MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Roadside attractions

10 tourist traps to love

These roadside attractions dole out equal portions of schlock and awe.

Americans have a love-hate relationship with their tourist traps. They’re so uncool . . . but so irresistible.

What makes something a tourist trap? It’s a place that’s so cheesy you have to see if it’s really as cheesy as it looks. A place so iconic you’ve seen a million pictures of it. A place plugged by thousands of highway billboards.

Mostly, it’s a place everyone else has seen — so you have to, too. We can’t help ourselves, especially when it comes to anything that’s odd or oversized.

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Mural towns

In some places, colorful local characters are literally larger than life.

If you want to see colors, you don't have to wait for fall.

Artists are splashing every color of the spectrum across the sides of buildings, in murals that celebrate colorful local characters.

In the northern Wisconsin town of Ashland, murals pay tribute to lighthouse keepers, lumberjacks, pilots and jazz musicians. They've made Ashland such a destination that the Minnesota Iron Range town of Virginia has put their creators to work creating murals there, too.

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Road Trip: Otter Tail County

Big surprises pop up along a scenic byway in northwest Minnesota.

In Minnesota's Otter Tail County, everything comes extra-large and in multiples.

Few know that this county near the North Dakota border has more lakes than any other in Minnesota — 1,048 — or even that it has lakes at all.

It also has the state's densest concentration of giant mascots and roadside sculptures, largely thanks to a scrap-metal wizard who also is the father of an astronaut.

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Fountain City oddities

A Wisconsin village on the Mississippi River is the capital of the offbeat and unexpected.

It's easy to speed right through the river town of Fountain City, on the way to someplace else, but that would be a mistake.

In Fountain City, all is not as it seems. A Hindu temple sits amid hay fields. One of the world's largest collections of toy pedal cars occupies five barns on a bluff. Dreamlike Santas ride fish in a riverfront studio, models for copies sold around the nation.

On this seemingly ordinary stretch of the Mississippi, people have been inspired by . . . something. Perhaps it's the dramatic bluffs that loom above town.

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Giants of Lake Superior

On a trip around the biggest lake, stop to see larger-than-life heroes and mascots.

You can expect to see a lot of big things on the 1,300-mile drive around Lake Superior, the world's largest lake by surface area.

There's a fish, a Fox, a bear, a goose and a moose — not to mention a 32-foot thermometer and a 35-foot aspiring saint.

These giants all have stories, part of the folklore of this colorful lake, where life isn't for the faint of heart. On a Circle Tour, be sure to stop and say hello.

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Road trip: Wisconsin's concrete art

Love goofy roadside attractions? Here's where to find them, from Snow White to Sacagawea.

In the early days of highway travel, some very ordinary folks toiled to enliven Wisconsin's roadsides.

Concrete dinosaurs appeared, and a muskie pulled by horses. King Neptune held court next to Snow White and her dwarves.

There was an ocean liner encrusted with glass, a  Hindu temple and mythic figures from the American frontier — Sacagawea, Paul Bunyan, Kit Carson.

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Paul Bunyan in Minnesota

In the Land of 10,000 Lakes, the big guy never dies.

The origins of Paul Bunyan are lost in the wood smoke of long-ago logging camps.

The mighty lumberjack most likely was born in the camps of Maine or Nova Scotia. Nevertheless, northern Minnesota towns have taken the legend and run with it.

Akeley calls itself Paul Bunyan’s birthplace, and it’s got a good claim — it was the headquarters of the Red River Lumber Co., where, in 1914, a publicist named William Laughead is said to have written the first Paul Bunyan story in a company brochure.

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Barn storming

Driving tours in four states showcase the simple but cherished buildings.

There’s just something about barns.

They appeal to everyone — city folk, country folk, anyone who's ever played with a  barn kitten. They're graceful structures, built in every size and shape. And they evoke a nostalgia for simpler times, when ordinary people who worked hard could prosper.

Many people like to drive around the countryside looking for them. But they're disappearing fast. 

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Roadside Distractions II

Here's the second edition of our contest for everyone who loves the odd and offbeat.

At MidwestWeekends, we love anything that makes us veer off the highway and say, "Wow, what the heck is that?''

We call these things Roadside Distractions, and we always take a photo. Then we share it. But first, we like to find out who else has seen these unusual things.

Cherish Grabau of Stewartville, Minn., was first to identify the home of Lucette Diana Kensack: Hackensack, Minn., halfway between Brainerd and Bemidji.

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Roadside Distractions I

Here's a contest for everyone who loves the odd and offbeat.

At MidwestWeekends, we love anything that makes us veer off the road and say, "Wow, what the heck is that?''

A lot of highly unusual things can be found along the streets and highways of the Upper Midwest. We call these things Roadside Distractions, and we always take a photo.

For fun, we had a contest to show you some of our favorite things.

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Father Baraga's cross

Off Minnesota's North Shore, the Snowshoe Priest had a close call.

Only tough guys lasted for long around Lake Superior, and Father Frederic Baraga was one of them.

The Slovenian priest arrived in 1831 and spent a long and frenetic life canoeing and snowshoeing between Ojibwe settlements in Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan; Grand Portage on the northeastern tip of Minnesota; and La Pointe on Wisconsin's Madeline Island.

One day in 1846, Father Baraga, learning of a possible epidemic among the Ojibwe in Grand Portage, set out from Madeline Island in a small boat with an Ojibwe guide.

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Magnificent obsessions

In the Wisconsin countryside, self-taught visionaries left caches of concrete art.

In Wisconsin, nonconformity is cast in concrete.

In the middle of the last century, a motley collection of ordinary folk — a dairy farmer, a car dealer, a tavern owner, a factory worker — took a sharp turn away from the ordinary.

Out of the blue, they began to fashion fairy-tale characters, castles, temples and historical figures out of concrete, adorning them with bits of glass, crockery, porcelain and seashells and toiling until their yards overflowed with figures.

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