MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

National parks & wilderness

Land of big water

On Minnesota's vast Rainy Lake, a little horsepower is a good thing to have.

At the top of Minnesota, there's a spectacular national park — half water and all scenery.

Not only is it beautiful, but it's also the only national park Minnesota has, which you'd think would impress most people. But not, apparently, some of the locals.

My husband and I found that out two minutes after we'd arrived on Rainy Lake and were chatting with the friendly young woman checking us into our B&B.

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Michigan's Pictured Rocks

There's a lot of scenery crammed into one stretch of Lake Superior around Munising.

Along Michigan's Pictured Rocks, there's no such thing as a bad view.

White sandstone cliffs line nearly 40 miles of national lakeshore, the nation's first when it was created in 1966. Named for the colorful swishes and whorls painted by mineral-laden water oozing through cracks, Pictured Rocks draws tourists from around the world.

This part of Michigan is inconveniently distant for tourists from big cities: Detroit is closer to Charleston, W.V., than Munising.

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Adventure on the Gunflint Trail

For outdoorsy folks, this Minnesota wilderness is a year-round playground.

In the 1920s, when the first resorts appeared along this remote, 57-mile highway that dead-ends near the Canadian border, guests had to have a certain sense of adventure.

The Gunflint Trail first was blazed by the Ojibwe, then used by fur traders, trappers and loggers. It was still a zigzagging roller-coaster through the woods when vacationers began to come.

The first visitors in spring often had to patch the single phone line, which moose tended to snag and drag. Gasoline lanterns in their cabins often became plugged, and bears sometimes made appearances near cabins.

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Exploring Isle Royale

Famous for its moose and wolves, this Lake Superior wilderness island is beguiling.

When it rains on Isle Royale, you just have to soak it up.

Moisture comes with the territory in Lake Superior's northern reaches. No one comes here for the weather, despite early advertising that called it a "Summertime 'Bermuda' Paradise."

Bermuda it's not. But paradise? It depends on how you look at it.

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Minnesota's Boundary Waters

For canoeists, this vast wilderness is the promised land.

Along Minnesota's northern border with Canada, more than 200,000 people a year find an increasingly rare commodity — absolute wilderness.

The million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is barely changed since voyageurs used its chain of lakes and rivers to push deep into the continent's interior.

Today, the foot trails over which they carried canoes and 180-pound packs are used by vacationers, who wind their way from lake to lake in search of the perfect combination of woods, water and solitude.

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Tranquility in the Turtle-Flambeau

Near the northeast Wisconsin town of Mercer, paddling is as wild as you want it to be.

In the northeast corner of Wisconsin, a vast, amoeba-shaped body of water spreads over 37,000 acres of state-owned land.

Rivers run through it, the Turtle and the Flambeau. They were dammed to create a flowage in 1926, and today it's a state scenic waters area, designated for boating, fishing and camping.

Hundreds of islands and secluded bays provide habitat for bald eagles, osprey and loons, who outnumber the paddlers who pull up to rustic campsites.

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Dreaming of Ely

The wilderness around this Minnesota town exerts a magnetic pull on city folk.

In Ely, one picture is worth a thousand tourists.

Who could ignore the call of its photogenic expanses of sky-blue water and rocky islands amid spruce forest? Who isn't drawn to a shimmering image of the northern lights, or of a moose and calf browsing in a patch of wild calla lilies?

To see Ely is to want to be there, enveloped by tranquility.

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Kayaking the Apostles

The wild 21-island archipelago around Wisconsin's Bayfield Peninsula is the preserve of paddlers.

The sky was clear, the wind was still and Lake Superior was as placid as a lily pond.

It was a miracle that wouldn't last. 

That's why it was torture for the dozen of us to sit through a long kayak safety course on the sandy beach of Bayfield, Wis., forming a ''human knot'' to foster cooperation in case of disaster and listening to trip leader Hovas Schall's horror stories about the big, mercurial lake.

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Road trip: Southwest Minnesota

In the middle of the prairie, blood-red rock splits the sod, holding meaning far beyond the picturesque.

In the southwest corner of the state, the prairie hardly looks like typical Minnesota vacation land.

Instead of lakes, fractured red quartzite erupts from the earth, and wind towers pop up on the horizon like giant black daisies. Herds of bison graze in fields, and yellow blooms cover prickly pear cactus.

This was the spiritual center of the universe for indigenous people on the prairie, and it exerts a pull on others, too.

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Trying out the Border Route

On eight great day hikes, get a taste of this 65-mile trail through Minnesota's canoe country.

In Minnesota canoe country, hikers get serious bragging rights by backpacking the Border Route Trail.

This 65-mile trail roughly parallels the Ontario border, mostly through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The volunteers who maintain it can't use mechanized tools there, and signs aren't allowed.

Navigation isn't easy, and hikers frequently have to dodge blown-down trees.

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Volunteer vacations

Sign up to work in a lighthouse, study wolves or join the fur trade.

Around Lake Superior, you have to act fast to reserve a vacation mowing lawns or combing the ground for bones.

It may not sound glamorous, but the lawns are at lighthouses, and the moose bones are in the backcountry of Isle Royale National Park, where volunteers may be tutored by famous Wolf-Moose Project researchers Rolf Peterson and John Vucetich.

You may not get to take a lot of hot showers, but oh, the stories you’ll tell.

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