Every year I intend to make the most of fall—I tell people it’s my favorite season, so I feel obliged. And every year I, well, fall short. Probably because I tend to be a last-minute traveler. My favorite road trips are the accidental adventures my friend Ahna Brandvik Logan has inspired me to take. You wake up, choose a place on the map you haven’t been to before, and go.
There are rules: no electronics, no chain stores or restaurants, and no whining. Also: If someone in the car wants to see or do something, you stop and check it out—no questions, no second guesses, no naysaying. You just go. This is how my family discovered the joys of Bayport one gloomy Sunday afternoon when we were all bored and antsy. The boats, the bakery, the bowling alley, the lakeside park, the creepy sculpture in front of the library—they perked us up. We began a new week with a sense of possibility and lots of little memories to put in the scrapbook that I hope my 7-year-old will make one day. (I’m counting on you, Iris.)
I’m hoping to make some scrapbook-worthy memories this September, too. The trouble is that the month is so busy with back-to-school events, and fundraisers, and raking, and unpacking sweaters, and budgeting for the next fiscal year . . .
and one day you look up and realize you’ve missed those peak colors you just heard people talking about on the radio. To do it right, to really bathe in the golden hues, woodsy scents, and oh-so-light crisp-as-an-apple air, you have to plan ahead—or at least be prepared to clear a day or a few and go accidental. As for me, I haven’t quite decided where I’m going yet. But I have zeroed in on a few spots that will definitely deliver.
Less Than Four Hours
More than a decade ago, my parents ran a teepee-shaped gift shop called The Wigwam way up in Lake George, on the way to Bemidji. In summertime the teensy township buzzed with tourists visiting one of the many lakes in the area—lakes so numerous residents referred to one of them simply as “32.” The shop did a swift business in lawn ornaments, mood rings, and cap guns, but in fall everything went quiet. That was my favorite time to visit—the best time to retreat to Itasca State Park (dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/itasca) and soak up the silence of the tall Northwoods. No bugs, hardly any people, and one of the prettiest places I’ve ever been.
Itasca is known for being home to the headwaters of the Mississippi, but the trickle that becomes the river has never been the main attraction for me. Minnesota’s oldest state park has more than 32,000 acres—and 78 miles of hiking trails—to explore. A walk on spongy leaf- and pine-needle-covered paths leads to discoveries both human-made (the burial mounds of the Itasca Indian Cemetery) and glacier-made (lakes, ponds, and bogs). I could spend a week here, staying at one of the rustic log cabins, building fires, and reading on a screened porch. And when all that Wi-Fi-free solitude gets to be a bit much, you can head into the Mary Gibbs Headwaters Visitor Center for a hearty dinner at the Headwaters Café and a chance to hop on the Internet and post a few pics on Facebook.
Another option: Bikers at Itasca have only about six miles of trails that aren’t shared with cars, so if you want a similarly serene experience on wheels, head to the North Shore’s ever-expanding paved Gitchi-Gami State Trail (ggta.org), which will eventually connect Two Harbors and Grand Marais. So far, more than 28 miles are complete.
Less Than Two Hours
If you’ve missed the colors up north, head southeast to bluff country. My nomadic parents also lived in Wabasha for a few years, and I frequently made the not-quite-two-hour escape past the widening in the Mississippi that is Lake Pepin. What a relief to be in a different landscape, especially in fall, when winding roads plunge you into sea after sea of fiery color. And there are so many stops along the way to make the drive go quickly.
Lunch is at Kings Bar and Grill (kingburgers.com) in Miesville, famous for its massive menu of burgers. Farther along you hit Red Wing, the gateway to the bluffs. The town has a reputation for pottery and antiques, but I stop for the overpowering smell of leather that assaults you when you enter Red Wing Shoe Store & Museum (redwing.org/red-wing-shoe-store-museum) and the absurd wonder that is the two-story work boot near its entrance.
The next notable spot is Lake City, the birthplace of waterskiing. I point out that fact to anyone who’s listening and keep driving to Wabasha. When I get to this river town, I linger. Wabasha has long been a destination for eagle watching, and the addition of the National Eagle Center (nationaleaglecenter.org) has made it a destination for tourists. Five rescued eagles that would not survive on their own in the wild live here, and getting up close to these massive, loud, menacing birds is even more thrilling than touching the stitching on the giant Red Wing boot.
My other must-do bluff-country stop is LARK Toys (larktoys.com). Even jaded Mall of America shoppers are wowed by this toy store in Kellogg. With room after room of playthings, including a slew of old-fashioned metal wind-up figures, it’s like something Willy Wonka would have dreamed up. A whimsical (not cutesy) hand-carved carousel runs on the half-hour with pigs and dragons and other strange creatures to ride on.
And last but not least, nature. Bring your binoculars and explore Great River Bluffs State Park (dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/great_river_bluffs) near Winona, where the King’s Bluff Trail offers heart-stirring views of the Mississippi River Valley as eagles and hawks swoop overhead. It’s a great experience at any time of year, but especially beautiful in fall.
Another option: If all you want is nature, hike through Banning State Park (http://dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/banning), just off I-35 north of the Cities. Dramatic rock formations, waterfalls, and large potholes dot the site that was once a sandstone quarry.
Less Than an Hour
Apple orchards are a great way to taste fall without spending too much time in the car—especially important when you have small kids. I’ve been to all sorts, but none has charmed me as much as the low-key operation that is Whistling Well Farm (whistlingwellfarm.com) in Afton.
Maybe it’s the fleet of wood-slatted red wagons that are up for grabs. (Use them to haul kids or apples or pumpkins or mums—all in abundance around the farm.) Or maybe it’s the way they hand children little dried cobs of corn so they can cause a ruckus in the chicken coop. Or maybe it’s the docile donkey that never tires of being petted. All I know is I never tire of this place. Every time I go, I come home with a trunkful of pumpkins, apples, and maple syrup feeling ready to head back into whatever the work/school week is going to throw at me. It’s nice to have a fresh reminder that if things get too hectic, you can always just get in the car and drive.
Before you hop in the car, find out where the leaf color is peaking on the DNR’s website, dnr.state.mn.us/fall_colors. Or check out the smartphone app they promote on the site.