MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Water play

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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Waking the dragon

A sport inspired by ancient Chinese legend takes off on local waters.

For a long time, the people of Superior, Wis., observed mostly Scandinavian traditions.

And then the dragons arrived.

In China, the works of poet Qu Yuan inspired dragon-boat races, which are held worldwide and have been popular in Canada for many years.

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America's freshwater Riviera

On Lake Michigan's gorgeous beaches, everyone can find a spot in the sun.

It’s funny that some people in the Upper Midwest spend their summer vacations on the beaches of Cancun or Cape Cod, because the best beaches in the world are in their own back yard.

Lake Michigan is America’s freshwater Riviera, a nearly unending strand of sand that looks like Florida without the high-rise condos. It’s clean, blue and pleasantly cool, with water temperatures in the 60s, and in most places it looks just like the ocean.

Add in candy-striped lighthouses and even more ice-cream stands, and you’ve got the makings of a great beach holiday — a cheap one, too, if you're on a budget.

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Watching a water-ski show

Spend a perfect summer evening watching flips, dance lines and pyramids.

Watch a water-ski show, and you'll want to climb into your Thunderbird and go get a chocolate malted.

There's something deliciously retro about spending a balmy summer evening listening to '50s party music and the roar of marine engines as spangled, sun-bleached teen-agers fly by. 

A corny comedy routine is part of the show, but it's the tricks that keep the crowd enthralled: double flips, dance lines and pyramids that can go up to five tiers.

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Lake break in Bemidji

A historic northern-Minnesota resort is a great place for a low-key, low-cost getaway.

In the Upper Midwest, there's nothing better than a week at the lake.

But summer — or vacation, anyway — doesn't last long. And while there's nothing better than a week, a few days can be almost as good.

My favorite escape is to Ruttger's Birchmont Lodge on Lake Bemidji. Like many of its guests, I first went after dropping off my son at the nearby Concordia Language Villages.

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Cheat the heat

When summer becomes a sauna, it's time to chill out.

When heat wraps itself around your shoulders like an electric blanket with static cling, there’s only one thing to do: Look for cold water.

You'll find it tubing on a spring-fed river, such as the South Branch of the Root River, which takes a short cut through Mystery Caverns and heads toward Lanesboro chilled to 48 degrees.

On Minnesota's North Shore, plop yourself into one of the Baptism River’s potholes and let the cool waters swirl around you. Or go whitewater rafting — a fast cool-down is guaranteed.

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Tubing a lazy river

Lolling on the water, it's easy to play it cool.

It’s almost magic, the power of wind and water on a hot day. It's enough to give you goosebumps.

Tubing Minnesota's Rum River on an oppressively hot afternoon, I was amazed to see goose flesh rise on my legs when a breeze sprang up and a cloud crossed the sun. We’d entered a microclimate that seemed to exist only along the river’s surface.

“I don't even feel the heat here,” said my friend Adele. “You'd never guess it was 95.”

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Great beaches of lakes country

In cities as well as forests, it's not hard to find a place to play.

Around here, you don't need oceans for a beach vacation.

We have thousands of lakes, plus inland seas on shoreline that often is called the Fourth Coast. Lake Michigan's shores are a veritable Riviera, and even rocky Superior has some noteworthy stretches of sand.

You could throw a dart at the map and come up with a good beach. Or you could take a cue from names of state parks — Point Beach and Harrington Beach in Wisconsin, McCarthy Beach in Minnesota, Orchard Beach in Michigan.

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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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Grand sand

Along Lake Michigan, the Sleeping Bear Dunes are a playground for all ages.

One Great Lake east of Superior, there’s another North Shore.

It doesn’t have any craggy points or sheer palisades, and there are no agates waiting to be found. It has no waterfalls, and not a scrap of basalt; in fact, there’s nothing volcanic about it.

But this north shore, on the leeward side of Lake Michigan, has something Minnesota's beautiful North Shore on Lake Superior doesn’t have: Sand, lots and lots of sand.

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One in 1,000

Somewhere in lakes country, there's a resort with your name on it. Here's how to find it.

