The 12 Best Road Trips from Minneapolis (Our Mega Guide)

best road trips minneapolis minnesota

People like to stereotype us Midwesterns as landlocked prisoners, living among the cornfields.

Not true!

In fact, if you’re looking to take a road trip from Minneapolis, you’ve got all sorts of awesome options!

Whether you’re looking for a short drive that can be finished in a day or a week-long, cross-country excursion, this guide compiles the 12 best road trips from Minneapolis. 

We’ve been on most of these road trips ourselves, which is why you’ll also find maps plotting out our favorite stops along the way.

Happy driving!

Short 1 day road trips from Minneapolis (about 2 hours)

Personally, I think it’s a stretch to call less than 3 hours of car-time a “road trip.” As a fan of multi-day treks across the country, I’d consider these short jaunts to be more like day-trips. (We’ve got an article all about the best day trips from Minneapolis, too!)

But in any case, sometimes you’re just looking for a quick getaway from hustle and bustle of Minneapolis. If that’s you, here are a few of the best short drives from the Twin Cities.

They’re all about two hours one way, and we’ve done our best to include multiple stops along the way… you know, for maximum adventuring.

1. The Quick North Shore Trip to Duluth, MN (with a stop at Banning State Park)

As they say, Duluth is “The Gateway to Lake Superior.”

I actually have no idea if people say that, but they should!

Duluth is idyllic old shipping town that sits at the southernmost tip of Minnesota’s one and only Great Lake. Duluth’s rich history means you’ll find plenty of historic charm and irreplaceable character. Watch ships pass under the 120 year old Aerial Lift bridge, climb the 80 foot tall Enger Tower, tour the historic Glensheen Mansion, or step aboard the 610 foot long SS William A Irvin.

Despite all the history, Duluth has seen a revitalization in recent years, and the town is now packed-full of trendy shops and new craft breweries and distilleries. Many of which can be enjoyed while looking over the beautiful shores of Lake Superior! 

The drive: 

To get to Duluth, you’re looking at just over 2 hours one way. It’s an easy, if not uneventful, drive up 35E North.

For a good-halfway point on your road trip, consider stopping at Banning State Park. It’s right around 1.5 hours from Minneapolis and famous for its beautiful rock formations, waterfalls, and white water rapids.

  • Distance from Minneapolis: 154 miles
  • One-way driving time without stops: 2 hours, 20 minutes
  • Recommended stops: 
    • Banning State Park (1 hour, 30 minutes)

2. The Weekend Lake Retreat to Brainerd / Nisswa, MN

When it comes to the best vacation lakes in Minnesota, the Brainerd Lakes area, which comprises the neighboring towns of Brainerd and Nisswa, MN, is probably the most popular weekend retreat for city-dwellers.

If you’re looking a road trip to “the lake” this drive has your name all over it.

This area is teeming with dozens of beautiful Minnesota lakes, each one with plenty of lodging options that range from full-out resort to secluded cabin in the woods. If it’s not enough to just unplug at the lake, check out the nearby small towns of Brainerd and Nisswa.

Brainerd is one of the largest “cities” in Northern Minnesota, which still makes it a small town by any definition. And Nisswa is especially charming, with a quint main-street that’s stocked full plenty of craft breweries, bars, and shops.

The drive:

The drive to Brainerd is a quick 2 hours and 15 minutes. Obviously, you can easily do this in one shot, but if you’d like to take a more leisurely pace, you have a couple options for stops along the way: 

  • Taking 169 North will have you hugging the coast of Mille Lacs Lake, one of the biggest lakes in Minnesota. Not surprisingly, Mille Lacs has plenty of attractions all on its own, including one of the closest casinos to the Twin Cities.
  • Or you can veer off to US-10 W and head through the interesting college town of St. Cloud, MN.

Both routes are basically the same distance with similar drive times.

  • Distance from Minneapolis: 127 miles
  • One-way driving time without stops: 2 hours, 15 minutes
  • Recommended stops: 
    • Grand Casino Mill Lacs (1 hour 45 mins)
    • St. Cloud, MN (1 hour 15 mins)

3. The Short Scenic Drive to Lake Pepin

For the most scenic short roadtrip, head down to Lake Pepin, just a little over 1 hour south of Minneapolis.

The road trip will take you down the Great River Road Scenic Drive, so you know it’s gotta be pretty!

The name comes from the road’s tendency to weave along the shore of the Mississippi River. Along the way, you’ll find cute small towns and plenty of gorgeous river bluff views.

This is also one of the best road trips in Minnesota to take in the fall, thanks to amazing fall colors along the river.

