Midwest Vacation Guide 2015
Photo courtesy of Explore Minnesota
After patiently waiting for the spring thaw (didn’t this cold winter seem to go on forever?!), it’s prime vacation season in the Midwest. Turn off the computer and alarm clock and forget about deadlines and meetings and crossing items off that annoying never-ending “to-do” list.
Photo courtesy of Arrowwood Resort
What you get: An escape from the cold and snow (or the rain and mud) with waterslides, a lazy river, basketball hoops, a hot tub, a children’s play fort (and more) in the 38,000-square-foot Big Splash Indoor Waterpark, as wells as the on-site Darling Reflections Spa, The Lake Café, Rafters Lounge, family-friendly activities, views of Lake Darling, an arcade, and a large gym area—perfect for burning off energy. In the summer, there are evening campfire roasts, cruises on the lake, golf at Arrowwood’s Atikwa Golf Club, horseback riding, and a full-service marina.
Why go now: Spring break packages and specials run from March 1 to April 5 (check website for availability and details).
Where to stay: Accommodations range from guest rooms and suites to lakeside cottages and townhomes.
What to do in the area: Bike the Central Lakes Trail, hike in Lake Carlos State Park, visit Carlos Creek Winery or Panther Distillery, or head to downtown “Alec” for boutique shopping, the Runestone Museum (home to the famous Kensington Runestone), or the Minnesota Lakes Maritime Museum, with classic wooden boats on display.
Getting there: Arrowwood Resort is in Alexandria, an easy two-hour drive west of the Twin Cities metro off I-94.
Photo courtesy of Visit Bemidji
What you get: A cultural oasis in the heart of the wilderness—pristine lakes, towering pines, bald eagles, Lake Bemidji, the Mississippi River, family resorts, and opportunities for recreation, education, and entertainment. You also get statues of Paul Bunyan, the legendary lumberjack, and his companion, Babe the Blue Ox, named “Best Roadside Attraction in Minnesota” in a WCCO poll (and a top roadside attraction in Time and Midwest Living magazines). It’s one of the most photographed landmarks in the state.
Why go now: Spring brings more daylight hours, the ice thaws on the lakes—showing off sparkling open waters—and bike trails are open for business. The popular Paul Bunyan State Trail begins at Lake Bemidji State Park. According to Visit Bemidji, the city of Bemidji is home to one of the most scenic sections of the 110-mile trail, “winding through the forested state park, crossing the Mississippi River, and skirting the Lake Bemidji shoreline.” Spring is also a great time to see how maple syrup is harvested at Lake Bemidji State Park through DNR demonstrations.
Where to stay: There are nine major franchise hotel properties conveniently located near restaurants, shopping, paved trails and on the shore of Lake Bemidji, and a number of charming resorts in woodsy or lakeside locations.
What to do: “Get your photo taken with statues of Paul and Babe, of course,” says Susan Goudge, executive director of Visit Bemidji. Downtown Bemidji also has a wonderful chocolate shop, boutique shops, brewery, pubs, and fine dining. And if the weather is “iffy,” the hands-on Headwaters Science Center is a great indoor attraction, where families are encouraged to play while learning about science.
Getting there: The most scenic route to Bemidji is also the most direct—follow US Highway 10 northwest out of the Twin Cities area to Motley, then take Highway 64 north to Akeley. It’s about a four-hour drive from the Twin Cities.
Bluefin Bay on Lake Superior
Photo courtesy of Bluefin Bay
What you get: Upscale accommodations with spectacular views of Lake Superior (including those from a year-round outdoor pool and hot tub), guided activities, complimentary use of canoes, kayaks, and bikes, weekend yoga, and on-site dining.
Why go now: Waterfalls in the Lutsen-Tofte area are at their peak capacity, swelling and flowing dramatically during spring run-off. Spring is also when Bluefin Bay hosts the Spring Food & Wine Lovers Weekend, scheduled this year May 1-2. During this culinary celebration, guests enjoy a four-course dinner on Friday night, wine tasting Saturday afternoon, or five-course dinner Saturday night (or reserve space at all three!) Discounted lodging is available through the “Spring Fever Special,” three nights of lodging for the price of two.
Where to stay: Unwind in a guest room or suite featuring Jacuzzis and pillow-top beds, a ground level or second-story studio condominium with fully furnished kitchens and wood-burning fireplaces, or a luxury condo or townhome on the water’s edge.
What to do in the area: Hike to the nearby waterfalls, bike along the paved Gitchi-Gami Trail or along challenging singletrack at Britton Peak, go on a chartered fishing or sailboat excursion, or simply stay put and relax. For the ultimate in relaxation, book a hot stone massage at Waves of Superior Spa, just down the road. Bluefin Bay staff also lead organized kids’ activities and regular guided hikes, canoeing, and kayaking tours “to make sure guests have every opportunity to experience all the area has to offer,” says Lori Schaefer, marketing director, Bluefin Bay Family of Resorts. At the end of the day, treat yourself to s’mores around the campfire.
