MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Cheap fall getaways

Here are 20 places to enjoy autumn colors without going into the red.

Waterfall in the Porkies.

© Beth Gauper

Fall is gorgeous in Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park.

Fall is the busiest travel season of the year ó we all know the nice days are numbered, and we're going to try our darndest to make them count.

But with pretty much everyone heading out to look for fall color, especially on weekends, there are few bargains.

That's why those of us on a budget look to our old friends: the parks, the mom-and-pop motels, the environmental centers, the hostels, the outdoors clubs.

Here's our 2019 list of 20 great autumn trips. Most of them cost $100 or less per person.

Sign up for these deals, and you'll be enjoying fall in all the best places: along the Mississippi River, along Minnesota's North Shore, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, even in the middle of Chicago.

If you're really planning ahead, or if you want more ideas, see Cheap winter getaways, Cheap spring getaways and Cheap summer getaways.

Wolves and pizza in Ely

In northern Minnesota, the International Wolf Center offers Wolves After Dark Oct. 18-19 in 2019.

Guests spend the evening camped in the auditorium, watching the wolves through the viewing windows and interpreting their behavior with the help of staff.

Cost is $70, $40 for youths 12-17. It includes a pizza dinner and breakfast. 

For more, see Dreaming of Ely.

Concert and camping

Just east of St. Paul, set up a campsite at Lake Elmo Park Reserve, then lean back and enjoy the Washington County Bluegrass FestivalSept. 7 in 2019. The music is free, campsites are $15-$25 and a daily permit is $5.

The Root River trailhead in Lanesboro.

© Beth Gauper

Bicyclists head west on the Root River State Trail from downtown Lanesboro.

Outdoor skills in Minnesota bluff country

Minnesota's Becoming an Outdoorswoman program is offering a fall outdoor skills weekend Sept. 13-15 at Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center near Lanesboro. It includes fly fishing, a tour of Mystery Cave, orienteering, a ropes course, canoeing and a bird hike. 

Cost of $205 includes lodgings and meals. Reserve as soon as possible.

Michigan also offers Becoming an Outdoorswoman programs. 

Music on the Mississippi

In Winona, the Boats and Bluegrass festival, Sept. 26-29 in 2019, is a great deal for families. For $120 to $170, depending on how early you buy your ticket,  you get to hear all the music, camp in the riverside campground and go canoeing ó and kids under 16 are free with an adult ticket. A Saturday-only pass with camping is $70.

Extra activities may include old-time circus games, fire dancers, disc golf, free family pontoon rides, nature walks and airplane rides.

Nose-to-nose with a wolf in Ely.

© Wolf Center

From behind a glass wall, guests at Ely's International Wolf Center watch the resident pack.

If you canít make it, the municipal Prairie Island Campground is a good place to camp any time, with a beach, playground, deer park, canoe rental, boat launch, store and showers. 

If you have your own boat, bring it; the Mississippi backwaters are fun to explore.

For more, see Afloat in Winona.

A sampler of outdoors sports

Every fall, the Minnesota Rovers Outdoors Club puts on an Outdoors Extravaganza to introduce prospective members to the club. Members lead paddling, rock-climbing, bicycling and hiking expeditions. 

In 2019, it's Sept. 20-22 at Crow Wing State Park on the Mississippi River near Brainerd. Cost of $25 includes two nights of camping plus Saturday supper and Sunday breakfast.

For planning travel on a nickel, the Rovers and other outdoors clubs are unparalleled.

To find out about these groups, which offer many great trips for $100 or less, see Join the club.

Camping in the middle of Chicago

In Northerly Island Park, on Lake Michigan next to the Museum Campus, the Chicago Park District offers a Family Camping weekend Sept. 21-22.

It's $50 for up to six in a tent, which is provided, and includes hotdogs, marshmallows, tents and programming, including fishing, fire-building and guided hikes.

If you'd rather have a roof over your head, Chicago has three newfangled hostel hotels in addition to the longtime favorite Hostelling International hostel in the South Loop. For more, see Where to stay in Chicago.

Deep woods around Ely

The boreal woods around the northern Minnesota town of Ely, on the edge of the Boundary Waters, are beautiful any time of year, but especially in fall. 

Just north of town, off the Echo Trail, YMCA Camp du Nord offers an Autumn Adventures Family Camp Oct. 17-20, with guided hikes and paddles, nature programs, campfires, family saunas and arts and crafts; a Halloween-theme Camp Boo Nord Oct. 24-27; and a du Thanks Family Camp Nov. 27-Dec. 1.