The drive:

This route is a road trip classic, and the short version highlighted here is just the beginning. The truly dedicated could continue this trip all the way down to New Orleans! (Seriously! More on that later…)

In this shorter itinerary, you’ll start in the Twin Cities and head down the river road to Wabasha, MN. Cross the river to Nelson, WI, and then head back up the cities on the opposite side of the river. (There’s river roads on both sides of the Mississippi, and both are equally scenic, so make sure you check them both out!)

This route is packed full of interesting small towns, including:

  • Hastings, MN: A cute historic town that’s only 30 minutes south of St. Paul. You can relax along the river in Levee Park or wander the historic 2nd Street, which is filled with quaint antique shops and the always-popular Spiral Brewing.
  • Red Wing, MN: A small town filled with restored historic buildings. Home to the legendary Red Wing Shoes and Red Wing Pottery / Stoneware companies.
  • Frontenac, MN: Worthy of a stop for Frontenac State Park or Mount Frontenac Golf Course, both of which have fantastic views of the Mississippi River and Lake Pepin
  • Lake City, MN: A very small harbor town known for it’s sailboat-filled Marina.
  • Wabasha, MN: Another small town worthy of a stop. Wabasha is known for its beautiful riverfront walking trails as well as the National Eagle Center, where you can learn about the many Bald Eagles native to the area.

More details on the drive:

  • Distance from Minneapolis: 90 miles
  • One-way driving time without stops: 1 hour, 45 minutes
  • Recommended stops: 
    • Hastings, MN (35 mins)
    • Red Wing, MN (1 hour, 10 mins)
    • Frontenac, MN (1 hour, 20 mins)
    • Lake City, MN (1 hour, 30 mins)
    • Wabasha, MN (1 hour, 45 mins)

Medium weekend road trips from Minneapolis (about 3 hours)

If you’re looking to get a little further from home or want a little more road time, the next few road trips will take you to fantastic destinations about 3 hours from the Twin Cities.

These trips are perfect for a long weekend, since each one is packed with tons of great things to see and do.

1. The Best Road Trip for Families: Wisconsin Dells, WI


Wisconsin Dells is known as the water park capital of the world, so you can bet this is the perfect family destination for a family road trip.

This popular tourist town features tons of water park resorts, including the biggest in the world, no matter how you measure it. Seriously, looking for the largest outdoor water park in the world? The Dells has it. (Noah’s Ark) The largest indoor waterpark? Yep. (Kalahari Resort) How about the largest combined indoor/outdoor waterpark? Yes and yes. (Wilderness Resort)

Of course, that’s just one part of The Dells story. There’s also theme parks, mini golf courses, real golf courses, spas, ziplines, live shows, boat tours, trolley tours, and don’t forget, the legendary “Duck Tours.”

The Drive:

Wisconsin Dells sits in southern Wisconsin, about 3.5 hours from the Twin Cities.

To get there, you’ll take I-94 East, which to be honest, isn’t exactly the most scenic or eventful road trip option from the cities.

Your obvious half-way point would be Eau Claire or Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, which for beer fans, may be worth a stop to visit or tour the Leinenkugel’s Brewery.

Another option would be to drive through La Crosse, WI. This would take you down the previously mentioned Scenic River Road and only add about an hour to your drive.

Otherwise, this is one road trip that you may want to tackle in one shot, assuming the little ones are up for it. 

  • Distance from Minneapolis: 216 miles
  • One-way driving time without stops: 3 hours, 20 mins
  • Recommended stops:
    • Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin (1 hour, 45 mins)

2. Drive to two unique small towns: Lanesboro, MN & Decorah, IA


When most locals think about cute small towns in our state, Lanesboro is always one of the first to mind. 

This picturesque small town just looks like the type of place to jump out of a Hallmark movie. It has a lively main street of historic brick buildings, all of which are surrounded by the area’s tall river bluffs, almost making this place the closest thing Minnesota has to a mountain town.

Add in plenty of fun activities, like the 60-mile Root River Bike Trails system or the state’s largest cave, and it’s obvious why Lanesboro is always one of the state’s most popular small-town getaways.

But there’s a second fantastic small town just across the border. Decorah, Iowa sits just 45 minutes away. There you’ll find an underrated collection of parks that celebrate the region’s endless hills, rivers, and limestone bluffs. Surprisingly, Decorah has also become one America’s brewery hot spots; it’s now home to two critic’s favorits – Toppling Goliath and Pulpit Rock breweries.

The Drive:

Lanesboro sits in southeast Minnesota, about 2 hours from the Twin Cities. To get there, you’ll take 52 South, cut directly through Rochester, MN, and then veer off towards the cute small town.

