In the southwest corner of the state, the prairie hardly looks like typical Minnesota vacation land.
Instead of lakes, fractured red quartzite erupts from the earth, and wind towers pop up on the horizon like giant black daisies. Herds of bison graze in fields, and yellow blooms cover prickly pear cactus.
This was the spiritual center of the universe for indigenous people on the prairie, and it exerts a pull on others, too.
In an isolated bluff-country valley, reached only by small, winding roads, lies one of Minnesota's favorite getaways.
There are no condo resorts here, no wine bars and heaven forbid no national franchises. The aroma of manure hangs over downtown on Wednesdays and Fridays, when livestock auctions are held.
Only 750 people live here, and they can't afford to advertise much, so most visitors come via word of mouth.
In summer, its not as hard as youd think to take a fun trip that doesn't cost much.
Many of the great travel experiences in Minnesota cant be bought, anyway hiking amid old-growth white pines, paddling through bluff country, listening to loons in the Boundary Waters.
A family of six can learn to camp and play in Lake Superior
waterfalls for $50. Hikers can find a bunk just off the Superior Hiking Trail near Grand Marais for $25, and a couple can stay in a camper cabin for $60, if not at a lake resort . . . wait, they can stay at a lake resort.
It's morning in the Little Town on the Prairie, and we're thumbing through the guest book at the Prairie House Manor B&B.
"I can't believe we are in the 'Little Town' where Laura grew up,'' one woman writes. "This is truly a dream come true,'' writes another.
So many little girls, so many dreams. When Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote her nine books about growing up on the American frontier of the 1870s and 1880s, she had no idea her idealized portrait of pioneer life would be such powerful medicine to so many.
Along the Mississippi River, the fortunes of Wabasha have risen right along with the once-endangered bald eagle.
Eagles reappeared slowly after DDT was banned in 1972, and one of the first places they could be seen was in this Minnesota town, just downriver from the mouth of the Chippewa River, which kept water open in winter so eagles could fish.
The city built a deck downtown and staffed it with spotting scopes and volunteers from November through March. Then it started a makeshift eagle center behind an empty storefront. In 2007, it opened the National Eagle Center in a handsome brick building on the river banks.
It was a sunny day in southeastern Minnesota, and everywhere I looked, there were Babes.
Babes bombing along bike trails, Babes prowling the shops of Lanesboro, Babes laughing over white wine in the inn where I was staying.
They were the Fat Bottom Girls Cycle Club from Des Moines, also known as Babes on Bikes, and they were having a swell time riding the smooth, scenic trails of the Root River Valley.
In Minnesota, people value their own history so much that the Minnesota Historical Society was founded nine years before the state itself.
No wonder the state's living-history sites are among the best in the nation.
At a fur post, logging camp and fort, tourists get a peek into the past, and schoolchildren learn their heritage at the feet of lumberjacks, voyageurs, soldiers and farmers.
Its 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, theyre 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 wouldnt find anything out here; I was very surprised.
It's easy to see why the Plains Indians saw the Great Spirit at work in a far corner of Minnesota.
Amid an ocean of tall grass, a fractured pile of hard red rock suddenly erupts from the sod. It's Sioux quartzite, once sand at the edge of a red ocean, cooked and pressed into marble-like stone over a billion years.
Beneath the quartzite is a thin seam of a softer stone, a red, hardened clay that's barely harder than a fingernail.
For many years, Red Wing has been Twin Citians favorite day-trip destination.
Its adorable, with its brick storefronts, flowering planters hung from lampposts and rows of stately Victorian houses in three historic districts.
Sitting on a sharp elbow of the Mississippi, its a small town that still looks the part it has a bakery, a barber shop, a homespun café and it was the first Minnesota town on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's list of Distinctive Destinations.
Northfield always has been shaped by newcomers.
First the Yankees came to town, then the Norwegians. Each started a college, and the Yankees built mills, whose flour won international prizes as the Minneapolis mill were just getting started.
Missourians arrived in 1876 for a brief but memorable visit; the violent bank raid by the James-Younger Gang is called "the seven minutes that shook Northfield.''
For a river town that has everything going for it, Winona is a little hard for a tourist to get to know.
Those who venture off U.S. 61 find a downtown that's long, spread out and a little forlorn on weekends. To find its Mississippi riverfront, they have to cut across train tracks and around a concrete levee wall.
For 50 years, a paddlewheeler sat atop the riverbank, serving as museum, event center and gathering spot. The Julius C. Wilkie was only a replica of a steamboat, but it served as city icon and festival namesake, so when the rotting structure was demolished in 2008, it left a dent in the city's identity.
