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The ultimate Minnesota road trip: Can't-miss sights, sounds, and tastes

Embrace Minnesota's open roads, spectacular state parks, and kitschy attractions.

Embrace Minnesota's open roads, spectacular state parks, and kitschy attractions.


This is not a complete compendium of the wonders Minnesota has to offer — the Boundary Waters alone could take a lifetime to explore in a thoroughly Thoreau-like fashion. But you've only got a week off work, so let's hit the road.

Day One: Hiking, smoked fish, and Grandma's Saloon

You've just driven roughly 100 miles from the Twin Cities, so shake those stumps and climb 100 feet into the air at the St. Croix State Park Fire Tower. Look out over the wooded expanse once used to scan the horizon for errant trails of smoke in the forest fire-prone Hinckley area. The leafy canopy stretches for miles, and while the woodsy area is far from Mordor-esque, this might be the closest you ever feel to being the Minnesota-based Eye of Sauron. If you're afraid of heights, you might want to sit this one out — the ascent is breathtaking, but the descent can be nerve-racking.

After a 30-minute drive north, lace up your tennis shoes and take the chill, mostly flat hike to the sandstone quarry ruins at Banning State Park. This spot on the Kettle River was home to pink sandstone deposits that were mined until the early 1900s when steel became en vogue for construction. If you start early enough, you can hike the Game of Thrones-ready names of stretches along the Kettle River like Blueberry Slide, Mother's Delight, Dragon's Tooth, Little Banning, and Hell's Gate. The hiking area along the Hell's Gate rapids is a little rougher, so be prepared.

Fuel up about 45 miles up I-35, at the R.W. Lindholm service station in Cloquet. Built in 1958, it was Frank Lloyd Wright's only foray into petrol-centered architecture, and it sure as hell beats some old B.P.

On your way to Jay Cooke State Park's many ridge trails, march across the famed Swinging Bridge, which lives up to its name and bounces walkers 200 feet across the St. Louis River. Although the bridge was originally built in 1924, you don't have to worry about its stability. After being wiped out during the devastating 2012 flood, the suspension bridge was rebuilt for the fifth time. No matter the weather (or season), this spot is Instagram-ready with a tree-filled island bisecting the river on one side of the bridge and scenic rapids on the other. Drive a few minutes on 210 to Oldenburg Point for an overlook of the St. Louis River Valley.

Embarking on a road trip is always draining — especially if your day involves hiking — so take a load off and get a brew on your way into Duluth at Grandma's Saloon & Grill in Canal Park. Named for "Grandma" Rosa Brochi, a mythical 19th-century boarding house founder with a legendary story, this spot may be kitschy, but it's a Duluth institution in part thanks to the annual marathon, which bears the Grandma's name.

Embrace Minnesota's open roads, spectacular state parks, and kitschy attractions.

Embrace Minnesota's open roads, spectacular state parks, and kitschy attractions.

Sate your appetite with the best sandwiches on Lake Superior's shores at Northern Waters Smokehaus. Get to know this self-professed "island of food weirdos" while you wait for some of the finest slow fast food the North Shore has to offer. We recommend the "Buffalo 06" loaded with bison pastrami, swiss, Smokehaus kimchi, and topped off with their super special (and secret!) Russian dressing. You can take your sandwich to go and watch the waves crash on the shore by the Aerial Lift Bridge, or, if after your escapes at Banning and Jay Cooke you're hella hungry, go inland to the main Northern Waters Restaurant. There you'll feast on fish charcuterie and pork belly polenta. Plan ahead and book an Airbnb for a homey place to crash on the first night of your journey; it's not too difficult to find a house with a view of the lake.

Day Two: A murder, a pie, and a lighthouse

Combine Downton Abbey, Clue, and 1900s Duluth, and what do you get? Glensheen Mansion. Just off the shores of Lake Superior, this estate was once owned by the wealthy Congdon family until grisly murders took place there in 1977. Now, the home is part of the National Register of Historic Places and open to the public to explore year round. Take an "early" morning tour around 9 a.m. and see how Upstairs, Downstairs would've played out on the North Shore. In the past year, there's been a resurgence of Glensheen interest — from Chan Poling's Glensheen musical to a Lifetime movie starring Francesca Eastwood (yes, that Eastwood), which was filmed on the grounds.

