MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Cheap spring getaways

Here are 20 places where a fun weekend won't break the budget.

A bicyclist pedals on the Root River State Trail.

© Beth Gauper

In spring, lilacs bloom along the Root River State Trail near Lanesboro, Minn.

After a long winter, everyone deserves a spring getaway.

On a budget? No problem. Spring is the best time to find deals, and often the weather is stellar.

Along the Mississippi in Minnesota, join a warbler weekend at a retreat center.  In northeast Iowa, go on a beginning backpacking trip. In Chicago, stay at one of three hostels during Craft Beer Week.

Think a little bit outside the box, and you'll save a ton of money. 

Here's our 2019 edition of great spring trips, most costing $100 or less per person.

For inexpensive trips year-round, see Cheap summer getaways, Cheap fall getaways and Cheap winter getaways.


Sleeping at the zoo

At the Minnesota Zoo in the Twin Cities suburb of Apple Valley, families with children ages 8 to 18 can stay overnight.

Cost of $49 includes a pizza dinner, breakfast, T-shirt and admission the next day. The group minimum is 15, but smaller groups can combine to meet it.

In spring 2019, ocean overnights are April 5 and May 18. A forest overnight is May 10, and a farm overnight is April 26.

Warbler weekend on the Mississippi

Next to Minnesota's Frontenac State Park on Lake Pepin, the Saint Paul Audubon Society hosts its annual Warbler Weekend May 10-12, with guided bird walks, camping at Hok-Si-La Park and food provided by the Kiwanis Club.

Cost is $35 for the birding programs and three meals; camping is extra.

For more about the area, see A spin around Lake Pepin.

Casting a fly in bluff country

In the bluffs east of Rochester, Whitewater State Park offers a four-part beginner's fly-fishing course in April. It's only $20, and you can stay in the park's camper cabin for $70.

Three prairie chickens courting.

© Beth Gauper

Two male prairie chickens try to impress a hen on the booming grounds.

For more about Whitewater, see Minnesota's spring mecca.

Art and bicycling around Lanesboro

In southeast Minnesota, the Bluff Country Studio Art Tour April 26-28 is a  good excuse for a spring drive on the lovely rural roads between Lanesboro and the Iowa border, where there are many Amish farms.

Stay at the Cottage House Inn, $70 through April, and bicycle the paved, 42-mile Root River State Trail for free.

For more, see The belle of bluff country.

Spring break in canoe country

Near the northern Minnesota town of Ely, YMCA Camp du Nord rents out its cabins to groups in fall, winter and spring and also offers programming on some weeks and weekends.

There are 21 heated cabins, some with gas fireplaces, in three villages. Rates depend on size of cabin; 16 people sharing Thor's Lodge pay $88 apiece, and seven people sharing Jack's II Cabin pay $109. Reserve early to get your choice of cabins.

Chores on the Gunflint

In far northeast Minnesota, do some chores while enjoying a spring weekend in the north woods.

Near the end of the Gunflint Trail, the luxurious Gunflint Lodge also offers Helping Hands Weekend April 26-28. Guests put in about five hours of work, then get the rest of the weekend off.

Cost for two nights is $159 per person, including two dinners. It's for the best available cabin, so reserve early.

The Gunflint also has wonderful cross-country skiing through March and sometimes into mid-April. For more, see Winter on Minnesota's Gunflint Trail.

Birders in spring.

© Torsten Muller

Birders watch the spring migration of songbirds.

Maple syrup, birding and bicycling

Near Sandstone and the 75-mile Willard Munger State Trail, the Audubon Center of the North Woods holds an annual pancake brunch and maple syrup program, March 23, where families can learn how to tap trees and turn sap into syrup, $15, $10 for children 5-12. Reservations are required.

Then they can spend the night in one of the environmental-learning center's lodges, $40 for a room that sleeps four adults or a family of eight.

Guests can make a weekend out of other programs, too. The lodges also can be rented by groups who want to bicycle the Munger Trail or go birding around the 535-acre campus.

For more about bicycling on the Munger Trail, see The Fire Ride.

Hunting for wildflowers and morels

May is a fantastic time to explore the bluffs on southeast Minnesota. Spring ephemerals bloom all month, and morel mushrooms pop out around Mother's Day.

Whitewater State Park, along with the state wildlife area surrounding it, is considered the best morel-hunting grounds in Minnesota. It offers morel programs May 4 and 11; stay at its heated camper cabin, $60-$70.

High Trestle Trail in Iowa.


The High Trestle Trail north of Des Moines is named for its spectacular bridge.

It's also known for carpets of marsh marigolds, false rue anemone and hepatica. It offers wildflower walks.

Carley State Park, just west of Whitewater, is known for its masses of Virginia bluebells, and it celebrates Bluebell Festival May 4 with games, wildflower walks and trout fishing for kids.

