Autumn on a gas tank

Take in the changing leaves on a leisurely drive along a scenic road, and head to one of these historical local river towns.

Fall Colors in Eau Claire
Fall colors in Eau Claire

Even though COVID-19 has put long-distance travels largely on hold these days, you can satisfy that travelin’ itch with a day trip. Take in the changing leaves on a leisurely drive along a scenic road, and head to one of these historical river towns. Enjoy their charm from the comfort of your car or walk the streets and discover their intriguing shops and museums, following pandemic protocols for each destination.

Eau Claire, Wisconsin

City entrepreneurs reversed the down- ward spiral of this river town by injecting new life into the community, starting with Artisan Forge. The artists in this collective work in metal, fabric, paint, glass and more, and they welcome visitors to their studios. The vibe’s also alive in a store fittingly named The Local Store, the source of all things witty and Wisconsin.

Check out SHIFT Cyclery & Coffee Bar for bike gear and a pick-me-up. Nearby, Revival Records stocks 25,000 LP albums from ABBA to Zappa. Approach neighboring Antiques Emporium with a U-Haul, for if you collect it, they’ve got it (stuffed animals included). Downtown’s self-guided sculpture walk features more than 50 sidewalk creations to admire.

Where the Chippewa and Eau Claire Rivers ramble, so do more than 76 miles of connected state bike trails that pass a lively farmers market and craft breweries, like The Brewing Projekt and Lazy Monk Brewery. Just east of Eau Claire, you’ll find Autumn Harvest Winery & Orchard, where apples share the glory with grapes. Pick your own Honeycrisps, sample wine and a variety of Wisconsin cheeses, and on Saturdays enjoy live music.

Red Wing, Minnesota

One of Minnesota’s prettiest historical river towns is a popular stop on the Mississippi River. The levee’s riverside hiking/biking trail curves under bluffs where eagles perch, with views of Wisconsin across the water.

In 1875, the historic St. James Hotel debuted to serve river travelers. Fast- forward to 1905, when the charming railroad station opened and still serves visitors from the Twin Cities. Visit the station’s tourist information office to pick up maps for self-guided walking tours and enjoy the station’s Red Wing Arts gallery, which presents regional artworks.

From downtown’s Central Park, count the spires of half a dozen graceful, vintage churches. Wander Main Street and, just beyond it, Third Street, where old-time friendliness still abides in its shops. The Uffda Shop is the source for all things Scandinavian. Thunder Clan Trading Post is crammed with drums, beadwork and jewelry of nearby Native American tribes. Fair Trade Books, with its wood-plank floor and tin ceiling, carries a wide selec- tion of fiction and nonfiction. Red Wing Shoes carries 180 styles sizes 4B to 20D and houses a free museum detailing the famous bootmaker’s history and process.

Old West Main Street is the kick-off point for the popular Cannon Valley Bike Trail. On the outskirts of town, you’ll find Falconer Vineyards Winery & Cidery, with a deck that overlooks a scenic valley and on which you can enjoy a glass of wine or hard cider.

Stillwater, Minnesota

The oldest city in Minnesota flourished as a boom town of the logging era. Its lumber barons lived the good life to the hilt.

Nestled in the wooded bluffs rising from the scenic St. Croix River, it’s a movie-set town where time stopped at the height of that prosperous era. Today it’s still popu- lated with those gorgeous, eclectic and eccentric mansions. A self-guided walking tour (a map for the tour is tucked inside the Discover Stillwater visitor’s guide found at local businesses) or a narrated trolley ride explains all those turrets and curlicues as well as the foibles of the folks who lived behind them.

Main Street’s brick and limestone store- fronts of yesteryear have been reclaimed by modern merchants as antiques shops, several pleasant bookstores and arts-and- crafts galleries that celebrate regional talent. There are many specialty shops, including Kathe Wohlfahrt Christmas Store, cookware purveyor Cooks of Crocus Hill, Pinch N’ Rub Spice & Tea Hub, bakery Mon Petit Cheri and Forge & Foundry Distillery, which features vodka, gin and rum made on the premises.

The wild St. Croix, registered as a scenic preservation river (no billboards, no manicured lawns, no marinas to spoil the spirit of nature) offers kayakers and bikers a workout. Stillwater has two bike trails: Brown’s Creek and the new St. Croix River Loop Trail, which takes you to Wisconsin and back. William O’Brien State Park, just north of town, offers fishing and hiking trails galore.