There are 21 heated cabins, some with gas fireplaces, in three villages. Some are rustic, but most are quite luxurious. 

Douglas Lodge at Itasca State Park.

© Beth Gauper

In Itasca State Park, the Douglas Lodge offers a few inexpensive rooms.

Rates depend on size of cabin; 16 people sharing Thor's Cabin pay $78 apiece, and seven people sharing Jack's Cabin pay $99 apiece. Reserve early to get your choice of cabins, 612-465-0568.

A roof in a Minnesota state park

In fall, many leaf-peepers flock to the state parks, because thatís where the color is.

In Minnesota, thatís where the action is, too. Pick out one of the many naturalist programs, then stay right in the park for the weekend, in a camper cabin.

In Itasca State Park, the Autumn Harvest Festival Sept. 28 includes guided lantern-lit hikes with legendary characters, childrenís activities, campfires and music.

Stay in the Douglas Lodge, where guest rooms with shared baths are $85.

Or stay for even less at the Mississippi Headwaters Hostel, a short walk from the headwaters. Cost is $25 per person in a dorm room, $81-$121 for four to six people in a private room.

For more, see The people's park.

In Whitewater State Park in bluff country, naturalists offer many fall programs, including bird-banding, history tours, photography, fly fishing, fossil field trips and a bluegrass jam. Stay in the park's camper cabin, $60-$70, or group-camp cabins.

For more about state-park camper cabins in other states, see A roof in the woods.

Yurts and cabins in the Porkies

Fall is the best time to visit gorgeous Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, along Lake Superior in Michiganís Upper Peninsula Ė it has 100 miles of hiking trails, spectacular fall color in the largest stand of virgin hardwood forest east of the Mississippi, and no bugs.

The mini-cabin at Leelanau State Park.

© Beth Gauper

The Evergreen mini-cabin at Leelanau State Park is in the middle of cedar forest.

Stay in one of 19 wood-heated rustic cabins and four yurts, $68. 

In the cabins, you'll have plenty of privacy, but they're not for sissies: Seven are within a mile of a trailhead, and one is handicapped-accessible, but others require a hike of up to four miles.

Cabins on Mirror Lake, Lily Pond and Lake of the Clouds include boats.

Two of the yurts are right on Lake Superior off the campground, and two can be reached only by trail. They don't have electricity or running water. 

For more, see Afoot in the Porkies.

A football weekend in Madison

The golf chalet at Fort Ridgely.

© Beth Gauper

Two practice greens form the front yard of Fort Ridgely's golf chalet guesthouse.

In this lively college town, the air is electric on fall weekends when the Badgers play a home game. In fact, youíll get a shock just looking at hotel rates.

One way to get around high hotel costs but still be in the middle of all the action is to stay at the Hostelling International Madison hostel, two blocks from Capitol Square. It's not for Marriott types, but adventurous travelers will find it fun.

The house has 31 beds in smaller rooms, including five private rooms that sleep two to five people in a mix of full and twin beds.

Cost is $29-$37 per person in a dorm room, $71-$88 for two in a private room, including continental breakfast.

For more, see At home in a hostel and other Madison stories.

History along the Minnesota River

Stay in Fort Ridgely State Park, and you can visit historic sites and stay in a chalet for less than $100 per person.

The ropes course at Eagle Bluff near Lanesboro.

© Beth Gauper

Guests at Eagle Bluff near Lanesboro navigate the high ropes course.

The park rents out its former golf chalet for $80, and it sleeps up to 15, though eight would be better. It has a kitchen, but no beds. Fort Ridgely Historic Site, important during the U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862, is within the park.

New Ulm is nearby. For more, see River with a past.

For more cabins and guesthouses, see Lodgings in Minnesota state parks.

Fall color in waterfall country

In northeast Wisconsin, an hour east of Eagle River and 20 minutes west of Florence, Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest rents eight Lost Lake Cabins at Lost Lake Campground.

The cabins sleep six in three bunk beds, and bathrooms and showers are in two central buildings. They rent for $40 weekdays, $45 weekends, and they're open from mid-May to mid-October. Reserve at Recreation.Gov.

For more, see Waterfalls of northeast Wisconsin.

Trail clearing on the Superior Hiking Trail.

© Beth Gauper

Volunteers maintain Minnesota's Superior Hiking Trail.

A cabin in a Lake Michigan park

In fall, it's not as hard to get one of Michigan's many cabins in state parks, 15 of them on Lake Michigan. Most mini-cabins that sleep four are $49-$52, most rustic cabins that sleep two to five are $65-$68, and most camper cabins that sleep six are $86-$90.

For more, see Michigan's great lake cabins.

