MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Do It Now: Fall

This weekend

See puppets and plopping pumpkins.

Pumpkin Chuckin Fest in Union Grove, Wis. The festival in this town, just west of Racine, features a pumpkin catapult contest, barbecue cook-off, pie auction, pumpkin-baking contest, children's games and music. Oct. 20–21.

Halloween Outdoor Puppet Extravaganza in St. Paul. This all-ages evening spectacle in Hidden Falls Regional Park features larger-than-life puppetry, fire, song, stilting and, after the performance, food and dancing to jazz brass bands. Oct. 20–21.

Southwest Wisconsin Fall Art Tour in southwest Wisconsin. This popular tour includes artists at studios between Mineral Point, Spring Green, Dodgeville and Baraboo. Oct. 19–21.

Oktoberfest in Elkhorn, Wis. This downtown festival near Lake Geneva features wine and beer tasting, music, a car show, arts and crafts and a chili cookoff. Oct. 20.

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Blast from the past

Train aficionados offer special excursions.

If you're in love with old trains, train aficionados can give you a ride.

In the fall, Friends of the 261 run special excursions on their 1944 Milwaukee Road steam locomotive (pictured). In October, No. 261 pulls cars down the Mississippi from Minneapolis to Winona and back. It also will run a trip from Winona to La Crescent to turn the locomotive.

Tickets in three classes are $99-$329 for the 278-mile round-trip to Winona, $89 for children. A coach ticket from Winona to La Crescent and back is $39. 

For regular excursions on vintage trains, see 5 great train rides. For more about trains and vintage-train lodgings, see Riding the rails.

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Big birds on the move

On marshes and rivers, spot cranes, pelicans and swans heading south.

Cranes, swans, pelicans and eagles are riding the winds southward, and this year's unseasonably warm weather makes it especially fun to watch them.

Sandhill cranes still are feeding in and around Crex Meadows in Grantsburg, Wis., and visitors will see thousands flying out just after sunrise and returning before sunset.

In Wisconsin's Horicon Marsh and along the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge between Wabasha, Minn., and Savanna, Ill., white pelicans and waterfowl also are making pit stops on the way south, soon to be joined by tundra swans.

The refuge's annual Swan Watch bus tour out of Winona, Minn., is Nov. 12. In two overlooks, refuge naturalists will help visitors spot birds on weekends through Nov. 20.

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How to be a trail blazer

This fall, enjoy forest color while helping out on your favorite hikes.

Have you ever wondered who keeps your favorite hiking trails open?

It's not Mother Nature. She's the one downing trees, washing out bridges and making brush grow over the path.

By helping maintain and build trail, you can do good, make friends, see the fall colors and get a free or cheap weekend. Many companies even pay their employees to volunteer for a day or two. It's win-win for everyone.

Workers don't need special skills and are welcome year-round, but here are some of the chances to help out this fall.

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10 great trails to ride in fall

Here's where to get your fill of flora, fauna and fall colors.

It was a classic fall weekend when we rode the Willard Munger State Trail in eastern Minnesota.

It's a peaceful corridor through forest that, on the second weekend of October, surrounded us with a warm palette of honey and cinnamon, mixed with evergreens and the white of birch trunks and milkweed pods. From time to time, we went through one of the small towns on Highway 61, immortalized by Bob Dylan.

But we were among the few bicyclists on the trail. Where was everybody? Probably on I-35, rushing to and from the North Shore.

Too bad, because the Munger State Trail is a destination in itself, especially when combined with a hike through nearby Banning State Park, a gorgeous place that also suffers from drive-by syndrome.

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Fun with a club

Join an outdoors group to see new places, save money and make friends.

Sometimes, when traveling, it's nice to let someone else run the show.

Someone who reserves rooms for holiday weekends a year in advance. Someone who plans dinners, gets group discounts on lift tickets and organizes transportation. All you have to do is sign up and go.

And costs for weekend trips can be irresistibly low, often less than $100 per person.

