This 19-mile route skirts along the elevated bluffs and ridges of Eastern Minnesota, winding its way through the small towns of Nodine and La Crescent while providing superlative views of the Mississippi River Valley. Stop to take a peek over the scenic overlooks at Great River Bluffs State Park and to sample a glass of Marquette vino at the newish River View Vineyard & Winery.
Removed from the tourist traps, this historic route resides on a natural terrace atop Duluth’s big hill (500 feet above Lake Superior). But there’s more to Skyline Parkway than the big lake: This 25-mile stretch hops from park to park, occasionally picking up with city streets, providing drivers with plenty of reasons to stop and explore. Highlights: bird watching at Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve, swimming the warm waters of Twin Ponds, and climbing the five-story tower at Enger Park for an aerial-like view of the Twin Ports.
Highway 61, Revisited: Part I
Bob Dylan’s dystopian “Highway 61” bears zero resemblance to the heavenly highway Minnesotans know and love, the one that hugs the contours of Lake Superior’s North Shore. Be sure to take Scenic 61, aka North Shore Drive—not the four-lane expressway also known as Highway 61. The old highway stretches 19 miles from Duluth to Two Harbors, tracing the shoreline for amazing views of Lake Superior’s crashing waves and ominous fog.
Now follow that famous highway south to its underappreciated southern sector. Once you hit Red Wing, the unvaried flatness of Twin Cities terrain blossoms into beautiful bluff country. The going gets even prettier when the Mississippi yawns and stretches to become Lake Pepin, especially on sunny days when the water becomes studded with sailboats. Tip: Stop for espresso and housemade pastries at Rabbit’s Bakery in Lake City. This is also a good place to get out of the car and watch the eagles swirl overhead.
Historic Bluff Country Scenic Byway
Speaking of Southern Minnesota’s dramatic bluffs, this 88-mile route gives drivers the grand tour. Just follow Highway 16 along the Root River Valley into the countryside, where you might encounter an Amish buggy. Here’s what the trip guarantees: a string of old-fashioned towns (Rushford, Lanesboro, Preston) as if frozen in amber. Each has charming lunch options, plus bed and breakfasts for you overnighters. With their thick curtains of maples and oaks, the bluffs are the route’s real attention-grabbers. Look closer to appreciate the landscape’s more subtle qualities: trout streams, rolling farm-land, and even a few mysterious sinkholes.
Also known as Cook County Road 12, this two-lane roadway takes you from Grand Marais into the heart of Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. With no towns along the way—just historic landmarks, scenic overlooks, and rustic lodges—the Gunflint Trail is pure refuge. Stop to hike, fish, or, if you’re lucky, do some moose watching.
Avenue of the Pines
This 46-mile passage is flanked by the Chippewa National Forest’s orderly rows of evergreens. But these infinite conifers occasionally give way to peaceful wetlands and lakes ringed with campgrounds and resorts. Of particular note: The avenue brushes against Lake Winnibigoshish, ideal for fishing and boating enthusiasts.
St. Croix River Trail
For a quick shot of natural beauty, take a spin up Highway 95 (aka the St. Croix River Trail) from Afton or Stillwater. This roadway has wondrous views of the St. Croix River Valley, some pleasantly wooded stretches, and a few fine small towns: Marine on St. Croix, Osceola (just across the river, on the Wisconsin side), and St. Croix Falls.
Otter Trail Scenic Byway
This is a circuitous route on a series of rural highways in the midwestern part of the state that forms a 150-mile tour of woodlands, lakefronts, and crop fields. Look for the directional signs sporting a cartoonish otter. Don’t miss the roadside sculpture garden near Vining. Constructed entirely from scrap metal, these quirky creations are the work of local metalworker Ken Nyberg.
Lake Street, Minneapolis
Twin Cities–based photographer Alec Soth, whose work appears regularly in The New York Times, is known internationally for his road-trip projects. His favorite drive close to home is Lake Street.
Why: “As someone who makes his living looking at stuff, Lake Street is an ever-changing feast for the eyeballs. On a single 20-minute drive you can gawk at everything from gussied-up hipsters to old-school hookers. Lake Street offers the pulse and grit of city life, but it also offers the natural bookends of Lake Calhoun and the Mississippi River.”
Where Soth likes to stop:
1. Midtown Global Market: Formerly a warehouse for Sears, Roebuck & Co., this restored complex now packs dozens of international cuisine options under one roof. midtownglobalmarket.org
2. The Longfellow Grill: “It’s especially great in the summer when you can sit outside, steps away from the Mississippi.” longfellowgrill.com
3. Bryant-Lake Bowl: “Bowling, theater, food, and drink packed into a small, friendly space.” bryantlakebowl.com