Visit Minnesota state forests near Ely for fall color driving tours

Finland State Forest

Driving a scenic route through a state forest is a great way to view fall color, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

“Routes through hilly or rugged areas dominated by deciduous trees tend to have the best mix of color,” said Jennifer Teegarden, DNR forestry outreach specialist. “And the dark green needles of conifers accent the yellow, orange and red leaves of deciduous trees in mixed forest.”
Northeastern Minnesota comes alive with fall colors each year as chlorophyll retreats from leaves to reveal underlying bursts of yellow, orange and red. With abundant public land and so many options for great fall color viewing, Minnesota’s scientific and natural areas (SNAs) are sometimes overlooked as a place to enjoy fall colors.

“Scientific and natural areas are special places where visitors can get outdoors in the fall, but also learn about the rare features unique to the site,” said AmberBeth VanNingen, DNR regional SNA specialist. “Each SNA is profiled on the DNR website and the description includes a map and directions to the location.”

These wild places are intended to conserve Minnesota’s ecological, geological and wildlife diversity. While visitor amenities and recreational uses are limited to protect this diversity, visitors looking for a quiet and simple experience are welcome at SNAs every day of the year. Some have hiking trails and simple signage to guide visitors through the property, but many are completely undeveloped and offer an untouched, natural experience for those willing to go off-path.

Seven standouts for fall color in northeastern Minnesota are:
Sugarloaf Point SNA, Schroeder. A world-class example of fluid basalt lava flows from the Precambrian age; located next to the Sugarloaf North Shore Stewardship Association with interpretive center, trails and kiosks.
Iona’s Beach SNA, near Castle Danger. The unique natural beach is comprised of pink rhyolite slabs, smoothed by wave action into flattened, shingle-like pebbles. As the waves recede, the shingles come to rest with a tinkling sound unique to this site.
Spring Beauty Northern Hardwoods SNA, Hovland. At more than 400 acres, this SNA showcases a continuous canopy of old-growth sugar maple along the northern edge of its normal range.
Hovland Woods SNA, Hovland. Located within the Grand Portage State Forest, the wooded location contains mature and old-growth virgin forest communities now rare in the region.
Lutsen SNA, Lutsen. One of the largest upland old-growth hardwood acreages along the North Shore, where Eagle Mountain, Raven Ridge, and major ridges of the Sawtooth Mountains rise over 800 feet above Lake Superior.
Purvis Lake - Ober Foundation SNA, near Ely. Dominated by large white and red pines, the topography of this site reflects the effects of numerous glacial advances, with alternating lakes, bogs and rocky ridges. No maintained trails within this location.
Lost 40 SNA, near Alvwood. Spared from logging by a surveying error, the virgin old-growth, white pine and red pine forest is considered to be the most significant stand outside of the Boundary Waters and Itasca State Park. Minnesota’s state red pine “Big Tree Champion” is found here and is 120 feet tall with a circumference of 115 inches.
Before visiting an SNA, recreationists should research the location on the DNR website at to read more about the significance of the location, the type of terrain, allowed activities, and rare or sensitive features to avoid. Picking or collecting plants, rocks and other natural elements is prohibited at most SNAs. Visitors are advised to wear blaze orange during hunting seasons at those SNAs where hunting is allowed.
Scientific and natural areas are protected through acquisition, donations, leases, or if already owned by the state, through designation.

SNAs are primarily funded by grants from the Environment and Natural Resource Trust Fund.