Whether you're a Twin Cities local or you're just passing through, you can reach several stunning locations by car from Minneapolis–St. Paul. Because of the area's natural beauty and remoteness, many excursions revolve around forests, mountains, rivers, and lakes, but big cities and other attractions aren't far either. Some options could be done in a day trip, but most of them are best enjoyed for at least a long weekend or en route to the next stop of your road trip. Whether you're traveling with family, your partner, friends, or alone, don't miss out on the best spots to visit on your next trip.
Itasca State Park
About three and a half hours north of the Twin Cities is Minnesota's oldest state park, Itasca. The park is perhaps most famous for containing the headwaters of the Mississippi River, which originates in Lake Itasca as a tiny stream and continues for over 2,500 miles as a roaring river to the Gulf of Mexico. Itasca State Park is truly an all-season attraction, with activities ranging from hiking and swimming in the summer to ice fishing in the dead of winter. You can camp out during the warmer months of the year, but nearby log cabins and a youth hostel also provide affordable accommodations when it's too cold to sleep outside.
Distance from Minneapolis-St. Paul: 220 miles (324 kilometers)
The North Shore and Highway 61
State Highway 61 or MN 61—not to be confused with U.S. 61 which also goes through Minnesota—starts in Duluth, about two and a half hours north of Minneapolis–St. Paul. American legend and Duluth-native Bob Dylan sings about the route on his album, "Highway 61 Revisited," and it's one of the most scenic drives in the state. The route continues north toward Canada along the North Shore of Lake Superior, although the most breathtaking portions of the highway start about an hour north of Duluth.
Visit historic Split Rock Lighthouse and gorgeous Gooseberry Falls, the tallest of several waterfalls in the area. Admire Palisade Head, some of the tallest cliffs on the lake, and shop for Lake Superior Agates and local crafts at stores along Highway 61. The North Shore is one of the best areas in Minnesota to view the state's magnificent fall colors. Several small towns in the area have lodging, such as camping, cabins, motels and fine hotels, as well as plenty of restaurants for casual or fine dining.
Distance from Minneapolis–St. Paul: 156 miles (251 kilometers)
If you take the MN 61 scenic route, you can't miss out on Lutsen Mountains, the biggest ski and snowboard area in Minnesota. You can also cross-country ski, snowshoe, snowmobile, dogsled, ice climb, and more. The town and ski resort are about four hours from the Twin Cities or two hours north of Duluth. But even if you aren't visiting in the winter doesn't mean the mountain isn't worth a visit. In fact, fall is arguably the best time to make this drive. The pleasant weather and trees that appear to be ablaze with autumn colors make for a truly scenic experience unlike any other.
Distance from Minneapolis–St. Paul: 250 miles (402 kilometers)
Instead of driving up the North Shore from Duluth, you can also drive the other direction around Lake Superior, cross the state line, and get to Bayfield, Wisconsin. Bayfield is a great getaway in both summer and winter. In the summer, you can visit the remote Apostle Islands by kayaking to them and explore their cavernous insides. Even in winter, you can usually see these dramatic caves by just walking out to them across the frozen lake while they're filled with snow and giant icicles. Bayfield also offers opportunities for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and dogsledding. Keep an eye out for a hotel or cabin with a hot tub to warm up after a day of fun in the snow and ice.
Distance from Minneapolis–St. Paul: 238 miles (383 kilometers)
New Ulm, less than two hours from the Twin Cities, has a charming German downtown, tours of the historic Schell's Brewery, family-friendly Flandrau State Park, hiking and bike trails, and many annual festivals and cultural events. Named for the city of Neu-Ulm in southern Germany, the Bavarian influence is apparent the moment you step into town, and the city is proud of its cultural heritage. German Park is the place to be on a warm day as many of the local families come out to picnic on the lawn. If you don't have food to bring, pick up some traditional Bavarian fare at one of the local restaurants.
In the fall, the local brewery—founded in 1860 by a German immigrant—celebrates Oktoberfest. If you live in the Twin Cities area, it's much easier to get to New Ulm than it is to Munich.