Opt for the scenic route on Highway 61; besides the spectacular roadside views of Lake Superior, you'll be able to stock up on some smoked fish at Russ Kendall's Smokehouse. (We recommend the whitefish and the lake trout.) After a catastrophic fire in 2014, this North Shore institution is back up and running. Having operated the smokehouse for five generations, the Olsons know their stuff and you can taste it.

By the time you hit the road again, it'll still be a little early for beer-30 at Castle Danger Brewery. Luckily, you can get a couple growlers to go for an evening tipple, if you don't mind eating the nominal deposit fee. We like both the Castle Cream and Danger Ales. Make another pit stop at Betty's Pies to pick up a sweet treat for dessert before making the quick 15-minute drive to your next destination.

Gooseberry Falls State Park is so well manicured that you barely need to leave the pavement to get to the spectacular Middle Falls. There, you'll be able to unlace your kicks and dip your feet into that crisp Gooseberry River water. The only downside? Everyone else will have that idea, too. But if you don't mind the crowds (or the parking lot teeming with minivans and car toppers), you're in for some quality nature time. Scramble around the exposed tree roots lining the trails and head up toward the High Falls, passing underneath the Highway 61 bridge. Venture away from the falls, past the campgrounds, toward the lake, and you'll hit Agate Beach, a prime rock-hunting spot where the chilly, shimmering tide laps the shore. As much as we love Gooseberry Falls for a quick visit, it's just a little too busy to stay. Even though there are almost 70 drive-in campsites, successfully reserving one feels a little like winning the lottery. Lucky for you, a hidden paradise is just a 10-minute drive up 61.

Settle in for the evening at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. Be sure to reserve a campsite in advance — preferably one of their 20 cart-in sites. It will require a little extra effort to set up camp, since you'll have to haul your gear into the site, a distance of 120 feet up to half a mile, but we guarantee it's worth it. Here you're more likely to hear the North Shore symphony of Lake Superior waves, pileated woodpeckers, and the wind rustling through the spruce trees than kiddos at the next campsite over (we're looking at you, Gooseberry).

In the morning, make your way over to the lighthouse, which was built after a two-day storm raged on the lake in 1905, sinking ships and killing 30 sailors. Although the lighthouse was retired in 1969, it's now a historic landmark ready to tour. Plus, there's 12 miles' worth of easy hiking throughout the park, and plenty of vantage points to get that perfect shot of the lighthouse grazing the horizon. Who needs postcards?

Day Three: Antiquing, chasing waterfalls, and going off the grid

On your way through Beaver Bay, stop by Second Hand Rose Antiques. If you're on the lookout for matching, rosy pink glassware for your next garden party, this flea market's got it. Weird salt and pepper shakers? You'll find them here. With at least 10 huge tables set up along the roadside along with an indoor store, Second Hand Rose proves that one person's tchotchke is another person's treasure.

Drive 10 minutes north on 61 and you'll hit Tettegouche, one of our state park gems. With 23 miles of hiking, there's no shortage of scenery and paths to discover. One of this park's musts: the High Falls on the Baptism River. As the highest waterfall that's entirely within Minnesota (stay tuned for higher falls that are only partially in the state), this one is begging for a long-exposure photo. Further down the Baptism River, you'll find Two Step Falls... which live up to their name. Birders are in luck: The park is home to about 140 species of birds, from peregrine falcons to northern warblers. After taking in the falls, hike out to Shovel Point and Palisade Head, both of which jut out into Lake Superior and offer some killer climbing. Fun fact: Macaulay Culkin and Elijah Wood once got into a fight on the Palisade Head cliffside — for a movie, of course. Back in the early '90s when they were both child actors, the two duked it out during the climactic scene in The Good Son.

If you feel inclined to break in your hiking boots and tackle one of Minnesota's most undeveloped state parks, head over to George H. Crosby-Manitou State Park. Nestled along the Manitou River gorges, this state park is serious business. Be forewarned, you'll have to backpack at least half a mile in to your site, and the park office has the only drinking water — otherwise, tote some from the river and filter it yourself. Attempting this hiking and camping experience means you might have to miss out on some of the other nearby state parks, thanks to the extra time and effort it takes to find and set up camp.

Stop at one of the parking areas on Highway 61 along Temperance River State Park and you'll get a chance to explore part of the Superior Hiking Trail on your way to Hidden Falls. Head inland on the northern side of the Temperance River (Cauldron Trail marks the spot) and take in the falls and the cauldron (a swirling, roaring whirlpool on the river), which are a short walk from the highway. If you're feeling more ambitious, take the three-mile trek to Carlton Peak, which crests at about 1,500 feet and shows off some incredible views of Lake Superior. Be sure to check out the geology here, formed by basaltic rock (i.e. soft lava). Small potholes developed here thousands of years ago, and through the passage of time and water, formed a deep gorge that entrenches the Temperance River. You can still see some of the original potholes by the river today. Keep an eye out for trout in the river, too.

