For some people, Interstate 35 may as well be a pneumatic tube linking the Twin Cities to Duluth and the North Shore.
But those willing to stop and get off the beaten track are rewarded.
In four state parks, skiers, snowshoers and snowmobilers glide along miles of trails on the St. Croix, Kettle and St. Louis rivers, once plied by lumberjacks and quarrymen.
If you do only one thing outdoors in winter, do it by candlelight.
is more magical than a forest full of flickering lights. I got hooked
when I skied in Minnesota's Mille Lacs Kathio State
A fat blue moon hung in the sky, sparkling hoarfrost made twigs as nubby as reindeer antlers and more than 400 glowing bags gave the forest a fairy-tale aura.
In Minnesota's early days, creating a park was no picnic.
As the public admired the towering pines around Lake Itasca, loggers dreamed of the miles of board feet they could produce.
"No measure was ever more unreasonably harassed and opposed," wrote park founder Jacob Brower. But in 1891, the Legislature gave the people their first state park by one vote.
In one 19-mile stretch of Minnesota's North Shore, Nature presents a one-two-three punch of incomparable beauty.
Just half an hour north of Duluth, Gooseberry Falls State Park presents an eye-popping spectacle of waterfalls, lumpy beds of ancient lava and twisted cedar clinging to rock outcroppings.
Six miles farther, Split Rock Lighthouse sits picturesquely on its cliff, a tourist attraction since 1924, when people could get to it on the newly completed Minnesota 61.
In the middle of Minnesota's Wild River State Park, a skis length from 35 miles of groomed trails and a 10-minute trek from the St. Croix River, sits a cozy little house surrounded by forest.
For one winter night, the two-bedroom, carpeted house, a private residence built not long before the park was established in 1978, belonged to me and my children.
We arrived at dusk, and my children swarmed over it as only children can do, giving a running commentary: "Boy, this is a nice cabin, said my son Peter. "Wow, a nice shower. Isnt this great? And oh, look he peered out the window at a big thermometer "you can tell the temperature.
In winter, only the most dedicated pilgrims make the trip to Itasca, Minnesota's most revered state park.
Yet the park is beautiful without its forest canopy. It's easy to see its bones, the lumpy quilt of knobs and kettles laid down by retreating glaciers.
It's easy to see the 300-year-old pines that escaped loggers. And it's easier to listen to the sassy chatter of a squirrel, the prehistoric croak of a crow, the rat-a-tat of a woodpecker.
In Bear Head Lake State Park near Ely, there are three places to spend the night: a tent, one of five rustic camper cabins and a modern split-level.
On a subzero day in winter, one is better than the others.
Minnesota's state parks are sprinkled with guesthouses and cabins that can be rented. Some are marvelously atmospheric, such as the log cabins built in Itasca for the tourist trade.
If you don't have a cabin of your own, Minnesota has one you can borrow.
Some really are cabins, but others are houses, complete with two-car garages, like the one at Bear Head Lake State Park, previously occupied by the park manager. Some were private houses that have been renovated, like the Illgen Falls Cabin in Tettegouche State Park.
There's something for everyone in Itasca State Park: rooms in a historic lodge, classic cabins, motel-style rooms and new suites with computer access. It doesn't have camper cabins, but you'll find those at 22 other Minnesota state parks.
For people who love the outdoors, luxury is in the eye of the beholder.
Is it a Jacuzzi or a latrine? A four-course breakfast or a fire ring?
The answer is not so obvious. If the choice also includes starry skies, silence and snow-laden pines, many folks would take a camper cabin over a fancy inn, even if they have to use vault toilets and cook over a fire.
In Wisconsin, the American dream came true for a penniless boy from Iceland and the rest of us made out pretty well, too.
In 1873, 5-year-old Hjörtur Thordarson traveled with his family from Iceland to Milwaukee, where his father soon died of typhoid fever.
The youngster's schooling stopped in second grade as the family moved to farms in Wisconsin and North Dakota, then resumed when the boy called Chester joined his married sister in Chicago and, at age 18, entered the fourth grade.
On the far end of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park always rewards those who make the effort to get there.
When 12 of us did, steering through a blizzard in cars heaped with snowshoes and skis, our prize was even more snow falling every day from the sky, swirling in stiff winds and piled high on the earth.
