Scenic Fall Color Routes in State Forests

Car driving along a forest road in Grand Portage State Forest.


Driving through our state forests in fall is a unique experience each year. No two autumn displays are identical. The best mix of color is often found in hilly or rugged areas dominated by yellow, orange, and red of deciduous trees, with green accent from conifer needles.
Fall color drives are perfect for people of all abilities and interests, providing great opportunities to picnic, hike, or snap some photos along the way. This year, in particular, they might be a welcome excuse for families to leave the house!
Here are some of our favorite fall color drives through a few of Minnesota's 59 state forests.

Late September

hiking trail lined with yellow maple treesSmoky Hills State Forest

What you'll see
This drive features the full fall color spectrum with brightly colored mixed hardwoods interspersed with the greens of pine. You'll cross the Shell River and view a number of small ponds. The forest contains a number of hunter walking trails and gated forest roads that are open to hiking. You can also access the North Country Hiking Trail from a trailhead on Highway 34, just a few miles west of the forest.

Where to go
Drive along State Highway 34 between Park Rapids and Detroit Lakes.

small lake with a raindow with and pine and birch tree in the foregroundBear Island State Forest  

What you'll see
Changing leaves of aspen, maple, and birch will provide a colorful backdrop as you head south from Ely. You'll see many bright blue lakes and even cross Birch Lake twice where the Kawishiwi River flows through. The New Tomahawk Road will take you off pavement for a rustic drive to Babbitt on a well-maintained gravel road. Babbitt has ski trails just east of town (and a parking area) that are great for fall hiking. Between Babbitt and Ely you'll see a mix of conifers and hardwoods and even more lakes and streams.

Where to go
From Ely, head south on State Highway 1 toward Isabella for about 20 miles. Take a right on New Tomahawk Road toward Babbitt for about 17 miles. Turn right on County Road 21 for 15 miles back to Ely.


Early October

bike standing on kick stand along a multi-colored tree lined trail.Rum River State Forest

What you'll see
Drive through diverse forests, including red and white pine, white spruce, white cedar, oak, aspen, and northern hardwoods. Watch for a variety of waterfowl along the way and cross the Groundhouse River on a wooden bridge. You may notice a raised ridged covered with beautiful trees running perpendicular to Apple Street. It's a glacial esker, gravel and sediment deposited by a retreating glacier. Want to grab some photos? No worries, this route provides numerous pullovers. 

Where to go
Drive along Rum River State Forest Road off Highway 20 or Apple Street south between Kanabec County Road 56 and Mille Lacs 220th St. 

Mille Lacs Kathio State Park borders the Rum River State Forest. If you plan to visit, be sure to purchase a vehicle park pass online before you go.

lake with multi-coloored shore lline.St. Croix State Forest and Nemadji State Forest Loop.

What you'll see
Gold, red, and orange leaves from aspen, maple, and other hardwoods dominate this landscape, providing great fall color. Numerous small streams wind through the forest and you will also see vast spruce bogs along the way. Pack a lunch — so you can picnic at the Hay Creek Flowage (on Markville Road)!

Where to go
From I-35, take Hinckley exit #183 and head east on State Highway 48 for 19 miles. Head north (left) on County Road 24, a gravel road (Tamarack Road & Tamarack River Road), and follow as it curves east and north for 7 miles. Turn right on County Road 25, a paved road (Mallard Lake Road), head east for 9.5 miles, to Markville. At Markville, head north on County Road 31, a gravel road (Cloverton Road), for about 5.3 miles to Cloverton. From Cloverton, continue traveling north on County Road 31 (Kingsdale Road), for 5.3 miles to a "T" in the road, (Junction of Kingsdale, Rocky Blvd and Rash Roads). At the "T" in the road, head west (left), onto the Rash Road. Continue traveling north on the Rash Road (also known as the Gandy Dancer Trail, an old railroad bed). Travel north 1.2 miles to the Rash/Park Forest Road (Park Truck Trail), and head west (left) for 13 miles. Turn north (right) on County Road 171 for 2 miles. Head west (left) on County Road 154/Kerrick Road for 5 miles. At Kerrick, head south on State Highway 23 for 18 miles to I35 exit #195.

St. Croix State Park is within the St. Croix State Forest. If you plan to visit, be sure to purchase a vehicle park pass online before you go.


Mid October

overlook Lake Pepin showing multi-colored treesRichard J. Dorer Memorial Hardwood State Forest

What you'll see
Drive past a variety of colorful hardwoods and interesting attractions. Hike to the top of Barn Bluff on the south end of Red Wing for a dramatic view of the city and the Mississippi River.

More tips
Bringing a bike? The Goodhue-Pioneer State Trail offers 4 miles of paved bike trail from Red Wing to Hay Creek Forestry Unit. Access the trailhead from the intersection of Hay Creek Trail/Twin Bluff Road and Pioneer Road.

Where to go
From downtown Red Wing head south on Highway 61 for 10.5 miles. At Frontenac, turn onto Country 2 to head east for 9 miles. Take a right onto County 3 to head east for 4 miles. Take a right onto State Highway 58 to head north for 1.5 miles. Take a left onto Hay Creek Trail to head north for about 4.5 miles. Hay Creek Trail turns into Twin Bluff Road at Pioneer Trail. Continue on Twin Bluff Road for 1.5 miles and turn left on East Ave to return to downtown Red Wing.

Stop at Frontenac State Park for scenic hiking through prairies and hardwood bluffs or visit Lake Pepin. State park visitors should purchase a vehicle park pass online before you go.

Need more ideas check out Fall Color Finder or plan a trip with ExploreMN.