Distance from Minneapolis–St. Paul: 96 miles (155 kilometers)
St. Croix River Valley
The St. Croix River forms much of the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin, and the lush area that surrounds it is called the St. Croix River Valley. Several cities, all within an hour or so of the Twin Cities, are good spots for weekend retreats, from Taylors Falls northeast of the Twin Cities to Osceola, Stillwater, Red Wing, Wabasha, and Winona in the south. All these towns have old-fashioned downtowns, charming hotels and motels, plenty of pretty scenery, and locally-owned restaurants. Altogether, they make for a peaceful getaway that doesn't require too much drive time to get there.
Distance from Minneapolis–St. Paul: Varies
Ely, in northern Minnesota about four hours from Minneapolis–St. Paul, is on the border of the beautiful Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness and is the place to visit when you need solitude and a break from civilization. Reserve one of the many remote cabins set in the gorgeous scenery on the shore of a lake and you'll truly be in your own private escape. Rent a canoe and you're likely to be the only person within sight on the lake or go for a hike in the expansive backwoods without seeing another soul. You'll feel like your miles away from all other life, but you're still within easy reach of the city's restaurants and stores in case you need to grab something.
Ely is also home to two conservation organizations, the International Wolf Center and the North American Bear Center, and both are open to visitors.
Distance from Minneapolis–St. Paul: 247 miles (298 kilometers)
If the Twin Cities are just one stop on a cross-country road trip, there's a good chance that Chicago is also one of the planned stops on your driving itinerary. Driving from Minneapolis–St. Paul to Chicago takes about six to seven hours depending on the traffic you encounter getting into the city, but you won't likely need your car to get around once you arrive. In a cosmopolitan city like Chicago, you can find something to do or some event going on at all times of the year. You can visit a local beach, hit up one of the city's many parks, or take a tour of a world-class museum.
Distance from Minneapolis–St. Paul: 405 miles (650 kilometers)
If you're heading to Chicago, you'll drive right through the town of Wisconsin Dells, more commonly known as just "the Dells." It's about three hours from the Twin Cities—just over halfway to Chicago—and is an especially great pitstop for families road tripping with kids, as the city is filled with family-friendly hotels and activities such as the largest waterpark in the country, CircusWorld, boat tours, ziplining, and more.
Nearby, Witches Gulch is a narrow canyon filled in with moss like a fairytale story, opening up to the Wisconsin River. A little south of town is Devil's Lake State Park, with its stunning quartzite rock formations. And there's plenty around town to keep mom and dad entertained, as well.
Distance from Minneapolis–St. Paul: 213 miles (343 kilometers)
Michigan offers many destinations for summer and winter road trips. The Upper Peninsula has empty white-sand beaches along Lake Superior, gorgeous scenery such as Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, weird roadside attractions, historic mining towns, cheap lodging, and the fun college town of Marquette. The Lower Peninsula has many more miles of shoreline, Sleeping Bear Dunes, historical attractions, interesting towns and cities, and famous festivals like the National Cherry Festival in pretty Traverse City.
The sparsely populated but beautiful Upper Peninsula can be reached fairly quickly from the Twin Cities, as you can reach the Wisconsin-Michigan border in about five hours. The Lower Peninsula—the "mitten" shape—is a longer drive, roughly eight hours to reach the Michigan state line, but you can take a car ferry from Wisconsin to Michigan across the lake, which allows you to skip Chicago and many miles of driving.
Distance from Minneapolis–St. Paul: Varies
The Black Hills of South Dakota
The Black Hills of South Dakota is the site of a mountain range, beautiful forest, and breathtaking monuments—the most famous of which is Mt. Rushmore, although this national forest has so much more. It's a long drive from the Twin Cities, crossing a large part of the Great Plains and almost all of Minnesota and South Dakota, arriving right to the border of Wyoming. But if you're traveling west anyway, then the Black Hills are a perfect place to break up the trip.
Apart from the carved effigies of past presidents, you can see American bison in Custer State Park, explore the Wind and Jewel caves (two of the longest caves in the world), or drive the scenic route around Needles Highway. It's nearly 10 hours by car from Minneapolis-St. Paul, but the destination is well worth the time. Just imagine you're making the journey in a covered wagon to help pass the time.
Distance from Minneapolis–St. Paul: 616 miles (991 kilometers)