Some of the scenic southeast can be seen on short drives from the Twin Cities. Better is a loop of a few days' duration, following the rivers and stopping in some of the historic towns and state parks.
Due east of St Paul, on Hwy 36, touristy Stillwater, on the lower St Croix River, is an old logging town with restored 19th-century buildings, river cruises and antique stores. It's also an official 'booktown,' an honor bestowed upon a few small towns worldwide that possess an extraordinary number of antiquarian bookshops. Several classy B&Bs add to the scene. Discover Stillwater (www.discoverstillwater.com) has details.
Larger Red Wing, to the south on US 61, is a similar but less-interesting restored town, though it does offer its famous Red Wing Shoes – actually more like sturdy boots – and salt glaze pottery.
The prettiest part of the Mississippi Valley area begins south of here. To drive it and see the best bits, you'll need to flip-flop back and forth between Minnesota and Wisconsin on the Great River Road.
From Red Wing, cross the river on US 63. Before heading south along the water though, make a cheesy detour. Go north on US 63 in Wisconsin for 12 miles until you hit US 10. Turn right, and within a few miles you're in Ellsworth, the 'Cheese Curd Capital.' Pull into Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery – curd-maker for A&W and Dairy Queen – and savor squeaky goodness hot off the press (11am is prime time).
Back along the river on Wisconsin Hwy 35, a great stretch of road edges the bluffs beside Maiden Rock, Stockholm and Pepin. Follow your nose to local bakeries and cafes in the area.
Continuing south, cross back over the river to Wabasha in Minnesota, which has a historic downtown and large population of bald eagles that congregate in winter. To learn more, visit the National Eagle Center.
Inland and south, Bluff Country is dotted with limestone bluffs, southeast Minnesota's main geological feature. Lanesboro (www.lanesboro.com) is a gem for rails-to-trails cycling and canoeing. Seven miles westward on County Rd 8 (call for directions) is Old Barn Resort, a pastoral hostel, campground, restaurant and outfitter. Harmony, south of Lanesboro, is the center of an Amish community and another welcoming town.