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Visit these three southeastern Minnesota cities to chase fall colors

Fall colors are seen on the Mississippi River bluffs along Highway 61 on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018, from atop Mount Charity at John A. Latsch State Park near Winona, Minn. When this photo was taken, many trees along the tops of the ridges had lost their leaves, while trees in the valleys were not yet at peak color.
Fall colors are seen on the Mississippi River bluffs along Highway 61 on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018, from atop Mount Charity at John A. Latsch State Park near Winona, Minn. When this photo was taken, many trees along the tops of the ridges had lost their leaves, while trees in the valleys were not yet at peak color.Andrew Krueger | MPR News

by Sheila Regan

September 21, 2022

Driving through the bluffs of southeastern Minnesota as the colors change is like moving through a gigantic Mark Rothko painting. The yellow, red, and orange colors weave through and around you as you make your way around the state’s delightful Driftless area. So named because the region never got covered in ice during the last ice age, the Driftless area boasts dramatic bluffs that prove to be things of beauty, especially in autumn.

Here are three cities you’ll want to explore as you make your fall color getaway.


For serious leaf watching while the crisp wind nips your skin, head to the tiny town of Lanesboro, located about two hours southeast of the Twin Cities. Epic bike trails are waiting, including the Root River State Trail made from a transformed railroad. It runs 42 miles, with Lanesboro sitting right in the middle.

There are a few places to rent bicycles, like the Little River General Store, oriented along the trail so you can head out in either direction. If you head west toward Preston, you’ll find yourself biking through a lovely, well-maintained trail through the woods. It’s an immaculately quiet ride, save the sound of water as you cross the river at several quaint bridges. Take a detour up to the Old Barn Resort and catch sight of a converted barn, a slightly startling conglomeration of swallows and vistas.

If walking is more your style, the Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center, a quick drive from the center of town. They have a number of walking paths and a nature center with taxidermy, live creatures, and information about how to achieve a more sustainable future.

Lanesboro has the feel of a movie set. You can walk the whole of the downtown area easily by foot, where there are excellent dining and food options. Juniper’s Restaurant sits right on the Root River. If it’s nice, you can sit outside and take in the view. Old Village Hall also serves excellent meals and has more of an old-school vibe. If you are staying overnight at one of the lovely hotels (Hotel Lanesboro is a cozy spot, for example), head to the Lanesboro Pastry Shoppe for breakfast, especially if you like sweet and buttery treats.

For arts and entertainment, Lanesboro has a number of options. The Commonweal Theatre is running The Mystery of Edwin Drood through October 29, or you can catch live music at the historic St. Mane Theatre. The Lanesboro Arts Exhibition Gallery is worth a look as well. It’s built in a historic building, features rotating exhibitions, and also operates as a juried sales gallery.


Sugar Loaf Bluff is still standing, though it doesn’t look much like historical photos of the landmark. Limestone miners chipped away at the bluff’s signature sandstone in the 19th century. You can still see the curious bit of nature from any number of hotels located near the bottom of the bluff. When the moon is full, Sugar Loaf glows.

Hikers have many options around Winona, including John A. Latsch State Park and the Great River Bluffs State Park. The latter park can take up to two days of hiking to get through all of the different areas — from oak-hickory forest to romantic prairie grasses, and many jaw-dropping overlooks throughout its dramatic shifts in elevations. The vista at the end of King’s Bluff offers a startling peek at the glimmering water of the Mississippi River, surrounded by rolling bluffs. Breathe in the wonder of nature with doses of wildflowers, surrounded by a striking rainbow of changing leaves. Sugar Loaf Bluff, too, has a short hike that offers a view of the small city.

Minnesota Marine Art Museum in Winona
Minnesota Marine Art Museum in Winona opened in 2006, and has art exhibits and educations programs based around our relationship with water.
Courtesy Minnesota Marine Art Museum

Winona is brimming with arts and culture as well. On the top of your list should be the Minnesota Marine Arts Museum. The permanent exhibition spaces are filled with seascapes and water scenes from the great masters, blue chip artists, and American treasures. The museum has an impressive collection of Hudson River School artists as well. They rotate local and contemporary artists as well. Currently on view, Anishinaabe artist Karen Savage reflects on nature and culture with hints of surrealism and abstraction. Beginning on September 30,  artist Anne Labovitz opens her exhibition, “Water Stories,” weaving colors and textures together in a sculptural installation.

Other arts activities include visiting the 60th anniversary exhibit of the Winona Arts Center. Plus, if you are in the area already, you simply must cross the river into Wisconsin and see Kinstone, which is open through October 31. Kinstone is a strange place filled with giant rocks artfully placed throughout the grounds. It’s kind of a mini Stonehenge replica, but with a lot more to offer besides that. If you have a pagan steak in you, or if you have an affinity toward semi-magical places, this is the hippie hotspot of your dreams.

Foodwise, the Roasted Exotic Mushrooms at Nosh Scratch Kitchen will have you melting with pleasure. Rich, creamy, and flavorful, they will top your stay with feel-good umami.

Red Wing

Driving down to Red Wing is a splendid gift you can offer yourself. The best route to take is the Great River Road, which takes you along the Mississippi River on the Wisconsin side through Prescott. The national scenic highway delivers picturesque traveling before reaching the gem of a city. The drive especially soars during the fall, when the changing leaves accentuate the rolling bluffs.

There are a number of excellent hikes you can take right from the city. He Mni Can (Barn Bluff), has a spectacular view of Mississippi River Valley when you reach the top. It’s a trek to get there, but if you’re up for it, you’ll appreciate the sweeping landscape views. Sorin’s Bluff similarly packs a vista punch, and for that one, you can actually drive to the top if you’re just looking for a picnic experience amongst the autumn ambiance.

Red Wing is a great town for bopping around. There are boutiques, vintage stores, gift shops, and a great coffee shop called Mandy’s Coffee and Cafe, with a patio. You’ll need to make a pit stop at the historic Red Wing Shoes, and catch up on your pottery shopping at the many artisan shops and retailers. The newly opened Red Wing Arts Clay & Creative Center has gallery spaces and sells ceramic items, and you should also stop by Red Wing Arts’ main location near the river. Through October 9, Minneapolis artist Ta-Coumba Aiken is featured in Red Wing Arts’ Depot Gallery. The Anderson Center, too, is worth your visit. They have a small but mighty collection of modern art on the lower floor, in addition to their main gallery space. Currently on view is “Frontera Liminal” with work by Xavier Tavera and Dougie Padilla.

Red Wing is only about an hour from the Twin Cities, so you can definitely head there for a day trip. Otherwise, if you want a real immersion in nature, consider camping at Frontenac State Park. Or, if you’re feeling fancy, the St. James Hotel in downtown Red Wing, is a lovely treat, even if you just want to have a bite to eat at the Scarlet Kitchen & Bar, with views of the Mississippi during your meal. Booking a room at the St. James, meanwhile, is an exercise in extravagant self-care.

A harvest scene in an orchard with a bonfire
89 Days of Fall artwork
Natalia Toledo | MPR

This feature is part of The Current’s 89 Days series, helping you enjoy the best of the season with weekly guides to events, entertainment, and recreation in the Twin Cities.