MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Cheap fall getaways

Here are 20 places to enjoy autumn colors without going into the red.

Boats on Winona's backwaters.

Beth Gauper

Boats putter through Winona's backwaters.

Fall is the busiest travel season of the year — we all know the nice days are numbered, and we're going to try our darndest to make them count.

But with pretty much everyone heading out to look for fall color, especially on weekends, there are few bargains.

That's why those of us on a budget look to our old friends: the parks, the mom-and-pop motels, the environmental centers, the hostels, the outdoors clubs.

Here's our list of 20 great autumn trips for $100 or less per person, based on two. 

Sign up for these deals, and you'll be enjoying fall in all the best places: along the Mississippi River, on Wisconsin's Ice Age Trail, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, even Minnesota's North Shore.

If you're really planning ahead, or if you want more ideas, see Cheap winter getaways, Cheap spring getaways and Cheap summer getaways.

Concert and camping

Just east of St. Paul, set up a campsite at Lake Elmo Park Reserve, then lean back and enjoy the Washington County Bluegrass Festival, Sept. 6 in 2014. The music is free, campsites are $15-$25 and a daily permit is $5.

Wolves and pizza in Ely

In northern Minnesota, the International Wolf Center offers WildFamily sleepover weekends Oct. 18-19 in 2014.

Guests will go on a hike and to the weekly feeding program, make a plaster cast of a wolf track and sleep in the auditorium.

Cost is $75 adults, $50 children 6-12, including a pizza dinner and breakfast.

For more, see Dreaming of Ely.

An outdoors weekend that's almost free

Near the eastern Minnesota town of Sandstone and the 75-mile Willard Munger State Trail, the Audubon Center of the North Woods holds an annual open house Sept. 27, and almost everything is free, including camping.

Gitchi-Gami Trail near Gooseberry Falls.

Beth Gauper

Bicyclists ride the Gitchi-Gami Trail on Minnesota's North Shore.

There's a morning trail run/walk, arts and crafts fair, hay rides, apple pressing, raptor programs and walking tour. Guests can use the climbing wall and zip line.

The only cost is the chili lunch, $5-$7.

Camping is free Friday and Saturday nights, but people also can spend the night in one of the environmental-learning center's lodges, $40 for a room that sleeps four adults or a family of eight.

The lodges also can be rented by groups who want to ride the Munger Trail or go birding around the 535-acre campus, 320-245-2648.

Music on the Mississippi

In Winona, the Boats and Bluegrass festival, Sept. 25-28 in 2014, is a great deal for families. For $89.50 ($99.50 at the gate) you get to hear all the music, camp in the riverside campground and go canoeing — and kids under 16 are free with an adult ticket. 

There’s also old-time Midway and circus games, fire dancers, disc golf, free family pontoon rides, nature walks and airplane rides for $15.

If you can’t make it, the municipal Prairie Island Campground is a good place to camp any time, with a beach, playground, deer park, canoe rental, boat launch, store and showers. Sites are $17-$21.

If you have your own boat, bring it; the Mississippi backwaters are fun to explore.

For more, see Afloat in Winona.

A sampler of outdoors sports

Every fall, the Minnesota Rovers Outdoors Club puts on an Outdoors Extravaganza to introduce prospective members to the club. Members lead paddling, rock-climbing, bicycling and hiking expeditions. 

Cost of $20 includes two nights of camping plus Saturday supper and Sunday breakfast.

For planning travel on a nickel, the Rovers and other outdoors clubs are unparalleled.

To find out about these groups, which offer many great trips for $100 or less, see Join the club.

A child on a wolf sculpture in Ely.

Beth Gauper

A child plays outside the International Wolf Center.

A roof in a Minnesota state park

In fall, many leaf-peepers flock to the state parks, because that’s where the color is.

In Minnesota, that’s where the action is, too. Pick out one of the many naturalist programs, then stay right in the park for the weekend.

In Itasca State Park, the Autumn Harvest Festival includes guided lantern-lit hikes, children’s activities, campfires and a concert.

Stay in the Douglas Lodge, where guest rooms with shared baths are $75.

Or stay for even less at the Mississippi Headwaters Hostel, a short walk from the headwaters. Cost is $24-$27 per person, $15 for children 14 and younger.

For more, see The people's park.

In William O’Brien State Park in Marine on St. Croix, there’s the annual Geocaching and Voyageur Encampment Weekend. Stay in one of the park's four camper cabins, $45-$50.

For more about state-park camper cabins in Minnesota and other states, see A roof in the woods.

And remember to check out private campgrounds, too: Many rent out camper cabins that cost the same and have more amenities nearby.

