MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Lake towns

Summer in the Brainerd Lakes

Away from the crowds, Minnesota's busiest vacation area can be tranquil.

To hear resort owners in the north woods tell it, Brainerd is the Times Square of Minnesota.

“It’s crazy down there,’’ they say, shaking their heads. “It’s a zoo. We don’t want to be like Brainerd.’’

In Wisconsin, people talk the same way about Door County. Those places are busy, all right. They’re busy because plenty of people like that kind of atmosphere — the restaurants, the golf, the shopping, the fancy condo resorts.

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Clear Lake tranquility

In a laid-back Iowa beach town, the '50s never ended.

In Clear Lake, the spirit of the 1950s didn't die with Buddy Holly.

This northern Iowa lake town, midway between the Twin Cities and Des Moines, swells with vacationers in summer but retains the laid-back, carefree air of decades past.

On the shores of the lake, classic cars cruise around pocket-sized City Park, fuzzy pink dice dangling from mirrors. Every Saturday and Sunday, the municipal band plays in the bandshell. The Lions Club grills chicken and sweet corn, and a paddlewheeler takes tourists on cruises.

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Waupaca's Chain O' Lakes

In a historic Yankee town in central Wisconsin, visitors travel by water and by land.

In the middle of Wisconsin, the village of Rural is just far enough off the beaten path.

Founded by Yankees in the 1850s, it was the halfway point on the Stevens Point-Berlin trade route and once had a mill, an inn and a dry goods store.

But when it was bypassed by the railroad in 1870, the village eased into a slow, genteel decline.

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Lumberjacks and legends

Grand Rapids may not be the Emerald City, but its trees are green, and its lakes glitter.

In northern Minnesota, the logging town of Grand Rapids has produced many legends: prize lumberjacks, such as Gunnysack Pete and Tamarack Joe, but also an adorable little girl who became famous for her ruby slippers.

Loggers came first, and that era is re-created on the edge of town, on the wooded grounds of Forest History Center. On a summer day there, it may feel 80 degrees and sunny, but really it's a freezing day in December 1900.

Miss Minnie the "cookee,'' or cook's assistant, is showing us around the logging camp under the baleful glare of her boss, Miss Rebecca. We walk by a giant rut cutter, used to make grooves in the ice roads for the logging sleighs.

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Thrills and hills in Elkhart Lake

At the northern tip of Wisconsin's kettle moraine, an old resort town still draws a crowd.

In its entire 150-year history as a resort town, Elkhart Lake rarely has been a sedate place.

The early resort owners loved entertainment and built opera houses, dance halls and theaters. Then they put in casinos, and gambling became so commonplace that placing a bet was like buying an ice-cream cone; everybody did it.

The town was a little bit Catskills, a little bit Vegas and a lot of Chicago.

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Carrying the torch

In Wisconsin's north woods, Lac du Flambeau offers a portal into Ojibwe culture.

In a quiet corner of Wisconsin lake country, Ojibwe culture lives and breathes.

The French called this place Lac du Flambeau, “lake of the torches.'' To the Ojibwe it was Wa-Swa-Goning, “the place where they spear fish by torchlight.”

Violent protests shattered its north-woods serenity in the 1980s, when the courts upheld spear-fishing treaty rights. The backlash traumatized the community, but also strengthened its commitment to tradition.

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Gawking in Lake Geneva

On a mansion-lined footpath, walking is a spectator sport.

There are thousands of lakes in the north woods, but the most famous one is a stone's throw from Illinois.

Lake Geneva has been the favorite retreat of Chicago folks for 150 years, and everybody who was anybody had a place there: the Wrigleys, Maytags and Schwinns, but also cartoonists, actors, brewers and bottle-cap makers.

Geneva will seem citified to people who vacation on woodland lakes. There's a good reason to go there, though: It's entertaining to gawk at extreme wealth, and there's no better place to do it than Lake Geneva.

