North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota ... go!
May 21, 2017 6:37 PM   Subscribe

So the Ferg fam is thinking about trying to do a road-trip vacation the middle two weeks in July - original thought had been a trailer-camping trip through South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, etc, but we've scratched that plan for this year due to the fact that we would have needed to plan it last year. So maybe that will be next summer. In the meantime, we have the travel bug, and time and (some) money, so are thinking about trying to do the eastern halves of North and South Dakota, Minnesota, and maybe Wisconsin. (Coming from Kansas City, MO.) We've been to Minneapolis, but never really anywhere else in any of those 4 states, so ... what do we need to see/do/know? MeFi has been awesome for prior trip planning, so any suggestions are appreciated.

The breakdown:
* Mrs. jferg and I are 40, kids are 9 & 11.
* We like all sorts of things - outdoorsy things, urban things, museum-y things, geeky things, foodie things, etc.
* Not so into sports, though we do like to try to hit an MLB game when we're near a stadium we haven't visited before.
* Leaning towards camping, or other outdoorsy types of lodging.
* Quirky, hole-in-the-wall, interesting places are always preferred. We have a general rule of "if it's something we could do at home, why do it on vacation?".
* Obviously cheaper is better but happy to pay a little more for a great experience.

We did a trip to Colorado a couple of years ago where we spent a few days in an AirBNB in Denver, and then camped for a week at RMNP, and had a great time.

So, lay it on us - recommendations for routes, places to stay, things to see, things to do - give us your best insider advice, yah?
posted by jferg to Travel & Transportation around Minnesota (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
We did a variation of this trip last year. Definitely Devil's Tower. Rushmore and the accompanying Crazy Horse memorial. The gift shop at crazy horse has very nice, spiral bound local cookbooks. But the biggest regret was not camping at Teddy Roosevelt park. That park is one of great jewels of national parks. The night sky is fabulous and you will see up close bison, horses, donkeys and lots of other things. The hiking was good, too.

Corn Palace was meh. Avoid Sturgis Motorcycle gathering if you can so see the calendar and see what works. The motorcycle folks are real nice but that gathering is huge and getting accommodations maybe more difficult with such a huge influx of people.
posted by jadepearl at 7:19 PM on May 21, 2017

Out of those states I've only been to Madison, WI and stayed at this campground which is a 5-mile bike ride to downtown. Taste of Madison was going on, so many noms were had. Not sure I'd drive through central IL again just for that, though (sorry).
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:19 PM on May 21, 2017

Northern WI and the Upper Peninsula are great. In fact, Duluth MN (warning: Telly Savalas) is a fun town, and the Lake Superior Circle tour can't be beat. The MN North Shore is amazing, and there aren't many places in the world like it. If you go to Grand Marais, eat at Sven and Ole's and then stay at the Gunflint Lodge. Go see the wolves at Wolf Ridge ELC, and have lunch at the Trestle Inn (The MN Burger is my favorite).

South Dakota is covered above, and in this ask.

I lived in Madison WI for years. It's nice enough. But if you want to see WI do this drive - the Trans WI Adventure Trail. The acronym is unfortunate, but it gets off the beaten path, and although mostly designed for motorcycles, you can find automobile diversions easily enough. There are Amish candy shoppes and wacky diners and all that jazz. I've driven it, and it is highly recommended.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 7:37 PM on May 21, 2017 [3 favorites]

If you are heading up I29, its a short hop to the Pipestone National Monument just northwest of Pipestone, MN.

There are also some amazing petroglyphs, some up to 7000 years old at the Jeffers Petroglyphs, which would be an interesting stop for a few hours as you head east toward Minneapolis from South Dakota.

On the way you could take a tour of the Schell's brewery in New Ulm, MN, the second oldest family owned brewery in the U.S.
posted by mygoditsbob at 8:52 PM on May 21, 2017

The Mississippi headwaters are in Minnesota. Beautiful with a lovely little visitors centre.

In North Dakota we followed US 2 and saw a few of these cheesy things -- the tire rim turtle and the geographical center of North America. Not must-sees but were fun.

Teddy Roosevelt National Park...heartily amazing and little-known national park.
posted by peanut butter milkshake at 10:00 PM on May 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

Did Mrs ferg read the Betsy-Tacy books? You can visit their houses in Mankato.
The Wanda Gág house in New Ulm.

