Uncommon Midwest road trips?
April 25, 2006 7:16 PM   Subscribe

The SO and I live in Chicago and have taken several road trips over the years. We're up for more, the problem is, we seem to have tapped out all the obvious choices.

A short list of our previous destinations include: Bourbon Country and Louisville, KY; Galena and Springfield, IL; Mall of America, MN; Columbus, IN; Cincinnati, OH; Madison, Milwaukee, The Dells and Lake Geneva, WI; St. Louis, MO; and Des Moines, IA. Nobody can say we haven't seen the buckle on the Bumpkin Belt.

We enjoy museums, small towns, thrift stores, tacky tourist attractions, natural wonders and great bargains! We can spend 4-5 days on the go and money really isn't the big issue. We love the Midwest; what's worth seeing that we haven't seen yet?
posted by CMichaelCook to Travel & Transportation (31 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oh yeah, and Saugatuck, MI, too.
posted by CMichaelCook at 7:21 PM on April 25, 2006

I might suggest some of the nooks & crannies of the Michigan U.P., especially along Lake Superior. Beautiful country.

We've been in this rut before, and it's not made any more easier by the fact that a lot of American culture is thoroughly homogenized from city to city.
posted by rolypolyman at 7:24 PM on April 25, 2006

Starved Rock State Park (IL) and the Pike's Peak/Effigy Mounds (IA) area are both nice.

On your way to Columbus, IN, did you stop in Brown County?

Decorah, IA, is another lovely area and it has the Seed Savers Farm.
posted by thirteenkiller at 7:28 PM on April 25, 2006

For tacky tourist attractions, there's Wall Drugs in South Dakota.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 7:34 PM on April 25, 2006

The Southwest is gorgeous, tacky, and full of wonder. Needles, Arizona has particularly good thrift shops. The Native American history of those deserts is fascinating. Moving north...Utah's national parks will make you cry with awe. The transition from the green of Colorado into the red of Utah is breathtaking out a car window.

Hope these destinations aren't too far away from your starting point for you. They're worth it.
posted by equipoise at 7:35 PM on April 25, 2006

to expand on the suggestions by the Yooper above... I'd go north along the eastern edge of Wisconsin through the cities and countryside there, through the zig-zag through the Upper Peninsula to Lake Michigan, and then go west along the top of Wisconsin. Specific points along the last leg of that route would be the Nicolet National Forest and areas around it, Lac du Flambeau, Bayfield, the Apostle Island National Lakeshore. This is all national wonders of the highest order. If you're into boating, sailing, kayaking, or wilderness walks it's the best. Lots of small town atmosphere.

Then either continue west through Duluth/Superior and go through some of the Iron Range/Boundary Water/etc. down to the Twin Cities and back to Chicago... There's a lot more to do in Mpls/St. Paul than the MOA, so you should, um, go back if that's all you did. The northern towns also have a lot of kitschy roadside attractions (Paul Bunyan) and random-ass museums.

...or head south from Bayfield through Hayward, and follow some of the rivers down through the Rice Lake/Eau Claire area. There's a great state park around Menomonie, antiquing and sailing around Stillwater MN/Hudson WI. Don't forget to stop by House on the Rock and that weird sign with the beef puns on your way through Madison back to Chicago.

(If none of the stuff in the thread ends up striking your fancy, you might also look for some of the books like "Weird US" and "Roadside America")
posted by whatzit at 7:36 PM on April 25, 2006

Crystal Lake Michigan. Our family has been vacationing there for 70 years.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:38 PM on April 25, 2006

Grand Marais, Minnesota, one of the stops on Minnesota's North Shore, as an example.
posted by gimonca at 7:45 PM on April 25, 2006

Maybe too far, but I have to suggest a road trip through New England, particularly Vermont & New Hampshire. I just moved here last year from California and I can't believe how beautiful it is, and how fun it is to just drive through all of the quaint little towns.
posted by pazazygeek at 7:56 PM on April 25, 2006