Luckily, we retain a child-like love of the white stuff. So we had ourselves a snowpalooza, gliding through snow-draped forests, making snow angels and taking countless photos of snow mushrooms, snow arches and snow slabs on Lake Superior.
Just up north, theres a vast wilderness of lakes, virgin forest and wild rivers lined by waterfalls and rapids.
It isnt like other north-woods forests not as they are in this century, anyway. Its a wilderness unto itself, and though its no farther than the state parks farther up Minnesotas North Shore, it seems a world away.
It feels a world away, too.
In Wisconsin, a bunch of rocks sets hearts aflutter.
They enchant geologists, of course, but also scuba divers, rock climbers and botanists. The rest of us, too hikers, birders, campers, Boy Scouts.
We all go to give Devil's Lake its due.
Under the cornstalks of Fillmore County, an unusual sculpture garden sits in shadow.
Stalagmite topiaries line walkways, alongside pale-green flowstone as translucent as Chinese jade. Stalactite statuettes dangle in artistic arrays.
Theyre obviously created by a Pollock of rock, a Van Gogh of stone. Yet their genius relies not on the medium water, applied one drop at a time but on eons worth of time.
On the northwest corner of Lake Superior, a 1,000-foot-high sleeping giant stretches across the horizon.
Its mesmerized onlookers for millennia. In 2007, Canadian Broadcasting Corp. listeners voted it No. 1 of Seven Wonders of Canada, far outpolling Niagara Falls.
From Hillcrest Park in Thunder Bay, it looks exactly like a cigar-store Indian, with a square jaw and arms folded over a powerful chest.
In the good old days, the only plant people had to watch out for was poison ivy.
Now, there's wild parsnip, the evil sister of Queen Anne's lace. A native of Europe and Asia, it has spread like wildfire across the Upper Midwest, and fire is what it feels like on exposed skin.
"Most people get a nasty, nasty rash from it," says Karla Bloem, naturalist and director of Houston Nature Center in southeast Minnesota. "It's not like nettles or poison ivy; this is like a chemical burn. If you get it bad enough, it can scar you for life."
On a summer day in Holland, Mich., all roads lead to the beach.
When we were there one June, people streamed toward this broad swath of sand until the sun fell low on the horizon, making the fire-engine-red harbor beacon glow like an ember. They ate ice cream, they strolled on the breakwall, they took a last dip in Lake Michigan.
But at 10 p.m. sharp, a police cruiser started flashing its red lights to shepherd everyone out of the park.
The second weekend in June is a good time to try something new in Minnesota.
Many parks are holding special events, such as archery, bird and flower hikes and raptor programs.
If you don't spend at least part of the first two weekends in June outdoors, you'll be missing the boat.
Especially in Wisconsin, where June 4-5 is Free Fishing Weekend, and Michigan, where June 11-12 is Free Fishing Weekend. In Minnesota, June 10-12 is Take a Kid Fishing Weekend.
On June 4-5, Wisconsin state parks celebrate National Trails Day by offering free admission especially nice for non-residents, who now pay $11 for a daily pass.
In the land of 10,000 lakes, prairie often is dismissed as, well, dull.
But in the farthest corner of Minnesota, a dramatic patch of terrain offers more spectacle than an Imax show.
I stood atop Blue Mounds one afternoon in June, watching as bolts of lightening rocketed earthward from a leaden, wraparound sky.
No summer vacation is more fun than a Circle Tour of one of the Great Lakes and nothing is more of a pain than planning one.
Fans of sand and sun love Lake Michigan, which is lined by state and city parks with gorgeous stretches of sand and dunes. You cant buy a better beach vacation at any price, but you have to plan ahead.
Planning is tricky because you pass through four states, 30 state parks and two big metropolitan areas, each of which floods beaches with hordes of sun-worshippers on weekends.
In May, there's no better place to be than a park in the bluffs of southeast Minnesota.
Of course, May is beautiful everywhere. But Whitewater State Park has the best array of spring wildflowers, the best morel-mushroom hunting and the best trout fishing or if it's not the best, at least there's none better.
"I wish we could have a year of Mays,'' longtime naturalist Dave Palmquist always says.
In its marshes and woods, John Muir first discovered the joys of wilderness. On its sandy plains, Aldo Leopold became a pioneer of land stewardship. On its meadows, two young ornithologists created a haven for cranes.
