MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Seeking the best soft-serve

Their ranks are thinning, but old-time ice-cream stands still brighten road trips.

Dairy Lodge in Traverse City.

© Beth Gauper

In Traverse City, the Dairy Lodge has been a favorite spot since 1958.

On road trips, some people look for the best pie or burger. But I look for the perfect twist cone.

Braking for soft-serve ice cream is how I stick up for the mom-and-pop drive-ins that used to be in every little town until the arrival of a certain franchise.

The ice cream almost always is better — richer, with not as much air — and the atmosphere is more fun.

Or maybe it's that so many of us have fond memories of our hometown Tasty Freeze or Dairy Delite, where we'd go on a warm summer night and slowly eat our cones as softball teams and old folks and families fresh from the beach filed up to the little window to get their cones, too.

These places are shockingly rare these days. But I'm still finding new ones. When I was in central Wisconsin on a 69-degree day in April, Belt's Soft Serve in Stevens Point was mobbed.

A constant stream of people came to buy flurries topped with brownie-sized peanut-butter cups and giant sundaes and to get free Puppy Cups for their dogs. A collage of photos chronicled the stand's opening on the first Friday in March, when the first customers arrived at 3:30 a.m. and pitched tents so they could be first in line.

I got a twist cone, of course, a $1.25 junior cone that was the size of the Olympic torch — well, almost. It was ice-cold and firm on the tongue, and the chocolate tasted like chocolate.

I found another stand not far away, just west of Wisconsin Rapids: the Dexterville Drive-in, across from Yellow River Lake. And in Black River Falls, the Davis Dairy Way serves twist cones south of town on Wisconsin 27.

Here are some of the other towns that still can boast a home-grown soft-serve ice-cream stand.

Wisconsin

One May, driving up the Mississippi from La Crosse, I found the Frosty Mug in Holmen, Wis., a drive-in where teens in tie-dyed T-shirts ferry trays to cars and picnic tables.

Farther up the river, across from Red Wing, Minn., outside Hagar City, the friendly little Hagar Heights Drive-In sells a tasty twist cone for just $1.20.

Along Wisconsin 29 to Door County, I break up the trip in Wittenberg, at the Dairy King. 

People cluster around Belt's Soft Serve in Stevens Point.

© Beth Gauper

In Stevens Point, a crowd gathers at Belt's on a warmish day in April.

Not far away, in Cecil, the Dairy Cove is famous for enormous cones. It's between Shawano and Bonduel, a four-mile detour for bicyclists on the Mountain Bay Trail.

In southeast Wisconsin, I found the Frostie Freeze doing a land-office business on U.S. 12 in downtown Fort Atkinson, serving strawberry-and-vanilla twists as well as the usual zebra cone.

In Walworth, just a stone's throw from high-bucks Lake Geneva, the Dari-Ripple serves a nice cone (and cheeseburgers, too).

In the off-season, I found Briq's Soft Serve in the north-central town of Merrill, and it advertised not only zebra cones but sundaes and shakes made with fresh, locally grown strawberries, rhubarb and raspberries.

And it turned out there are seven other Briq's, founded in 1985 by the late Dan Briquelet of Wausau, who loved ice cream. Besides Merrill, they're in Rhinelander and Minocqua as well as Wausau and the nearby towns of Edgar, Mosinee, Schofield and Rib Mountain.

Briq's calls itself "Home of the One-Pound Cone.'' If you buy 100 of them, you'll become a member of the Hundred Pound Club, which entitles you to a T-shirt AND two days of free all-you-can-eat ice cream every summer.

More in Wisconsin, from readers: Tastee Treet in Sparta, at 402 W. Wisconsin St. "My grown sons still need to be called and told when the Tastee Treet opens, and if nothing else brings them 'home,' this will.'' — Chris, Sparta

Also: Boy Blue Dairy Treat Store in Beaver Dam and the Cone Zone in Milton, between Lake Koshkonong and Janesville. And just across the border in South Beloit, you'll find the Dary Ripple.

Frozen custard: Wisconsin is famous for this eggier style of ice cream, though it doesn't really count. Still, it's awfully nice to have around.

