MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest


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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Quiet time on Minnesota's North Shore

Late fall is marked by stark beauty, cheaper stays and the gales of November.

The skies were leaden and forbidding as Lake Superior slid into view and we descended into Duluth. The wind mauled our hair as we stood alongside the harbor canal, waving to the crew of the Sea Pearl II as it pushed toward Malta with a load of grain.

Driving up the shore, we listened to taped stories of shipwrecks: The sidewheeler Lotta Bernard, pummeled into pieces off Gooseberry Falls on Oct. 29, 1874.

The steamer Edenborn, hurled into the mouth of Split Rock River and broken in two on Nov. 28, 1905. The Lafayette, pulverized against a cliff near Encampment Island on the same day.

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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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30 classic fall hikes

For autumn scenery, these beautiful trails are the best of the best.

An autumn Saturday dawns, sunny and mild. It’s a perfect day for hiking — but where?

This time of year, you could walk down the street and see something nice.

But if you're looking for the kind of hike that makes you marvel at nature and feel glad to be alive, you'll probably have to look a little farther afield.

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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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Hiking in Duluth

The city sections of the Superior Hiking Trail are easy to reach and amazingly scenic.

To many people, it's still a revelation that Duluth is one of the best places to hike, not just in Minnesota but in the nation.

It's a city of 86,000, after all. But this hillside town, once called the San Francisco of the North, has spectacular terrain for trails, along glacial beach terraces high above Lake Superior and on creeks that tumble down rocky ravines.

Many hikers blow through Duluth on their way to sections of the Superior Hiking Trail farther up the North Shore. But the 43 miles that cross Duluth provide the most concentrated scenery on the entire trail, lake views and waterfalls included.

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Walking in Duluth

Trails along creeks, ravines and bays provide stellar hiking in the heart of town.

A few steps into the forest, and it hit.

The tang of cedar bark and pine needles, moistened by droplets of mist from waterfalls. The loamy richness of earth carpeted by ferns.

It was that north-woods perfume all Minnesotans instantly recognize, a powerful eau de outdoors that gladdened my heart and also made it sink with the realization that I'd stayed in the city far, far too long.

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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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Trekking the Superior Hiking Trail

You can backpack, day hike, stay in lodges or go with a group on Minnesota's premier path.

To a novice, Minnesota's Superior Hiking Trail presents a bewilderment of possibilities.

There are 310 miles of trail between Jay Cooke State Park near Duluth and the Canadian border. Some are in the city, some deep in forest. Many stretches include spectacular views of Lake Superior, but others (gasp!) are a little boring.

People come from all over the nation to hike this beloved trail, and some take three or four weeks and do the whole thing. But there are many ways to hike the trail.

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How to prevent Lyme disease

The bite of a deer tick can cause major headaches, and more.

In the woods, the first ticks appear as soon as snow starts to melt, and they're out en masse when warmer weather arrives in April and May.

Regular ticks are bad enough, scuttling into hidden niches on the human body and gorging themselves on blood. But their ick factor pales next to the danger posed by black-legged ticks, which can transmit Lyme and other diseases.

Black-legged ticks, also known as deer ticks, need to be attached to the skin for 24 to 36 hours to transmit the disease. Even then, it’s usually treated easily if caught promptly.

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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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10 great bog walks

In early summer, find out what's blooming under the boardwalk.

In nature, bogs are the coral reefs of the north woods.

They're wet, spongy and seething with life that's often too small to see unless you look closely. Lean over the boardwalk, and you'll get a better view of sparkly goldthread or the lacy needles of baby tamarack.

But looks can be deceiving in a bog. Flowers that seem delicate are relentless predators, attracting flies to patterned red leaves that resemble engorged arteries, then drowning and digesting them.

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20 great spring hikes

The scenery along these lovely trails will put a spring in your step.

What's so great about hiking in spring? That's easy – there's so much to see.

Move your feet in any direction and you'll run across wildflowers, waterfalls and, best of all, sweeping views that last only until the trees leaf out.

Head out before summer makes its brash appearance, with walls of greenery and fleets of bugs.

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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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Tracing the Ice Age Trail

In north-central Wisconsin, a slow-moving monolith left a playground for weekend wanderers.

When the last glacier melted out of Wisconsin, it left a gift to future generations.

It wasn't much at first — boulders, heaps of gravel, water, chunks of ice trapped under rubble.

But over time, the ice seeped away and created kettle lakes for fishermen. The raging meltwater stripped away softer rock, leaving walls of volcanic rock for climbers and scenic river gorges for canoeists.

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Hiking Minnesota's North Shore

Soak up the scenery above Lake Superior with one of these great day hikes.

It took me nearly 20 years of hiking on the North Shore to tackle Eagle Mountain.

