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Get ready to enjoy the yellows and reds: Here's where to find the best fall colors

The woods of northern Minnesota attract thousands of visitors from mid-September through mid-October of each year, as the trees don their best fall colors and put on a breathtaking show of beauty.

And while some years are more colorful than others, there's usually plenty to see and do on the scenic routes that wind their way through lakes country.

A "Fall Color Tour" map, available at the DL Chamber offices on Summit Avenue, details three established area routes that offer some of the best fall foliage the region has to offer: Itasca State Park, Tamarac Refuge (with stops at Hamden Slough, Buffalo River State Park and the Detroit Lakes Wetland Management District), and Maplewood State Park (with a stop at Dunton Locks County Park near Detroit Lakes).

And here's a tip: The stretch of Highway 34 between Snellman and Osage offers some of the most beautiful foliage to be found in the area.

That stretch is part of the 88-mile Lake Country Scenic Byway, which runs from Detroit Lakes to Walker, with offshoots to Hamden Slough, Itasca State Park and Chippewa National Forest.

The Mississippi Headwaters Route on Highway 71, between Park Rapids and Bemidji on the Scenic Byway, has its peak color from mid-September to early October. Itasca State Park, source of the mighty Mississippi River, is the star attraction. Surfaced bike trail in Itasca, and mountain bike trails in Bemidji State Park. Also, scenic biking along the nearby Heartland Trail.

Tamarac Refuge, located in northeastern Becker County, is also part of the Byway.

Its Visitor Center sits at the junction of county roads 29 and 26, nine miles north of Highway 34 or 15 miles east of Highway 59 on County Road 26 -- The Refuge will host its annual Fall Festival on Saturday, Sept. 29, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

On that day, Refuge staff will offer guided bus tours at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m.; the Minnesota Raptor Center will offer a live bird display featuring a Bald Eagle and other large birds such as hawks and owls, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; and the visitor's center will offer activities from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., including an opportunity to learn more about wolves and Minnesota's wolf populations, pick up a free wolf poster and sample wild edibles.

You can also explore the Refuge museum, nature trail and gift shop, munch on pork loin, chips, beverages and other snacks, or pay a visit to the Refuge's maintenance shop, where there will be a fire truck display and an opportunity for visitors to have their picture taken in a fire uniform. You can also learn how the refuge uses fire to manage habitat, shop among nature craft vendors, and children can participate in a trumpeter swan activity.

Though it's not officially on the Scenic Byway route, Maplewood State Park, located seven miles east of Pelican Rapids on Otter Tail County Road 108, is a very popular stop for fall color hunters.

The park offers its annual Leaf Days celebration from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily on Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 29-30, and again on Oct. 6-7.

During this celebration, the Friends of Maplewood State Park invite the public to view the park's fall colors at their peak. Enjoy a canopy-covered wagon ride through the park; hike or bike the park's many trails; pack a picnic lunch or purchase a meal from Friends' members, who will be selling barbecue sandwiches, bratwurst and smoked turkey legs in the park's picnic area. Cookies, soda and coffee will also be available; proceeds from food and gift purchases during Leaf Days help fund park projects.

Along the way to Maplewood, you might want to check out the rest of Otter Tail County, particularly along Highways 108 and 78. The rolling countryside between Fergus Falls and Perham is a blend of fall color, with its peak from late September to early October. Besides Maplewood, other highlights are Glendalough State Park, historic Phelps Mill, and the view from Inspiration Peak, off County Road 38.

Want to branch out a little farther afield? Here are some of the other fall color "hot spots" around the state, according to Curt Johnson of Explore Minnesota Tourism:

-- Brainerd Lakes and Mille Lacs Route: Highway 371 and 6, and the county roads between them, plus Highway 169 -- peak color late September to early October.

-- Mille Lacs Kathio State Park is a colorful forest at the edge of Mille Lacs Lake and an observation tower above the canopy offers fantastic views. Biking the Paul Bunyan Trail is favorite activity.

-- North Shore of Lake Superior Route: Highway 61, Duluth to Grand Portage -- peak color mid-September to early October.

Great color and great lake views, very popular with fall color fans. Several state parks have rivers, waterfalls, hiking trails, and scenic overlooks. This has been designated as an "All American Drive," so noted for the outstanding scenery.

-- Iron Range Loop Route: Highway 169 from Virginia to Tower, Highway 135 through Biwabik back to Virginia -- peak color mid-September to early October.

There's a beautiful mix of color on this circle drive. At Virginia, there's an overlook of the area's deepest open pit mine and the new Mesabi Bike Trail.

-- Edge Of The Wilderness Route: Highway 38, Grand Rapids to Bigfork -- peak color mid-September to early October.

Scenic byway winds over hills through the colorful mix of pine and hardwoods of Chippewa National Forest. Or take one of the back roads through the forest, with stops at lakes and hiking trails.

-- St. Croix River Valley Route: Highway 95 from Taylors Falls to Afton -- peak color late September to mid-October.

The scenic St. Croix River winds through hillsides and sheer cliffs. Four state parks feature great river views: Interstate, Wild River, William O'Brien and Afton. Charming towns of Stillwater, Taylors Falls and Afton have numerous antique and gift shops. Boat excursions feature great fall color. Parkway bridges have great views of the Mississippi bordered by colorful, wooded hillsides.

-- Mississippi River Valley Route: Highway 61 between Red Wing and LaCrescent -- peak color mid-October.

Here are river towns and wooded bluffs along the Mississippi. Steep hillsides dressed in brilliant autumn hues of red, russet and gold. Several scenic overlooks, including those at Frontenac and Great River Bluffs state parks.

Fall color is already developing in the prairie grasses and fall wildflowers throughout the state as well. Please call ahead to any parks you plan to visit for the most current conditions. The following phone numbers and web sites are also helpful:

-- Minnesota Department of Natural Resources: 1-888-868-7476;

-- Explore Minnesota Tourism: www. or

The Lake Country Scenic Byway's fifth annual Fall Color Tour, which gets underway Sept. 26., is full, but you can sign up for next year's activities.

If you're interested in joining next year's tour, tentatively set for the third Wednesday in September, contact the Chamber offices at 218-847-9202 or 800-542-3992.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454