You may only get a week or so each summer to explore the Upper Midwest’s top destinations, but it can take years to fully enjoy what they have to offer. And just when you think you’ve seen it all, something new pops up. Just in time for road-trip season, here’s a look at what not to miss in four popular regional destinations.
Brainerd: No swimsuit needed
Parakeets perch in vibrant rows of neon yellow, green and blue until a 12-year-old girl wields a birdseed-coated Popsicle stick. In a blur of color, three of them swoop down, seeking treats at Safari North outside Brainerd, Minn.
While the Brainerd area’s hundreds of lakes make it a top destination for fishing and on-the-water fun, Safari North is one of many attractions that don’t involve sand in the toes or the whiff of fish on the fingers. Here are a few favorite stops:
Safari North: Take some cash for the extras, such as camel rides or feeding a giraffe at this outdoor zoo with alligators, lemurs, goats, black bear, kangaroo, oryx, kudu and more (1-218-454-1662; safarinorth.com).
Kids’ races: For a nostalgic free activity, head to nearby Nisswa for Wednesday afternoon turtle races, a weekly summer tradition since the 1960s (1-218-963-2620; nisswa.com). In Pine River, you can race duck decoys down the river near the dam on Friday afternoons (1-218-587-4000; pinerivermn.com).
Sweet boutiques: Shoppers seek vacation attire and souvenirs at outlets such as Christmas Point in Brainerd and Itasca Moccasin, Zaiser’s and the Chocolate Ox in Nisswa.
Paul Bunyan Trail: Cyclists can follow this paved route from Brainerd north to Nisswa, Pequot Lakes, Pine River and Walker before reaching 123 miles to Lake Bemidji State Park (paulbunyantrail.com).
Zipline Ski Gull: Winter’s ski runs become home to the Brainerd Zipline Tour, with a 15-mile view from the highest of seven sections, which end in an optional 50-foot freefall (1-218-656-1111; ziplinemn.com).
Brainerd International Raceway: While the 36th Annual Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals (Aug. 17-20) fill the region with revved-up race fans, it’s less crowded and more family-friendly during the season’s smaller events, such as Wednesday Night Drags or Bracket Drag Racing weekends (1-866-444-4455; brainerdraceway.com).
More information: 1-800-450-2838; visitbrainerdlakes.com.
Wisconsin Dells Area: Classic grown-up attractions
Spring-fed water shimmers at Devil’s Lake State Park near Baraboo, Wis., 20 minutes from Wisconsin Dells. The beach beckons, but experienced travelers head straight to trails that ascend 500-foot wooded cliffs. Paths pass 25-foot-tall rocks, wind through outcrops and thread narrow passages before reaching one of Wisconsin’s most scenic vistas.
The trails offer a serene detour from the Dells’ gimmicky attractions and scream-worthy thrills, while reminding visitors it was postcard views —rock formations like chimneys, deep gorges and dewy grottos — that began drawing people to the area in the first place.
Here are some Wisconsin Dells destinations that sidestep the water parks.
H.H. Bennett Studio: This 1880s photographer played a pivotal role in luring tourists to the Dells with a pioneering stop-action shot of his son leaping across a chasm to Stand Rock, and other scenic portraits. See his vintage work at his original studio downtown (1-608-253-3523; hhbennettstudio.wisconsinhistory.org).
Circus World: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey are ending “The Greatest Show on Earth” after 146 years, but this museum in Baraboo preserves some of the magic with historic displays, elaborate circus wagons, costumes and more in what was once the circus’ winter quarters (1-608-356-8341; circusworldbaraboo.org).
DIY happy hour: Look for local brews (Dells Brewing Co.), wines (Fawn Creek Winery) or spirits (Driftless Glen Distillery) and pair them with award-winning cheeses from Carr Valley Cheese, including Mobay (goat and sheep’s milk cheese layered together) or cocoa Cardona (goat cheese dusted with cocoa).
Sundara Inn Spa: Considered one of the nation’s top luxury spas, this adults-only destination offers pampered escapes with massages, a heated outdoor infinity pool and meditation walk in its wooded setting (1-608-253-9200; sundaraspa.com).
Golf: Find championship courses near the Dells’ biggest resorts, including Wild Rock at Wilderness Resort, the 27-hole Trappers Turn, Christmas Mountain Village or Cold Water Canyon at Chula Vista Resort.
Seek a supper club: A giant Norway pine grows right through the middle of Ishnala Supper Club, a historic log lodge serving prime rib and Old Fashioneds from its perch above Mirror Lake (1-608-253-1771; ishnala.com).
More information: 1-800-223-3557, wisdells.com.
