North by Midwest: Smallish Touristy Lake Towns
April 20, 2018 7:19 PM   Subscribe

Where are the under-the-radar, but thriving towns with a lake or river system as the main draw? I'd like it to be in fly-over country and north of Missouri. The Great Lakes are almost TOO great for this question. Think smaller.

Bonus points for:
Strong local identity
Arts or Cultural attractions
Nearby Forests
Good schools
posted by this-apoptosis to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think I'd say the river is the main draw in Yellow Springs, Ohio, but the Little Miami River is an important part of the nearby parks (and the eponymous springs, of course). The hiking in those parks is quite a draw. YS checks your other boxes as well.

Despite being on a Great Lake, Lakeside, Ohio also has a lot of what you're looking for (albeit in a completely different way than YS).

Traverse City is perhaps the best of the Great Lakes lake towns.

Check out Green Lake, Wisconsin, which is small but nice.

I think either the Finger Lakes or rural Minnesota are going to be the best answers, but I don't have firsthand experience with either.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:37 PM on April 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

Northfield Minnesota is on the Canon River, has a great little downtown and some fine schools due to the two excellent colleges in town.

Lanesboro Minnesota is a super cute small tourist town on the Root River. An amazing state bike trail goes through it and there are a bunch of bed and breakfasts there.

Decorah Iowa is also a great river town with a cute downtown and small liberal arts college.

Red Wing Minnesota is bigger than these others, but still small in most people’s minds.
posted by advicepig at 7:47 PM on April 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

Ithaca, upstate NY, finger lakes area. Bonus: gorges and waterfalls.
posted by sexyrobot at 7:53 PM on April 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

New York has lots of these around the Finger Lakes. Also Jamestown on Lake Chautauqua and small towns on lakes in the Adirondacks if you want the deep boonies. I assure you western NY is flyover.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 7:59 PM on April 20, 2018

Bonus: One of them is Skaneatles. Pronounced, apparently, skinny-atlas. But people also keep insisting that Dingus Day is a real thing so I dunno.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 7:59 PM on April 20, 2018

Stillwater, MN. It’s right on the St. Croix, is 20 minutes east of downtown St. Paul, has a very cute antiquey-boutiquey vibe, an excellent school system, and is within minutes of several regional reserves and general woodlands and boonies. The down side is that it tends to be full of wealthy, white, conservative people, but if you’re not one or more of those things, now’s your chance to blue it up a little.
posted by Autumnheart at 8:22 PM on April 20, 2018

(Stillwater grew up from a farming community so it’s not JUST rich white people by a long shot, but they are there, and there’s a certain amount of tony reputation attached to living there.)
posted by Autumnheart at 8:27 PM on April 20, 2018

Jamestown is the opposite of thriving, though.

How small of a town are you interested in? Yellow Springs is about the nicest little town as you’ll find anywhere and is within easy driving distance of Dayton, Cincinnati and Columbus. Marietta, Ohio might also fit the bill. It’s at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum Rivers, is near the hills of southeast Ohio and Wayne National Forest, and has a small college.
posted by plastic_animals at 8:40 PM on April 20, 2018

Skaneatles is a wonderful town, but it's pronounced "skinny-at-a-leez."

Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin and the other communities on the Door Peninsula (the Peninsula that creates Green Bay) fulfill your criteria. The towns on the Bay side don't feel like they're on a Great Lake, just a great lake. And Sturgeon Bay actually feels like it's on a river (a long, narrow bay segues into a canal).
posted by carmicha at 10:08 PM on April 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

Lake Wallenpaupack in Pennsylvania. It's in a corner of the state with year-round recreational business, i.e. skiing at Camelback, summers in the Poconos. I don't have a clue how properous any particular town is.
posted by SemiSalt at 6:09 AM on April 21, 2018

Brainerd, MN and the surrounding small towns in its vicinity are a good bet. Brainerd is in central Minnesota, straddles the Mississippi, and has a number of lakes in the area, making it pretty much Tourist Central in Minnesota. It's approximately two hours north of the Twin Cities. Small, but still large enough to have a lot of businesses, lots of rural/woods/lakes scenery, and plenty to see and do.

I know of a few artists who settled up there because there's enough tourist business to keep them busy, plus they're within an easy drive of Duluth, The Cities, and even Rochester for selling at community events and fairs in the region.

You might also want to check out the Galena, IL - Dubuque, IA area. Galena is like a smaller version of Stillwater, MN. Dubuque's right on the Mississippi. Both have a lot of old buildings and a great deal of charm. Dunno about the school systems, but that part of the upper Midwest - northeast Iowa, southwest Wisconsin, northwest Illinois - has some jaw-droppingly scenic areas.

I know "scenic Iowa" sounds like an oxymoron, but driving Highway 52 in the vicinity of Guttenberg Iowa will have you exclaiming over the scenery. (Speaking of which, Guttenberg is an extremely charming town right on the Mississippi, though it may be too small for your criteria). Guttenberg is oh, about thirty-forty miles north of Dubuque on Highway 52.

New Glarus, Wisconsin has the Sugar River and the New Glarus Brewing Company (Spotted Cow beer!), plus it's another amazingly scenic region, has a strong cultural identity (homesick Swiss immigrants founded it, finding the area looked a lot like home), and it's only about 30 miles away from Madison, Wisconsin. Only drawback is Gov. Walker and his GOP gang of thugs, but hopefully the citizens of that state have come to their senses and will vote them out.
posted by Lunaloon at 6:12 AM on April 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

Winona, Minnesota for Upper Mississippi river (delta?) life! Hopefully without glossing over too much or underselling: slightly depressed economy-wise with some industry, education, culture. They have a couple universities (WSU, St. Mary's, a technical college), and a lot of local arts and music stuff going on. Shakespeare and Beethoven festivals in the summer, Polish fest in the fall Midwest Music Fest going on right now. Lots of nearby wildlife areas, bluffs, hiking, parks. Schools seem decent, though there's a fight right now with public school budget stuff, building closures, extracurricular offerings, etc.

I think the town can seem a bit clannish at first to newcomers but people are friendly overall. There is a relaxed feel about it, but also like it's on the cusp of something-- there seems to be a lot of young active community members and a lot of downtown building/parks revival and restoration going on. There are also plenty of small touristy communities around it, like Lake City and Lanesboro and Fountain City, plus an easy drive to Red Wing, Rochester, La Crosse, Minneapolis/St Paul.
posted by pepper bird at 9:59 AM on April 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

The Iowa Great Lakes, consisting of
--Spirit Lake
--East Lake Okoboji
--West Lake Okoboji

Vacation Okoboji

As well as many other lakes directly adjacent to the big ones or scattered throughout NW Iowa.

The main cities of the Iowa Great Lakes community are from north to south, Spirit Lake, Okoboji, Arnolds Park, and Milford.
posted by Fukiyama at 5:42 PM on April 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Glen Arbor and Leeland Michigan are ridiculously awesome and small. You would fly into Traverse City and drive about 30 minutes. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is in Glen Arbor.
posted by jasondigitized at 7:11 PM on April 21, 2018

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