From the headwaters of the Mississippi to the birthplace of Bob Dylan and the Greyhound bus line, there's a lot of Americana to be found just a few hours from Minneapolis.
Whether you're hoping to hike, hit up wineries, ride on a riverboat or see a whole museum dedicated to SPAM, you can do it all in a short drive that takes you to the far north of Minnesota, across the border into Wisconsin, or a little ways south where ancient glaciers couldn't reach. Winter can be a tricky time to head out, but if you keep an eye on the forecast, you can still enjoy any of these 12 day trips from the Twin Cities.
Why go?: Tour the birthplace of Minnesota
Hilly Stillwater, on the lower St Croix River, is an old logging town with beautifully restored 19th-century buildings, paddlewheel steamboats churning by and antique shops galore. It's touristy, but it's hard to deny its time-warped charm. Stillwater proudly declaims itself as the birthplace of Minnesota.
It was here in 1848 where settlers from then Wisconsin's vast northwestern territories met to petition the US Congress for statehood. They agreed on the name “Minnesota”, with the state eventually joining the union in 1858.
While most visitors content themselves with a crawl along bustling Main St and maybe a paddlewheel tootle on the St Croix River, it's worth a hike up to the residential areas west of the downtown to admire the many stately homes and the impressive Washington County Historic Courthouse, dating from 1867.
How to get to Stillwater: MN-36 E will get you to Stillwater in just 35 minutes from downtown Minneapolis.
Why go?: For the craft beer
Duluth is a brawny shot-and-a-beer port town that offers visitors a glimpse into its storied history as a major shipping center, as well as some citified cultural, dining and drinking amenities.
Shipping is still a major industry, but officials have now turned to tourism to supplement the local economy, and Duluth blends history and a burgeoning adventure sports scene. Downtown Duluth is rejuvenating rapidly and there’s a fun craft beer and cider subculture developing west of the downtown.
Explore some of the town's history at the Glensheen Mansion, Leif Erikson Park (with a replica Viking longship) and the William A Irvin ship museum. Kids of all ages will get a kick out of the Great Lakes Aquarium, which boasts both fresh and saltwater exhibits.
You can also take in some lovely natural wonders at the Hawk Ridge Observatory, where 94,000 raptors swing by as part of the autumn hawk migration. Music fans will want to make a pilgrimage to Bob Dylan's Birthplace, too.
How to get to Duluth: Minneapolis is just shy of two and a half hours from Duluth if you take I-35 North.
Why go?: Bob Dylan pilgrimage
Speaking of Bob Dylan, the folk poet spent his boyhood years here in Hibbing after leaving Duluth at age six. You can pay homage at Bob Dylan's Boyhood Home, natch, and learn even more at the Hibbing Public Library. This town is also the birthplace of the iconic Greyhound bus line lauded in so many great rock songs – with a museum dedicated to the company's history.
If you've got an itch to ramble yourself, the Mesabi Bike Trail runs throughout the Iron Range, providing a chance to see the terrain close up. The mountains' moniker here is accurate, too – Hibbing is home to one of the world's largest open-cast mines.
You can take in the scale of industry here from above at the Hull Rust Mine Viewpoint, from below with a tour of the old Soudan Underground Mine, or on ground level at Hill Annex Mine State Park. Cap off the day with a visit to Palmer's Tavern, which has been feeding Hibbing's denizens for four generations.
How to get to Hibbing: It's just over three hours to Hibbing from Minneapolis driving I-35 N and MN-73 N.
Why go?: For the outdoors (and indoors too)
This pretty Wisconsin 'berg sits on the banks of both the Chippewa River and Lake Wissota, making it a fantastic day trip for outdoor enthusiasts looking for a place to camp and canoe in the summer or ice skate in the winter.
But there's plenty of indoorsy activities to enjoy, too, like paying a visit to the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company, which has been part of Chippewa Falls since 1867. It's the seventh-oldest brewery in the United States and you can taste the suds yourself at their Leinie Lodge tasting room.
That's not all there is for history buffs, either. The Cook-Rutledge Mansion is a fun glimpse at the glamor of the lumber baron lifestyle. Or you can just pick up some ice cream from Olson's and have a picnic in Chippewa Falls' pretty Irvine Park.
How to get to Chippewa Falls: It's just an hour-and-a-half drive due east on I-94.
The Ice Age Trail
Why go?: To step back in time
The Ice Age National Scenic Trail is a 1000-mi footpath carved by ancient glaciers running from Interstate State Park in St. Croix Falls near the Minnesota border to Potawatomi State Park in Wisconsin's famous Door County.
The trek follows the terminal moraine of the glaciers that pushed into the upper midwest thousands of years ago – that's the outermost edge of the gravely debris that glaciers push in front of them as they grind over rocks, hills and other features.
The Ice Age Trail was conceived of by Milwaukeean Ray Zillmer over 70 years ago as a way to not only create a uniquely Wisconsin backcountry thru-hike, but also to connect several communities along the way, including Cornell, Cross Plains, Delafield, Hartland, Lodi, Manitowoc-Two Rivers, Milton, Slinger, St. Croix Falls, Verona, West Bend and Whitewater.
Those towns are great jumping-off points if you want to hike a section of the Ice Age Trail for a day trip, or places to resupply if you plan to join the 100 "Thousand-Milers" – or people who have completed the entire trek.
How to get to the Ice Age Trail: The western terminus of the trail is only an hour from Minneapolis via I-35W N and US-8 E. The eastern terminus is five hours away via I-35W N and US-8 E.