Door County: Orchards & farms serve up family fun
Repeat visitors to Door County’s The Farm, 4 miles north of Sturgeon Bay, Wis., beeline for bags of corn feed and baby bottles near the entrance. Then the door swings open and gangly baby goats and lambs surge forward, joyously greeting new arrivals, jumping up, guzzling from bottles and playfully prancing.
Horses graze in fields, donkeys bray and a white cow turns big brown eyes on little visitors while the Nature Cabin fills with folks watching chicks hatch among a dozen historic farm buildings.
The Farm was part of a 77-acre fruit orchard in the late 1890s on this thumb of land jutting into Lake Michigan. Door County visitors can still find acres of orchards and farms along with stellar parks, fish (or lobster) boils, and art galleries in harbor towns and along the 300 miles of coastline.
Here are some of the best options if you have kids in tow:
The Farm: Be prepared to spend a few hours, with kittens to cuddle, tractors to climb and goats to milk (1-920-743-6666; thefarmindoorcounty.com).
Door County Creamery: Goats have an even bigger starring role at this Sister Bay bistro, with artisanal cheeses and gelato made with fresh goat’s milk from their farm (1-920-854-3388; doorcountycreamery.com).
Choose cherries: Stock up on all things cherry at Lautenbach’s Orchard Country Winery and Market near Fish Creek: jams, jellies, brats, wine, juices and even fresh picked fruit with good timing (1-920-868-3479; orchardcountry.com).
Climb dunes, take a swim: For great beaches, try Whitefish Dunes State Park on the peninsula’s Lake Michigan side or Sister Bay Beach on the Green Bay side.
Go old-fashioned: If visiting Ephraim or nearby Peninsula State Park, it’s a good idea to stop in Wilson’s Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlor for a sweet treat and a chance to stroll along the pretty harbor (1-920-854-2041; wilsonsicecream.com).
Paddle to caves: Get up close to shoreline caves and enjoy the Lake Michigan scenery with Door County Kayak Tours. Packages can include ziplining (1-920-868-1400; doorcountykayaktours.com).
Lunch by train: At PC Junction in Bailey’s Harbor, model trains deliver burger and brat baskets and cherry sodas to kids and parents. Grab a spot at the bar, constructed from old doors (1-920-839-2048; pcjunctiondoorcounty.com).
More information: 1-920-743-4456, doorcounty.com.
Black Hills: The best wildlife & scenic stops
The 3½-mile trek up to 7,244-foot Black Elk Peak rewards hikers with South Dakota’s most sweeping, majestic view across granite peaks and the thick Black Hills National Forest. Formerly known as Harney Peak, it’s a hike worthy of a bucket list, but it only requires a few hours to complete, starting from Sylvan Lake, one of the most scenic spots in the Black Hills and Custer State Park. Here are other places to enjoy some of the Black Hills region’s most spectacular scenery and wildlife:
Views from the city: The landmark Hotel Alex Johnson in Rapid City, S.D., offers a dose of presidential history, 143 newly remodeled rooms for its rebranding as part of the Curio collection by Hilton, and the swankiest views from its Vertex Sky Bar on the top two floors (1-605-342-1210; alexjohnson.com).
Climb a butte: While Sturgis, S.D., is best known for the motorcycle rally now in its 77th year, nearby Bear Butte State Park offers a dose of serenity and expansive views from a 1,200-foot-tall butte. It’s considered sacred by plains tribes whose members leave pieces of cloth or pouches tied in branches after prayers (1-605-347-5240; gfp.sd.go/state-parks).
Drive to the fire tower: Travelers on a tight timeline can drive up to Custer State Park’s Mount Coolidge Fire Tower for great views. The nearby Heddy Draw Overlook and picnic area offers views of the Badlands on clear days (1-605-255-4515; gfp.sd.go/state-parks).
Cruise the Hills: Choose the Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road for stunning highway engineering that loops past funky rock formations and through tunnels that perfectly frame Mount Rushmore. The Sylvan Lake area is best for sighting mountain goats, while the Blue Bell Lodge area is good for bighorn sheep. Take Custer State Park’s 18-mile Wildlife Loop early in the morning or in the evening to see antelope, bison, prairie dog towns and wild burros that nose their way into open vehicles for handouts (1-605-255-4515; gfp.sd.go/state-parks).
Climb the rocks: The Black Hills features more than 600 quality climbs, from the epic Needle’s Eye to easier granite spires. Sylvan Rocks Climbing School and Guide Service offers beginner to advance treks (1-605-484-7585; sylvanrocks.com).
More information: 1-605-355-3700, blackhillsbadlands.com.
Lisa Meyers McClintick wrote “Day Trips From the Twin Cities” and “The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path.”