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, www.grandmn.org.
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.
5. Laurentian Divide
As the drive delves deeper and deeper into the forest, Rte. 46 crosses the Laurentian Divide, a rise in the land that determines which way running water flows. Rivers and streams north of the divide run into chilly Hudson Bay; those to the south eventually drain into the faraway Gulf of Mexico.
In past centuries Indians and fur traders paddled across these myriad waterways in handcrafted birchbark canoes. The Ojibwa Indians, a local tribe, still use the streamlined craft when harvesting wild rice, an aquatic grass that grows abundantly in the Squaw Lake area. Slowly paddling and poling among the tall stalks, they gently tap the ripe grains into their canoes—an ancient practice demonstrating that patience and harmony with nature can bring their own rewards.
6. Island Lake
The forest grows thinner and the views open up as you continue to the north, where stands of aspens, birches, and balsam firs ring meadows and wetlands. Rte. 46 then passes along the shore of Island Lake, so named for the large island found rising from its waters. At Northome the drive switches onto Rte. 1, heading eastward through a mostly uninhabited realm of still more woodlands interspersed with low-lying wetlands.
7. Edge of the Wilderness State Scenic Byway
At Effie the drive veers south onto Rte. 38, the Edge of the Wilderness State Scenic Byway, a 47-mile stretch that wends through a hilly, lake-splashed landscape. Reminders of the ice age—in the form of the low gravelly ridges that are known as eskers—are prevalent in this area, especially near Turtle Lake. You’ll also revisit the Laurentian Divide, where a roadside kiosk supplies information.
Circling the wilds east of Marcell, a 171⁄2-mile self-guiding auto tour, known as the Chippewa Adventure, showcases the rich and varied habitats of the Chippewa National Forest. Although quite primitive in places, the route abounds with opportunities for spotting wildlife: an osprey diving for fish, a white-tailed deer bounding through the forest, or even a black bear feasting on wild blueberries.
Back on Rte. 38, the drive enters a stretch that is particularly rewarding in the autumn. Throwing aside all modesty, the hardwoods south of Marcell bedeck themselves with a glorious red-gold display that can make sightseers gasp.
9. Suomi Hills
Continuing south, the drive passes near the Suomi Hills and Trout Lake recreation areas. Miles of hiking and cross-country ski trails lead to out-of-the-way lakes and splendid wildlife-watching locales in these semiprimitive tracts. Off-limits to motorized vehicles, the regions also offer a golden silence broken only by the whispers and calls of birds echoing in the wild northern woods.
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