MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Do It Now: Summer

This weekend

Listen to bagpipes and watch kites.

Wisconsin Highland Games in Waukesha, Wis. In addition to heavy athletics — throwing weights, hammers, logs and sacks of hay — there will be piping, drumming, dancing, longbow competitions, dog demonstrations and traditional Scottish food. Sept. 1–3.

Hot Air Balloon Festival in Harvard, Ill. This festival in Milky Way Park features tethered balloon rides, night glows, yard and carnival games and music on two stages. Sept. 1–3.

Taste of Madison in Madison. This benefit festival on Capitol Square includes 200 menu items from more than 80 restaurants, all priced at $1-$4. There's also music on three stages. Sept. 2–3.

Kites Over Lake Michigan in Two Rivers, Wis. On Neshotah Beach, watch giant kites, precision stunt teams, a release of sky lanterns and fireworks. There will be live music Saturday night and free kite-making for kids on Saturday. Sept. 2–3.

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This weekend's festivals

Look to skies for balloons and rockets.

Eyes to the Skies Festival in Lisle, Ill. This large festival on the west edge of Chicago features daily hot-air balloon launches, glows and fireworks shows, plus children's activities and a craft fair. July 1–3.

Sawdust Days in Oshkosh, Wis. This festival in Menominee Park, next to Lake Winnebago, celebrates the logging era, when Oshkosh was known as Sawdust City. It includes a historic village, flea market, carnival, fireworks and music on four stages, including Sabor-a-Mexico. June 30–July 4.

Iowa City Jazz Festival in Iowa City, Iowa. This downtown festival features a Culinary Row, Fun Zone for kids and Sunday fireworks in addition to music. July 1–3.

Ribfest in Naperville, Ill. Headliners include 3 Doors Down in Knoch Park, where there's also magic shows, kids' games, food and fireworks on the last evening. July 1–3.

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Free weekend in Minnesota

It's a great time to check out a state park.

The second weekend in June is a good time to try something new in Minnesota.

On June 13 in 2015, admission to all Minnesota state parks is free to celebrate National Get Outdoors Day.

Many parks are holding special events, such as archery, bird and flower hikes and geocaching and fishing programs.

There will be a concert at Itasca, a raptors program at Wild River, a Family Outdoor Fair at Whitewater, a River Adventures Day at Jay Cooke and Kids Day at Kathio.

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Going on a day trip

Short of time and cash? You don't need much for these lovely little vacations.

The summer is winding to a close, and you've used up all your vacation — and money, too.

What to do? Go on a day trip, of course.

It's amazing how many fun things you can fit into one day, once you get out of the city: Visit wineries, take paddlewheeler cruises, ride bicycle trails, tour lighthouses, find interesting shops.

For Minneapolis, see 10 great day trips from the Twin Cities.

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Cheap summer getaways

No money, no problem: Here are dozens of great vacations that cost $100 or less.

In summer, you don't have to spend very much to have a great vacation.

You don't even have to know much. Sign up for one of Minnesota's I Can Camp! programs, and a family of six pays just $40 for one night in a state park and $60 for two nights — instruction, tents and gear included.

Wisconsin has a lot of music festivals where families can camp on the grounds. Tickets include performances and more — corn feeds, kickball, canoeing, even fireworks.

This year, we found so many cheap trips that we had to split them into separate stories.

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The buzz on bugs

Summer is here, and so are the pests.

June is the cruelest month for bugs.

Mosquitoes hatch everywhere there's standing water. Black flies bedevil campers in the Boundary Waters and along Lake Superior, especially in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Ticks are crawling all over the place.

Black flies are hardest to avoid, since they attack the face and are nearly invisible. Either buy a head net, stay in a breezy place or wait until they go away.

The common wisdom is they'll be gone by the Fourth of July. But it's not the only time they come out. Once, in late July, we were staying at the Big Bay Point Lighthouse B&B near Marquette, and the flies were so bad you couldn't be outside.

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Fourth of July weekend

There's a celebration everywhere.

You won't have to look far for fireworks and festivities over the Fourth of July weekend, because every town worth its salt has them.

But some of the best are the smallest. For an old-fashioned celebration, go to Madeline Island in Wisconsin for A Day on the Green. At 10:30 a.m., there's a home-grown parade that ends with historical figures giving patriotic speeches at the museum. An art fair, barbecue and fireworks follow. July 4.

Near Milwaukee, an Old World Fourth of July at Old World Wisconsin includes a band concert, old-fashioned games and visits with re-enactors who portray the role of African-American soldiers in the Civil War. July 4.

In the western Minneapolis village of Excelor, the Minnesota Orchestra plays at the Lake Minnetonka Fourth of July at Excelsior Commons, followed by fireworks. There's also a kids' parade and Popsicle social and a sandcastle-building contest.

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Roadside Distractions

Where is it? Here's a contest for everyone who loves the odd and offbeat.

At MidwestWeekends, we love anything that makes us veer off the highway and say, "Wow, what the heck is that?''

We call these things Roadside Distractions, and we always take a photo and find out the story behind them. Then we share it. But first, we like to find out who else has seen them.

Where can we find this pair of entertainers?

If you're the first to tell us, you'll win one of our "Life's Too Short to Stay Home'' T-shirts. As soon as we have a winner, we'll post the answer and story on the home page.

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Step out on National Trails Day

The time is ripe to hike or bike.

 

Here in the Upper Midwest, hikers have their pick of great trails — the Superior Hiking Trail, the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, the North Country National Scenic Trail and hundreds of state and county trails.