To get from Lanesboro to Decorah, you’ll head another 45 minutes south through peaceful Minnesota and Iowa farmland.

  • Distance from Minneapolis: 157 miles (Minneapolis to Decorah, IA)
  • One-way driving time without stops: 2 hours, 50 mins (Minneapolis to Decorah, IA)
  • Recommended stops:
    • Lanesboro, MN (2 hours, 15 mins)

3. The closest, most underrated city: Des Moines, IA


Look out, stereotypes about corn fields. Des Moines, Iowa is one of the fastest growing cities in the United States.

As the capital of Iowa, Des Moines has a surprisingly impressive city vibe that features lively arts, top notch food, plenty of shopping, trendy neigbhorhoods, and a rich history.

It’s a sneakily impressive city. We know plenty of Minnesotans, who after finishing cracking their inevitable jokes about Iowa, will secretly admit that Des Moines is one of the cooler cities they’ve ever visited.

The Drive:

Des Moines is 3.5 hours south of Minneapolis.

You’ll take 35E South, which isn’t the most exciting drive in the world. The best advice we can give you is that if you really need a stop, Owatonna, MN, located 1 hour south of Minneapolis, is a somewhat interesting small town with quite a bit of history. Otherwise, your best bet may be the SPAM Museum in Austin, MN. 

Otherwise, just keep on trucking, and you’ll find yourself in one of America’s most underrated cities in no time.

  • Distance from Minneapolis: 244 miles
  • One-way driving time without stops: 3 hours 30 mins
  • Recommended stops:
    • Owatonna, MN (1 hour)

Longer 5-7 Day Road Trips from Minneapolis (5+ hours)

Now we’re entering some real road trip territory!

These road trips will all take you to amazing destinations that are about 5 hours or longer from the Twin Cities.

For these destinations, you’ll definitely want to give yourself several days to take everything in. Most would be best with five to seven days of vacation, so if you’ve got a little more time on your hands, these are certainly some of the best drives inside (and out of!) the state! 

1. The Full North Shore Experience


Making the full drive through Minnesota’s stunning North Shore is something every Minnesotan should do at least once. Even most out of town visitors will be surprised that our humble Midwestern state has such amazing scenery!

This road trip will take you from Minneapolis, through the previously-highlighted town of Duluth, and all the way along the Lake Superior shoreline to the Canadian border!

The Drive:

The first two hours of this drive will take you to Duluth. From there, you head to the true “Minnesota North Woods” as you follow Minnesota’s Scenic Highway 61 through Two Harbors, past Lutsen, into Grand Marias, and eventually, right to the Canadian border.

There’s so many amazing stops along this route that we wrote an entire guide to our 19 favorite things to do on Minnesota’s North Shore.

2. The big city experience: Minneapolis to Chicago (and Milwaukee!)


MSP airport has tons of cheap, quick flights to The Windy City, so it’s easy to forget that you can almost drive there in the same amount of time!

Chicago is the third most populated city in the U.S. So if our own city’s collection of amenities isn’t doing it for ya, you can always hop in a car to experience deep dish pizza, world-class museums, iconic skyscrapers, and the great Lake Michigan all for yourself.

The Drive:

By car, Chicago is just over 6 hours of highway driving from Minneapolis.

At the four hour mark, you’ll enter Madison, Wisconsin, which is worth a stop. As the capital city of Wisconsin and home to the University of Wisconsin, Madison is a city with a unique character all its own. While there, you can grab a delicious meal or four, lounge at the Student Union’s beautiful lakefront terrace, and experience masterpiece architecture from the legendary Frank Lloyd Wright.

But to really ramp this road trip to the next level, consider this –  adding a stop in Milwaukee, Wisconsin adds just 30 minutes of driving to the route.

For our money, Milwaukee is one of the most underrated cities in the country. It’s filled with more amazing breweries than we can count, carries a unique tradition of German food all-of-it’s own, sits in a beautiful lakefront location right on the water, and even has casinos within city limits!

  • Distance from Minneapolis: 408 miles to Chicago
  • One-way driving time without stops: 6 hours, 15 minutes
  • Recommended stops:
    • Madison, Wisconsin (4 hours, 15 mins)
    • Milwaukee, Wisconsin (5 hours, 5 minutes)

3. Wisconin’s premier getaway: Door County, WI


If you’re looking for the ultimate in idyllic Midwest trips, Door County it is.

Does your idea of a good vacation include a landscape lined with blue lakewater, picturesque countryside, and endless wineries, lighthouses, and state parks? Then you might want to make the drive to this beautiful part of Northeastern Wiconsin.