Eat inexpensively in nearby Plainview, which celebrates with a pancake supper and barbecue contest.

Beaver Creek Valley State Park, just west of Caledonia, is known for lots of trout lilies and has a heated camper cabin, $65-$70. The cabins sleep up to five people; reserve up to a year in advance online or at 866-857-2757. Reservation fee is $8.50-$10.

For more, see Chasing spring wildflowers and Searching for mushrooms.

Cabin getaway in the Twin Cities

Maypole dancers in Amana.

© Beth Gauper

Dancers circle the maypole during Maifest in Amana.

At the Baker Park Reserve Near-Wilderness Settlement in the western Minneapolis suburb of Maple Plain, groups of up to eight family or friends can rent one of eight rustic log cabins, $119-$129 per night.

Join weekend programs that include archery, geocaching and nature hikes or stay on your own. There are also five camper cabins in the reserve, $70 plus a $7.50 reservation fee, and two camper cabins in nearby Elm Creek Park Reserve in Maple Grove. 

For more, see Camping in the Twin Cities.

Sampling the outdoors on the St. Croix

Every spring, the Minnesota Rovers Outdoors Club puts on an Outdoors Extravaganza at a state park to introduce prospective members to the club. In 2019, it's May 17-19 at St. Croix State Park near Hinckley, on the St. Croix River.

Cost of $25 includes two nights of camping, Saturday supper, Sunday breakfast and guided hiking, paddling, bicycling and wildflower-hunting. 

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

For more, see Join the club.

Crosby dorm at the Audubon Center.

© Beth Gauper

At the Audubon Center of the North Woods, guests can stay at the Crosby Lodge.


Riding high in Green Bay

In Green Bay, Bay Beach Amusement Park is a perennial best bet, with its 50 cent tickets — except for the Zippin Pippin roller coaster, which is a whole $1, and the  Sea Dragon swinging Viking-ship ride, which is 75 cents.

The park is open weekends in May, and the adjoining wildlife area is popular with birders.

North of town, the NEW Zoo's Adventure Park has dueling zip lines, a ropes course and climbing walls.

Stay at the Bay Motel in Green Bay. With AAA discount, you can get a pleasant room with cable TV, WiFi and refrigerator for less than $70, and guests get a discount at the friendly motel restaurant.

For more, see Packer country.

Watching prairie chickens court

On the sand plains between Wisconsin Rapids and Stevens Point, prairie chickens conduct a goofy courtship, complete with booming and stomping, that draws bird watchers from around the region.

Cabin in Backbone State Park.

© Beth Gauper

At Iowa's Backbone State Park, family cabins overlook the lake.

Reserve a space in a blind in April and you'll get to see the whole thing. Cost is $15 per person, $10 for students.

For more, see Playing the field in Wisconsin.

Stay in Coloma at the Coloma Hotel, a restored 1876 inn where the most expensive room has a king bed, gas fireplace, cable, fridge and sofa and costs $55, including breakfast.

Bring a group and rent all nine rooms for $360.

Work day in the Blue Hills

In northwest Wisconsin, the non-profit Hunt-Hill Audubon Sanctuary near Rice Lake holds a Spring Helping Hands work day April 27. Free lodgings in dorm rooms are available Friday and Saturday night, and Saturday breakfast and lunch are provided.

The sanctuary includes two lakes and trails through bogs, meadows and old-growth forest.

Music on the Mississippi

In the Wisconsin town of Trempealeau, the 1871 Trempealeau Hotel still includes eight of the original "working-man'' rooms, $46-$60. They don't have private baths, but most have river views.

Photographing wildflowers.

© Beth Gauper

A photographer shoots marsh marigolds in Whitewater State Park.

On most Thursdays and Saturdays, and some Fridays, the hotel hosts live music, which you can listen to while drinking craft beer, eating the hotel's renowned walnut burgers and watching river traffic. And May 11, it holds its annual Reggae Fest.

The hotel also is a good base for hiking up to Brady's Bluff in adjacent Perrot State Park, paddling the 4˝-mile Long Lake Canoe Trail through the river sloughs and bicycling on the 24-mile Great River State Trail, which slices through town.

For more, see Hitting the trails in Trempealeau.

A deal on an indoor water park

During spring break, no resort with an indoor water park is a cheap getaway. Even after Easter, you'll have to work the angles to get a deal.

The best deals are for midweek stays at water parks outside the Dells. But even resorts in the Dells offer stays for $99 or less. If you have smaller kids, book at one of the smaller Dells resorts; the tourism folks list six with “medium'' water parks and six with “small” water parks.

If you only want to spend a few hours at a water park, stay at a mom and pop motel and buy a day or evening pass for a water park.