If you'd like to do something fun this winter, now is the time to join an outdoors club. You don't have to live in the town in which the club is based.

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A little taste of luxury

In late autumn, take advantage of prices that fall right along with the leaves.

If you'd like to travel like a rich person, this is a good time of the year to do it.

In November and December, most folks travel only to visit family, so rooms go begging at luxury resorts and inns.

I paid $70 to stay at the luxurious Lake Lawn Resort in Delavan, Wis., and $95 to stay at the Geneva Inn (pictured) in Lake Geneva, one of the very few places that's right on the water.

It was nice to feel rich, even if I had to work the angles to do it.

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All quiet up north

Like the leaves, room rates have dropped.

All across the north woods, lodge owners are heaving a sigh of relief: The fall-color rush is over.

But that doesn't mean lodges don't want guests. So they've dropped their rates by up to half until the holiday and ski seasons start.

It's just one reason the last week of October and first week of November is my favorite time to hike on Minnesota's North Shore (pictured, the Brule in late October); also, mud freezes on the trails and curtains of leaves fall back to reveal new views of Lake Superior.

Rates are the lowest until the spring slush season. Rooms start at $45 at good old Cascade Lodge near Lutsen, but this is a good time to try the pricier spots: the East Bay Suites in Grand Marais, where a two-bedroom, two-bath and two-fireplace suite that sleeps six goes for $189 on weekends, or the new Surfside on Superior near Tofte, which has a spa and two-bedroom suites for $155.

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Head toward the (twinkling) lights

At Christmas, tourist destinations pull out all the stops.

If you have money, now is the time to plan a holiday getaway.

Air fares are at historic lows, and hotel rooms always are cheap close to Christmas. And there's a lot going on.

Fly to Chicago to shop at the open-air Christkindlmarket, ice skate in Millennium Park and hear the Apollo Chorus sing “Messiah’’; for more, see Chicago at Christmas.

In Milwaukee, watch fireworks during Christmas in the Ward, see “Plaid Tidings’’ at the Skylight Opera Theatre, tour the decorated Pabst Mansion and see the lights in Cathedral Square (pictured); for more see Milwaukee at Christmas.

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Save on the ski hills

Get a deal now on a season pass.

Alpine skiing and snowboarding is expensive, without doubt. So if you plan to ski this winter, buy a season pass. Better yet, buy one during the October and November sales.

Hit the hills just five times (Spirit Mountain) to 10 times (Afton Alps) and your pass is paid for.

If you don't buy a pass, you'll still save if you buy online, especially for multi-day passes. Every resort offers many kinds of specials, so always check in advance.

At Spirit Mountain in Duluth, the "First Time'' pass, for skiers who haven't held a season pass during the last five years, is only $139 through Oct. 31. Regular passes are $179. Buy one at Spirit Mountain, and a Giants Ridge pass is $99.

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Hot tip/A different North Shore

Didn't reserve for fall-color season? Thunder Bay has rooms.

In September, the stampede to Minnesota's North Shore begins.

Leaf peepers who descend on the craggy shores between Duluth and Grand Marais are out of luck if they didn't reserve far in advance for weekends between now and Minnesota's long school break, Oct. 15-18 in 2009.

But those who drive a little farther, just an hour beyond Grand Marais, will find everything the Minnesota shore has and more. Thunder Bay, Lake Superior's largest town, no longer is a great bargain, thanks to the weak U.S. dollar. But in fall, it does have one thing the North Shore doesn't: plenty of hotel rooms.

Rooms still are available every weekend at the Prince Arthur Waterfront Hotel, where rooms have a killer view of the harbor and the Sleeping Giant. They're not expensive, but you also can pay just $20 per person at the International Hostel, halfway between Thunder Bay and Sleeping Giant Provincial Park.

What to do around Thunder Bay? Hike the Sleeping Giant, see Kakabeka Falls (pictured), explore Ouimet Canyon, tour Fort William Historical Park (on Oct. 17-19, the tours are haunted). And eat, of course.

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