MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

State parks & natural areas

White gold in the Porkies

In the Upper Peninsula, a wilderness park rewards those who love snow.

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.

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Ski or snowshoe by candlelight

On a cold winter's night, follow the twinkling lights.

If you do only one thing outdoors in winter, do it by candlelight.

Nothing is more magical than a forest full of flickering lights. I got hooked when I skied in Minnesota's Mille Lacs Kathio State Park.

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.

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Greatest hits of the Ice Age

In Wisconsin, the best walking trails are gifts from the glaciers.

If you’ve ever walked in Wisconsin, chances are you’ve 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. It’s easy to follow in the forest, but many of the most spectacular spots are right along highways.

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Lodgings in Minnesota state parks

Surrounded by nature, a lucky few sleep in relative luxury.

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.

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In the shadow of the Giant

In a provincial park wrapped by Lake Superior, campers exult in beauty.

On the northwest corner of Lake Superior, a 1,000-foot-high sleeping giant stretches across the horizon.

It’s 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.

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Michigan's great lake cabins

In the only state that borders three Great Lakes, the best places to stay are in state parks.

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.

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Free days in Minnesota and Michigan state parks

On the second weekend of June, everyone is invited for a day of fishing, hiking and trail riding.

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

On June 12 in 2021, admission to all Minnesota state parks is free.

Check for naturalist-led events. This year, they included guided nature hikes in many parks as well as programs on fossils, falcons and frogs.

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Free time in state parks

On the first two weekends of June, check out a new park, trail or fishing hole at no cost.

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 5-6 in 2021 is Free Fishing Weekend. In Michigan, June 12-13 is Free Fishing Weekend, and in Minnesota, there's free fishing for kids June 11-13.

On June 5-6, Wisconsin state parks celebrate National Trails Day by offering free admission — especially nice for non-residents, who pay $11-$16 for a daily pass.

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The divine Devil's Lake

In Wisconsin's Baraboo Hills, a stunning state park makes people come running.

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.

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Wisconsin's Icelandic outpost

On Lake Michigan, a pioneering inventor transformed an island.

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.

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Road trip: Wisconsin's Muir Tour

The sandy soil on the Wisconsin River is a springboard for naturalists, past and present.

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 America’s national parks. 

Leopold inspired legions with such books as “A Sand County Almanac.’’ George Archibald and Ron Sauey founded the International Crane Foundation.

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Afoot in the Porkies

On the Upper Peninsula, a splendid wilderness remains unchanged.

Just up north, there’s a vast wilderness of lakes, virgin forest and wild rivers lined by waterfalls and rapids.

It isn’t like other north-woods forests — not as they are in this century, anyway. It’s a wilderness unto itself, and though it’s no farther than the state parks farther up Minnesota’s North Shore, it seems a world away.

It feels a world away, too.

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The quiet side of the Dells

Sidestep the Strip, and you'll see an area little changed since a photographer made the world come running.

See the FUDGE sign in blinking white lights. See the plane tail protruding from the faux-ruin façade of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. See the Wax World of the Stars, the Dungeon of Horrors, the Trojan Horse . . .

Yes, it’s Wisconsin Dells. But it’s 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.

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Marvels of Starved Rock

In northern Illinois, a state park draws crowds to its forest canyons and riverside cliffs.

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 who’s actually climbed up Starved Rock — and millions of tourists have — can see that no one could defend it long enough to starve.

“It’s like Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox,’’ says Kathy Higdon of the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center across the river. “It’s a legend, like the Lover’s Leaps we've got all over the place.’’

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At SNAs, step off the beaten path

To get a piece of quiet, visit one of many state natural areas.

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.

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A roof in the woods

In state and county parks and forests, visitors love their camper cabins.

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.

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The near North Shore

From Gooseberry Falls, a single stretch of highway is packed with Nature's spectacles.

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.

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Drama on the Prairie Coteau

At Minnesota's Blue Mounds, the shifting beauty of the prairie has a showcase.

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.

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Camping around Lake Michigan

For a beach vacation on a budget, stay at cabins and campgrounds in state parks.

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 can’t 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.

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A Minnesota snow sampler

For skiing and snowshoeing, four state parks along I-35 are as up north as you need to be.

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.

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The people's park

For generations, Itasca has been a sacred spot to Minnesotans.

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.

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Staying in a state park

Don't like to camp? Cabins and guesthouses are cushy, but still in the middle of nature.

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.

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Snug on the St. Croix

In Minnesota's Wild River State Park, a guesthouse lets guests dwell in comfort amid 7,000 acres of beauty.

In the middle of Minnesota's Wild River State Park, a ski’s 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. Isn’t this great? And oh, look’’ — he peered out the window at a big thermometer — "you can tell the temperature.’’

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Minnesota's spring mecca

In May, Whitewater State Park is the place to find trout, morels and wildflowers.

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 likes to say.

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Ensconced in Ely

A guesthouse overlooking Bear Head Lake is just one of the hideaways in Minnesota state parks.

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.

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Itasca in winter

After snow flies, visitors zip around Minnesota's beloved state park on skis and snowshoes.

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.

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Minnesota's cave country

In the southeast corner of the state, scratch the surface for a glimpse of splendor.

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.

They’re 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.

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What to bring on a camping trip

Here's how to keep your packing list short but still have what you need.

Tent camping is the best deal in travel. You can go at the last minute, you get the most scenic locations and you pay a pittance.

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.

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A cabin in Iowa

Spectacular scenery lies at guests’ feet in Backbone State Park.

What a way to spend a weekend: hiking up and down ravines, clambering on rock, admiring views of water from ridgelines.

“It’s like hiking on the North Shore,’’ my husband said.

But it wasn’t Lake Superior’s North Shore. It was Iowa. And everyone knows Iowa is one big, flat cornfield.

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High drama at Devil's Lake

Rocks tell the earthshaking story of how the Baraboo Hills were created.

We’re 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.

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On the rocks in the Ozarks

In spring, southeast Missouri is heaven for hikers, paddlers and rockhounds.

Only a day's drive from Minnesota 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 toddler’s thumb. 

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Watch out for wild parsnip

This flowering weed may look pretty, but it bites.

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."

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A present to the future

Love the land? Then help preserve it for the next generation.

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.

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