One of the best ways to enjoy all that Minnesota has to offer in the autumn is to take a road trip along the state’s tree-lined byways, stopping to enjoy the best that fall has to offer in the North Star State. While there are thousands of different itineraries you could choose from, we think that autumn enthusiasts from the Twin Cities will really like this one-night weekend getaway.
Start your road trip early on Saturday morning by heading over to St. Paul’s Lowertown neighborhood, just off the Mississippi River. Head to Black Dog for espresso—or other favorite caffeinated beverage—and then stroll through the St. Paul Farmers Market (it’s just across the street) to pick up some fruit (not apples—we’ll get to that later) and snacks for the trip. When you’re feeling energized and well-supplied, head back to the car and jump on I-94, heading east.
As you approach the Wisconsin border, past Woodbury, follow the signs to Afton State Park. Although close to the Cities, this designated wilderness park feels like it’s hundreds of miles from civilization. Pick a trail and hike down toward the St. Croix River. As you go, the bluff top prairie gives way to oak savanna, and then hardwood forest lining deep ravines and bedecking the St. Croix Valley in the full palette of autumn. Once you’ve soaked in your first taste of full fall foliage of the road trip, head back to the car and take St. Croix Trail/Highway 95 north. In just over 50 miles, you’ll pass four state parks, a couple state waysides, and several National Park Service areas along the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. The towns of Afton, Lakeland, Bayport, Stillwater, and Marine on St. Croix are also along the way.
By the time you get to Marine on St. Croix, especially if you stopped along the way to shop or visit Fairy Falls in Stillwater or to take in the view at the St. Croix Boom Site State Wayside, it will be lunchtime. And since you’ll be burning plenty of calories on this trip, why not indulge yourself at one of the state’s favorite burger joints: Brookside Bar and Grill. You’ll see the back side of it, along with the brook, from Highway 95 as you approach Marine on St. Croix’s main thoroughfare. Grab a local brew and one of the delicious brookside burgers. Choose from a wide selection of gourmet options or customize your own. If you get there a little later, live music starts at 2 p.m. on Saturday afternoons.
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A few minutes north of Marine, pull into William O’Brien State Park and head to the day use area for a stretch and to walk off a bit of your lunch. The 1.6-mile Riverside Trail Loop is a relatively easy stroll through hardwood forest on the low banks of the St. Croix River. You’ll get water views bathed in foliage and a quick postprandial hike to prepare you for the rest of your road trip.
Head a little over dozen miles farther up the road to Pleasant Valley Orchard in Shafer. This beloved orchard has been voted best in the state, and its laid-back atmosphere makes it a fun, relaxing place to stop. Pick up some apples or apple baked goods, or grab a bag or two and pick your own as you stroll amidst the trees, smelling the apple-y air. When you’ve got all the apples you need, continue north on Highway 95. If you’re up for it, stop along the way at Franconia Sculpture Park, Interstate State Park, and in the town of Taylors Falls. Be sure to make a stop at Wild River State Park to take in the breadth of fall splendor that the St. Croix River Valley has to offer. Turn off Highway 95 onto Sunrise Road, and drive north to Rush City, where you’ll get on I-35 north. Stay on the interstate for a little over half-an-hour until you come to the MN-23/Askov exit. Take MN-23 east toward Askov, Bruno, Nickerson, and eventually, Duluth. This route will take you through three state forests, near Jay Cooke State Park, and across the Kettle and St. Louis rivers. Hardwood colors will give way to deep evergreens, and the autumn gold of aspen, birch, and balsam.
You should get to Duluth around nightfall. And after 90 minutes or so in the car, you’ll be ready to stretch your legs and get your heart pounding. Head to the dry-docked lake boat William A. Irvin near Canal Park and brace yourself for fright. As you explore the darkened decks of the 610-foot bulk freighter, ghosts from the deep and shipwrecked souls will do their best to make you scream. If you check into the Park Point Marina Inn, just across the aerial lift bridge from Canal Park, before you hit the Haunted Ship, you’ll be able to walk the entire evening without worrying about moving your car or paying to park.
After all the driving and frights, you’ll need to wind down a bit before heading to your hotel. Walk over to the Rathskeller in downtown Duluth. This speakeasy is tucked into the old city jail beneath what is now the Blind Pig restaurant. You’ll find some top-notch whiskey and more than a dozen craft beers. Oh, and beware—The Rath may be haunted.
Stroll back through Canal Park on your way to the Park Point Marina Inn. Walk along Lake Superior and take in the sight of Duluth’s lights stretching into the distance along the lakeshore. Sit next to the harbor-side fire at the hotel, enjoying a s’more along with the harbor lights, as you look for the aurora borealis before turning in for the night.
In the morning, cross to the other side of Park Point to the public beach on Lake Superior. Walk along the strand toward Canal Park, taking in the scenery and fresh lake air before taking in coffee and a casual breakfast at Amazing Grace Bakery and Café in the lower level of the DeWitt Seitz Marketplace. The Surf-a-rrito is a great way to start the day. After breakfast, explore the shops in Canal Park and walk the Lakewalk along the shoreline before heading back to your car to start the day.
As you leave Duluth, take I-535 to Superior, Wisconsin, and connect to WI-35 southbound. Just out of Superior, take a quick hike in Pattison State Park to enjoy the foliage and see the tallest waterfall in Wisconsin. After leaving the park, continue south on WI-35 through Dairyland, where you’ll pick up the beginnings of the St. Croix River Valley, and to Danbury, where you’ll cross the river back into Minnesota, and after a few miles, find the entrance to St. Croix State Park. St. Croix is the biggest park in the system. Two designated Wild and Scenic Rivers, the St. Croix and the Kettle join at the lower edge of the park’s 34,000 acres. The park is a in transition zone, containing trees from both southern hardwood forests and the Great North Woods, so you’ll get the best of all foliage experiences as you drive and hike in the park.