3 mini-vacations in the Midwest that offer spectacular scenery and won't break the bank
Great River Road around Lake Pepin
Some visitors to the Mississippi Valley hike or bike, bird watch or fish. Our plan: Meander by car, stopping to shop, eat, walk and relax, and see how far we get along the Lake Pepin loop.
In Maiden Rock, my husband and I braked for Cultural Cloth and sampled a sugar cookie with lavender and ginger from the Smiling Pelican Bakeshop next door. Since the pandemic, the owner bakes all week, then, Saturdays only, sets goodies on the porch, trusting customers to leave the right payment. Lines form before 9 a.m. and she’s typically sold out by 10:30 a.m., so plan ahead.
A short drive and scenic overlook later, we reached Stockholm Pie and General Store, a must if you’re traveling with kids. That’s because of the inviting fill-your-own-bag candy and marble offerings for less than $2. (Note: Bring your own hand sanitizer.)
In Pepin, Derick and Julianne Dahlen used visits to Italy as inspiration for Villa Bellezza, an event center and complex including vineyards, tasting room, restaurant — and chapel. Sit distanced outside at the piazza, complete with burbling water fountain, and order wine made from grapes grown on site to pair with a cheese plate or pizza.
Other eating options include longtime favorite the Harbor View Cafe, still known for fresh, seasonal cooking. When we visited, indoor seating was limited due to COVID, but takeout orders were available to eat on the patio. A less expensive option is E&S Fresh Market, an old-fashioned country store. Head back to the meat counter, where they’ll custom-make your sandwich for less than $5, then walk to the beach to sit under towering cottonwoods to enjoy it.
Farther south, in Alma, a pretty path coils up to Buena Vista Park, where your climb to the bluff top is rewarded with spectacular views of the river (including Lock and Dam No. 4) and its backwaters below. Don’t miss the Commercial Gallery, run by Kristine Kjos, a weaver and seamstress. She has curated works by local artists and sells her own creations, from silk face masks and delicate shawls to linen hand towels. Look for her loom set up near the cash register.
When you reach Nelson before crossing the river, pop into Nelson’s Creamery, known for its cheese selection. A side room offers wine for tasting and purchase. There’s also a cart selling ice cream cones. Eat what you buy on the shaded back patio while you visit with the house cats.
On the Minnesota side of Lake Pepin, the road brings you closer to the water so the river feels more alive, buzzing with boats. Keep an eye out for signs to Reads Landing, a brewery with yet another inviting patio beckoning you to sit awhile.
Our next stop at Hok Si La park to stretch and survey the beach convinced us it would make a nice day destination all on its own.
By the time we maneuvered Lake City and its charming marina, then in the middle of major road construction, we decided to call it a day. Wiser visitors might pick up the pace to make time for Wabasha, or Old Frontenac and the expanded state park there, or Red Wing, with its famed Barn Bluff hike and views. A better idea is to split the loop and take one leisurely side of Pepin at a time, with an overnight rest in between. Options abound, along with those amazing river views.
— Sue Campbell
“This is even better than Minnesota,” my friend Laura says midway through a blissful day of hiking from one gorgeous waterfall to another.
It sounds like heresy to lovers of Gooseberry and Tettegouche falls, but you can chase — and find — beautifully flowing water by driving east past Bayfield, Wis., and crossing into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
We left the Twin Cities on a Friday evening and reached our cabin rentalabout four and a half hours later.
Saturday morning, we cooked breakfast, packed snacks and headed straight to the Black River, where the North Country Trail runs alongside the water. Serious hikers can park at the trailhead for the nearly 6-mile descent to Lake Superior. We opted to drive the distance, stopping at designated lots near each of five falls, then following well-marked trails and the increasing roar of the water to observation decks, where we were awed by the rushing, tannin-darkened water below. Each stop revealed a new perspective on the surrounding Ottawa National Forest and the cliffs and boulders edging the water, and each set of falls had its own personality.
From Great Conglomerate, to Potawatomi to Gorge falls, we strolled down then panted and puffed our way back up. At Sandstone, we ventured onto rocks jutting into the river to bask in the sun and watch fellow travelers make daring leaps to plant themselves farther from shore. At Rainbow Falls, the spray of the water sparkled in colorful arcs.
After seeing that last fall, we continued to Black River Harbor Recreation Area, where we crossed a suspension bridge that swayed beneath us and followed a path to a sandy Lake Superior beach, where a few hardy souls swam and others sat in groups dotting the shore.
The next day we headed to the Presque Isle River, on the western edge of the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. As we approached another suspension bridge, the river felt narrower and steeper. A sign warned of strong currents and dangerous undertows and told us not to swim (or fall) in the water. It’s easy to forget any danger, walking through the magical old-growth forest on a boardwalk lined with delicate ferns and dainty wildflowers. To find the falls, we headed upriver on the West River Trail, noting the pronounced potholes formed over years of water eroding rock.
When we had looked, listened and relaxed, we walked back to cross the bridge and head downstream. Once again, we landed at a Lake Superior beach, this one narrow, rocky and rugged with a calm bay where we watched a family of ducks swim and dive for food.