Zippin Pippin in Green Bay.

© Beth Gauper

Green Bay boasts the Zippin Pippin, a replica of Elvis Presley's favorite ride in Memphis.

Some resorts include passes to water-parks at other resorts, including the wooded Birchcliff Resort, where cabins include passes to the Chula Vista water park. Chula Vista and other resorts often offer spring deals on Groupon Getaways and LivingSocial Escapes.

For more about water parks in the Dells, see Making waves.

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

Spring in Door County

In May, come to see the lilacs and get a good deal on this Wisconsin peninsula, one of the region's most popular destinations in summer.

Door County has an especially good selection of mom-and-pops, including Julie's Park Cafe and Motel in Fish Creek, right on the road to Peninsula State Park. It opens for the season in late April, and you can get a king room for $70-$80 all the way through mid-June.

Bring your bike or rent one across the street, then ride the scenic trails in the park and look for wildflowers. There are many other high-value places to stay in Door County, too.

For more, see Where to stay in Door County.

Julie's Park Motel in Fish Creek.

© Beth Gauper

In Fish Creek, Julie's Park Motel is on the road to Peninsula State Park.


Maifest in Amana

There's always something going on in the Amana Colonies, a group of once-communal villages southwest of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Maifest festivities include the Taste of the Amanas food fair, Maypole dancing, German music and a parade May 4-5.

Stay in one of four family cabins, $50, at beautiful Palisades-Kepler State Park, just east of Cedar Rapids. They can be reserved up to a year in advance, online or at 877-427-2757. Admission to all Iowa state parks is free.

For more, see Truly Amana.

Cabins and wildflowers

Iowa state parks have a wonderful variety of cabins, and they're a bargain, but they rent by the week in summer.

Sleeping at Adler Planetarium.

© Adler Planetarium

Adler Planetarium is one of several Chicago museums that offer family overnights.

In spring, there's only a two-night minimum. One year, on Mother's Day weekend, we rented a $50 cabin with bath and kitchen in Backbone State Park, near Strawberry Point.

We hit the peak of wildflower season, hiking the trails around Backbone Lake; the park was named for knobs of rock that erupt from the middle of the trail.

It doesn't look like most people's idea of Iowa; twisted cedars grew out of fissures, and we passed huge white pines and squeezed between house-sized piles of limestone.

Cabin guests can bring pets, and entrance to Iowa state parks is free. For more, see A cabin in Iowa.

Cabins and bicycle trails

Iowa has dozens of bike trails and hundreds of cabins in county and state parks. Put them together, and you've got a cheap weekend.

The Raccoon River Valley Trail west of Des Moines is 89 miles, with a dog leg between Clive and Jefferson and a new loop that crosses the North Raccoon River in Dawson.

That's where Sportsman Park rents two cabins that sleep five and have a bathroom and kitchenette. They rent for $50 on weekdays and $70 weekends ($120 for both Friday and Saturday).

Near Adel, the three-bedroom, two-bath Glissman Lodge in Glissman Conservation Area sleeps eight and rents for $70-$100.

Check MyCountyParks for dozens of other cabins around the state.


A night in the museum

With so many world-class museums, Chicago makes a great spring-break destination.

Families can even sleep at the museums. At Shedd Aquarium, children 5 and older can be Asleep With the Fishes March 1 and 15, April 5 and 19 and May 10. Cost is $85, including dinner and breakfast. 

The Trempealeau Hotel.

© Beth Gauper

Rooms are cheap at the Trempealeau Hotel, which also offers live music.

At the Field MuseumDozin' With the Dinos is March 1, 8, 22 and 29 and April 6. Cost is $65, including a snack and breakfast.

At the Museum of Science and Industry,  Science Snoozeum overnights for children ages 6-12 are March 15 and April 5. Cost of $65 includes an Omnimax film, scavenger hunt, science toy-making, breakfast and parking.

For more, see Chicago with kids.

For more family sleepovers in four states, see Nights at the museum.

Festivals and hostels

Summer is very popular in Chicago, and it's hard to save money then.

But in spring, you can find a cheap flight and stay in a hostel for as little as $32, including breakfast.

Try the Hostelling International family hostel in the South Loop; the new Freehand Hotel/Hostel, in a former 1927 hotel in River North; or the Chicago Getaway Hostel near Lincoln Park.

Use the Divvy bike-sharing program to ride the Lakeshore Trail or get to tastings during Chicago Craft Beer Week in May.

For more, see Where to stay in Chicago and Cheap Chicago.

More ideas

To find out about inexpensive places for groups to stay, see Cabins for a crowd.

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

Michigan, Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota offer a wide variety of camper cabins in state parks. For more, see A roof in the woods.

Last updated on March 28, 2019