Did you know that even though Minnesota is called the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” there are actually more than 10,000 lakes in this state? It may seem hard to believe, but it’s true!
From Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world, to tiny back-roads lakes which might not even have a name on a map, Minnesota has no shortage of beautiful scenery and sensational family vacation spots.
Driving is one of the best ways to appreciate the landscape of forests, lakes, and rivers. The best scenic drives in Minnesota give you a chance to experience the best of the state.
You can stay in the comfort of your car or use one of Minnesota’s scenic byways to reach your next canoeing, backpacking, or biking adventure!
1. Minnesota Scenic Drives: North Shore Scenic Byway
- Distance: 145 miles
- Time Needed: 3 hours to several days, depending on stops
Lake Superior is one of the number one attractions of Minnesota, and you’ll quickly see that this mighty body of water lives up to its name. The route stretching between the cities of Duluth and Grand Portage at the Canadian border is known as the North Shore Scenic Byway, and it’s the best way not only to see the lake but also the numerous state parks and wilderness areas along the way.
Start this Minnesota drive in Duluth, the largest inland port in the world. It’s worth checking out some of the sights of the city, like the Aerial lift bridge, where you might get the chance to see an oar boat coming into the harbor.
Heading north, you’ll enter the Superior National Forest, with groves of pine trees to the west and the rocky shores of Lake Superior to the east.
Gooseberry Falls State Park is an excellent place to stop for a picnic lunch or a longer day of hiking. It only takes 15-30 minutes to walk the paved path leading to the main falls area, or there are plenty of other hiking trails for an entire day of exploration.
Just north of Gooseberry Falls, you can pull off to visit the iconic Split Rock Lighthouse or stop by Palisade Head, one of the tallest cliffs along Lake Superior with jaw-dropping views.
For serious nature enthusiasts, this scenic drive in Minnesota is the best way to reach the Gunflint Trail and entry points to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. There are also plenty of smaller lakes for shorter afternoon fishing or boating adventures.
When to go: Spring through fall are the best times of year to drive this scenic route in Minnesota since winter driving conditions often aren’t safe due to the snow.
2. Minnesota Scenic Drives: Gunflint Trail
- Distance: 57 miles
- Time Needed: 2 hours to multiple days
If you’re already driving the North Shore Scenic Byway, it’s not a bad idea to add on another of the best scenic drives in Minnesota-the Gunflint Trail!
The Gunflint Trail begins in the town of Grand Marais, located on the shore of Lake Superior. It’s a great town to stop for lunch and check out one of the numerous local craft stores selling an array of trinkets and fine art.
From here, the route makes its way inland toward the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and the Canadian Border. There are countless entry points to the Boundary Waters either for long canoe trips or short-day excursions. Many of the larger lakes will have wilderness outfitters where you can rent gear like canoes, kayaks, or fishing equipment if you don’t want to bring your own.
Hikers will want to take this scenic drive in Minnesota to explore the miles of trails. Plus, farther from the road, you’ll have a better chance of spotting wildlife like coyotes, moose, or even a wolf!
Pro Tip: Keep in mind that there are no towns along the Gunflint Trail, so make sure you fill up with gas and pick up any snacks or gear you might want in Grand Marais.
When to go: Spring through fall are the best times of the year, although skiers may want to drive the Gunflint Trail in winter. If you do plan a winter drive, make sure you check weather and road conditions beforehand since the snow can sometimes cause closures.
3. Minnesota Scenic Drives: Great River Road
- Distance: 565 miles
- Time Needed: 7 hours to multiple days
One of the most famous scenic routes in the United States, the Great River Road traverses the length of the Mississippi River. It all begins in Minnesota in Park Rapids at the headwaters of the Mississippi River in Itasca State Park.
The state park has a lot to offer, such as cruises across Lake Itasca and excellent hiking trails. Park Rapids also has fun local shops, signature craft ice cream, and bakeries. Keep south on the drive to Bemidji, where you’ll want to at least stop to get a photo at the iconic statue of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox.
Eventually, you’ll reach the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul which are full of culture, art and science museums, and excellent restaurants. This scenic drive in Minnesota then crosses the southern border of the state, where it continues into Iowa.
This is one of the best highways in Minnesota since it’s easy to include as much or as little of it as you want, plus it connects south to other states if you plan on continuing your road trip.
When to go: Spring to fall are the best time of year, but it’s also possible to drive in winter, although more difficult to include outdoor activities.
4. Minnesota Scenic Drives: Lake Mille Lacs Scenic Byway
- Distance: 68 miles
- Time Needed: 2 hours to 1 day
The Lake Mille Lacs Scenic Byway takes a loop around the state’s second-largest lake and combines beautiful scenery with fascinating Native American history and culture.
You can stop for a hiking excursion in the Mille Lacs Kathio State Park, where you can get a truly stunning view from the 100-foot fire tower, which is now open for visitors to climb to take in the vista out over the lake and forest.
To learn more about the history of the region, we’d recommend visiting the Mille Lacs Indian Museum and Trading Post where you can purchase artisan goods and learn about the Native American communities who call northern Minnesota their home.
Back in your vehicle, this scenic byway in Minnesota takes gentle twists and turns around the shores of the lake, opening on bluffs overlooking the water before tracing its way back into the thick forest.
When to go: This is considered one of the most scenic places in Minnesota in the fall, thanks to the truly stunning autumn leaves. Spring and summer are also good months for outdoor exploration, but winter driving conditions can be tricky.
5. Minnesota Scenic Drives: Historic Bluff County National Scenic Byway
- Distance: 88 miles
- Time Needed: 2 hours to 1 day
Crossing the wooded bluffs and pastures, this is one of the best highways in Minnesota to appreciate the peaceful landscape of the southern portion of the state. This scenic drive in Minnesota follows the Root River Valley which is spotted with historic Amish villages and lush greenery.
Outdoor adventurers can stop along the way to rent kayaks to float down the river or hop on a bike to explore one of the many bike paths around the area. Like any of the best drives in Minnesota, you’ll also have access to lakes for swimming or fishing, depending on the season.
In one of the local towns, stop at a small eatery for a slice of homemade pie or purchase a souvenir at one of the craft stores. If you’re looking for a scenic byway in Minnesota as an alternative route to 1-90, then the Historic Bluff County drive is perfect.
When to go: Spring through fall are the best seasons for this drive.
More From Minnesota & The Midwest
- Extend your driving adventures further with these fabulous Midwest road trip ideas
- Stay up to date with current traffic conditions in Minnesota on 511mn.org
- Driving in the winter months? You’ll need to check these cold-weather driving tips for staying safe on the road
- Before hitting the road, don’t forget to grab our essential road trip checklist
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