Just about any season of the year has me hankering for a few days around Duluth and the north shore of Lake Superior, but the fall definitely has the strongest pull. And for my family, the drive up along Interstate 35 during the autumn months can be half the fun of the journey. Here we share 10 spots along — or not far off from — our favorite Minnesota corridor we think are worthwhile stops en route to Duluth:
1) Encounter the animals at Wildlife Science Center | Stacy (36 miles from mid-Metro. Note: they have moved from their previous location in Columbus, so this would no longer be your first stop.)
Open: Public tours run every Saturday, 11am & 1pm and last one hour.
Cost: $10/adults, $8/kids 4-12, under 4 free
Details: WSC is a facility that researches, educates about and aims to help conserve several species of wild animals, some of them endangered. Meet and learn about wolves, black bears, raptors and more.
Fall special event: Harvest Howl is held annually in October with kids games, Native American demonstrations and pumpkin painting.
2) Pick up pumpkins at Pinehaven Farm | Wyoming (35 miles from MM)
Open: Daily during the annual fall Harvest Festival, weekdays noon-6:30pm, weekends 10am-6:30pm.
Cost: $9-$14/pp depending on age and date of visit.
Details: Admission to Pinehaven includes a host of kids activities: a playground, super slide, corn maze, kiddie train, jumping pillow, weekend shows and live entertainment, and much more. Head out to the pumpkin patch and pick-your-own for an extra fee. Read about our trip to Pinehaven Farm here.
Upcoming events: Get details on special weekend events here.
3) Apple-picking and more at Sunrise River Farm | Wyoming (36 miles from MM)
Open: Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-6pm through the end of October.
Cost: Admission is free; there is a small fee for hayrides and pick-your-own apples are priced according to variety by half and quarter peck bags.
Details: Wander through the barn and meet the animals, take a hayride through the orchard and pick a peck of apples. There is barrel train for the younger kids to ride and a tire swing suspended from a huge oak tree that might thrill the big kids. Often, weekends bring plucky tunes on the porch. This orchard has a great family feel to it.
4) Explore voyageur life around the turn of the nineteenth century at Snake River Fur Post | Pine City (68 miles from MM) Formerly known as the Northwest Company Fur Post
Open: Daily, Memorial Day – Labor Day and for special event weekends in the fall and winter.
Cost: $6-$10/pp, under 6 & MHS members free.
Details: Explore a reconstructed fur post from the winter of 1804, interact with costumed interpreters, learn about voyageur life, and watch seasonal demonstrations. Guided tours last about 40 minutes; feel free to explore further on your own. Short, self-guided history trails wind their way through the pines and give you a glimpse of the Snake River. There are also a number of hands-on exhibits in the visitor center that will interest kids.
5) Learn the story of the Great Hinckley Fire at the Hinckley Fire Museum | Hinckley (81 miles from MM)
Open: Tues-Sun, 10am-5pm, early May through mid-October
Cost: $5/adults, $2/teens, $1/kids 6-12, under 6 free
Details: The story of the Hinckley Fire is a fascinating one, but may not be appropriate for younger children. A 20-minute film details the disaster and exhibits are housed in the rebuilt train depot in the middle of town. Hinckley is an ideal mid-way stop between the Twin Cities and Duluth. It’s possible to picnic at the small shelter in Caboose Park next to the museum, or there is a playground only yards away where the kids can stretch their legs.
6) Spin your wheels on the Willard Munger State Trail | Hinckley trailhead (81 mi from MM)
This remarkable, multi-use paved trail launches in Hinckley and travels 70 miles northeast into the twin ports of Duluth-Superior. Biking a segment of it, of course, takes advance planning, time investment and the ability to transport your family’s equipment. For those who love to bike, or are just getting started at the activity, portions of this trail are a wonderful way to spend an hour. The terrain between Hinckley and Carlton is flat, peaceful, and very picturesque.
For a more impromptu jaunt in the woods, it’s also possible to park the car near one of the many trail crossings and get a taste of the Willard Munger without committing too much time. The route is close enough to the interstate to make jumping on and off not much of a hassle. Plan your route with this map of the trail.
7) Hike the Banning State Park Quarry Loop, and admire fall colors | Sandstone (94 miles from MM)
Cost: $7/daily vehicle permit
Details: Fall color bursts along the Quarry Loop Trail. Hike parts of it along the wild Kettle River, watch for daring kayakers and hunt for remnants of an old stone quarry that gave the town of Sandstone its name. A heads-up for families with small children: the entire Quarry Loop is 1.8 mi over often uneven and narrow ground. I advise bringing a backpack to carry the very youngest and, in the summer months, a good dose of bug spray.
8) Visit the Moose Lake Agate & Geological Center | Moose Lake (113 miles from MM)
Open: Daily until 4pm
Cost: Free to visit the interpretive center, $7/vehicle permit to enter the state park.
Details: If you’ve got a kid who’s a rock hound, it’s worth a stop in to see the agate displays. Curious kids (and adults) can ask questions of the naturalists in the park office. Plus, get the scoop on the best gravel pits in the area to hunt for agates yourself.
9) TJ’s Country Store | Mahtowa (123 miles from MM)
Open: Daily, 7am-8pm
Details: Sure, you could pull over at any ol’ Cenex and dash inside to grab the kids a popsicle. But we think refueling at a old-timey roadside grocer is much more fun. This particular example sits about a mile off the freeway along the peaceful Willard Munger State Trail, boasts the best bratwurst around, and that ice cream your kids are clamoring for. TJ’s also has its own covered picnic pavilion (the “Wurst Dome”) if you’d prefer to eat out of the car.
10) Cross the Swinging Bridge at Jay Cooke State Park | Carlton (138 miles from MM)
Open: Daily; park office and indoor exhibits are open 10am-4pm
Cost: $7/vehicle permit to enter the park.
Details: Located about six miles off the interstate, Jay Cooke State Park is about an hour’s investment of your time. And though it sits on the cusp of Duluth — meaning our journey in the car is close to finished — we often find ourselves drawn to stop. A trip across the historic swinging bridge, rebuilt in 2012 after raging waters of the St. Louis River washed it away, invigorates for the rest of the day ahead.