If you go throw the U.P., make sure you go to Mackinac Island. You could stay at The Grand Hotel, or just stop by and sit in one of the rockers. Traverse City would be a great stop, especially during the Cherry Festival. Remember, "Say Ya to da U.P., eh" commercials? Nuf said!
posted by 6:1 at 7:59 PM on April 25, 2006

err, through, not throw.
posted by 6:1 at 7:59 PM on April 25, 2006

Da Yoop. And northern Michigan. Take one of the Great Lakes Circle tours (these are not guided tours, but routes that follow the lakeshore with places of interest on the route). Mackinac Island is OK, if a bit tourist-trappy (don't go during the Yacht Races or Lilac Festival, unless you're really into people watching -- there are too many people to do anything else). Take the Soo Locks boat tour. See Pictured Rocks (south Lake Superior), or Sleeping Bear Dunes (east Lake Michigan -- although if you've been to Saugatuck there's no reason to have missed Sleeping Bear). Check out the iron boom ghost-town at Fayette State Park (north Lake Michigan). There's a Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Paradise, MI. While you're in the area, see Tahquamenon Falls.

Getting away from the upper Midwest, have you been to the Smoky Mountains? The Appalachian Trail? Mammoth Cave?
posted by jlkr at 8:14 PM on April 25, 2006

Western NY and the Finger Lakes
Toronto (ca. 8 hours)

Or, combine. Chicago to Toronto by way of Indiana, Kalamazoo, Flint, Port Huron/Sarnia, London, and Kitchener/Waterloo. Then down through Niagara and the Finger Lakes, back through Cleveland (or Dayton and hit the USAF Museum, complete with XB-70).
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:16 PM on April 25, 2006

I'm not sure this is uncommon, but I didn't see it on your list. Go to Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Preserve in the fall to see tens of thousands of sandhill cranes. It's not an extended roadtrip, though. I live in Chicago, and it only takes a few hours to get there.
posted by bleary at 8:22 PM on April 25, 2006

point beach state forest is a few hours north of milwaukee and is one of the most beautiful beaches on lake michigan. Theres dunes, gorgeous pine trees, a huge sweeping lighthouse at night--its a really magical and serene place to visit over the summer.
posted by Kifer85 at 8:23 PM on April 25, 2006

How about the midwests of Canada? Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta?

Admitedly, ... there's not much there...

Some interesting geoligical stuff in Alberta (dinosaurs and such). The Canadian shield (S and E parts of Ontario-ish) is also interesting, geologically. The maritimes/St. Laurence isn't *too* far away, either.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 8:36 PM on April 25, 2006

New Harmony, Indiana is amazingly cool.
posted by LarryC at 9:13 PM on April 25, 2006

Drive Route 66.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 9:16 PM on April 25, 2006

We enjoy museums, small towns, thrift stores, tacky tourist attractions, natural wonders and great bargains!

Do you like outsider art environments? That is, yards full of visionary creations by untrained artists--sculptures, grottos, and even buildings of personal importance and idiosyncratic motivation? You do? Great, because the Midwest is full of them. There's also the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, WI, which often runs exhibits featuring outsider art.

This thread is all about the weirdness of Wisconsin, and includes a lot of sites to see. I recommend the giant muskee in Hayward (come for the big fish, stay for the lumberjack competitions--and grab some heavenly pie at the Norske Nook), FAST Corp. in Sparta, The Circus World Museum in Baraboo (especially for the fantastic circus posters), and House on the Rock in Spring Green, and also Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesen, if you're getting tired of the tackiness. And a night in the Gemini capsule at the Don Q Inn is de rigueur.