On National Trails Day, you can try out a new one. Along Lake Superior, the Superior Hiking Trail Association is leading a five-mile hike on the newest section of trail between Duluth and Two Harbors.

In southwest Wisconsin, the rangers of Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge are hosting a bird hike, bike ride and canoe paddle. On the Red Cedar State Trail (pictured) in Menomonie, the Friends group is offering a wildlife photography hike, raptor presentation and bike checks.

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Dining in Minnesota lakes country

In summer, vacation's too short for a bad meal.

It's time to head up north for swimming, boating, relaxing . . . and eating.

The Minnesota lakes country between Brainerd and Walker isn't known for great restaurants, but that may be because only locals know the best places.

Luckily for you, MidwestWeekends knows the locals who know the best places. It turns out that this popular area has top chefs who could work anywhere but choose to live where others can only vacation — go figure.

In Nisswa, they've added the new Cru to their list of Best Bets, and they love the upgraded Bar Harbor more than ever. For more, see Dining up north: Brainerd to Nisswa.

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In Pipestone, an era ends

After 60 years, town says goodbye to 'Song of Hiawatha' pageant.

For at least half a century, white men in blackface have been considered tasteless. But white men in red face? They were part of a popular outdoor pageant that brought busloads of tourists to a small town in southwest Minnesota.

But "Song of Hiawatha'' was performed for the last time in 2008, not because locals considered it an anachronism, but because it was too much work.

"It's in the middle of summer, and it's gotten hard to find people willing to participate,'' said lifelong Pipestone resident Eugene Hanson. "I hate to see it go.''

The audience had fallen off, too. Many younger people never have heard of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and fewer still can appreciate an 1855 poem that's set to the meter of a Finnish epic, based on third-hand Ojibwe legends, filled with Christian imagery and bloated by Victorian romanticism.

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Stampede to the North Shore

If you're planning to join the annual fall pilgrimage, nail down lodgings now.

This time of year, everyone in Minnesota starts thinking about going to the North Shore, and everyone wants that perfect place to stay.

I first went to the North Shore in August 1981, without a reservation (you can’t do that anymore), and lucked into Fern Creek cabin (pictured) at Koeneke’s Shoredge resort, just beyond Lutsen.

It had hand-sewn curtains, a tiny kitchen and tiny bedrooms with walls that didn’t quite go up to the ceiling. But it was surrounded by poplars and had a picture window facing the lake, a swing out front and a rocky shoreline perfect for bonfires.

That's my idea of a perfect place to stay, though I know it's not everyone's. I stopped by recently and caught Karen Bergly of Plymouth, Minn., whose mother’s family has been running the summer-only resort since 1953.

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Snorkeling the Namekagon

Face down in the swift, clear Wisconsin river, you'll see why it's a national treasure.

Now that warm weather has arrived, we can have some fun cooling down.

We can go whitewater rafting on the St. Louis River near Duluth without a wetsuit. We can relax into the potholes above Illgen Falls and turn the the Baptism River into a spa.

If we're desperate, we can run from the sand beach on Duluth's Park Point into Lake Superior. No one ever said that felt like bathwater.

Now, however, I've found the best cool-down of all — snorkeling. Why didn't I think of it before?

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Where to find mosquito-free camping

Breathe a sigh of relief in southeast Minnesota.

Already tired of mosquitoes? Head for southeast Minnesota.

That's karst country, where porous limestone lies just under the surface and rain sinks into fast-moving underground streams that are chilled to 48 degrees when they run through the many cave systems. Trout like it, but mosquitoes don't. There's no standing water, so there's nowhere for them to breed.

That makes camping virtually mosquito-free at Forestville/Mystery Cave, Whitewater and Beaver Creek Valley state parks. Deb Erickson, office manager at Forestville, says people used to camping on Minnesota's North Shore are pleasantly surprised and often ask why there are so few mosquitoes.

"All the parks are like that in southeast Minnesota,'' she says. "It's kind of strange, but very wonderful.''

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On the road in Wisconsin

Happy discoveries: art pottery, burgers, bike trails and lighthouses.

On a trip to Milwaukee this month, I found that nothing stays the same — except the things people can’t do without.

In Lake Mills, just off I-94 east of Madison, I was surprised to see Ephraim Faience Pottery in a newly restored 1890s cream-brick building on Water Street. I’d been coveting its graceful, handmade Arts and Crafts pieces for many years but was resigned to simply admiring the shelves of vases and pitchers until I saw that I could buy one at half price.

So, thanks to a barely discernible bottom crease, I got my very own Heartland vase for $144. Seconds and irregulars are available only at the Lake Mills gallery.

“I buy bottom cracks all the time,’’ said manager Barbara Voss. “That way, I don’t have to feel so bad if the cat does cream it.’’

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Try a new bike trail

In Minnesota, fresh stretches of trail invite bicycle tourists.

There’s good news for bicycle tourists looking for a new stretch of trail to try.

This month, a troublesome 1½-mile stretch of the Mesabi Trail in northern Minnesota (pictured) finally was completed between Taconite and Marble, giving riders 74½ nonstop miles of beautiful asphalt.

The rolling trail, which does not follow a rail corridor, takes riders past turquoise mine-pit lakes, through rock cuts and to the door of nearly every Iron Range attraction. For more, see Rolling through the Iron Range.

Near Bemidji, an 11½-mile section of the Paul Bunyan State Trail has been paved. Now, bicyclists can ride 7½ miles along the east shore of Lake Bemidji from Lake Bemidji State Park, then on two miles of city streets to connect with the new stretch, which winds through the woods to Guthrie.

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