Find the best views of Minnesota’s fall colors

The maple leaves are starting to flame into shades of red and gold, making it a great time to plan fall drives. Whether you seek a daytrip or a weekend, here are some of my favorite fall destinations in Minnesota. Don’t forget to check the Department of Natural Resources fall color report for the best timing.

Aim high for a fall hike:
Lutsen Mountains

While colors along the North Shore can be pretty, they get more vibrant as you head inland. Best view we’ve ever seen? Standing on Moose Mountain, facing a brilliant Magic Mountain. The experience is escalated by the ride there. The ski resort’s mountain tram glides across the burbling Poplar River before heading up into the steep Sawtooth Mountains. It was enough to give a three-year-old the willies one year.

There’s the Summit Chalet at the top where you can warm up with a light meal and hot coffee or cocoa while facing the sapphire blue expanse of Lake Superior. There’s a great loop hike around Moose Mountain. Back at the resort, the alpine slide offers another thrill. Like the mountain tram, it’s open Thursdays through Sundays until Oct. 24.  If you love golf, splurge on a round at nearby Superior National, one of the state’s premier courses. Its advantage: elevation, the rugged Poplar River, and Superior scenery.

Phelps Mill near Fergus Falls.

There are lots of inland forest roads throughout Cook County. Check with location attractions for designated fall color routes and make sure you’ve got a good Minnesota atlas, as well. GPS is nice, but we swear by DeLorme maps first and foremost.

Prairie Pothole country:  
Otter Trail Scenic Byway
If you want to ditch the leaf-peeper crowds and enjoy gently rolling roads, this 150-mile route rolls through the surprisingly beautiful prairie pothole country. The best introduction to this unique western Minnesota terrain can be found at the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center on the outskirts of Fergus Falls. Created through the National Wildlife Refuge service, it explains the importance of these lakes to the thousands of birds that flock to this section of Minnesota and into the Dakotas.

Near Glendalough State Park

One of the prettiest scenes in the area has always been the 1889 Phelps Mill, a pretty red-and-white structure reflected in its own mill pond. You can walk right in to view displays and a film on the area’s wheat boom.

Keep heading north for a sweeping view of fall color at Maplewood State Park. Atop its Halloway Hill Trail, the view encompasses hillsides of sumac and hardwoods, South Arm Lake, Lake Lida and Pelican Rapids.

In the spirit of Oktoberfest: New Ulm 

Fall is an ideal time to climb up to “Hermann the German,” a monument high above New Ulm where the view  encompasses the Minnesota River Valley Scenic Byway. (You’ll have to use your fall color imagination with the photo on the left, taken in the spring.)

New Ulm boasts several historic bed and breakfasts, tasty restaurants and the beloved Schell’s Brewery. The brewery, Schell mansion and historic gardens (pictured below) naturally complement autumn with tours and tastings. Even better: It celebrates its 150th anniversary this year–a huge accomplishment for a small company that survived the U.S. Dakota war, Prohibition and competition of corporate breweries. It’s something to think about while hollering “Prost!” at Oktoberfest the first two weekends in October. It’s certainly cheaper (and less crowded) than a trip to Munich, and you can get your fill of lederhosen and oom-pah-pah music.

Even without the festival, the town’s German heritage  is beautifully reflected in its shops, architecture and food. The chamber rents well-done and free walking tour podcasts of its historic downtown. Leave time to explore its curvy, wooded Minnesota River byway and detour into the countryside to sample wines at Morgan Creek Vineyard. It will be livelier than usual on Oct. 2, when visitors come from across the state to squish grapes through their toes at the Cambria Grape stomp.

For more fall festivals and scenic drives, check out