If you do like frozen custard, it's a close second to drinking beer in Wisconsin. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel asked readers to weigh in on Wisconsin's best frozen custard and drew many passionate responses.

The favorites appear to be Leon's Drive-In, at 3131 S. 27th St. near Jackson Park, and Kopp's, which has several locations.

The Peppermint Twist Drive-In.

© Beth Gauper

Just west of the Twin Cities, the Peppermint Twist is a favorite stop on U.S. 12.

Minnesota

In western Minnesota, just east of Alexandria, a cone at the Tip Top Dairy Bar in Osakis is a just dessert for bicyclists finishing the Central Lakes Trail from the west or the Lake Wobegon Trail from the east.

Not far south, in the lakes area around Sibley State Park, the Deep Freeze in New London is across from the high school on just off the Glacial Lakes State Trail, which stretches from Willmar to Spicer and beyond.

It'll serve you a zebra cone, dipped cones and all kinds of novelties toppings.

On U.S. 12 just west of the Twin Cities, I stop at the hot-pink Peppermint Twist in Delano, taking as long as I can to eat a fresh-strawberry or fresh-raspberry shake (depending on season) because it’s so much fun to sit on the shady picnic grounds, with its jukebox, ladybug chairs, inflatable monkeys and cut-out bears and candy canes.

Sadly, it doesn't serve twist cones, but you can have them put a shot of chocolate syrup into your shake.

Once, I was in a foul mood because of detours, and a cone from Treats of Lonsdale Dairy Freeze brightened my mood. It's just west of Northfield, not far from  I-35. 

The Penguin Zesto is popular in Winona.

© Beth Gauper

In Winona, follow the spires of St. Stanislaus Church to Penguin Zesto.

Along the Mississippi River in Winona, I found the adorable Penguin Zesto across the street from St. Stanislaus Church; just look for the bright-white spires.

Coming back from Blue Mounds State Park in southwest Minnesota, I found the Tasty Drive-In in Luverne and got a cone for the road. It's on I-75 just north of the 1-90 exit, so it couldn't be more convenient for people driving by.

On the east side of St. Paul, Conny’s Creamy Cone at Maryland and Dale is a neighborhood classic.

Not far away, just east of Johnson Parkway on East Minnehaha Avenue, Dari-ette Drive In is a 1950s throwback that serves red-sauce Italian food as well as a classic twist cone.

In the suburb of White Bear Lake, the Cup and Cone is the destination of folks who've spent the day at the lake.

More in Minnesota"Art's Dairy Freeze in Montevideo is a fabulous little ice cream shop (the whole building could fit in my living room) in Montevideo, Minn. Every year since I can remember, they celebrate the spring opening with free cones all day. Art is long gone, but it's a mainstay.'' — Nicki, Sauk Rapids, Minn.

Iowa

In northeast Iowa, I often stop at the Whippy Dip in Decorah, a beloved town institution. It's on College Drive just northwest of downtown, next to a bridge over the Upper Iowa River.

Twist cone in Clear Lake.

© Beth Gauper

A giant cone advertises the big cones sold at the Barrel Drive-in in Clear Lake, Iowa.

In Clear Lake, I drove down U.S. 18, past the Culver's and Dairy Queen, to the Barrel Drive-in. I asked for the small twist cone for $1.77, and it was huge (though not as huge as the cone that advertises the restaurant).

In Cedar Falls, the 4 Queens Dairy Cream is two miles west of U.S. 218/Iowa 27, on Iowa 57, or West First Street. They're also in nearby Waterloo and Evansdale.

Michigan

On a Circle Tour of Lake Michigan, I saw so many old-fashioned ice-cream stands off U.S. 2 on the Upper Peninsula that I stopped counting. If only I had had enough room for a cone at them all!

On the Lower Peninsula, the beach town of Traverse City is blessed with two stands, the Dairy Lodge and Bardon's Wonder Freeze.

Know of others?

There must be a lot more. Do you know of  other mom-and-pop places around the Upper Midwest that serve good soft-serve ice cream?

Let me know, and I'll add them to the list.


Last updated on July 30, 2015