red Wing. The citizens of Red Wing take Christmas seriously. From a special brunch with Santa at the St. James Hotel to various holiday concerts and boutique shopping, there are plenty of Christmas-themed activities the whole family will enjoy.
Winona, Minnesota features a gorgeous downtown, full of historic brick buildings with a ton of character. The town kicks off the Christmas holiday with a huge parade, with activities like Christmas trolley rides and holiday shopping galore.
After Winona, the route veers east toward Owatonna. Owatonna is a place you’ll want to spend more than a couple of hours in due to the sheer volume of Christmas-related activities.
On the past holiday, I went there with my family and watched the holiday parade that starts the day after Thanksgiving and ends with the lights being turned on in the main park. You surely don’t want to miss that one. There are historic holiday home tours as well as a special stop by the Canadian Pacific Holiday Train.
Mankato is next up on the list of Christmas towns to check out on this road trip. Here you can check out the Kiwanis Christmas Light Display, a dazzling array of Christmas lights in Sibley Park that stay up every year until the end of December.
From there, keep heading east until you hit New Ulm, the final destination on this Christmas-themed road trip.
The entire town is bedecked in Christmas greenery and twinkling lights. In addition to their nighttime holiday parade, Schell’s Brewery lights luminaries and lets the public meander through them every Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Realistically, this road trip could be done on a weekend, although there are plenty of places to stay should you wish to extend your road trip for a full holiday vacation.
See Related: Best Place to Travel in December
9. Minnesota State Parks
There are a total of 75 state parks in the state of Minnesota. Traveling to all of these state parks, while a worthwhile trip, would be quite a feat.
If you don’t have an entire summer to check out all of the state parks available, there are plenty of day and weekend trips to try.
-Minneopa State Park
Minneopa State Park is Minnesota’s third oldest state park, best enjoyed during the summertime. Here, there are plenty of natural attractions to take in, from wildflower fields to a double waterfall. The main attraction is the American Bison herd that was recently reintroduced to the area.
-Sibley, Monsoon, and Lac qui State Parks
Along the western border of the state sits three beautiful state parks, Sibley State Park, Monsoon Lake State Park, and Lac qui State Park. These parks are great for water sports and enjoying time by the lake. Campgrounds are available at most parks.
-Itasca State Park
Exploring the state parks of Minnesota is just as memorable in the wintertime. At Itasca State Park, you can go cross-country skiing or snowshoeing along the Mississippi River State Water Trail. Here you can get a glimpse of the start of the Mississippi River.
-Wild River State Park
At Wild River State Park visitors can enjoy on-site camping, canoeing, hiking trails of varying difficulty, and an abundance of wildlife, birds, and wildflowers.
Nevers Dam Overlook can also be found here, a lovely historic overlook that allows for river views.
See Related: Best Hotels in Minneapolis, Minnesota
10. Sunflower Farms
Sunflowers in Minnesota bloom from late July through August, and there are plenty of fields to explore.
Taking a road trip throughout Minnesota hopping from sunflower field to sunflower field is a lovely way to end the summer.
Kick off the road trip on Highway 169 to North Brooklyn Park and check out the Twin Cities Maze. They have a large field of sunflowers to wander through, as well as an on-site corn maze and pumpkin patch. If you miss the sunflowers, you can always check out the other fall-related activities until November.
Treasured Haven Farm is located on the St Croix Riverway in Rush City. This working farm has an elongated growing season that runs from July through mid-September, so there is plenty of time to get in a good photo opportunity. These are also some of the most beautiful prairies and stretches of forest I saw in the whole state.
One of the longest operating sunflower fields in Minnesota is located in Isanti off of Highway 65 NE. The Green Barn Garden Center grows black oil sunflower seeds, and throughout the fields are antique tractors, an old piano, wagons, and other props that are perfect for those Pinterest-perfect fall photos you crave.
You’ll also want to check out Waldoch Farm in Lino Lakes. This farm has six acres of sunflowers with over 150,000 blooms. Guests can wander through the towering flowers, taking photos or picking a few special flowers to bring home.
You can also spend time at the Joyer Adventure Farm, where farm animals, wagon rides, and other family-friendly activities abound.
See Related: Best Things to Do in Southern Minnesota
11. Wine Trails
Minnesota is home to a large number of vineyards and wineries that only a full road trip can do justice to.
-Grand River Road Wine Trail
The most popular of these are located on the Great River Road Wine Trail, a chain of 11 different wineries that spans Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin. 4 of the 11 wineries are located within Minnesota state lines and span the southern part of the state.
Start the trip at the Cannon River Winery in Cannon Falls, a small town in the Sogn Valley outside of Minneapolis. They offer an extensive menu of wines that are grown on over 40 acres of land. They have award-winning wines to sample as well as food options.
Next up is the Falconer Vineyards & Winery, a beautiful spot in Red Wing with wine tastings, wood-fired pizza, and a “Music in the Vines” concert series.
Take Highway 61 south to Winona, a town that sits on the Mississippi River, to visit Garvin Heights Vineyards. This winery has been in business since 2006 that prides itself on being a place for gathering and social events.
The last stop on the Grand River Road Wine Trail is the Riverview Vineyard & Winery in La Crescent. The winery has a selection of 10 different wines and has breathtaking views of the Mississippi River.
-Upper St. Croix Wine Trail
Another popular wine trail that would make a great road trip for a girl’s weekend or bachelorette party is the Upper St. Croix Wine Trail. This trail is self-guided and contains four 4 wineries, 3 of which reside in Minnesota.
This wine trail road trip will start at the North Folk Winery in Harris. This award-winning winery has weekly gourmet pizza nights from May through October, delicious pizzas which are made with locally sourced ingredients.
They also host live music every Friday night. Then head down to Wild Mountain Winery in Taylor Falls. They are an environmentally friendly winery that provides organic food, composting, and waste reduction.
Enjoy incredible views of the St. Croix River Valley, winery tours, and grape stomps. Wine tastings are only $5 per person. The Upper St. Croix Wine Trail ends at the James Perry Vineyards in Rush City. Their vineyard is located in the middle of rolling hills dotted with trees.
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