In September 1876, a vicious gang of outlaws came up against some ordinary Minnesotans.
The outlaws came out on the short end. Twice.
The Civil War ended more than a decade before the James-Younger Gang rode into Minnesota. But it was far from over in Missouri, devastated by guerrilla warfare and still simmering with resentment.
There are few towns more conspicuously American than New Ulm, Minn.
Laid out by the town founders, its wide streets follow an orderly grid toward downtown, where cars park at an angle in front of boxy brick businesses and meat-and-potatoes cafes.
There are softball games and Friday-night fish fries and many friendly people. It's the epitome of small-town America and yet this is a town famous for being German.
Oh, the joy of being German.
There's no question that Germans know how to have a good time. After all, they've given the world Oktoberfest, half-gallon steins and "The Little Chicken Dance.''
And what else? Beer, of course, the enjoyment of which is a God-given right to Germans; their adage "Hopfen und Malz, Gott erhalts'' roughly translates as "Malt and hops, to God, are tops.''
Every August, the tiny southeast Minnesota town of Oronoco becomes the mother lode.
Tents full of carved armoires and sideboards pop up along the town's narrow streets. Yards sprout crates of antique lunch boxes and duck decoys.
The church ladies bake pies, the VFW folks flip pancakes and firefighters put hot dogs on the grill. Then the people come, stampeding through the streets like sheep to salt.
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.
There are many good reasons to go off trail, and the chance to see moose definitely is one of them.
When we were at Bear Head Lake near Ely one January, we hiked first along a
lakeside ski trail that was so packed we didn't need snowshoes.
But then the ranger mentioned she'd seen moose tracks in fresh snow near the park entrance, and we decided to go moose-tracking. Strapping on our snowshoes, we plunged from the road into deep woods.
For Minnesota bicyclists, there are two seasons: winter and trail construction.
That's a good thing, because bicycle tourists crave more trails, and towns crave more bicycle tourists.
In Rochester, a tourist from the Twin Cities is a novelty.
Tourists from anywhere are a novelty, though patients and medical professionals come from around the world.
This week, I had customers from Guatemala, Panama and India in just a few hours, said Kathy Barnes, a fourth-grade teacher working part-time at the apparel shop Collections.
At first, the southeast Minnesota town of Spring Grove looks like any other town.
Theres a café, an antiques store and a park full of statues. But Spring Grove isnt ordinary. Its full of Norwegians.
In the park, two bronze men appear to be squabbling; theyre characters in a nationally syndicated comic strip written by a Spring Grove man 50 years before Neil Simon came up with The Odd Couple.
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.
There's something for everyone in Itasca State Park: rooms in a historic lodge, classic cabins, motel-style rooms and new suites with computer access. It doesn't have camper cabins, but you'll find those at 22 other Minnesota state parks.
Sometimes, skiers have a hard time figuring out Mother Nature.
It's supposed to snow across northern Minnesota and Wisconsin, but often, storms have veered to the south instead. It's odd, but what can you do? You have to go with the snow.
One year, at the end of February, my friend Becky and I were just about to make the long drive to the snowy Upper Peninsula of Michigan when the southeast Minnesota town of Winona got blanketed with 30 inches.
At harvest time, Minnesota's bluff country overflows with beauty.
Fat pumpkins await buyers at farmers' markets. Golden clumps of wildflowers line bicycle trails. From buggies, the Amish sell homemade baskets, bumbleberry jam and apple butter.
There's an abundance of everything, including tourists.
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.
Theyre 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.
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.
For many people, the Minnesota River Valley is full of shadows.
In 1862, years of greed and misunderstanding erupted into a clash that cost settlers their lives, the Dakota their homeland and a new state its innocence. Even today, the valley's lush peacefulness is undercut by anger and guilt.
But on the first weekend of August, people of indigenous and European descent alike come to Upper Sioux Agency State Park to have a good time. At a wacipi, or powwow, the tradition of welcoming outsiders has held steady for many generations.
In the middle of farm fields, on a slab of the same Sioux quartzite that pops out of the sod farther west at Pipestone and Blue Mound, the story of an ancient people is written with nearly 2,000 characters.
Theyre dramatic characters serpents of the underworld, and thunderbirds who shoot lightening bolts from their eyes.
There are buffalos and stick figures and atlatls, a spear-throwing device, but no bow and arrows, which began to replace the atlatl 1,000 years ago.
In southeast Minnesota, along the Mississippi and in its bluffs, folk and roots music has found a home far from the bright lights of the big city.