Getting there: Bluefin Bay is approximately 240 miles from Minneapolis in the Lutsen-Tofte area of the North Shore; 80 miles north of Duluth off Scenic Highway 61.
Photo courtesy of Fargo-Moorhead CVB
What you get: The largest city in North Dakota with a cultural and vibrant downtown, great shopping, and a reputation for great college football (accurate) and the namesake of the 1996 Coen brothers’ dark-comedy crime film Fargo, and the new Fargo miniseries on FX (not so accurate).
Why go now: “Fargo is known as the ‘City of Parks,’ and spring is a great time to see everything in bloom,” says Nicole Holden, marketing director. Spring is also when the city hosts the Fargo Marathon (May 7-9, 2015), the Junk Market May 8-9 featuring repurposed furniture and vintage pieces, and the annual Corks and Canvas: Art and Wine Walk retail event downtown, complete with lively entertainment, wine samples, and shopping deals. The Art and Wine Walk takes place on the second Thursday of every month from May through September.
Where to stay: Fargo-Moorhead and West Fargo offer over 5,500 sleeping rooms with a wide range of budget-friendly, extended stay, or boutique hotel options. Request a visitor’s guide for a complete list of hotels and amenities, or visit the website.
What to do: Downtown Fargo is a mix of historic buildings, breweries, galleries, independent restaurants, and quirky shops. According to Holden, it’s one of her favorite places to send out-of-town visitors. To really experience the city, she suggests renting a bike from their new bike share program and either exploring the riverfront paths to SoMa (that would be “south of Main Avenue” for non-locals), or heading across the river to downtown Moorhead—just a few blocks away. Moorhead is home to the Heritage Hjemkomst Interpretive Center museum, featuring a Viking ship and a replica of a Hopperstad Stave Church, quarterly museum exhibits, and county archives.
Getting there: The Fargo-Moorhead area is about 3.5 hours west of the Twin Cities off I-94.
Photo courtesy of Fergus Falls CVB
What you get: The Otter Tail River, Otto the Big Otter (a 40-foot long otter statue), the Central Lakes Bike Trail, small-town hospitality, the historic Kirkbride Building, and a well-earned reputation as the “cultural hub of West Central Minnesota” with several arts and culture organizations.
Why go now: “Our outdoor recreational opportunities are just waking up,” says Jean Bowman, executive director at Fergus Falls Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Birding, biking, and fishing are all popular, and the arts are strong year-round with galleries, public sculptures, a performing arts center, college theater, and more.”
Where to stay: There are seven hotels in the area, most with indoor pools, fitness centers, and free breakfast. The Best Western also has a restaurant/bar on-site and is connected to the Bigwood Event Center.
What to do: See a documentary, play, concert, or art reception at A Center for the Arts, go to an exhibit at the Otter Tail County Historical Museum or Prairie Wetlands Learning Center, shop or dine downtown, or check out the Kirkbride building, the former Fergus Falls state mental hospital, built in the early 1900s.
Getting there: Fergus Falls is about a 2.5-hour drive from the Twin Cities off I-94.
Hawks View Cottages
Photo courtesy of Hawks View Cottages
What you get: An enchanted two-story treehouse with “bird’s eye views” of the Mississippi River and historic Fountain City, Wisconsin, about 100 miles downstream from St. Paul.
Why go now: It’s a bird-watcher’s paradise in spring. This season is also great for biking down the Great River State Trail, exploring Merrick Park along the Mississippi, or escaping reality in a totally unique setting.
Where to stay: The five luxury bluff-side cottages feature a master suite, full kitchen, decks, porches, and whirlpool tub for two. Each cottage is located in a wooded site with dramatic views of the river.
What to do: Seven Hawks Vineyards, just a mile away, offers tastings. The Frontenac Reserve won a silver medal in the Minnesota Grape Growers Association International Cold Climate Wine Competition. The Nelson Cheese Factory, Monarch Pub House, and Kate & Gracie’s are popular spots nearby.
Getting there: Follow 94 East past St. Paul to 61 South. Follow 61 South to a left turn onto highway 10 (just North of Hastings). Follow highway 10 for three miles into Prescott, Wis. (You can also cross the river at Red Wing, Wabasha or Winona). Turn right onto highway 35 south at Prescott Follow 35 south all the way to Fountain City following the Mississippi River for the majority of the drive. (At the town of Nelson, highway 35 takes a 90-degree turn left. Follow the signs, but if you miss it and come to a bridge to cross the river, go back!) Continue south until you come into Fountain City. Seven Hawks Tasting Room is one block up from US 35 on US 95 (North Street).
Lutsen Resort and Sea Villas
Photo courtesy of Lutsen Resort
What you get: A historic Scandinavian lodge on the shore of Lake Superior, a lakeside dining room recognized by Wine Spectator magazine, a pub, pool complex, on-site spa, game room, disc golf, and pitch and putt golf. Complimentary activities include guided hikes, sea-kayak tours, fly-fishing, and kids’ programs.