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Summer in Minocqua

In Wisconsin's north woods, vacationers flock to this Island City.

In northeast Wisconsin, Minocqua is all things to all tourists.

It's been a boating destination for more than a century because it's on a chain of lakes and nearly surrounded by Lake Minocqua. In fact, it's Nature's Original Water Park, and the town has the trademark to prove it.

But summer is short, and these days, tourists like to keep busy. That's why you'll also find water-ski shows, lumberjack shows, boat tours, wildlife parks, bicycle trails, city-style shopping, golf and, in the middle of downtown, mini-golf.

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Browsing in Boulder Junction

A fishing mecca in northwoods Wisconsin has become a fashionable place to shop.

In a little village in northern Wisconsin, muskie probably is still king.

Back in 1971, city boosters got the U.S. Patent Office to make Boulder Junction the official Musky Capital of the World. After all, the surrounding two counties have the world's densest concentration of lakes, and they still yield 4-foot fish.

But times change. Now, this former logging town deep in the middle of state forest has gained fame as a playground for another kind of trophy hunter.

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Bemidji's behemoths

In Minnesota's north woods, an old logging town is famous for oversized legends.

In Bemidji, three faces tell much of the town's story.

Chief Bemidji stands facing the lake the Ojibwe called Bemidgegumaug, or "river flowing crosswise.’’ His real name was Shaynowishkung, and he fed the white people who settled on the lake's shores in 1888.

Their settlement became the first town on the Mississippi, which starts 35 miles away in Itasca State Park, winds north to Bemidji, flows through its lake and heads east before finally turning south. 

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Bicycling around Lake Bemidji

The Paul Bunyan Trail is only part of a beautiful ride in northern Minnesota.

Once, Bemidji was one of the roughest towns in Minnesota. Now, it's one of the coolest.

This is the north-woods logging town that produced the original Paul Bunyan and Babe in 1937, and even today, these figures on Lake Bemidji are rarely without a cluster of tourists at their feet.

Look beyond this iconic but corny duo, as the visitors bureau fervently hopes you do, and you'll find everything else a tourist heart could desire – a gorgeous state park, a paved bicycle trail, a professional playhouse, fine restaurants and shops.

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Alexandria's enigma

This Minnesota resort town has many lakes and one mysterious stone.

There are many colossal lumberjacks, voyageurs and Indian chiefs scattered around Minnesota, all paying tribute to a colorful past.

But there's only one Big Ole.

He stands at the end of Alexandria's Broadway Street, 28 feet of glowering Viking, brandishing a spear and clutching a glistening silver shield that reads "Alexandria, Birthplace of America.''

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Sister Bay in Door County

Near the top of the peninsula, this town snares tourists with its beautiful beach and marina.

Sister Bay is all about the water. And Swedish pancakes. And goats.

It's a tourist town, with one of its biggest draws the goats grazing on the roof of Al Johnson's Swedish Restaurant, placed there after a 1969 National Geographic story drew a flood of vacationers.

But Sister Bay also is where the locals go, because not only can you get ice cream and T-shirts there, but also groceries and socks.

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Egg Harbor in Door County

On the famed Wisconsin peninsula, it's the first and perhaps prettiest town.

For most tourists, Egg Harbor is the “first’’ village on the Door Peninsula. 

After crossing the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal, they drive 17 miles past orchards and fields before they get another glimpse of water.

Now, visitors see something else first: giant eggs. Artist-decorated eggs line roads and adorn parks to mark a village anniversary — and give tourists something to look at.

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Minnesota's Little Crow lakes

West of the Twin Cities, easygoing Spicer and New London make a good beach getaway.

It’s a radical idea, but here goes: In Minnesota, you can go up to the lake by heading west.

These lakes not only are out west, they’re less than two hours from the Twin Cities, in a pocket of the state many overlook.

“It was a secret to me,’’ said Michele Stillinger, a former Twin Citian working as a naturalist at Sibley State Park. “I thought I wouldn’t find anything out here; I was very surprised.’’