The Drive:

Door county is almost exactly five hours east of Minneapolis. Along the way, you’ll drive through hours of north Wisconsin’s rural countryside, before eventually reaching Green Bay.

Depending on your football affiliations, entering Green Bay is either akin to going behind enemy lines or reaching The Promiseland. Either way, it’s a unique town with more than just football, and certainly worth a stop one hour before (or after) reaching the final Door County destination.

  • Distance from Minneapolis: 321 miles to Door County
  • One-way driving time without stops: 4 hours, 50 minutes
  • Recommended stops:
    • Green Bay, Wisconsin (4 hours, 15 minutes)

4. Minneapolis to the Upper Peninsula, MI


It’s easy to overlook the Upper Peninsula, that odd part of Michigan that hooks over to the same land mass as Wisconsin but oddly, is still technically part of Michigan.

But anyone who’s ever made the drive to this difficult to reach part of the country knows that “The U.P.” is home to endless miles of beautiful Lake Superior coastline, acres upon acres of pristine wilderness, and all sorts of natural attractions. (The most popular being the photogenic and colorful cliffsides known as Pictured Rocks.)

Sure, it doesn’t get the press (or amenities) of more popular nature destinations, but Michigan’s Upper Peninsula absolutely carries a certain tranquility that’s hard to find these days.

The Drive:

Our recommended road trip from Minneapolis to the Upper Peninsula features the final desination of Munising, MI. Munising is a small town that marks the beginning of the popular Pictured Rocks, and a great spot to start your kayak tour of these beauties.

The most direct route to Munising clocks in at 6 hours and 55 minutes, but we actually recommend you take the more scenic route through Northern Wisconsin. This will allow you to break up your drive with stops in Hayward, Wisconsin (yet another one of our best vacation lakes from Minneapolis) and Marquette, MI (the charming college town).

Note: This is the exact route we took when the pandemic halted our summer air-travel plans, and we had to adjust plans to somewhere drive-able and a little more remote. This section of Michigan did not disappoint!)

For those with extra time, this path also allows you to spend even more time exploring the region with a quick jaunt up to Copper Harbor, yet another interesting part of the U.P. which sits on a peninsula of its own.

  • Distance from Minneapolis: 425 miles to Munising
  • One-way driving time without stops: 7 hours, 30 minutes
  • Recommended stops:
    • Hayward, Wisconsin (2 hours, 30 mins)
    • Marquette, Michigan (6 hours, 30 mins)

5. The nearby national park: Badlands National Park, SD


For the nearest national park outside of Minnesota, consider the lengthy drive to Badlands National Park in southwestern South Dakota.

Badlands is a park famous for its unique rock formations that are an odd mix between canyons and mountains. These strange rock features were created by years of erosion, exposing the dramatic, colorful, and frankly… bizarre landscape that’s unlike anywhere else in the country.

The drive:

Badlands is 7 hours and 20 minutes west of Minneapolis on Interstate 90. Near the beginning of the drive, you’ll pass through Mankato, MN and Siox Falls, SD before spending hours driving through southern South Dakota prairie and grassland.

  • Distance from Minneapolis: 502 miles to Badlands National Park
  • One-way driving time without stops: 7 hours, 30 minutes
  • Recommended stops:
    • Hayward, Wisconsin (2 hours, 30 mins)
    • Marquette, Michigan (6 hours, 30 mins)

Massively Huge Road Minnesota Road Trips

In case you have a couple weeks (or months!) to burn, check out this wild road trip!

1. The Bucketlist Roadtrip from Minneapolis: The Great River Road

I’d say only two types of people can pull off this monster road trip: those who just can’t get enough driving, and people who already are retired.

The Great River Road is considered by hardcore roadtrippers to be one of America’s most scenic drives. This massive road trip follows the Mississippi River for 3,000 miles, all the way from Red Wing Minnesota to, wait for it… New Orleans, Louisiana!

We talked about the first part of this drive when we outlined the trip from Minneapolis to Lake Pepin earlier in this article, but that’s only the beginning of the Great River Road.

Safe to say, there’s far more to cover on this road trip than we could ever fit on this page. And unfortunately, yours truly hasn’t been able to devote the vacation time needed for this monster road trip just yet.

But for those lucky enough to be planning this trip, we’d recommend checking out something like the Mississippi River Parkway Commission or Road Trip USA’s guide.

The Drive:

  • Distance from Minneapolis: 2,000 miles
  • One-way driving time without stops: 34 hours!!!
  • Recommended stops:
    • Red Wing, MN
    • La Crosse, WI
    • St. Louis, MO
    • Memphis, TN
    • New Orleans, LA
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