Why go now: Most people assume the skiing/boarding season is over in March, but Lutsen Mountains typically stays open into April. As a matter of fact, it was selected to host the 2015 Midwest Extreme Snowmobile Challenge April 18-19. Spring is also the ideal time to “experience the raw power of North Shore waterfall season,” says Nancy Burns, owner, Lutsen Resort. Unique geologic formations created some of the best waterfalls on the North Shore, only about a 10-minute drive from the resort.
Where to stay: Accommodations range from rooms in the lodge to luxury Poplar River condos, Cliff House townhomes, lakeside sea villas, and log cabins.
What to do in the area: Hiking is great in early spring, when it’s not too hot, not too cold, and the trails aren’t overly crowded. (You might want to bring your hiking boots, though, in case the trails are muddy.) Choose from short hikes up to vistas overlooking the largest freshwater lake in the world to day-long excursions. The Lutsen area is home to some of the most beautiful sections of the 205-mile Superior Hiking Trail, following the rocky ridgeline above Lake Superior from Two Harbors to the Canadian border.
Getting there: The resort is a little more than four hours from the Twin Cities metro, off Highway 61 (90 minutes northeast of Duluth).
Photo courtesy of North Dakota Tourism
What you get: Unspoiled countryside (you can see for miles and miles), badlands, wildlife, museums and historic sites, friendly people.
Why go now: The spring weather—coupled with the blooming prairie—welcomes hikers, bikers, walkers, and birders to enjoy hundreds of miles of trails. Rivers and lakes thaw, including Devil’s Lake, one of the top fishing lakes in the U.S., and Lake Sakakawea, with more shoreline than California.
Where to stay: Medora, North Dakota. Camp in Theodore Roosevelt National Park or the town of Medora itself, or book a room at The Bunkhouse or the historic Rough Riders Hotel, featuring TR’s Tavern.
What to do in the area: “Medora is the Old West at it’s best,” says Kim Schmidt, public and media relations manager, North Dakota Department of Commerce - Tourism Division. Enjoy a pitchfork fondue steak or ‘cowboy cookout’ before watching the Medora Musical from the bluffs of the Badlands, visit the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame, or tour Medora’s eclectic gift shops, museums, and saloons. Popular attractions when traveling through North Dakota en route to Medora include the Fargo Air Museum, National Buffalo Museum in Jamestown, and North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum in Bismarck.
Getting there: Fargo is about a 3.5-hour drive from the Twin Cities off I-94; Medora is about four hours west of Fargo in the scenic North Dakota Badlands).
Photo courtesy of Vaction Okoboji
What you get: Affordable family fun, six natural lakes including West Lake Okoboji (one of only three blue-water lakes in the world), more than 12,000 acres and nearly 70 miles of shoreline (water recreation is a huge draw), and more than 60 miles of hard surface trails for cycling enthusiasts.
Why go now: “Take in beautiful scenic views from our bike trails or enjoy a quiet boat ride before the lake gets busy,” says Carina Woodward, director of tourism, Okoboji Tourism Committee.
Where to stay: Choose from small lake cabins, family-friendly resorts, or expansive convention hotels.
What to do in the area: Tour the local breweries in town—West O Beer and Okoboji Brewing Company—go shopping on Historic Hill Avenue, or check out the boutiques along Highway 71, the Central Emporium and Queen Court shops in Arnolds Park, or the Great Lakes Mall in Spirit Lake. Popular attractions include the Historic Arnolds Park Amusement Park (open May 16 through September 8, 2015) and Iowa Great Lakes Maritime Museum (open year-round).
Getting there: Okoboji, Iowa is about a three-hour drive from the Twin Cities metro. Request a free 2015 Vacation Okoboji guide by visiting vacationokoboji.com.
Ruttger's Birchmont Lodge
Photo courtesy of Ruttger's Birchmont Lodge
What you get: A family resort with a 100-year history of “old-fashioned hospitality” in Bemidji, on the northwest shore of beautiful Lake Bemidji.
Why go now: “It’s pretty quiet here in spring,” says Randy Ruttger, owner. “It’s a nice time to visit if you like to get away from things.”
Where to stay: Rooms in the main lodge, suites, or cottages dating back to the mid 1900s. “A lot of folks think this old resort—with all its history—is pretty cool,” says Ruttger. “Many of our guests have been coming for generations.” Adding to the appeal is an on-site restaurant, lounge, and lakeside patio (enjoy a glass of wine while the kids play 15 feet away on the beach), and a fitness center, indoor pool, sauna, whirlpool, and game area.
What to do in the area: Explore the Bog Walk at Lake Bemidji State Park, just one mile away, or head to Itasca State Park, the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Biking is also a popular pastime—you can rent a mountain bike or children’s bike from the resort if you don’t bring your own. Downtown Bemidji, a short drive away, is home to unique shops and Bemidji Brewing Company, a small craft brewery and taproom. In the summer months, the resort also offers a complimentary supervised children’s recreation program, six days a week.
Getting there: Ruttger’s Birchmont Lodge is about a four-hour drive from the Twin Cities, via US 10W and 64N.