As the summer heat begins to mellow and the leaves transition from green to vibrant hues of yellow and red, the already naturally beautiful state of Minnesota gains breathtaking texture. The Land of 10,000 Lakes is renowned for its forested landscapes and picturesque natural scenes, in particular those that surround its beautiful small towns. As such, it is these least-crowded small towns that stand as the best places to watch the leaves change and revel in the particular spirit that the fall season brings.
Grand Marais is a quirky, artsy town located on the shores of Lake Superior. Filled with personality, the adorable town was historically home to both logging and fishing industries, and while both still exist, it is really the culture scene that sets Grand Marais apart. With the great lake on one side, and the Superior National Forest on the other, it is the ideal place to take in the beauty that autumn brings.
For peak fall foliage and the most vibrant colors, plan your visit to Grand Marais from late September through early October. There are plenty of trails that will take you among the changing trees, and for a more panoramic view of the scene and Lake Superior, hike up Oberg Mountain or take a drive along the Gunflint Trail Scenic Byway. At the end of the day, there is the gorgeous Artist Point, as well as the Grand Marais Lighthouse, both on the spit that juts into the Lake. Both are gorgeous spots to soak up the cool autumn air.
Just a few miles south of the Canadian border is the town of Ely. A town fully submerged in the ocean of forests in northern Minnesota, Ely is one of the best places in the country to watch the natural colors shift from green to hues of orange, auburn, and deep red. One of the town’s unique appeals is its remote location. While it is an outdoor enthusiast's paradise, it manages to remain relatively uncrowded even during the peak fall foliage season.
During this time, there are plenty of ways to see the autumnal sights, such as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, which allows for a unique chance to paddle amongst the fiery backdrops. For a slightly more sheltered experience, there are a number of scenic drives travelers can take, including out to New Tomahawk Road or down Fernberg Road. Stunning colors and views will greet sightseers, and you might be lucky enough to witness a bear or moose amongst the trees.
Stillwater is named for the calmness of the St. Croix River that runs through its city center, and this tranquility flows through the town itself. Established in 1843, the town was the site of the talks that led to Minnesota’s statehood, which led to the moniker "The Birthplace of Minnesota." Lumber was the main industry of the area, and the wealth that was brought in helped to turn Stillwater into the landmark it is.
The thick forests, the still water, and the river access make the town the perfect destination for enjoying the fall foliage. Late September through mid-October is your best bet to catch those glorious autumnal colors, and there is plenty to do in Stillwater that will take you by the highlights. Pioneer Park, Lowell Park, or the Stillwater Lift Bridge offer chances to bask in the reds and oranges, and a stop at Aamodt’s Apple Farm is a great spot for the quintessential fall activity of apple picking.
The ideal image of a lovely small town, Lanesboro is the type of place that truly comes alive among the changing leaves of autumn. The town is straight out of a postcard, with streets lined with old-style American architecture without a chain store or restaurant in view. Despite its tiny population, Lanesboro prides itself on being painlessly amenable to visitors and is known as the bed and breakfast capital of Minnesota.
The town is one of a number situated on the famous Root River State Trail, a 60-mile trail running through southeast Minnesota. Perfect for walking or biking, the trail is a marvel when painted with the colors of the fall season. For those looking for something a bit different, there is the nearby Big Springs Farm, which hosts an annual fall festival that includes a 1.5-acre pumpkin patch as well as a 10-acre corn maze.
Northfield holds distinction as the place where, in 1876, the citizens heroically thwarted the James-Younger Gang's attempted bank robbery, earning the town a place in the annals of Wild West lore. Every September, amongst the changing leaves, the events are celebrated and reenacted in the festival called Defeat of Jesse James Days. Beyond its place in history, the town is also a classic American college town, hosting campuses of both Carleton and St. Olaf College. For a walk deeper amongst the browning greenery, the Cannon River Wilderness area has miles of trails, as well as picnic areas and other amenities.
On the south shore of the beautiful Lake Minnetonka, just miles from Minnesota’s Twin Cities, is the town of Excelsior. Known for its idyllic lakeside setting, historic ambiance, and vibrant fall foliage, the town is a unique escape from the bustling tourist hubs, offering the chance to relish the beauty of the season in peaceful surroundings. The lakeshore is the main highlight of Excelsior, and it rarely looks better than when it is framed by the changing leaves of autumn.
The Excelsior Commons overlooking Excelsior Bay is one of a few perfect spots to catch these sorts of sights. In addition to sightseeing, the fall season brings a number of events to the town. These include the annual Witches Night Out celebration, as well as the Excelsior Apple Days, both of which take place in late October and highlight the autumnal vibes.
One of the oldest communities in the state, Henderson is tucked in the scenic Minnesota River Valley. The rolling hills of lush woodlands become a fiery blaze of colors when the autumn season rolls around, plunging the town into an ocean of striking oranges and reds in late September. Henderson’s main street is classic Americana; antique shops and specialty shops like Schuette’s Sweet Shoppe line the walkable downtown, enhancing the nostalgia brought upon by the fall colors. The Ney Nature Center allows for both spectacular forest and river access, making it a perfect stop for diving into the fall foliage.
As autumn's vibrant colors blanket the state of Minnesota, the small towns that dot the countryside invite travelers to experience the beauty of the season. Whether it is the quiet nostalgia that the cool fall air brings, the studious, refined spirit of an idealized college campus, or the spine-tingling fun that a pumpkin patch or Halloween festival evokes, there is something for every kind of fall traveler in these least-crowded small towns.