A trip here pairs nicely with a drive deeper into the park, to Lake of the Clouds, tucked between two Porcupine ridges and known for its beautiful, calm blue waters that reflect the sky above. There’s a hiking path connecting the escarpment, which draws lots of tourists for the view, to the lake below, which tends to be less crowded.
We headed back to the cities that night, wishing we could have stayed just one more day in this self-proclaimed God’s Country, but happy for the magic worked on our minds by the fast-moving waters.
Stay: We looked up rentals through Big Snow resort, which runs Blackjack and Indianhead mountain ski areas in Wakefield. Lodge rooms also available, and rates are discounted during the offseason.
Eat and drink: Jagger’s Ore House in the old mining town of Ramsay serves up big portions of pizza and pub food. Sky Bar Mountaintop Grill in Wakefield is known for fish fry Fridays and stellar views. Merriweather’s Hoop ’n Holler Tavern offers calming Lake Gogebic views. And the bartenders are friendly at tiny, vintage Nora’s Bar & Red Carpet Lounge in Hurley, Wis. If you Airbnb, the Super One Foods in Ironwood has wide offerings and masked employees and shoppers.
— Sue Campbell
If you’re itching for a laid-back overnight trip, head south. Less than three hours from the Twin Cities — and a straight shot down U.S. Hwy. 52 — Decorah is the perfect place for a scenic game of Choose Your Own Adventure.
For the active: If you’re a cyclist, be sure to pack yours (or rent one from Decorah Bicycles) to take advantage of Decorah’s many trails. The impressive 11-mile Trout Run Trail circles the city, following the Upper Iowa River and crisscrossing trout streams. There’s a variety of terrain and scenery along the way — including public art sculptures — and the trail is equally suited for walkers and wheelchairs.
Volunteers with Decorah Human Powered Trails maintain more than 26 miles of off-road trails for mountain biking — the river and bluffs make Decorah a surprising destination. Trails such as Palisades, Van Peenen and Dunning are as popular with hikers and trail runners as they are bikers.
If you still have energy on the way home, add the Cannon Valley Trail to your itinerary. There’s a trailhead for the 20-mile loop in Cannon Falls, and the trail winds through Welch and Red Wing for peak fall color viewing.
For the nature lover: Minnesota has lakes, Decorah has the Upper Iowa River. We have Minnehaha Falls, Decorah answers with Malanaphy and Dunning springs.
They say Malanaphy Springs is best viewed from the river, but it can be equally picturesque on foot. The mile-long walk to the falls isn’t smooth — choose your shoes accordingly — and pack a lunch for a scenic picnic. The state preserve is also a forest, with hundreds of native plants to admire.
Dunning Springs Park is an easy walk, and it’s nearly impossible to not stick your toe in the running water. Admire the falls from below, or cross the stone bridge and climb the steps for a different view. Before leaving, head down the road to the Decorah Ice Cave State Preserve. It’s exactly what it sounds like — a cave with ice deposits well into summer. You can learn about its fascinating history, but you can’t go too far into the cave due to safety concerns. Don’t forget a flashlight.
Siewers Springs is home to the Decorah Fish Hatchery, where you can see trout being raised for release into area streams. Try your hand at fishing in the springs across the street, where you’ll also find the city’s famous eagle nest (or catch them on the live cam). The area has plenty of parking, a bathroom and is on the Trout Run Trail, making it a good place to start or end your day.
For the meandering: Downtown Decorah’s crown jewel, the Vesterheim Norwegian American Museum, was closed when we visited, but we’re eager to return to see its extensive collection of Norwegian American artifacts. The main building replicates life in 19th-century Norway and, just outside, Heritage Park has a collection of historic buildings. Plan a trip when the museum’s folk-art school reopens, and visit the store for cozy sweaters and plenty of Uff Da tchotchkes.
Water Street’s shops range from the independent Dragonfly Books to the gallery Agora Arts, a downtown fixture for decades. You’ll also find antiques, a leather shop, clothing boutiques, a toy store and the Blue Heron Knittery, among others, along with coffee shops, restaurants and the Oneota Co-op, where you can pick up picnic supplies.
Finish your stroll at the historic Hotel Winneshiek, built in 1904. Stay the night, pop in for a drink at the bar and if you’re lucky, sneak a peek at the Opera House, with its original tin walls and ceiling.
Wherever your adventure leads, plan a stop at one of the area’s wineries or breweries — we were fans of Toppling Goliath Brewing Co. And for a nostalgic nightcap? Stand in line at the no-frills Whippy Dip ice cream stand, dishing up soft serve since 1954.
— Nicole Hvidsten
Sue Campbell is the managing editor for features. Her teams cover lifestyle, arts & entertainment, food & drink, home & garden, travel and books. Sue also edits the quarterly Star Tribune magazine.
email@example.com 612-673-4032 SuePCampbell
Nicole Ploumen Hvidsten is an editor and design director for the Star Tribune. She's worked as a reporter, copy editor and designer before settling into her roles as a designer and editor for the Star Tribune Magazine.