The natural world found some of its greatest allies on a swath of rolling, glaciated land in south-central Wisconsin. Muir went on to found the Sierra Club and is known as a father of Americas national parks.
Leopold inspired legions with such books as A Sand County Almanac. George Archibald and Ron Sauey founded the International Crane Foundation.
What a way to spend a weekend: hiking up and down ravines, clambering on rock, admiring views of water from ridgelines.
Its like hiking on the North Shore, my husband said.
But it wasnt Lake Superiors North Shore. It was Iowa. And everyone knows Iowa is one big, flat cornfield.
See the FUDGE sign in blinking white lights. See the plane tail protruding from the faux-ruin façade of Ripleys Believe It or Not. See the Wax World of the Stars, the Dungeon of Horrors, the Trojan Horse . . .
Yes, its Wisconsin Dells. But its not the only Wisconsin Dells.
Tourists always have been part of the scenery in this picturesque part of Wisconsin. The first settler was a printer and publisher, and one of the first residents was a young carpenter who crippled his right hand in the Civil War and became a photographer.
Were at the end of the Ice Age, at the edge of an endless mound of blue ice whose vast, super-cold surface has sent 200-mph winds whipping into Wisconsin.
The winds can strip the flesh off a face in 30 seconds, so the local mammoth hunters have gone south for the winter.
Now the hunters are back, standing at the edge of a milky-white, 70-mile-long lake made by melting ice.
Like many places, Starved Rock State Park has a name whose origin is lost in the mists of time.
Supposedly, the Potawatomi and Ottawa trapped a band of Illini on a 125-foot butte along the Illinois River. However, anyone whos actually climbed up Starved Rock and millions of tourists have can see that no one could defend it long enough to starve.
Its like Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, says Kathy Higdon of the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center across the river. Its a legend, like the Lovers Leaps we've got all over the place.
If youve ever walked in Wisconsin, chances are youve walked on the edge of a glacier.
The ice is gone, but not the rubble it pushed across the landscape, or the rock its melting waters carved. As the last glacier retreated, it left a path that geologists can follow as easily as yellow lines on a highway.
That path now is the 1,100-mile Ice Age National Scenic Trail, with 620 miles marked, usually by yellow rectangles tacked to trees. Its easy to follow in the forest, but many of the most spectacular spots are right along highways.
Tent camping is the best deal in travel. You can go at the last minute, you get the most scenic locations and you pay hardly anything.
It's too bad about all that stuff you have to bring along.
Some super-organized people love to pack gear and have most of it ready to go after the last camping trip. But most of us aren't that kind of person.
When you stay in a state park, you can't expect a lot of nightlife.
Unless you count all of the stars. And the candlelight skiing. And the hot-cocoa cocktails.
There's a lot to do in a state park, night and day. When friends and I rented a guesthouse in St. Croix State Park, we became part of an exclusive club people who get to stay in relative luxury while being right in the middle of the action.
One spring, I hit the nature-lover's jackpot, almost without trying.
Exploring a septet of Minnesota's scientific and natural areas, or SNAs, I found more pasque flowers in bloom than I'd ever expected to see in a lifetime.
I saw a panorama of the Mississippi as the Dakota would have seen it 200 years ago. I walked under the budding canopies of old-growth forests and listened to choruses of courting frogs.
As Will Rogers famously said, the trouble with land is they're not making any more of it.
In the north woods, land previously used by the public for hunting and hiking and by birds and animals for habitat is disappearing fast. When it's gone, it's gone, and the public has that much less land to enjoy and around here, we love our open spaces.
In Minnesota and Wisconsin, we think we have a lot of public space. But much of the undeveloped land adjoining state and national forests and parks is privately owned.
Only a days drive to the south lies a world as old as the glacier-cut north woods are new.
Here, in the foothills of a worn-down mountain range, elephantine boulders stand in herds. In riverbeds, billion-year-old slabs are as slippery smooth as clay just pressed by a toddlers thumb. Springs pop out of the Earths depths, shimmering as blue-green as the Caribbean.
This is what a volcanic landscape looks like after 1.5 billion years of continual erosion: very rocky and very rolling. Theres rarely enough topsoil to till, and locals eke out a simple living.