Deep woods around Ely

The boreal woods around the northern Minnesota town of Ely, on the edge of the Boundary Waters, are beautiful any time of year, but especially in fall.

Just north of town, off the Echo Trail, YMCA Camp du Nord offers fall Family Camps, with guided hikes and paddles, nature programs, campfires, family saunas and arts and crafts.

There are 21 heated cabins, some with gas fireplaces, in three villages. Some are rustic, but most are quite luxurious.

Rates depend on size of cabin; 16 people sharing Thor's Cabin pay $78 apiece, and seven people sharing Jack's Cabin pay $99. Reserve early to get your choice of cabins, 612-465-0568.

Family camp in a Minneapolis suburb

At the Baker Park Reserve Near-Wilderness Settlement in the western Minneapolis suburb of Maple Plain, spend a weekend in a log cabin Oct. 17-19 or Nov. 1-2.

The rustic cabins have wood stoves, and firewood and cooking/eating utensils is provided. There’s a nearby log lodge with modern restrooms.

The park offers two-night Fall Cabin Camping, $189 for up to eight people, and one-night camps, $115 for up to eight. Reserve at 763-694-7724.

For more, see Camping in the Twin Cities.

Children at the Audubon Center.

Beth Gauper

Children run toward the zip line during the Audubon Center's open house.

Stay in a spare room

In just four years, Airbnb has ballooned into a billion-dollar company by allowing people with a spare room, suite or dwelling to rent them out.

It’s like staying in a B&B, but cheaper and without most of the frills – though some hosts go all out. You'll pay $40 for a guest room with bath in a downtown Minneapolis condo and a room and bath near Madison’s Capitol Square for $65.

Rates are higher for luxury properties in glamorous locations. For more, see Staying with Airbnb.

Yurts and cabins in the Porkies

Fall is the best time to visit gorgeous Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, along Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula – it has 100 miles of hiking trails, spectacular fall color in the largest stand of virgin hardwood forest east of the Mississippi, and no bugs.

Stay in one of 19 wood-heated rustic cabins, $60. You'll have plenty of privacy, but they're not for sissies: Seven are within a mile of a trailhead, and one is handicapped-accessible, but others require a hike of up to four miles.

Cabins on Mirror Lake, Lily Pond and Lake of the Clouds include boats.

Three yurts, $60, are open year-round and can be reached only by trail. They don't have electricity or running water. Water is supplied at one yurt; at the others, guests must filter water from streams. Wood is provided.

For more, see Afoot in the Porkies.

The mini-cabin at Leelanau State Park.

Beth Gauper

The Evergreen mini-cabin at Leelanau State Park is in the middle of cedar forest.

A football weekend in Madison

In this lively college town, the air is electric on fall weekends when the Badgers play a home game. In fact, you’ll get a shock just looking at hotel rates.

One way to get around high hotel costs but still be in the middle of all the action is to stay at the Hostelling International Madison hostel, two blocks from Capitol Square. It's probably not for Marriott types, but adventurous travelers will find it fun.

The house has 31 beds in smaller rooms, including five private rooms that sleep two to five people in a mix of full and twin beds.

Cost is $52 for one person, $55 for two and $58 for three. One person can sleep in  a bed in a dorm room for $25. There's a Costa Rican cafe on the lower level.

For more, see At home in a hostel and other Madison stories.

Horseback along the Minnesota River

Stay at the edge of a golf course in Fort Ridgely State Park, and you can have a pretty amazing weekend: a round of golf, a trail ride, a visit to a historic site and a stay in a chalet for less than $100 per person and without going more than a few miles.

Bicyclists on the Mesabi Trail.

Beth Gauper

On the Mesabi Trail, bicyclists ride by a slag heap near Hibbing.

The park rents out its former golf chalet for $75, and it sleeps up to 14, though eight would be better. Fort Ridgely Historic Site, important during the U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862, is within the park, and Fort Ridgely Equestrian Center offers trail rides in the park.

New Ulm is nearby. For more, see Ponies and putters.

Bicycling Minnesota's Mesabi Trail

The Sports Dorm at Giants Ridge resort near Biwabik on Minnesota's Iron Range makes a good base for riding the beautiful Mesabi Trail, which now stretches 74 miles between McKinley and Grand Rapids, plus five miles between Biwabik and Giants Ridge.

It's also near Lake Vermilion, Ely and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The state-owned Sports Dorm has 24 motel rooms, each with two bunk beds and a private bath; linens and towels are provided. There’s a meeting room and lobby, each with TV, and a kitchen that guests can use.

The fall rate is $55 for up to four people. Call 800-688-7669.

For more, see Rolling through the Iron Range.

Bicycling the Root River State Trail

In the southeast corner of Minnesota, the Root River State Trail and town of Lanesboro are a favorite fall destination.