For your last stop of the day, head north past Lutsen toward Cascade River State Park. You'll want to set up camp at one of the park's 40 drive-in sites before night falls. Luckily, the campgrounds aren't close to each other, but they are close to the trailheads. In the morning, start early and check out some of the 18 miles' worth of trails at the park. Plenty lead alongside the river, which has, hands down, some of the prettiest waterfalls you'll see on this trip, like Cascade Falls and the Cascades. There are also two overlooks to choose from — Lookout Mountain and Moose Mountain — on opposite sides of the park. Lookout Mountain is the more approachable of the two, with an easy-to-moderate trail up to the peak. (This is also a prime leaf-watching spot during the fall.) One thing to keep in mind: The restroom and shower facilities at Cascade are under construction throughout the 2016 season, so you'll have to deal with vault toilets during your stay.

Day Four: Doughnuts, tacos, and a bona fide natural mystery

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Don't stick around Cascade for too long. Head 15 minutes north into Grand Marais and go straight to World's Best Donuts where the little doughy bits of heaven live up to their namesake. Get the Skizzle, a lumpy-looking sweet dough that has been stretched out, fried, and doused in sugar. One look at the line surely stretching out the door, and you'll know you've hit the breakfast jackpot. Walk next door to Drury Lane Books, a small, purple-trimmed bookstore with plenty of material for you to take on your hikes. Speaking of hikes, walk toward the shore (it's right there, really!) and hang a right to get to Artists' Point. This gorgeous (and easy) hike onto a peninsula is the perfect place to take a doughnut and a book for a quick break from the road. The rocky outcropping is nearly surrounded by water, with a few tufts of trees in the middle to break up the lake effect wind. At the opposite end of the walkway, you'll find an Instagrammable lighthouse to check out before heading back into town.

Make a trip to the wood-lined Lake Superior Trading Post, where you can pick up both supplies (they've got everything from guide books and fire-starting kits to hiking boots and cold-weather gear) and souvenirs (locally made jewelry, organic skin balms, old-school candy, and artisan pottery). If you're around during the weekend, hit up the Cook County Farm & Craft Market for more artisanal souvenirs.

Before heading out for the day, visit the Dockside Fish Market and pick up some delectable smoked fish, brined with a special solution of brown sugar and maple wood. You can get the fish by itself to eat with crackers or get a trail-ready smoked fish wrap to go.

Drive up to Judge C.R. Magney State Park to check out one of Minnesota's biggest natural mysteries: Devil's Kettle Falls. You'll hear it before you see it. Head up the many steps to check out a bird's-eye view of side-by-side waterfalls on the tumultuous Brule River: one flowing toward Lake Superior... and the other plummeting through a pothole and into the abyss. No, really. Where this pothole leads has stumped scientists (and tourists) for decades. There have been plenty of attempts to figure out where the water goes, but it's still a mystery; dye, thousands of ping pong balls, and more have been dumped into the kettle and never seen again. A fictionalized version of Devil's Kettle even made an appearance in the Diablo Cody horror flick Jennifer's Body.

After marveling at Devil's Kettle, it's time to head north once again to Grand Portage State Park. You'll be about as far northeast as you can go on 61 without crossing into Canada (you can see the border checkpoint from the parking lot). Here, you'll gaze upon the majestic High Falls, plunging over 100 feet into the Pigeon River right on the Canadian border. On sunny days, rainbows will appear in the mist by the falls. This also happens to be the only state park not actually owned by Minnesota — instead, the park rests on the Grand Portage Indian Reservation. If you're around the area in mid-August, you can watch the annual Pow-Wow during Rendezvous Days and learn more about this historic community (and chow down some incredible food — we recommend the moose burger).

Thanks to their ubiquitous bumper stickers, Sven and Ole's might be the most recognizable Grand Marais eatery... but we recommend going off the beaten path and filling up on tacos. Yes, in this little town near the Canadian border, you'll find a unique and delicious taco place that hits the spot after a long day of exploring on foot. Hughie's Taco House boasts a small but impressive menu that includes fry bread tacos, which are puffy (but not greasy) and delicious. The service is quick and friendly, and you'll feel right at home hanging out in this affordable spot that doesn't skimp on the fixin's.

