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Forest Favorites: A Minnesota Fall Color Roundup

Updated: May 10, 2021

My friend and colleague Jack Dura loves fall. On crisp autumn days when he’s not covering a story for The Bismarck Tribune, you’ll find him tromping along the trails in the upper Midwest in search of fall foliage.

His passion is contagious. He’s also the only person that has ever said “leaf peeping” in my presence without eliciting a shudder. (For some reason, that phrase usually gives me the creeps.) So when he offered to give us a field report from some of his favorite Minnesota State Parks, forests and wildlife refuges, it was a no-brainer.

Here’s Jack with your tour of fall color in Minnesota. (All words and images after this point are by Jack Dura.)

Like the wildflowers of spring and summer, autumn’s colorful foliage is a delight of nature, but much more fleeting. Weather, moisture and temperatures can swing a fall color season any which way, but if you know when and where to look, you’ll be rewarded.

Northern Minnesota’s forests are a leaf peeper’s wonderland. From the classic tourist spots to backroad beauty, the North Star State is a canvas of color come September and October. Right about now, much of Minnesota is peaking for fall colors, according to the state’s online color finder.

Itasca State Park is a jewel. Minnesota’s oldest state park has the headwaters of the Mississippi River and a wilderness drive that’s a feast for the eyes in fall.

Rusty oaks, bleeding maples, rustling aspens—they’re all there. Itasca is a hotspot, however.

To get off the beaten track, you can drive the Smoky Hills Trail in the state forest of the same name just to the southwest of Itasca. Watch for fallen trees though, but hike the forest’s non-motorized trails and listen for ruffed grouse under the canopy. Leaves aren’t the only colors of fall. At Lake Bemidji State Park, bog boardwalks beckon hikers into another world.

Pitcher plants grow at both Big Bog Lake and Sundew Pond in the park. While their blossoms are long gone by late September, the carnivorous plants still shine purple and red, growing together in groups.

Bike or hike the Paul Bunyan State Trail through Lake Bemidji State Park, and check out the park’s overlooks of the lake. A colorful canvas will greet you.

Deeper in the woods, the pines of Scenic State Park await you. Walk the esker of Chase Point or the lake’s edge boardwalk at sunrise.

The esker of Chase Point runs about a mile as the divider of Coon and Sandwick lakes at Scenic State Park near Bigfork, Minn.

A CCC museum lodge is open for visitors with interpretative exhibits, including an 80-year-old nature scene carved from wood, paintings, mounted animals and plant exhibits.

Late-season loons bathe in Coon Lake’s waters while Canada geese fly low over the surface. At night, the wind shakes down more and more leaves from the quaking treetops.

For those looking to really get lost in the woods, Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge’s Mud Lake road is a kaleidoscope of colors to travel at one’s own risk. Mud, rocks and twisting turns await any adventurers down this way, but if timed rightly, you’ll see a sylvan spectrum.

If you’re lucky, it’ll rain too.

What about you? Have you ever gone looking for fall foliage? Why or why not? What’s your favorite part of the fall season? How do you prefer to look for autumn leaves? A scenic drive? A hike? Cycling? What’s your favorite spot to find fall colors? (It can be anywhere in the world.) Have you been to any of these parks? What did you enjoy when you were there?

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Tag your pics and travel tips #PrairiePeople and #PrairiePlaces on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. You could inspire an upcoming post on Prairie Style File. Prairie Style File is curated by Alicia Underlee Nelson. All rights reserved.

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