MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Outdoors towns

Discovering Two Harbors

This Lake Superior port town is all about trains, boats and automobiles.

Most people know Two Harbors only by its spine, Minnesota 61, where a long gantlet of gas stations and fast-food joints tries to reel in tourists speeding up the North Shore.

Yes, Two Harbors is the last place to get a Big Mac before Canada. But there are better reasons to stop there.

Most tourists never see the massive ore docks, just a stone’s throw from a picturesque breakwall, boat launch and walking trail. Or the North Shore’s last working lighthouse, a 1892 brick beacon that glows flame-red in the afternoon sun.

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Marquette's double appeal

This college town on Lake Superior is both sophisticated and outdoorsy.

The first time I visited Marquette, I saw mostly Yooper Land.

I chuckled at a 10-foot mosquito, giant chainsaw and packages of Roadkill Helper. I noted the best-sellers in the bookstore window: "A Look at Life From a Deer Stand'' and "Leap of Faith 2: God Loves Packer Fans.''

This is the Marquette that's sports-crazy, hunting-happy and tough as nails, with a population descended from Cornish, Finnish and Italian immigrants who could put up with the rigors of iron mines and, later, their closings.

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Beloved Bayfield

On Wisconsin's north coast, the love affair between a village and its visitors goes way back.

On a summer day on Chequamegon Bay, there are few sights more enchanting than the sailboats bobbing around Bayfield.

With the Blessing of the Fleet in June, the tourist season kicks into high gear.

Ferries chug nonstop between Bayfield and Madeline Island. Excursion boats head for the other Apostles. Sailboat captains take out novices and teach them how to hoist a jib.

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Four seasons of Grand Marais

On Minnesota's North Shore, this photogenic village always is ready for its close-up.

At the far tip of northern Minnesota, Grand Marais is a place that people love even more when the weather turns.

When Lake Superior storms send giant waves crashing against the pier light, photographers rush to the harbor. Blizzards bring in skiers, and tourists flock to see ice floes and formations.

This photogenic village at the foot of the Sawtooth range is a drama queen, a magnet for those who bask in the big lake's chill and revel in its unpredictability.

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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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By river and trail in Lanesboro

Head out from this Minnesota river town by tube, canoe, kayak, bike or skates.

For a hamlet out in nowhere, Lanesboro is picturesquely blessed.

It’s hemmed in by tall limestone bluffs, circled by a spring-fed trout stream and bisected by one of the nation’s best bicycle trails.

Eagles, herons and egrets cruise along the scenic river just to the north, alongside canoeists and kayakers.

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On the Rock River in Illinois

From the town of Oregon, visitors follow in Black Hawk's footsteps.

In the northwest Illinois town of Oregon, a 48-foot concrete figure gazes over a river valley, arms folded.

Over the years, it's been home to many ambitious men. Abraham Lincoln joined the militia here. John Deere forged the first steel plow. Ronald Reagan got his first lifeguard job.

The man who inspired the gigantic blufftop statue also had an ambition: to keep this beautiful valley for his own people.

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Copper Harbor refuge

Fortune-seekers left their mark at the tip of Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula.

Copper Harbor, Mich., never has had an easy existence.

Indians and explorers always knew there was copper sitting along the Keweenaw Peninsula. But the desolation of the area made mining difficult.

The earliest expedition, sent by London investors in 1771, gave up in disgust on an area Patrick Henry told Congress was "beyond the most distant wilderness and remote as the moon.''

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Trail mix in St. Croix Falls

For hikers, bicyclists and paddlers, this river town is a crossroads.

In western Wisconsin, St. Croix Falls has become a destination for people who want to go places.

It's the western terminus of the 1,000-mile Ice Age National Scenic Trail, which traces the last glacier as it began to melt and retreat northward, leaving a marvelously lumpy patchwork of rock, rubble and river gorges.

It's the southern trailhead of the 48-mile Gandy Dancer State Trail, a scenic crushed-limestone bicycle trail named for the rail workers who rhythmically swung pickaxes and hammers made by the Gandy Tool Co.

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Exploring Thunder Bay

Beauty is all around Lake Superior's biggest town.

To know Thunder Bay is to love Thunder Bay.

Lake Superior's largest town is hard to get to know, though, in part because it was two towns until 1970. No downtown pops out of the landscape; people driving through see only the flat sprawl of Fort William, then the hillier sprawl of Port Arthur.

But Thunder Bay's surroundings are spectacular: Mount McKay on the south, Kakabeka Falls to the west and Ouimet and Eagle canyons to the north.

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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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Madeline's magnetism

The largest of the Apostle Islands has a personality rooted in an uncommon past.

Over the centuries, waves of history have buffeted Madeline Island and given it as many variations as a Lake Superior agate.

This wooded island off Wisconsin's Bayfield Peninsula, the largest of the 22 Apostle Islands, exerts a magnetic pull.