A deal on an indoor water park

In late October, rates drop precipitously at indoor water parks and stay low until the holidays.

Check resort hot deals and specials. The best are for midweek stays at water parks outside the Wisconsin Dells. But even resorts in the Dells offer stays for $99 or less, especially Chula Vista.

Some smaller resorts and motels include passes with a stay, such as Ambers Hideaway, which offers Kalahari passes.

The Dell Creek Motel and the wooded Birchcliff Resort near the river also offer packages worth checking.

For more, see Fall in the Dells and Making waves.

For more about water parks in other places, see Water, water, everywhere.

Boats on Winona's backwaters.

© Beth Gauper

Boats putter through Winona's backwaters.

Trail clearing in Minnesota

Hereís a weekend trip that pays you. The Twin Cities-based North Star Ski Touring Club is the largest cross-country club in North America and helped blaze many of the state's best ski trails. It holds several trips every fall to clear them for winter, and it reimburses participants for gas money.

Typically, workers put in six to eight hours on Saturdays and four hours on Sunday.

Lodging and meals are provided by the host resorts or organizations, typically Camp du Nord near Ely, the Gunflint Lodge, Banadad Trail and resorts on the North Shore.

It's a good way to meet people, too. Sign up early for the best slots.

For more about groups, see Join the club.

Bicycling the Root River State Trail

In the southeast corner of Minnesota, the Root River State Trail and town of Lanesboro are a favorite fall destination.

Gitchi-Gami Trail near Gooseberry Falls.

© Beth Gauper

Bicyclists ride the Gitchi-Gami Trail on Minnesota's North Shore.

Pitch a tent for $20 right downtown, in Sylvan Park or in the Riverview Campground, or park a camper for $30. Hot showers are $1 at the adjoining Community Center, and you can pick up pastries from local Amish families at the Saturday farmers market.

In September, attend Taste of the Trail festivitiesSept. 7 between Lanesboro and Peterson; Sept. 14 in Harmony and Preston; and Sept. 21 between Rushford and Houston.

For more about riding the Root River, see Bicycling in bluff country.

For more about the area in fall, see Bluff-country byways.

Outdoors in Ironwood

Michiganís Upper Peninsula is mostly national forest, which means itís a great place to see fall color Ė perhaps the best in the region.

Use Ironwood as a base, staying at Wolverine Village, built mainly for cross-country skiers but open year-round. Cabins for three cost $85; cabins for 12 are $225.

From there, explore the waterfalls along the Black River north of Bessemer. Nearby, take in the incredible view from the top of Copper Peak, the only ski-flying hill in the Western Hemisphere.

Ride a chairlift to the crest of the hill, then take an 18-story elevator to the top of the jump, $20, $8 for children 14 and under.

To the south, seek out the waterfalls in Wisconsinís Marinette County.

Bucky the Badger at the State Capitol.

© Beth Gauper

On football weekends, Madison is packed.

Reliving historic fires on a Minnesota state trail

In eastern Minnesota, people zooming up Interstate 35 to the North Shore usually bypass Banning State Park.

But the park, set along the Kettle River near Sandstone, is one of Minnesota's most beautiful. And the 75-mile Willard Munger State Trail, which connects Hinckley and Duluth, is one of the state's best.

The trail, once a train line, figured prominently in two of Minnesota's worst tragedies, the 1894 Hinckley Fire, which incinerated Hinckley and Sandstone, and the Fires of 1918, which destroyed Kettle River and Moose Lake along the trail, as well as Cloquet. 

Museums in Hinckley and Moose Lake tell the gripping stories. For more, see The Fire Ride.

A good base to explore the trail is the rustic camper cabin at Banning State Park, which sleeps five, $55-$65.

Hanging the mistletoe at a Victorian B&B in Milwaukee

On Nov. 8-10, stay two free nights at the imposing Schuster Mansion B&B in Milwaukee in exchange for help decorating for the holidays. However, it "sells out'' very early.

More ideas

In big cities where hotels cater to conventions and business travelers, rates fall precipitously on holidays, including Labor Day weekend. For more, see Cheap Chicago.

Fall is the best time to ride a bicycle trail; temperatures have cooled down, and the wildflowers are blooming. See Bicycling stories.

It's also much easier to find a camping spot in a popular place. See Camping stories.

Minnesota rents several modern guest houses that are very affordable for groups. For more, see Lodgings in Minnesota state parks.

Group travel can be extremely cheap, with everyone sharing expenses. To find out about other inexpensive places for groups to stay, see Cabins for a crowd.

Last updated on August 20, 2019