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Fishing for finds in Walker

When walleye and shoppers are biting, everyone's happy in this resort town.

In 1896, a St. Paul man named J.A. Berkey came to Minnesota's Leech Lake, threw out his line and reeled in a whole new industry.

"He set up white tents for some men from Kansas City, who fished their guts out and said, 'We’re going back and telling everyone,’ ’’ said Renee Geving, director of the Cass County Museum.

The hook was set. Over the years, Leech Lake’s reputation as a fishing hole grew as big as its muskies, which can be huge.

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Cruising around Excelsior

On the Twin Cities' fringe, a historic lake-resort town still draws day-trippers.

On the western fringes of the Twin Cities, the wealthy have staked out Lake Minnetonka.

Nearly all of its 125 miles of shoreline are privately owned, and the summer cottages built by vacationing flour millers and businessmen — Pillsbury, Northrop, Bell, Loring, Peavey — have morphed into mansions.

But on the southeast corner of the sprawling lake, one town retains vestiges of the Victorian age, when steamboats ferried vacationers around the lake and day-trippers arrived on electric streetcars.

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Chain of Lakes in Minneapolis

The lakes, river and creeks that ring this metropolis are a magnet year-round.

Every big city has skyscrapers. Every big city has museums and monuments. But no other city has as many beautiful lakes and parks Minneapolis does.

Early in the city's history, when its lakes still were considered swampy boondocks, city fathers decided to make their shores public property.

Today, the most expensive homes in the city face the lakes, but the public — in-line skaters, bicyclists, dog-walkers — owns the shorelines.

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Summer in Park Rapids

In the heart of Minnesota lakes country, town is a tourist hub.

Ever since it was settled, Park Rapids has been a crossroads for tourists.

The trains that hauled out white pine at the turn of the century brought in summer guests, who were met at the depot by resort owners and taken to the lakes in wagons.

When highways were built, Park Rapids became the gateway to Itasca State Park, 20 miles to the north. After the rail line was abandoned, it became the western trailhead of the Heartland State Trail, one of the nation's first paved bicycle trails.

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Life on Mille Lacs

Minnesota's big lake is a capital of both walleyes and Ojibwe culture.

Big Mille Lacs is up north, but it isn't a wilderness lake. It's more like a big pond, its vast surfaces dotted with powerboats, its depths thoroughly probed.

A highway rings its 100 miles of shore, the better for boat access. Its air is laced with the perfume of gasoline, minnows and frying oil; the lake wouldn't be known as the Walleye Factory if it weren't.

But fishermen arrived only recently. Woodland tribes were the first to thrive on its shores.

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Critter races

In Minnesota resort towns, creatures great and small run for the money.

In June, racing season moves into full throttle in resort towns around Minnesota.

Speeding turtles begin their weekly sprints in Nisswa and Longville. In Perham, the "International'' Turtle Races — the town says they've attracted competitors and spectators from Africa, Europe, Asia and the Middle East — begin the week after Memorial Day.

Pelican Rapids holds weekly minnow races.

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The Wisconsin resort of your dreams

Here's where to look for the perfect place on a lake.

In summer, there's no better vacation than a week at the lake. Lazy afternoons on the beach, boat rides, marshmallow roasts, catching a string of sunnies — these are memories families savor for decades.

But if you don't have a family cabin, where do you go?

Wisconsin has more than 15,000 lakes, about the same number as Minnesota, plus shoreline on two Great Lakes.

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The Minnesota resort of your dreams

Here's where to look for the perfect place on a lake.

In Minnesota, it’s devilishly hard to find the lake resort that’s right for you.

Everyone wants the “best’’ resort. But asking the state tourism folks to tell you which one is best is like asking a baker to pick out his best pastry: They’re all, of course, the best.

You can’t ask your friends. They can tell you only which resort they go to, and that one may be too luxurious/too rustic or not kid-friendly/too family-oriented for you.

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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 we have, 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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