In the countryside, music sounds different. In an old general store in
Oak Center, it's toasty warm, like late-afternoon sunlight.
In the airy
loft above a harp-building workshop near Red Wing, it rings out like a
church bell on Sunday morning.
In southeast Minnesota, some of the locals stand out a bit.
They travel in horse-drawn buggies, they dress only in dark colors and they speak an archaic German dialect. In their homes and workshops, they refuse to use electricity, natural gas or plumbing, all of which would literally connect them to the outside world.
They're Old Order Amish, direct descendants of a Swiss religious group that believed Martin Luther and other Reformation leaders didn't go far enough in returning the church to strict Scripture.
Around the world, people know Minnesota for its waters source of the Mississippi, land of lakes.
But those are not the waters for which it's named. Those waters belong to a river whose cloudiness led the Dakota to call it "waters reflecting the skies" the Minnesota.
It was more than a mile across at the end of the last ice age, when it drained glacial Lake Agassiz, the largest lake that ever existed.
The corner of Third Avenue and U.S. 2 in Grand Rapids doesnt exactly look like the edge of the wilderness.
The Blandin Co. paper mill is across the highway, its smokestacks sending plumes of white smoke into the air. Trucks rumble past, en route to North Dakota or Duluth.
But this corner is the beginning of the Edge of the Wilderness drive, Minnesotas first National Scenic Byway.
Before the Root River State Trail was built, the only places to stay in Lanesboro were some small hunters' cabins near the city park.
That was before there was anything to do in the isolated village besides hunt and fish. Now Lanesboro is the recreational and cultural capital of southeast Minnesota, with a new theater, an arts center and 60 miles of paved bicycle trails.
With visitors pouring in, Lanesboro also has become the bed-and-breakfast capital of the Minnesota, with more B&Bs than any other town, plus several small inns.
In 1858, as Europe creaked under the weight of its impoverished masses, Minnesota was a place of opportunity.
It had plenty of land, and newcomers who worked hard could gain social standing as well as property, an impossibility in the old country. So the poor surged in, thankful for a future.
"When I consider my children, I think their futures will be very good, yes, much better than if I had stayed in Norway,'' my great-great-grandfather Rolf wrote home after his arrival in 1862.
Of all the fun things a person can do, riding a horse is not one of the cheapest. Unless youre part of the country-club set, its an expensive hobby kind of like golf.
But theres one place where you can go on a trail ride and golf and stay overnight for less than $100 per person.
My friend Debra knew about a Minnesota River Valley stables that offers scenic three-hour trail rides for $60. I knew about a guesthouse right on the golf course in Fort Ridgely State Park where five of us could sleep on the floor for $15 apiece.
Sometimes, it comes as a shock to tourists, especially those who grew up watching the TV show "Little House on the Prairie,'' that life on the frontier wasn't all that fun.
Twenty miles east of Walnut Grove, Stan McCone tells it as it was. A farmer, he'd heard stories about the early sod houses. None remained, so he decided to build one of his own, using an old sod cutter.
"There were 13 sod houses in this neighborhood, and those are just the ones we know about,'' he says. "But with all those, there's zero recollection of them, and I know why because of all the buried children alongside them. They had such hardship.''
It was a beautiful fall weekend in Lanesboro, and the streets of this picturesque town in Minnesotas bluff country were packed with sightseers and bicycle tourists.
They were browsing in gift shops. They were sampling at the winery. They were bicycling on the Root River State Trail.
In fall, Lanesboro is the darling of day-trippers and weekenders. My children and I love it, too. They spent 15 minutes with me in the arts center, I spent 15 minutes with them in the Indian crafts shop, and then we went in-line skating on the paved trail, across the trestle bridge and along the limestone bluffs.
In Minnesota, a weekend at an environmental learning center is the best bargain you'll find anywhere.
There's more to do than at any luxury resort: yoga, high-ropes courses, climbing walls, ski trails, nature hikes, canoeing, skiing and snowshoeing on wooded campuses that include lakes and trails.
At Laurentian on the Iron Range, you can mush your own dog team. Near Lanesboro, Eagle Bluff is renowned for gourmet food and wine.
New Ulm hasn't always understood the kind of people who color outside the lines.
That describes the entire family of Anton Gág, a German-Bohemian artist whose work can be seen at New Ulm's Cathedral of the Holy Trinity and the brewery of August Schell, who was his patron and sent him to art school in Chicago for six months. All seven children were creative, spending their days drawing, telling stories and building sets for plays.
"He didn't want the children to be like other children," says Mary Ann Zins of New Ulm.