Pitch a tent for $15 right downtown, in Sylvan Park or in the Riverview Campground, or park a camper for $25. Hot showers are $1 at the adjoining Community Center, and you can pick up pastries from local Amish families at the Saturday farmers market.

Or camp west of town at Old Barn Resort, which also has a hostel.

For more about riding the Root River, see Bicycling in bluff country.

For more about the area in fall, see Bluff-country byways.

Douglas Lodge at Itasca State Park.

Beth Gauper

In Itasca State Park, the Douglas Lodge offers a few inexpensive rooms.

A deal on an indoor water park

In November, rates drop precipitously at indoor water parks and stay low until the holidays.

Check resort hot deals and specials. The best are for midweek stays at water parks outside the Wisconsin Dells. But even resorts in the Dells offer stays for $99 or less, especially Chula Vista.

Many smaller resorts and motels include passes with a stay. The Dell Creek Motel offers passes to the nearby Kalahari.

Motels near downtown offer passes to Chula Vista, including Ambers Hideaway and Birchcliff Resort.

For more, see Fall in the Dells and Making waves.

For more about water parks in other places, see Water, water, everywhere.

A cabin in a Lake Michigan park

In fall, it's not as hard to get one of Michigan's many cabins in state parks, 15 of them on Lake Michigan. Mini-cabins that sleep four are $45-$65, and rustic cabins that sleep two to 24 are $50-$60.

For more, see Michigan's great lake cabins.

A waterfall on the Presque Isle River in the Porcupines.

Torsten Muller

Waterfalls tumble down the Presque Isle River in the Porkies.

Exchange your home

This way to travel costs nothing, except transportation. In fall, we've exchanged our house for homes in Duluth and Chicago and had great times.

Of course, you have to work getting your house in shape for the guests — but then you come back to a clean house. For more, see Swapping houses.

Trail clearing in Minnesota

Here’s a weekend trip that pays you. The Twin Cities-based North Stars Ski Touring Club is the largest cross-country club in North America and helped blaze many of the state's best ski trails. It holds several trips every fall to clear them for winter, and it reimburses participants for gas money.

Typically, workers put in six to eight hours on Saturdays and four hours on Sunday.

Lodging and meals are provided by the host resorts or organizations, typically Camp du Nord near Ely, the Gunflint Lodge, Banadad Trail and resorts on the North Shore.

It's a good way to meet people, too. Sign up early for the best slots.

For more about groups, see Join the club.

The Root River trailhead in Lanesboro.

Beth Gauper

Bicyclists head west on the Root River State Trail from downtown Lanesboro.

A spot on the North Shore

In fall, Minnesota's North Shore is Mecca for leaf-peepers. In fact, it often seems as if the entire Upper Midwest is funneling into this narrow strip on the west shore of Lake Superior.

Reserve far in advance; if you show up without a reservation on a weekend between late September and the fourth weekend of October, you may wind up sleeping in your car. Plan especially for Oct. 16-19 in 2014; Minnesota schoolchildren are on break then, and the entire shore books up.

The North Shore is extremely popular in fall, and cabins aren't cheap — so look for a room in a small, family owned motel.

In Lutsen, Solbakken Resort has motel rooms for $59-$89, and the classic Cascade Lodge has motel and lodge rooms for $53-$95.

Grand Marais has many small, budget motels; see Mom-and-pop motels of Grand Marais.

For more, see Where to stay on Minnesota's North Shore and other North Shore stories.

Outdoors in Ironwood

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is mostly national forest, which means it’s a great place to see fall color – perhaps the best in the region.

Use Ironwood as a base, staying at Wolverine Village, built mainly for cross-country skiers but open year-round. Cabins for three cost $65.

From there, explore the waterfalls along the Black River north of Bessemer. Nearby, take in the incredible view from the top of Copper Peak, the only ski-flying hill in the Western Hemisphere.

Ride a chairlift to the crest of the hill, then take an 18-story elevator to the top of the jump, $14, $7 for children 14 and under.

To the south, seek out the waterfalls in Wisconsin’s Marinette County.

More ideas

In big cities where hotels cater to conventions and business travelers, rates fall precipitously on holidays, including Labor Day weekend. For more, see Cheap Chicago.

Fall is the best time to ride a bicycle trail; temperatures have cooled down, and the wildflowers are blooming. See Bicycling stories.

It's also much easier to find a camping spot in a popular place. See Camping stories.

Minnesota rents several modern guest houses that are very affordable for groups. For more, see Lodgings in Minnesota state parks.

Group travel can be extremely cheap, with everyone sharing expenses. To find out about other inexpensive places for groups to stay, see Cabins for a crowd.


Last updated on July 22, 2014
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