Heading Up North is what Minnesotans do when we want to escape, especially in summer. But you can go any which way this time of year and come across a vista worth pulling over for. Here are three drives that may make you see the region in a whole new way. Or at the very least get you out enjoying the light air, bright days, and harvest colors of fall.
New Ulm is the epicenter of authentic Oktoberfest in Minnesota. But you don’t have to wait for October, or claim any Germanic heritage, to appreciate a little autumnal journey to the town.
Leaving the metro and heading south on Highway 169, you’re basically riding down the Minnesota River Valley. Once you pass through Jordan, it’s nearly impossible to miss the bright yellow compound that is Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store (20430 Johnson Memorial Dr.). Besides a shocking array of strange and international candies and treats, there’s a wall of bottled root beer from all over the country. Also, don’t miss the pies from the neighboring orchard—some of the best in the state. Then you can work off your sugar rush with a stroll or bike ride on riverside trails at one of four Minnesota Valley State Recreation Area waysides along the highway.
In New Ulm proper, it’s good to start by paying homage to the city, which was founded by German immigrants four years before Minnesota became a state. Head straight to Hermann the German, the 102-foot monument dedicated to the warrior who liberated Germany from the Romans in 9 A.D., standing atop Center Street Hill. There are plenty of more historic sites in this region, but one of the most entertaining is the Harkin Store (66250 Co. Rd. 21, 507-354-8666), a general store from 1870 frozen in time with costumed guides to help you relive the era, and a front porch where you can sit and watch the river roll by.
History can make you thirsty, so head to Schell’s Brewery (1860 Schell’s Rd., 507-354-5528), the second-oldest family-owned brewery in the nation. Take a tour through the brewery and the gardens; then sip some Minnesota beers in the Rathskeller taproom. Afterward, head into the town’s center to see the Glockenspiel, which rings 37 bells at both 3 pm and 5 pm, before stopping for a bite. Go old school with bratwurst and schnitzel at Veigel’s Kaiserhoff (221 N. Minnesota St., 507-359-2071) or new school with pasta and fresh plates at Lola American Bistro (16 N. Minnesota St., 507-359-2500).
If you have time before you head out, swing through Morgan Creek Vineyards (23707 478th Ave., 507-947-3547), which often has live music and other events, including a grape stomp in October. Hunker down for some local wine, perhaps a snack from the wood-fired oven, and you might decide it’s best to just stay overnight at one of the great B&Bs in the area. You wouldn’t be the first.
The first half of the trip is familiar. I-94 scribbles through Minneapolis, then St. Paul, then past inner-ring relics like Sun Ray Shopping Center, eventually straightening out near Woodbury and its impressive fleet of big-box stores. Around Afton and Lake Elmo, a subtle shift. No longer distracted by midcentury office towers and the siren song of commerce, you tune in to land and sky, to farm fields and red-tailed hawks gliding high above. The open space turns exotic when 94 hits the St. Croix, which this far downriver is as wide and brown as the Amazon. From the bridge, look south for some grade-A chlorophyll breakdown. The valley is burning with color, but don’t stop yet. Just snap a mental picture and stay the course.
After the visual fireworks on the bridge, the commercial district of Hudson, Wisconsin will come as a disappointment. Shake it off. Take Exit 2 and head south on Carmichael until it becomes County Road F, which runs by an abandoned dog track and an upscale golf course filled with late-season duffers trying get one more round in. After about seven miles, you’ll see a sign on the right for Kinnickinnic State Park (W11983 820th Ave., River Falls, Wis., 715-425-1129). Drive another half-mile and turn into the small lot next to the Kinnickinnic River, a 22-mile waterway that takes its name from the Ojibwe term for “really fun to say.” (Kidding—it loosely translates to “mixed tobacco.”) This unassuming slab of blacktop is the park’s backdoor, favored by hikers, kayakers, and trout-stalking fly fishermen.
Follow the overgrown wooded trail down the meandering Kinni, as locals call it, doing your best to avoid the stinging nettles that will literally jump out at you if you’re not careful (what would a pilgrimage be without suffering?). Bushwhack. Admire leaves. Bushwhack. Admire leaves. Two miles later you’ll hit the confluence of the Kinni and the St. Croix. Make your way down to the sandy delta—a popular spot for campers—and behold: the Technicolor, surround-sound, eye-level version of that knockout view back on the bridge.
If adjectives escape you, it’s probably for the best. There’s no room for “autumnal splendor, bursting with hues of crimson” at a time like this. The best thing to do is just stand there and marvel at how the death of a million leaves could be so beautiful.
On crisp orange-leafed mornings, my dad, our dog, and I would pile into his Jeep Wagoneer and head due west. West was where the pheasants were, the bent-down cornfields and cattails. But it wasn’t the hunt that I cherished. It was riding shotgun with my dad on Highway 212—destination Granite Falls—through Grant Wood farm country that begins three breaths past the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska (3675 Arboretum Dr., 952-443-1400) and doesn’t stop until the great mountains of the West. There’d always be a bag of Corn Nuts and some Squirt for the car as we dove headlong into the heart of why our relatives settled here in the first place: that sweet land. An autumn drive west on 212 isn’t about the turning of the trees; it’s about the turning of the harvest. Fields are tanned, stripped of their annual yields, exposing the farms and their implementation for all their hard-won patina. Farm after farm, town after town, Cologne, Norwood Young America, Glencoe, Brownton invite you through as they rest. Places you know, locations you don’t. All so similar. All so different.
The wind will bite you in the treeless west, and yet you crack the windows because your eyes are telling your nose that the cloudy skies made grayer by busy-again chimneys and the reaped land can mean only one thing: the crispy breath of impending winter. By the time you’ve made it to your destination, hunter or not, you’re eager to get out of the car and hear the dusty crinkle of the ground beneath your feet and the sound of unabated wind. Truly, west is Minnesota.