Best Scenic Highways In Minnesota

November 3, 2010 2:52 PM

It’s sometimes not all about the destination. It’s also about the journey. And in Minnesota, there are miles and miles of roads to experience either on the way or as a trip itself. From the bluff country in southeastern part of the state to the gateway of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area these could be one tank trips or a weekend getaway with plenty of places to stay. Chuck Lennon from Explore Minnesota lends his expertise about the twists and turns of some of the best scenic byways in this great state.In no particular order …

North Shore Drive

(credit: Paul Stafford/Explore Minnesota)

No. 1: North Shore Drive

Length: 154 miles

One of the most popular and prominent routes that some people will spend a week enjoying is the drive up the North Shore. On one side of the vehicle you will see the expansive Lake Superior and on the other side a national forest. Lennon said the newest attraction is on the southern end of the byway with the new Timber Twister Alpine Coaster at Spirit Mountain which is a breathtaking, 26 mph ride down the mountain. As you head north, light a candle for the Split Rock Lighthouse that is celebrating its 100th birthday. Lutsen offers the resort experience with lodging and activities for young and old. And keep the motoring to visit Grand Marais with amazing restaurants, like the Angry Trout, and more opportunities to get close to the great, Great Lake.

Gunflint Trail

(credit: Paul Stafford/Explore Minnesota)

No. 2: Gunflint Trail

Length: 57 miles

You can take a scenic departure off the scenic North Shore Drive by simply taking a turn in Grand Marais. The Gunflint Trail is a gorgeous throughway through the woods the opens up to many crystal clear, deep lakes with trout aplenty, said Lennon. The 57 miles of road is the gateway to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area but on the way stop and stay at the Gunflint Lodge or any number of lodges or cabins. And expect to see wildlife — from moose walking ambling across the road to eagles soaring above. This is the place to embrace and enjoy the deep wilderness.

Great River Road, Mississippi River Headwaters

(credit: Paul Stafford/Explore Minnesota)

No. 3: Great River Road

Length: 575 miles

Starting (or ending) at the headwaters of the Mississippi River in Itasca State Park and ending in La Crescent, this is the longest scenic byway in Minnesota with 575 miles that offers a wide range of landscapes. If you don’t have the time to cover that much area, Lennon recommends doing it in segments: north, metro and southeastern. At the headwaters, dip your toes in and wade in the water where the Mississippi River starts its long journey to the Gulf of Mexico. The byway follows the river as it travels through Grand Rapids into central Minnesota with lots to do along the way. In the Twin Cities, enjoy the river by getting out of the car and taking one of many boat excursions and see the metro from the water. As the route heads south, makes stops in a number of what Lennon calls “string of pearls river towns” that each have unique characteristics. The final stretch will take you through the river bluffs, ending in La Crescent which is the place to be when apples are in season.

Edge of Wilderness Scenic Byway

(credit: Paul Stafford/Explore Minnesota)

No. 4: Edge of Wilderness

Length: 47 miles

Highway 38 in northern Minnesota offers a drive through the deep wilderness with the majority of it winding through the Chippewa National Forest. Its 47 miles between Grand Rapids and Effie straight north (or south) that Lennon said is a total wilderness canopy with thick trees that open up to pristine lakes and then back to forest-lined roads. The towns along the way offer insight to the history and culture of the logging days of northern Minnesota.

Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway, Whitefish Lake Chain

(credit: Paul Stafford/Explore Minnesota)

No. 5: Paul Bunyan

Length: 54 miles

Resembling a figure eight, the Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway does a big loop around the Whitefish Lake Chain, circling through Pequot Lakes, Breezy Point and Crosslake to the south and Manhattan Beach and Pine River to the north. Lennon said this is “classic Minnesota resort country.” What makes this byway unique is the sheer volume of lakes and the scenic beauty of family cabins and resorts. Each small town has its own main street of shopping from boutiques to antique stores. There’s no shortage of things to do from dozens of golf courses to miles and miles of bike trails. And you won’t go hungry with ma and pa eateries and even upscale restaurants at some of the resorts.