Many of the Laura Ingalls Wilder sites
posted by brujita at 10:29 PM on May 21, 2017

Just jumping in to say, omg there are beautiful parts of Montana and Wyoming that are NOT the National Parks themseleves. I live in Montana and hike or cross country ski every week and almost never go into the national parks. Because they are super crowded and there are amazing beautiful places that are empty (and which you can make campground reservations two weeks beforehand). The parks are similarly beautiful but make me want to jump off a cliff because people keep blocking traffic for hours on end because omg there are two bison.
posted by Kalmya at 4:41 AM on May 22, 2017

We live in Minneapolis and love the state. My two highlights I try to get everyone out of town to see are Mystery Cave and Lanesboro. The cave tours are so cool. Not much else around there, so skip over to Lanesboro and float the Root River, ride some bikes, and make sure you stop for pie at the Aroma Pie Shop.
posted by advicepig at 7:09 AM on May 22, 2017

To be frank, the eastern halves of the Dakotas are not that exciting, scenery-wise. Once you leave Rapid City and head east, there are barely even trees. The western halves are beautiful, though. In Minnesota, the state parks have great camping facilities. If you have not been up to Duluth and the North Shore, I would recommend it. Gooseberry Falls, for example, has some of the oldest rocks in the world.
posted by soelo at 7:14 AM on May 22, 2017

Hello, from North Dakota!

Good move on eliminating Montana and/or Wyoming from this trip: adding those makes your target destination range HUGE, and your kids would quickly become tired of riding in the car.

It might be too early for you, but Sodbuster Days are July 8th and 9th, you can see reenactments of homesteading days, farming demonstrations, etc. (entrance fee)

The Red River Valley Fair in Fargo is during the first week of your visit, which is a bigger-than-average county fair with 4H exhibits and such. (entrance fee)

Also during this time is the Fargo Street Fair. (free, aside from food and other purchases)

If you want quirky -- there's no 'interpretive center' -- stop at the KVLY and KXJB towers, two of the tallest man-made objects in the world. (free)

There are good museums in Moorhead, Fargo, Abercrombie, and Fergus Falls -- Aside from Bonanzaville they are the usual county museums, with a dash of local history among other exhibits. Further down the 'quirky' path is the Roger Maris Museum, which occupies a hallway of the mall near a pet store and a walk-in clinic. Roger Maris (of 61* fame) was from the area; his grave is in North Fargo. (Roger Maris is free, the others have entrance fees)

The Fargo Horse Park is having a race on the 15th; it's pretty low-key, no Kentucky Derby hats and high-class style, but can be fun to watch the horses. (entrance fee, on-track gambling if you're into that)

Both Fargo and Grand Forks have regular "cruise nights" where people who collect/restore collectible cars show them off in the downtown areas; I think GF is either Tues or Wed, Fargo is Thurs or Sun. (free)

But, most stuff is going to be centered around Fargo or Grand Forks -- as someone else mentioned, the eastern half of North Dakota is pretty empty and uninspiring. If you like graveyards and ghost towns (not tourist-trap ghost towns, but dangerously delapidated abandoned buildings along the road), you have a lot to pick from. If you get further west, Bismarck, Jamestown, and Minot are all "big" communities with their own events going on, I didn't dig too much to the west.
posted by AzraelBrown at 9:02 AM on May 22, 2017 [3 favorites]

The Minnesota North Shore / Lake Superior Circle Tour is be amazing, but to do it right, you would have to plan it as a trip all in itself.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 9:10 AM on May 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you like baseball, you should definitely try to catch a St Paul Saints game. Minor League, really fun with all the stuff you expect from a minor league game (small park, cheap beer, games and hijinks between innings).

My favorite places in MN for a summer vacation are in the northern part of the state, which would be tough with that itinerary. If you'd prefer to stay in the southern part of the state, I love the area around LaCrosse - beautiful river bluff scenery, nice camping. I camped at the Great River Bluffs SP on the MN side and it was lovely. Car camping but peaceful even in the middle of the summer on a weekend.

Of course, you can always rent a cabin on a lake for a few days! Would be a nice break from the road and there's no shortage of options in MN, obviously (I was going to recommend a cabin resort I loved but sadly it seems to have closed).
posted by lunasol at 11:06 AM on May 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

Another for the MN North Shore! (Agreed; the circle tour is a trip in an of itself, but totally worth it.) Positively gorgeous, with camping along the lake, and more as you move west into the Iron Range. If you're up in Two Harbors, grab a slice at Betty's Pies. The Lemon Angel will change your life!
posted by BlueBear at 12:34 PM on May 22, 2017

I agree with trying to catch a St. Paul Saints game. Afton State Park is not that far from St. Paul and has campsites. There is also a herd of bison nearby that you can view.
posted by soelo at 2:32 PM on May 22, 2017

In western Minnesota, the Seven Clans casino in Thief River Falls has a nice water park.

In eastern SD the Porter Sculpture Park is groovy. A bull's head sculpture there is larger than a head of Mt Rushmore.

The Hjemkomst Center of Moorhead, Mn has a replica Viking ship that was really sailed to Norway. Building it was the last act of a man with cancer. Very touching.

Alexandria Mn has a museum for the Kensington Runestone, which may be the earliest artifact by a European in the new world. It reportedly was made by Norse (imagined as Vikings) in the 14th century. It may alternately be a forgery.

In Wi the House on the Rock is totally amazing and impossible to describe. It is in Spring Green.
posted by mortaddams at 8:00 PM on May 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

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