Northern Minnesota Circle Road Trip

Route Details

Length: About 140 miles.

When to go: Year-round, but best from late spring through fall. Winter brings frigid temperatures.

Words to the wise:
Bring insect repellent; mosquitoes and other pests thrive in these woods.

Nearby attraction: Itasca State Park, featuring Lake Itasca, the source of the Mississippi River. About 20 miles north of Park Rapids on Rte. 71.

Further information: Grand Rapids Convention & Visitors Bureau, 1 NW 3rd St., Grand Rapids, MN 55744; tel. 800-472-6366,

Fur traders and lumberjacks were the first to join the Indians who long inhabited this remote realm of sparkling lakes and dense green forests—an enchanted land that has inspired more than its share of legends, folklore, and of course, stories about the fish that got away. As you drive through the region, where wild orchids brighten hidden bogs and the Mississippi is but a gentle woodland stream, it’s easy to see why so many tall tales have been born here.

1. Grand Rapids
Situated on the banks of the Mississippi River, the city of Grand Rapids has long served as a gateway to the surrounding forests and lakes. Scandinavian and German immigrants came here in waves during the logging boom of the late 1800s, then headed north to nearby lumber camps. Today, visitors passing through are more likely to be heading for resort cabins and campgrounds. But many also pause to enjoy the attractions of Judy Garland’s hometown. Outstanding among them is the Forest History Center, where costumed interpreters re-create the life of a turn-of-the-century lumber camp.

2. Avenue of Pines Scenic Byway

Heading out of Grand Rapids on Rte. 2, the drive soon links up with Rte. 46, the aptly named Avenue of Pines Scenic Byway. Nearly 40 miles in length, the byway slices through the Leech Lake Indian Reservation and Chippewa National Forest, a vast tract of cultivated fields and stands of red pines, aspens, birches, firs, and spruces. Wetlands abound in this outdoor Eden, and hundreds of lakes are scattered among the wooded hills.

3. Lake Winnibigoshish

Local storytellers claim that the northern lakes were formed by the heavy hooves of Paul Bunyan’s companion, the hulking blue ox named Babe. Even Babe, though, was not large enough to create Lake Winnibigoshish, or Big Winnie. That called for another kind of giant—one that was white, not blue—a glacier. The ice sheet buried the area 10,000 years ago, gouging out lakebeds and depositing natural dams as it advanced and retreated. Today a man-made dam makes Big Winnie even larger, about 14 miles in length.

Fishing is the pastime of choice here, with a catch that includes walleye, northern pike, bass, and sunfish. Not even the short, frigid days of winter can deter fishermen, who drill holes through the ice to get at their prey and build closetlike shacks to protect themselves from the elements.

Requiring neither rod nor reel, another talented fisher, the bald eagle, can be seen from viewpoints along the shores of Big Winnie. Once nearing extinction, the majestic birds can be found in substantial numbers in this part of Minnesota. Scan the tallest trees to spot their nests—huge structures that can weigh up to two tons.

4. Cut Foot Sioux Visitor Center
As Rte. 46 continues north, it slips through a corridor of red pines, many of them planted in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Here and there, towering above the younger trees, are scattered old-growth monarchs, venerable survivors that are well over 100 years in age and 12 stories in height.

Another longtime survivor, a 1908 log cabin that was used as a ranger station, stands near the Cut Foot Sioux Visitor Center. (The center was named for a brave who lost his life in a skirmish between the Sioux and Chippewas.) The Cut Foot Sioux Scenic Drive, a leisurely 20-mile loop, begins at the visitor center and travels to backcountry lakes, secluded campgrounds, and numerous points for observing wildlife. Hiking trails also lace the area. Segments of the 22-mile Cut Foot Sioux Recreation Trail retrace a route that once was traveled by Indians and fur traders.

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