Grand Rounds Scenic Highway

(credit: Paul Stafford/Explore Minnesota)

No. 6: Grand Rounds

Length: 53 miles

Most people in the metro know the Grand Rounds as the bike trail. Well, the Grand Rounds Scenic Byway is the road next to the bike trail. The byway circles the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes and while it’s one big loop, it has many loops within it that let you experience the individual lakes. Lennon said there is no other byway to compare this to because of how urban it is but yet scenic at the same time. The byway accommodates many modes of transportation if you want to get out of your vehicle. Enjoy the lakes where you can rent paddle boats, kayaks or canoes. And don’t forget about the great shops and restaurants that Minneapolis has to offer just a few steps off the byway.

St. Croix Scenic Byway, Taylors Falls

(credit: Paul Stafford/Explore Minnesota)

No. 7: St. Croix

Length: 123 miles

If you live in the Twin Cities but are still looking to get away, look to the St. Croix Scenic Byway just to the east. While it starts a little further north, the true beauty of the 123-mile byway begins in the bluffs Taylors Falls. Wild Mountain provides fun in the summer — waterslides, go-carts, alpine slides — and winter — skiing, snowboarding, snow tubing. Heading south you can stop in Stillwater, a historic town on a hill with shops, restaurants and lots to do by the water like a dinner cruise. Continue to follow the St. Croix River to Afton and you’ve now been through four different state parks — Afton, Banning, Interstate and William O’Brien. So there are plenty of places to pitch a tent, have a campfire and enjoy the outdoors before heading back on the byway.

Minnesota River Valley

(credit: Paul Stafford/Explore Minnesota)

No. 8: Minnesota River Valley

Length: 300 miles

Where the river meets the prairie in the south-central part of the state you will find the Minnesota River Valley Scenic Byway. One important stop, according to Lennon, is New Ulm to “get your German on.” Meet Hermann the German, visit the August Schell Brewery and indulge in the food you’ll discover. If beer isn’t your taste, try the wine at Morgan Creek Vineyard located on the byway in Cambria. The vineyard offers tours and tastings. Lennon said what sets Morgan Creek apart from other vineyards is that you can actually see the entire area where they produce the wine. In steep bluffs, you can enjoy the artistic hub of Montevideo where in the fall they have the Upper Minnesota River Art Crawl where you can visit the actual studios of dozens of local artists.

Historic Bluff Country Scenic Byway

(credit: Paul Stafford/Explore Minnesota)

No. 9: Historic Bluff Country

Length: 88 miles

It’s an eye-opening trip in southeastern Minnesota to a place where some say the ancient glaciers didn’t scrape well enough, leaving spectacular bluffs. Spanning from west to east, from Dexter to La Crescent there’s a dozen small towns to visit along the way. New to the area is the National Trout Learning Center in Preston. No, it’s not where fish go to learn but where people learn about the fish that attract tens of thousands of anglers each year. For those looking for a getaway, enjoy the byway drive to Lanesboro, the bed and breakfast capital of Minnesota. Tucked in the bluffs, Lennon said Lanesboro has a level of culture that surprises you including the Commonweal Theatre Company and Lanesboro Arts Center.

Waters of the Dancing Sky

(credit: Paul Stafford/Explore Minnesota)

No. 10: Waters of the Dancing Sky

Length: 229 miles

Named after the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights), this scenic byway spans 229 miles of northern Minnesota and in some places skirts the border of Canada. This is the true Northwoods. On the west end of the byway, visit the Pine to Prairie Birding Trail for opportunities to see a wide variety winged creatures. On the east, you might want to trade in your vehicle for a boat to explore Voyageurs National Park where you might be able to see moose browsing along the shorelines. Along the way, marvel at all the water, forests, farmlands and small towns. And if you’re looking for something completely different, stop for a factory tour at places like Polaris in Roseau or Marvin Windows in Warroad.

There are a total of 22 scenic byways in Minnesota, so as Chuck Lennon said, this is just an appetizer of what the state has to offer for beautiful routes to take in all year long. You can check them all out at Explore Minnesota’s Website.

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