The Ojibwe came from the east, led to "food that grows on water'' — wild rice — by a cowrie shell in the sky, according to their origin mythology,

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The door to Door County

A longtime gateway, Sturgeon Bay also is a great getaway.

It would be natural, for a tourist, to arrive in Sturgeon Bay and just keep going. It would also be a mistake.

The rest of Door County has all the tourist trappings. But Sturgeon Bay has appeal of its own.

"Most people want to go farther up on Door County, for all the shops and such," says Bill Munroe, a volunteer at the Door County Maritime Museum. "But this is a working town. We like it down here. We like it very much."

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City on Chequamegon Bay

In northern Wisconsin, murals draw tourists to Ashland's thriving downtown.

In Ashland, Wis., the ghosts of the past appear in living color.

Once, these lighthouse keepers, lumberjacks and lieutenants lived only in the history books. Now, they're painted onto Ashland's walls, where they serve as backdrop to shoppers, college students and tourists going about their business downtown.

The first mural, painted for Wisconsin's sesquicentennial in 1998 by local artists Kelly Meredith and Susan Prentice Martinsen, featured the snowshoe-clad figure of pioneer Asaph Whittlesey as well as editor Sam Fifield, Ojibwe Chief Buffalo and other characters from the town's early days.

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Duluth's twin in Wisconsin

Scratch the surface of Superior and see it sparkle.

To most people, Superior, Wis., is nothing more than a series of traffic lights to endure on the fast track to the Apostle Islands or Upper Peninsula.

It's sprawling, ugly and utterly devoid of interest.

Or is it?

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Trails of Trempealeau

There's a lot to do in this Mississippi River hamlet in southwest Wisconsin.

All kinds of paths cross in the Wisconsin village of Trempealeau.

Canoes and cormorants, tugboats and trains, bicyclists and blues fans all are drawn toward this Mississippi River town. It’s just a little burg, but it’s smack in the middle of Mother Nature’s playground.

Perrot State Park starts at the end of Trempealeau’s First Street, with hiking trails that give vistors spectacular views of far-off Winona, the river valley and a hill French explorers called La Montagne Qui Trempe a l'Eau, or "the mountain that soaks in the water.''

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Baileys Harbor in Door County

On the Lake Michigan side of the famous peninsula, this town draws nature-lovers.

Every May, wildflower followers find their way to Baileys Harbor.

They walk past two 1870 range lights on a boardwalk lined by endangered dwarf lake iris.  On  strips of wetland called swales, they look for bogbean and goldthread. In June, they search for 25 species of orchids.

The land Ridges Sanctuary occupies almost became a trailer park. Now, it's habitat for more species of plants than any other place in Wisconsin.

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The good life in Traverse City

On Lake Michigan, this beach town has a high IQ and refined appetites.

At first glance, Traverse City seems like just another Lake Michigan beach town.

It's a truly gorgeous one, for sure. There's sand as far as the eye can see, wrapped around two vast bays. Everybody's playing beach volleyball, paddling kayaks or swimming in water tinted three shades of blue.

The view gets even better beyond the beach, on streets thick with craft-beer taprooms, wineries, epicurean markets and so many fine restaurants that Traverse City now is considered a top foodie town.

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10 great outdoors towns

Want to get sweaty, dirty . . . and exhilarated? Here's where to go.

In 2014, Duluth made the region proud by beating out 63 other U.S. towns in Outside magazine's best outdoors town tournament.

It's hard to argue with Duluth, even against such better-known outdoors towns as Boulder, Colo., and Missoula, Mont., because everything it offers is right in the city – hiking, mountain biking, paddling, skiing.

But other towns are almost as deserving. Here are 10 great outdoor towns in the western Great Lakes.

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Sightseeing on the St. Croix

Thanks to glaciers, Taylors Falls is the Pothole Capital of the World.

There’s only one place in the Midwest where potholes are a tourist attraction instead of a nuisance.

Standing at the bottom of the 35-foot-deep Bake Oven, touching walls as smooth as vinyl, it’s easy to imagine the scene 10,000 years ago, when sheets of water from a melting glacier roared past Taylors Falls, into what now is the St. Croix River Valley.

They came with such fury that whirlpools laced with sand and gravel drilled cylindrical holes into solid rock — potholes, the world’s deepest.

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Outdoors in Galena

In an Illinois shopping town, tourists discover life beyond Main Street.

So you've done Galena — the shopping, the wine-tasting, the trolley tours, the historic houses.

What now?

This mining town in northwest Illinois boomed, went bust and came back as a boutique town for urban weekenders. Now, it's returning to nature.

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10 splurges in Door County

If you've been pinching pennies, here are some fun ways to reward yourself.

Door County isn't known as a budget destination. But this popular peninsula in Lake Michigan is like everywhere else — you can spend a lot if you want, but you don't have to.

We've already told you how to find deals on places to stay in Door County. Why did we go looking? Because sometimes, we like to do the rich man-poor man routine — that is, pinch pennies in one place so you can treat yourself in another.

And in Door County, there are so many good ways to treat yourself.

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