MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Road trips

Road trip: Wisconsin's Muir Tour

The sandy soil on the Wisconsin River is a springboard for naturalists, past and present.

In its marshes and woods, John Muir first discovered the joys of wilderness. On its sandy plains, Aldo Leopold became a pioneer of land stewardship. On its meadows, two young ornithologists created a haven for cranes.

The natural world found some of its greatest allies on a swath of rolling, glaciated land in south-central Wisconsin. Muir went on to found the Sierra Club and is known as a father of America’s national parks. 

Leopold inspired legions with such books as “A Sand County Almanac.’’ George Archibald and Ron Sauey founded the International Crane Foundation.

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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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Road trip: Wisconsin River

The valleys and bluffs around Prairie du Sac draw paddlers, hikers and Sunday drivers.

At Prairie du Sac, the Wisconsin River finally breaks free.

Lined with so many dams and reservoirs it's often called the nation's hardest-working river, the Wisconsin devotes itself to play after it passes the town.

Then it becomes the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway, beloved by canoeists, who like to play on its many sandbars.

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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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Road trip: Seeking covered bridges

Some are old and some are new, but they all inspire nostalgia for the past.

The more hectic life becomes, the more we love covered bridges.

They evoke a powerful sense of nostalgia for slower-paced times. Literally slower: On Minnesota's last span, a sign reads, "$10 Fine for Driving Faster Than a Walk Across This Bridge.''

Only a few original bridges remain, but others have been reconstructed or built from scratch, often from salvaged timber. Many of the new covered bridges are over bicycle trails.

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Road trip: Bluff-country byways

Minnesota's southeast corner yields a cornucopia of treats and scenery.

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.

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Road trip: Southwest Minnesota

In the middle of the prairie, blood-red rock splits the sod, holding meaning far beyond the picturesque.

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.

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Road trip: 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: Black Hawk's trail

A sorry episode in U.S. history is recounted along the scenic byways of southwest Wisconsin.

In 1804, the clock began to tick for the Sauk and Fox tribes of southern Wisconsin and western Illinois.

That year, their chiefs signed a treaty ceding their lands in exchange for $1,000 per year in goods and the use of the land until the government sold it to settlers.

Tribal councils had not authorized the sale, and the chiefs soon regretted it, but they kept the bargain.

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Road trip: Southwest Wisconsin

A 170-mile loop winds past lead mines, a famous grotto and a brewery town.

Scratch the surface in southwest Wisconsin, and you'll find treasure.

In the 1820s, it took the form of lead ore that early miners, to their amazement, found at the grassroots. Lead and zinc made this area bustle when Milwaukee and Madison were just getting started, and one of its villages served as the territory's first capital.

Today, visitors to this corner of the state — just across the Illinois border and up  the Mississippi bluffs — find a lode of history in a beautiful landscape.

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Road trip: Wildflowers of the Mississippi Valley

A spring quest leads to Minnesota bluff country and Wisconsin river towns.

In May, the woods are full of people on the hunt.

Some are stalking morel mushrooms. Others are trying to bag a turkey or spot a rare warbler.

The rest of us are content to chase wildflowers. For one thing, we’re guaranteed success.

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Road trip: Northeast Iowa

In these scenic bluffs, extraordinary people lived and worked.

There's something inspiring about a certain pocket of northeast Iowa.

It's nurtured a a beloved children's-book author, a famous composer and two brilliant woodcarvers. It's stirred battalions of people who create art, preserve heirloom seed and carry on Norwegian culture.

There are a lot of stories in these hills and valleys on the edge of the Driftless Area, which escaped the flattening effects of the glaciers.

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Road trip: Breweries of southern Wisconsin

A beer-lover's tour taps into Old World flavors.

Fat Squirrel. Spotted Cow. Lazy Mutt. Uff-da.

Uff-da? In Wisconsin, say that and you get a great glass of beer. Anywhere else you get . . . a funny look.

Wisconsin may be full of cheeseheads. It may be a party state. But boy, are they drinking a lot of good beer there.

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