Stay the night in Grand Marais — there are some killer VRBO and Airbnb spots that will be your home away from home... on Lake Superior.

Day Five: Wolves, root beer, and the "Cadillac of mines"

Swinging Bridge at Jay Cooke State Park

Swinging Bridge at Jay Cooke State Park

Pick up another Skizzle (or two) from World's Best Donuts. You know you want to... and it'll fortify you for the two-hour drive south on 61 and west on MN-1 to the International Wolf Center. Get up close and personal with the badasses of the forest. There's a pack of "ambassador" wolves at the center that prove that wolves are more than the big bad villains of fairy tales past. The center does vital research to help wolves survive and thrive in the wild. If pups are more your style, don't worry, they've got them, too. The center just received a pair of arctic wolf pups — the adorably named Grayson and Axel — from Canada this spring. The pups make multiple appearances daily so you can "Ooo" and "Aww" over these little baby badasses.

Refuel with some choice root beer at the Dorothy Molter Museum. Molter, a.k.a the Root Beer Lady, lived on Knife Lake for over 50 years as a nurse and the owner of the Isle of Pines resort. With the formation of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Molter was thrust into the public eye, as her home and business were located in the middle of the region. Luckily, Molter was able to stay in the increasingly secluded area until she was the last person living in the BWCA. Throughout her years there, she sold root beer (hence the nickname!) and invited campers into her home. Even a young Julia Roberts stopped by Molter's years ago when she was at Camp Birchwood. After Molter's death, her cabins were moved to Ely (owing to a rule that no permanent residences could be within the BWCA borders) and the museum was opened. Get a glimpse of life in the BWCA without electricity or modern conveniences at this (only slightly hokey) look into the past.

If you're a geology buff, check out the Pillow Rocks, a rare outcropping of Ely greenstone. If you're not into rocks, you can skip this one and about a half hour outside of Ely, you'll find the Soudan Underground Mine State Park. At the state's oldest iron-ore mine, travel a half mile underground in a mine hoist (fancy talk for an old cage elevator) used by miners once upon a time. Once you're in the mine, you'll continue via rail another quarter mile deeper beneath the earth's surface, learning about the "Cadillac of Mines." While mining activity ceased in 1962, there's still plenty going on at Soudan — including research on dark matter and particle physics. If you're chirotophobic, you should steer clear of the mine to avoid Minnesota's largest known bat colony, which is home to at least 10,000 bats. Still intrigued? Channel your inner Neil deGrasse Tyson, miner, or both, and head into the depths with your hardhat. Just remember to bring a sweater: The mine stays a cool 51 degrees year round.

Day Six: Bob Dylan, Paul Bunyan, and the headwaters of the Mississippi

On your way west, drive through Hibbing and snap a photo in front of Bob Dylan's old childhood home. Back when he was still known as Robert Zimmerman, the soon-to-be music legend lived in Hibbing from the age of six until he left home. His old stomping grounds are closed to the public, but you can get a feel for the town Dylan lived in before he left Minnesota for good.

Fans of Fargo will recognize the next photo op located in Bemidji: the infamous Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox statues of yore. Created in 1937 for the Paul Bunyan Carnival, these statues were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. And with all the cultural capital these frontier legends have given the state, this towering twosome is worth hauling out the selfie stick, don'tcha know.

Make your way to the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi at Lake Itasca State Park. With over 200 drive-in campsites, you'll be able to find a spot that's cozy and close to the park's lakes. The second-oldest state park in the nation, this place is ideal for easy hikes with nearly 50 miles' worth of scenic trails along east and west arms of Lake Itasca. Picnic alongside the water and marvel at the infant waterway (just 20 feet wide!) as it begins its long journey to becoming Old Man River. Birders should stay on the lookout for bald eagles in some of the biggest red pines (a.k.a. the official state tree) in Minnesota along with loons, herons, kinglets, and over 200 other species of winged creatures.