After many years of traveling around this region, I can answer nearly every travel question except one: “Can you give me the name of a good lake resort?’’

No, I can’t. Only you and your therapist know what you consider a good lake resort.

Staying at a north-woods lake resort is not like staying at a Marriott. There may be chipmunks living under your cabin, and fish that nibble your legs when you wade. Squealing children may run past your window while you’re trying to read.

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Camping in Kandiyohi

West of the Twin Cities, county parks provide easy access to beach life.

In Kandiyohi County, it's thanks to the last Ice Age that life's a beach today.

Near Willmar, a lobe of the last glacier came to a grinding halt 12,000 years ago, dumping massive blocks of ice that made big dents in the ground.

Now, they're lakes, popping up like mirages at the edge of soybean fields, behind screens of ash and cottonwoods. Farther north, they're hidden amid rocky meadows and rolling hillocks full of glacial rubble.

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Swimming holes of Duluth

In this Lake Superior town, rivers are the place to cool off.

In Duluth, there's water, water everywhere — and nary a place to swim.

In Lake Superior, anyway. If you try to cool off in the frigid lake, you'll probably run out immediately, shrieking.

Early tourist brochures touted Duluth as "The Air-Conditioned City,'' and the vast waters of the big lake keep it cool, at least until July. Then it heats up, and the locals — few of whom have actual air conditioners — head for water.

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Water, water, everywhere

The Dells were first, but now indoor water parks are popping up all over.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the Wisconsin Dells must be very, very flattered.

Indoor water parks are everywhere now. Since many people don't have money or time for a spring-break trip to Florida or Mexico, they're very popular.

Water-park hotels are busiest in spring, when people are tired of cold weather, and room rates reflect that. Look for specials on-line and travel midweek if you can; weekday rates stay low until late March, when school breaks start.

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Duluth's other waterfront

The quiet St. Louis River is a hub for hikers, bikers, paddlers and train buffs.

Once, a wind-whipped sand spit was not the most desirable address in Duluth.

Today, people lust after a beach cottage on Park Point, just beyond the Aerial Lift Bridge. But the Ojibwe preferred the calmer estuary of the St. Louis River, which flows into Lake Superior at what today is Duluth-Superior Harbor.

The French explorer Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut, for whom the city was named, didn’t waste much time on the lakefront when he arrived in 1679.

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Summer's last resort

On Minnesota's Lutsen Mountains, we find a sweet deal in late August.

If you’re a bargain-hunter — and most Midwesterners are — the best weeks of summer are in August.

By the second week, football and band practice has started at schools, and back-to-school sales are in progress. In Minnesota, everyone wants to go to the State Fair.

Not many people are thinking about vacation — which is precisely why it’s a great time to take one. The weather is still warm and sunny, the crowds are gone and, best of all, prices drop, usually on the second or third Sunday.

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Swimming in Superior

If you're lucky, you can take a dip along Minnesota's North Shore no wetsuit required.

Remember all those summers when you looked longingly at Lake Superior, wishing you could swim in it for more than a minute without going numb? The summer of 2012 wasn't one of them.

Non-stop, beastly hot temperatures mellowed the waters of the big lake, turning it into the world's largest swimming pool.

Water-surface temperatures pushed 75 degrees on the notoriously cold stretch between Duluth and Grand Marais. That's was the warmest in a century and 20 degrees higher than normal for mid-summer.

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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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Quick getaways on a lake

Thanks to B&Bs, people without a week to spare still can get onto the water.

It was a sweltering afternoon in June when I knocked at the door of Seagren's Pokegama Lodge in Grand Rapids, Minn. I'd spent the previous night in a dusty room on the far side of town, on the edge of a mosquito-infested wood, and the day trudging around the town, which is on the Mississippi River and surrounded by lakes.

I was hot. I was ready for a swim. And there the lake was, shimmering away at the foot of the three-story B&B. Rarely has a plunge felt so good.

Since then, I've looked for places to stay that have beaches or access to a lake. Minnesota and Wisconsin have hundreds of lake resorts, but in summer, most rent only by the week. That's where B&Bs come in.

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