In the southeast corner of Wisconsin, Lake Geneva has been welcoming wealthy Chicagoans for 150 years. They came, they built fabulous mansions, and now the rest of us get to gawk at them from a footpath that hugs all 20 miles of shoreline.
When to go: Now, when it's still fairly quiet. July and August are crowded, especially on weekends.
What to do: Walk around Geneva Lake; if you want to walk only the eight miles from Lake Geneva, an excursion boat will pick you up in Williams Bay. Shop downtown. Rent a kayak, canoe or stand-up paddleboard. Go on a narrated lake tour. Swim at the municipal beach or rent a motorboat.
Details: For more, see Gawking in Lake Geneva.
Past fast plans: Touring Trempealeau, Door County spring, Horicon Marsh birds, Escape to Stillwater, Spring in Galena
Fort Michilimackinac Pageant in Mackinaw City, Mich.
This free pageant at Colonial Michilimackinac (pictured) features a cast of more
than 400 reenactors plus 18th-century fashion
shows, voyageur contests, kids' games and a 1 p.m. Saturday parade. May
North Iowa Band Festival in Mason City, Iowa. There's a carnival, craft show and car cruise, but don't miss the 10 a.m. Saturday band parade in the town made famous by "The Music Man.'' May 2327.
World's Largest Brat Fest in Madison, Wis. There's music on four stages, the world's largest touring grill, the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile, carnival rides and Sunday fireworks. Admission is free. May 2427.
For more festivals, see our Events Calendar.
In early June, the state parks of Wisconsin and Minnesota want to show you a good time.
June 2 is open house in Wisconsin parks, with free admission, and June 1 is National Trails Day; use of Wisconsin trails is free both days. In Minnesota, June 8 is open house in Minnesota parks and also National Get Outdoors Day.
There's a lot going on try out kayaks, learn archery, go on a guided hike or tour a lighthouse. Fishing is free on the same weekends, and admission to some historic sites is free or discounted.
In summer, its not as hard as youd think to take a trip for $125 or less.
Many of the great travel experiences in the Upper Midwest cant be bought, anyway bicycling amid old-growth white pines, paddling in the sloughs of the Mississippi, volunteering in a lighthouse.
It's not Six Flags, but a family of six can play in Lake Superior waterfalls and learn to camp for $40. Women can spend a weekend kayaking on the Rum River for $75, and a couple can stay in a rustic national-forest cabin for $40, if not at a lake resort . . . wait, they can stay at a lake resort.
Here's our list of best cheap trips in 2013.
In nature, bogs are the coral reefs of the north woods.
They're wet, spongy and seething with life that's often too small to see unless you look closely. Lean over the boardwalk, and you'll get a better view of sparkly goldthread or the lacy needles of baby tamarack.
But looks can be deceiving in a bog. Flowers that seem delicate are relentless predators, attracting flies to patterned red leaves that resemble engorged arteries, then drowning and digesting them.
The daintiest of the orchids have oddly menacing names: dragon's mouth, adder's mouth.
If you'd like to enter the world of the bog, many flowers are at peak in early summer.
When delicate spring wildflowers appear, it means winter finally is over.
No wonder we love them so much. But they're ephemeral here today, gone tomorrow.
So if you want a good dose of them, head for a place where you know they'll be.
One well-known hot spot is Nerstrand Big Woods State Park in southern Minnesota. The first time I went, I saw trout lilies, spring beauties, violets, hepatica, bloodroot and rue anemone before I was even out of the picnic area.
They're not uncommon, but they won't grow just anywhere. They like Nerstrand because its maple-basswood forest, Minnesota's largest remnant of what early settlers called the Big Woods, give them a good habitat.
There's only one good thing about a "spring'' that includes blizzards in April.
that extra snow means extra-impressive waterfalls when the snow melts.
One of the easiest places to see lots of big waterfalls is along Minnesota's North Shore, where dozens of rivers roar down into Lake Superior. Where there's water, there's a waterfall.
When's the best time to go? As soon as ice melts, of course.
There's nothing like finding the perfect campsite.
I look for them wherever I go, and when I was at Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest, one of the most popular campgrounds in Wisconsin, I found it: Campsite 435.
It's framed but not enclosed by trees, has a lovely view of Crystal Lake and is on the edge of its sand beach. It's near the shower house and not too close to latrines, easy to reach but not heavily trafficked and off a paved bicycle trail to nearby towns.
A family from Rhinelander had reserved it for an August weekend, less than two weeks before they arrived.
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