As a native Minnesotan who loves to travel, I have been all around my great state as well as visited its neighbors South Dakota, Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois in the past three years. I know that’s not the technical five-state Midwest region, but it will have to do. With a family of four, airfare is just too expensive. Gas for the car isn’t cheap either. No matter, there is plenty to do and see right here in the Midwest.
If you’re headed toward the middle of the United States, allow me to share the Midwestern journeys my husband and I have been on since we got married in 2010. The majority of the trips were family vacations with my two teenage daughters, but we managed to sneak away a few times on our own when the girls were gone at camp. We spent at least one night at all the locations I cover in this article.
Duluth is a large shipping town on the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin. It is the fourth largest city in the state. A visit to Duluth means spending time walking the shores of Lake Superior watching the ships sailing in and out. The Aerial Lift Bridge is a major attraction in the city. It rises to allow ships to pass underneath. Other attractions include the Railroad Museum, Enger Lookout Tower and the Glensheen Mansion. We have been to Duluth three times in three years and we never get tired of it.
Grand Marais is a quaint Minnesota town less than an hour from the Canadian border. Lake Superior runs the distance of the entire North Shore of Minnesota before spilling into Thunder Bay, Ontario and ending in Michigan. To get to Grand Marais, tourists travel up Highway 61, also known as North Shore Scenic Drive. The scenery is beautiful in all four seasons. The Gunflint Trail, which is the beginning of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, starts in Grand Marais. For a town with a population of only 1,300 people, Grand Marais is a huge tourist attraction.
Two Harbors is approximately 45 minutes north of Duluth. It is also part of Minnesota’s spectacular North Shore. There are three state parks all within several miles of town. These include Split Rock State Park and Lighthouse, Gooseberry Falls and Tettegouche State Park. We went to Two Harbors in both the summer and winter and had very different experiences. During the summer trip, we got to tour Split Rock Lighthouse. We took photos of the waterfalls at Gooseberry Falls in the summer and winter. It’s awe-inspiring to see that much water frozen into ice.
Winona is located in southern Minnesota and is as far south as Grand Marais is north. Sugar Loaf Mountain, the only mountain in the state, is located in Winona. Great River Bluffs State Park provides visitors with an overview of the entire city. The Red River Valley below is a natural habitat for eagles, hawks and waterfowl. It is a site to behold when leaves change colors in the fall. The park also features walking trails in the summer and cross-country skiing in the winter.
Interior is the strangely-named city where the Badlands are located.
This park, which is set on 250,000 square feet of land, attracts tourists from across the globe. The Badlands contains mountains and rock formations that have existed for thousands of years. Due to geological deposits from erosion and rich soil conditions, most of the mountains and rock formations are decorated with gold rings across the top. Wild animals are said to roam through the Badlands, although we didn’t see any.
Rapid City is the home of the world-famous Mount Rushmore. The mountain contains the likenesses of presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. I remember going to Mount Rushmore when I was around five years old and referring to it as the four-faced mountain. It is an impressive landmark that took 400 people over 14 years to complete.
Wall Perhaps you have seen the bumper sticker that asks where the hell is Wall Drug? It is nowhere other than Wall, South Dakota and do the locals ever hype up this tourist attraction. Actually, Wall Drug is more than just a drugstore. It is 76,000 feet of pure kitsch. There is a diner, drugstore, souvenir shops, oodles of wax statues and so much more. Not bad for a town of 300 people.
Green Bay is located in the center of the state and is near the border of Wisconsin and Michigan. It is the state’s third-largest city. We stayed overnight in Green Bay on our way to Mackinac Island last summer. The only thing we had time to do was drive by Lambeau Field where the Green Bay Packers play, the rival of the Minnesota Vikings. We also went to the Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary and got to see some unique species up close and personal.
Spring Green is a small town of approximately 1,600 people in the southern part on the state. We went there for the sole purpose of going to the House on the Rock and seeing some of the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. The House on the Rock is literally a mansion built on top of a rock high above the city. It features collectibles from across the world and has several themed rooms. Some of these include the Carousel Room, Infinity Room, Tribute to Nostalgia and the Music of Yesteryear.
Mackinac Island was our only stop in Michigan and it was a fun one. We had a blast staying on the island for three nights in August 2012. Cars are not allowed on the island, so this left horses, walking and bikes as the primary modes of transportation. We toured the Grand Hotel, which is called that for a reason. Celebrities go there to hide and rooms can run up to $1,000 a night. We also went to Fort Mackinac. Mackinac Island is on Lake Huron and the Straits of Michigan. The kids enjoyed getting me and their stepdad up on horses for a trail ride.
Chicago By now, you’ve probably gathered that I like vacations that are a combination of quiet, historical and picturesque. Chicago doesn’t exactly meet this description. However, my husband had never been there and I wanted him to see the big city. We spent three nights in Chicago and didn’t have a vehicle with us due to our fear of big city driving. The main attractions that we visited included the Sears Tower (now called Willis Tower) and Navy Pier. Sears Tower offers a spectacular view of the city from 110 stories up. Navy Pier was so crowded we couldn’t sit down for lunch, but we enjoyed seeing the old-time Ferris wheel and walking the pier. Our hotel was actually in Burr Ridge, so we went to the city every day by train, a new experience for both of us.