Gooseberry Falls State Park

Gooseberry Falls State Park

Day Seven: Kitschy roadside attractions and stunning ancient artifacts

Roadside attractions are usually both pointless... and amazing. The "World's Largest" Twine Ball in Darwin takes the cake as both a hobby that got way out of hand and a monument to some ineffable calling. This 17,000-pound ball of twine is a manmade marvel with a diameter of 12 feet. And while it's no longer the biggest ball of twine in the world (that goes to a group effort in Cawker City, Kansas), it's still the biggest ball of sisal twine built by one person. The twine ball was decades in the making, started by Francis A. Johnson in 1950, who added twine to the ball for four hours each day. Eventually, the ball got so big, he had to suspend it from a crane in order to keep the creation spherical. "Weird" Al Yankovich forever immortalized that dedication to roadside glory in his song "The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota." And you, too, can make your own ginormous ball of twine with the starter kit they sell in the gift shop... if you're up for that kind of commitment.

Roll on south to the Jeffers Petroglyphs, thousands of sacred images and symbols carved or chiseled into rock face. The petroglyphs, used by pre-contact Native American tribes for storytelling, rituals, and religious ceremonies, are a part of the Minnesota Historical Society's archaeological collection. Over 2,000 glyphs, some of which date back to 3,000 B.C., can be seen on the exposed bedrock, including images of humans, buffalo, elk, turtles, and weapons. Surrounded by prairie, this is one of the most beautiful sights in southwestern Minnesota. We suggest you stick around until dusk when the glyph shadows are longer and more dramatic. And after sunset, you'll be able to see more stars overhead than are ever visible in the metro.

Day Eight: Spam, Little House on the Prairie, and the coolest boots you'll ever own

Before you head east, go to Minnesota's very own Little House on the Prairie, a.k.a. the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum. The prolific writer lived in Walnut Grove for about five years as a little girl. Get a taste of life on the frontier and check out some of the real Wilder family mementos as well as some memorabilia from the Little House TV show, which aired from 1974 to 1983. Make like the Ingalls kids in the show's intro and stretch your pins out before the next leg of the trip — it's a long one, clocking in at just over two and a half hours.

After its initial heyday during World War II, who would've thought SPAM would be such a force in the culinary world? But SPAM is so much more than just meat in a can. At the SPAM Museum in Austin, find out how it went from soldiers' rations to a Hawaiian delicacy, the chic musubi (a.k.a. SPAM sushi). Check out SPAM's origins and learn everything you've ever wanted to know (and maybe a few things you didn't) at this meat-themed museum.

Make your way about 90 minutes east to Red Wing, home of — you guessed it — Red Wing Shoes. (Hint: This is the perfect excuse to pick up a pair of Minnesota's coolest boots.)

The mouth of the Temperance River at Lake Superior

The mouth of the Temperance River at Lake Superior

Stretch your legs at Barn Bluff, which boasts a moderately taxing hiking trail through the forest to the top of the bluffs that overlook Red Wing. You'll be able to see out over the entire town and the Mississippi River as it bisects Minnesota and Wisconsin. Climbers will also love this spot, where there's plenty of space to try your hand at scaling the limestone cliffs. This is an especially choice spot for leaf watching in the fall.

Day Nine: Belgian waffles, a sculpture park, and beer

Your last day on the open road will take you north past the Twin Cities to Taylors Falls. If it's between Wednesday and Sunday, stop in for breakfast at l'Etoile du Nord, the culinary gem of Bayport. Try the real Belgian waffles or the smoked whitefish quiche, or go straight for dessert with the sinfully rich Belgian chocolate brownie.

Now fortified, hit the road for Interstate State Park, which offers a place to kayak through the rapids or take it easy in a canoe on the St. Croix River. You can rent boats right on the water. Not up for oars or paddles? Hike to find the glacial potholes on the park trail, showing thousands of years of erosion. Follow the River Trail to the Highway 95 overlook, which gives spectacular views of the St. Croix.

A trip to Franconia Sculpture Park is a must on your way into downtown Stillwater. This outdoor art space is filled with gigantic sculptures crafted by 75 local and international artists in residence. Ogle at the towering steel and plaster sculptures scattered across the 43-acre field or take a selfie in front of the wall of boomboxes. Once you're in Stillwater, take a peek at Staple Mills Antiques, a true treasure trove of relics from the past. Crammed into a three-story shop is something for just about everyone, from vintage clothing (including 1900s christening gowns!) to retro furniture (like an old-school Coke fridge).

Finally, swing back through Bayport for a quick farewell beer on your way back to the Twin Cities. At Lift Bridge Brewing Co.'s taproom, you'll be able grab a growler, a pint, or a flight of Lift Bridge's premium brews; we're partial to Farm Girl and Crosscut. Hang out for a while, eat some free popcorn, and get in a game of Friends Trivial Pursuit or Connect 4 before heading back to real life. You've earned it.