It’s the highest point in Minnesota, but it’s not exactly on the shore; it’s 14 miles inland, as the crow flies. I was used to tramping along the rocky river gorges whose horehound-tinted waters rivers boil furiously down to Lake Superior; I was used to drama.

But the 3½-mile hike up 2,301-foot Eagle Mountain was just as dramatic. The path, a root-choked corridor through cedars and spruce, soon enters the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

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Don't be a dope in the woods

Even if you feel at home in the outdoors, a mistake can be disastrous.

In the pandemic year of 2020, everyone wants to spend time outside.

Which is great, unless you're inexperienced and in a remote or unfamiliar place.

In the northwestern corner of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park was packed with visitors all summer, and many weren't prepared — in the 10 weeks before Labor Day, rangers had to answer 30 search-and-rescue calls, as compared to only six in all of 2019.

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King of the hill

With a huff and a puff, hikers earn a view of fall colors.

When it comes to hiking, we all like to be on top.

There's nothing like a great view, especially in fall. Climbing until we're eye level with birds and caressed by breezes, watching the land roll away into the horizon, we feel as if we're on top of the world.

Even military officers and scientists turn into poets when faced with a beautiful view, such as those at Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in the Upper Peninsula.

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Trek to Timm's Hill

The highest point in Wisconsin is the gateway to a forest full of trails.

Even if it weren’t official, Timm’s Hill would be the high point of any Wisconsin hiking trip.

Timm’s Hill, a big pile of rock and gravel deposited by the last glacier, is Wisconsin’s highest point at 1,952 feet above sea level. I went hiking there expecting, well, a big pile with a nice view.

Which it was. It also turned out to be in the middle of an intriguing pocket of forest, settled by Swedes, Finns and Germans stubborn enough to handle the rocks sprinkled over the hills like salt on a pretzel.

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5 great hikes in Minneapolis

See the best of this beautiful city on these short but sweet walks.

When you're a tourist, you don't always want to get "off the beaten path.''

We visited Portland for the first time one Labor Day, and all we knew is that it's an outdoorsy town. So we were looking for a nice hike in Forest Park, one of the nation's largest municipal forests with 80 miles of hiking trails.

Wow! Except we only needed four or five of those miles. Surely, we thought, there's a "best hike'' that all the locals know about. Nope — our guidebook, maps and the local hikers forum were useless.

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Walk 'n' roll

Thanks to the Gitchi-Gami, you can hike one-way on Minnesota's North Shore and bike back.

Going hiking on the Superior Hiking Trail? You'll want to pack sturdy boots, thick socks, water bottles, maps and rain gear.

Oh, and don't forget the bikes.

There's a bicycle trail on the North Shore, a nice flat one. It's the paved Gitchi-Gami State Trail, with a 14-mile stretch that links Gooseberry Falls to Split Rock State Park and Beaver Bay and a 10½-mile stretch that links Schroeder to Temperance River State Park, Tofte and Lutsen.

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Peak experiences

For people who collect high points, nothing but a hike to the top will do.

The expedition began on a beautiful fall morning. I got in the car, drove a few miles over the Wisconsin border and followed country roads to a gate, where a gravel lane led to a farmhouse.

I parked, walked up an oak-lined path and, just like that, was atop the highest point in Illinois.

Charles Mound, at 1,235 feet above sea level, was a nice place to be. Near the U.S. Geological Survey benchmark, its thoughtful owners had placed two lawn chairs, facing a golden, hazy countryside dotted with silos.

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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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Birding with the pros

In spring, a symphony of trills and chirps draws hikers into the woods.

In April, birds return to the woods.

They're easy to hear, but not to see. Unlike spring wildflowers, birds don't stay put.

A flash of yellow likely is a warbler, but which kind — chestnut-sided, Blackburnian, magnolia, Wilson's? And those tweets, twitters and trills —  who's making them?

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Goin' on a treasure hunt

We jump on the geocaching bandwagon and get hooked.

If ever there was a game for our times, it's geocaching.

Why worry about the lost billions on Wall Street when there's treasure everywhere, under fallen logs, in the crooks of trees, on the girders of bridges? Why think about the future when you can be out in the woods channeling Long John Silver, Indiana Jones and the Hardy Boys?

Anyone who enjoyed childhood will like this modern-day party game, enabled by a Tom Swiftian gadget that flashes numbers beamed out of the sky.

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Hikes with benefits

For exercise as well as edification, tag along with an expert.

Out in the forest, solitude can be overrated.

Occasionally, we all need silence. But you may have more fun if you play follow the leader.

When I go on a hike, especially if I don't know the area well, I like to tag along with naturalists. Thanks to them, I've learned all kinds of interesting things.

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