MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Do It Now: Spring

This weekend

Check websites before you go.

Canoecopia in Madison. It's been canceled

McHenry ShamRocks the Fox in McHenry, Ill. It's been postponed.

FIS Cross Country Ski World Cup in Minneapolis. It's been canceled

St. Patrick's Day Parade in Chicago. It's been canceled

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Gotta have a twist cone

When the mom-and-pop ice-cream stands open, happy days are here again.

April may be for lovers in Paris, but around here, it’s for lovers of soft-serve ice cream.

The best-loved drive-ins and stands have opened for the season, to the delight of their fans. In the Wisconsin town of Stevens Point, they pitched tents March 3 so they could be first in line when Belt’s Soft-Serve opened at 11 a.m. March 5.

Belt's is a find, for sure. When I stumbled on it one warm April day, it was mobbed. I got a junior twist cone the size of an Olympic torch and watched people feeding free Puppy Cups to their dogs and eating flurries topped with peanut-butter cups the size of a brownie.

I look for these mom-and-pop spots everywhere I go; they were common, before the arrival of a certain franchise.

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Hitting the trails

In this part of the country, you can always find a great place to ride.

This is a bike-crazy part of the country. We like twisting singletrack, floating on fat tires and even gravel grinding — but we love our off-road touring trails.

Luckily, we have more than anyone: Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin rank No. 1, 2 and 3 for miles of rails converted to trails, and Iowa and Illinois also are top-tier.

Minnesota's trails are prized because they're paved, including the 121-mile Paul Bunyan State Trail. For more, see Bicycling in Minnesota.

In Wisconsin, you can ride a trail most of the way between La Crosse and Milwaukee. For more, see Bicycling in Wisconsin.

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Planning a cheap summer trip

Even in the priciest places, you can have fun without spending much.

Spring barely has started, but it's time to think about summer trips — especially the ones that book up fast.

We found some interesting ways to save money this year. On Minnesota's popular North Shore of Lake Superior, a hostel has opened. In eastern Iowa, a benefit bike tour includes free skin-cancer screenings. In Chicago, a family of six can camp next to the Museum Campus for $50.

Here are the 2016 editions of our cheap-trips series.

For Minnesota, see Cheap summer getaways in Minnesota.

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Vacations for the brain

Go to a summer school, and you'll come home with a skill.

The ground is still frozen, but it's time to think about summer if you'd like to come away from vacation with more than a sunburn.

Yes, there's summer school for adults, and now is time to sign up. 

In Door County, The Clearing Folk School is taking registrations for summer and fall. Classes in watercolor, quilting and wood-carving fill up fastest. 

On Minnesota's North Shore, registration for summer classes at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais started this month. Bread-baking and boat-building classes are especially popular.

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A bicycle trail and two state parks

A variety of scenery makes for a great day in southeast Minnesota.

Ah, the smell of creosote in spring.

On a gorgeous day in May, it’s hard to resist checking out a new bicycle trail, especially when the neighborhood includes two state parks famous for their wildflowers.

That’s how we found ourselves in southeast Minnesota on the Great River Ridge State Trail, riding over a maniacally winding creek on dozens of freshly timbered bridges.

First, we drove to little Carley State Park, where white pines line a sunken bowl in the middle of farmland. Thousands of bluebells and clouds of false rue anemone covered an oxbow in the North Branch of the Whitewater River, but we were the only ones on the trails.

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The mushrooms are coming

In spring, the search is on for the wily morel.

No one can predict when morel mushrooms will appear.

Usually, they appear in Iowa in late April and peak on Mother's Day in southeast Minnesota, southwest Wisconsin and southern Michigan.

It's also tough to know where to hunt, but you'll find clues at the Morels.com message boards and on Facebook pages for Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota.

The season lasts three to four weeks. Since most people go out on weekends, Thursdays and Fridays are good days to look because new mushrooms have had a chance to pop out since the previous weekend.

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Without reservation

If there's a big festival in your future, stake out space as soon as possible.

In summer, only the foolhardy travel without reservations.

Big events can eat up every room and campsite in an entire region, especially if the event is in a small town.

In central Iowa, more than 100,000 people go to Pella Tulip Time in May (pictured), which the American Bus Association regularly chooses as one of the Top 100 Events in North America.

In northeast Iowa, 75,000 people go to Decorah for Nordic Fest in July, filling rooms between Lanesboro and La Crosse.

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Road Trip/Wildflowers in bluff country

On two sides of the Mississippi, see thousands of lovely blooms in one day.

In May, the shady forests and sunny hillsides of southeast Minnesota and southwest Wisconsin erupt into blooms.

The varied terrain of bluff country provides the region's best and widest array of wildflowers, all within a 50-mile radius. Here's a road trip on which you can see them all.

Start in Carley State Park, four miles south of Plainview, Minn., to see masses of Virginia bluebells. Then drive east to the woodland canopies of Whitewater State Park, where you'll find the full array of ephemerals: trout lilies, spring beauties (pictured), hepatica, bloodroot, false rue anemone, bellwort, marsh marigolds and Dutchman's breeches.

From Whitewater, drive southeast to Mound Prairie, a state natural area between Houston and Hokah, just north of the Root River.

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