Why go?: To live out a prairie fantasy
Best known as the birthplace of Little House on the Prairie author Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pepin is a pretty town on the banks of the Mississippi River, which serves as the border from Minnesota. You can, of course, learn more about Wilder's life at the replica of the famous Little House in the Big Woods which serves as a museum.
But Pepin is also just a hop, skip and a jump from Tiffany Bottoms, Prairie State Natural Area and Nelson-Trevino Bottoms, each excellent places for hiking, canoeing and birdwatching.
Or stick around town for the Pepin Public Beach, the Depot Museum that taps into the city's railroad history, and the sailing school and marina. There are great views of the water from the Buena Vista Park Overlook, as well as a nearby wine trail and the local Villa Bellezza Winery.
How to get to Pepin: It's an hour and a half from Minneapolis via US-10 E and WI-35 S/Great River Rd.
Why go?: For the water activities
Eau Claire got its start in the middle of the 19th century and was able to leverage its position at the confluence of two important rivers, the Eau Claire and the Chippewa, to dominate the local logging industry for decades. These days, much of that industry is gone, though the riverside location continues to offer some pretty views and fun waterborne activities, like rafting and tubing, in nice weather.
In recent years, Eau Claire has earned something of a hip reputation reminiscent of Portland or Austin back in the day, with a handful of great bars and restaurants, a decent live music scene and some inspired choices for an overnight stay.
Work up an appetite paddling the local water trails or cycling along the Chippewa River State Trail before heading to Houligans for a classic midwestern steak house and supper club experience, or taking in a show at the Acoustic Cafe.
How to get to Eau Claire: The city is just south of Chippewa Falls, and is also just an hour and a half away from Minneapolis on I-94 East.
Head to the SPAM Museum in Austin
Why go?: SPAM!
Austin, Minnesota is a quirky place full of unusual oddities, from a roadside attraction known as Buffy the Cow to the official SPAM Museum.
The Hormel Foods headquarters are located here, so don't be surprised if you find yourself thinking of chili and pepperoni as you work up an appetite with the rental canoes, kayaks, cross-country skis and snowshoes at the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center.
But there's more to Austin than just meat. The city is home to the Hormel Historic Home, yes, but also a genuine Frank Lloyd Wright creation, the S. P. Elam Residence, which was built in 1950.
How to get to Austin: The SPAM capital of the world is an hour and 40 minutes from Minneapolis via I-35 S and US-218 S.
Why go?: For the Indigenous history
Best known as the home of Red Wing Shoes, the city of the same name got the moniker from a celebrated Dakota chief who relocated his people to this site on the upper Mississippi in the early 19th century. Today, the town of Red Wing is best known for its artsy vibe, its pottery, and for the Prairie Island Indian Community that is home to Chief Red Wing's descendants.
Take in the scenery by hiking up Barn Bluff, canoeing Lake Pepin, biking Sorin’s Bluff, picnicking in Memorial Park or skiing in the winter – Red Wing is the perhaps unlikely location of The American Ski Jumping Museum and Hall of Fame.
The Anderson Center at Tower View is a sprawling artist's residency and retreat nestled in the former estate of the family that made a fortune on Quaker Puffed Wheat and Quaker Puffed Rice cereals in the 19th century. They offer tours of their collection by appointment for $10.
How to get to Red Wing: Just an hour from Minneapolis via US-10 E and WI-35 S/Great River Rd, Red Wing is an easy day trip.
Taylor Falls and St. Croix
Why go?: To ride the Riverboat
A trip to Taylor Falls is less than an hour away. You can stop at the Franconia Sculpture Park, grab a root beer at the 60-year-old Taylors Falls Drive-In, take a ride on a riverboat, or sample the local viticulture at Wild Mountain Winery. On the Wisconsin side of the river in St. Croix Falls, find out why it's called "the city of trails". The Woolly Bike Trail beckons, along with beers at the nearby Trap Rock Brewery.
You can go for a hike in Interstate State Park (where the Ice Age Trail also ends), paddle the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, or explore the Gandy Dancer State Recreation Trail. The Elroy-Sparta State Trail is a popular rail-to-trail conversion, while the Tuscobia State Trail has the distinction of being Wisconsin's longest state trail. ATVing and mountain biking are also popular in the area.
How to get to Taylor Falls: It's less than an hour's drive from Minneapolis to Taylor Falls on I-35W N and US-8 E.
Chippewa National Forest
Why go?: For the fantastic fishing
The vast Chippewa National Forest covers a large swath of the north-central part of the state. It's a protected wilderness that offers visitors the chance to hike, bike, swim and fish. The Norway Beach Visitor Center, four miles east of the forest's headquarters at Cass Lake, occupies a historic 80-year-old lodge and is a good place to pick up maps and learn about the forest's flora and fauna. Don't forget to pack bug spray – ticks can be prevalent in Minnesota.
How to get to Chippewa National Forest: At three and a half hours from Minneapolis, it might seem like a stretch for a day trip. But this is the midwest, where car trips are a badge of honor. Hop on US-10 W and put the pedal to the metal.
Itasca State Park
Why go?: To wade in the Mississippi River
Itasca State Park is an area highlight. You can walk across the tiny headwaters of the mighty Mississippi River, which is pretty wild. Wade in the knee-deep flow and hop over a couple of stepping stones, then boast you strode over the Father of Waters. The park also offers canoeing, hiking, biking and camping (tent and RV sites).
How to get to Itasca State Park: Itasca State Park is three and a half hours from Minneapolis in northern Minnesota, but it's still well worth the time on US-10 W.