(Actually, the Don Q is overpriced and run-down, and the restaurant was terrible. But I thought you should know it was there.)
posted by hydrophonic at 9:28 PM on April 25, 2006

If your SO was a fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder, many of the places she lived are in the upper midwest.
posted by brujita at 9:47 PM on April 25, 2006

You should hit Dubuque. The new museum (site briefly makes noise) is amazing and the Busted Lift on Main Street is possibly the best pub in the midwest. As far as riverboat casinos go, the one in DBQ feels the most "authentic." I don't think you'd want to spend 5 days there, but it's worth a day or two of your time.
posted by jaysus chris at 10:55 PM on April 25, 2006

If you're based in Chicago, and are fond of tourist traps, I'd have to second The house on the rock.
posted by Orb2069 at 4:20 AM on April 26, 2006

I second ROU_Xenophobe's Toronto route. And if you love tacky tourist attractions, definitely go to Clifton Hill in Niagara Falls. Haunted Houses and wax museums and wrestling attractions, all on one street!
posted by antifuse at 4:38 AM on April 26, 2006

Ann Arbor's not on your list? That seems like an obvious omission. Probably more of a weekend trip than a 4-5 day thing, though; and you

And yes, the Traverse City/Crystal Lake area is fantastic in the summer (my relatives have a cottage on the south shore of Crystal Lake.) Be sure to check out the Sleeping Bear Dunes.
posted by Johnny Assay at 5:55 AM on April 26, 2006

Another one for Da Yoop. It's boring until you hit Green Bay, but then the scenery gets nice until you reach Houghton, then it gets very nice. And, in midsummer, the weather is joyous.

Others -- drive west on I-80 (Boring) until you hit the river, then follow the Great River Road south, either to St. Louis (and I-55 back) or Cario (and I-57 back).

Or get South of St. Louis into the Ozarks and Big Spring country of Missouri. Don't do this at the height of summer, between the heat, the humidity and the chiggers, it'll be hell, but in early fall or late spring, it's amazing.

The Appalachins/Smokies are well worth it -- it's a bit of a haul to the Blue Ridge Parkway, but well worth it once you reach it. The Smokies aren't very high, in absolute terms, but they're very rugged and amazing to see.

If you really want mountains, and can stand the boredom to get there, a long trip is to the Front Range in Colorado, including Rocky Mountain National Park. In the park is US 36 between Estes Park and Grand Lake, the highest paved road in the US, topping out at about 12,800 feet above MSL. It's just amazing scenery, if you don't die of cornfield poisioning on the way there. (Personally, from Chi-town, I'd fly to Denver and rent rather than drive, but that's me.)
posted by eriko at 6:00 AM on April 26, 2006

Head along the Great River Road. There are tons of interesting spots to see along it’s length. Although you’ve been to a few cities on it’s path, there is so much more to be seen between the cities. I like southwest Wisconsin, of course I’m biased because I went to college there. Head up to Mineral Point, Darlington, Potosi, Boscobel and even up to Prairie du Chien. Priarie has some interesting festivals and is especially well known for it’s re-enactments. In mid-July they have a good re-enactment of a battle in the War of 1812 which happened at the old fort and the Rendezvous goes from June 15-18th. The rendezvous is a recreation of a fur trader’s encampment.

Many towns in the area have interesting festivals which really make travel more interesting. Here are a few links to help you plan:




posted by JJ86 at 6:52 AM on April 26, 2006

Response by poster: Wow, thanks for all the suggestions, MeFites. There's a couple years' worth of road trips here if we followed all these leads... and chances are we will. Sounds like there are a lot of great weekend trips here, too. I especially like the UP, Route 66 and Great River Road recommendations for our longer trip later on this year. Happy trails!
posted by CMichaelCook at 7:50 AM on April 26, 2006

For next year you might want to think about coming down to Champaign-Urbana for Ebertfest. I'd recommend it for this year, but it starts tonight. :)
posted by MsMolly at 9:22 AM on April 26, 2006

The Superman museum of metropolis illinois. And the casino down the street.
posted by rileyray3000 at 10:33 AM on April 26, 2006

Thanks for asking this question. I kept meaning to ask it myself, but I never remembered. This is so useful!
posted by sugarfish at 3:19 PM on April 26, 2006

should any of your trips take you to near osseo, rice lake, or hayward, wisconsin, a slice of pie at the Norske Nook is pretty much mandatory.
posted by andshewas at 10:04 AM on June 11, 2006

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