MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Cheap spring getaways

Here are 20 places where a fun weekend won't stress the budget.

A bicyclist pedals the Root River State Trail in spring.

© Beth Gauper

In spring, lilacs bloom along the Root River State Trail near Lanesboro, Minn.

After a long winter, everyone deserves a spring getaway.

On a budget? No problem. Spring is the best time to find deals, and often the weather is stellar.

You'll have to pass on the fancy resorts and spas, but you don't have to give up comforts. Lots of lodgings offer great rates between the Easter school breaks and Memorial Day weekend.

In the bluffs of southeast Minnesota, learn how to cast for trout. In Green Bay, ride a swinging Viking ship. In the Amanas, dance around a May pole.

Think a little bit outside the box, and you'll save a ton of money. 

Here's our 2015 edition of great spring trips, most costing $100 or less per person.

For inexpensive trips year-round, see Cheap summer getaways, Cheap fall getaways and Cheap winter getaways.

Casting a line in bluff country

In southeast Minnesota, learn how to fly fish with the Minnesota DNR's Becoming an Outdoorswoman program.

Near the town of Lanesboro, Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center is hosting a weekend for beginners May 29-31. It costs $125 for both the adult and a youth 11 to 17, including dorm-style lodgings and meals.

If you're really serious about fly fishing, take the beginner's course at Whitewater State Park, four Friday evenings from April 10 to May 1. It's only $20, and you can stay in the park's camper cabin for $60.

In Milwaukee, a night in the museum

If you've got kids between the ages of 6-12, you can spend the night in the Milwaukee Public Museum.

Dates are March 20, April 17 and May 15 in 2015, and the cost is $47 per person. That includes a planetarium show, discovery hunts and flashlight explorations, evening snack and breakfast. Reserve far in advance.

Take in a Brewers game, too. For more about trips with kids, see Playtime in Milwaukee.

Zippin Pippin in Green Bay.

© Beth Gauper

Green Bay boasts the Zippin Pippin, a replica of Elvis Presley's favorite ride in Memphis.

Riding high in Green Bay

In Green Bay, Bay Beach Amusement Park is a perennial best bet, with its 50 cent tickets — except for the Zippin Pippin roller coaster, which is a whole $1, and the  Sea Dragon swinging Viking-ship ride, which is 75 cents.

The park is open weekends in May, and the adjoining wildlife area is popular with birders.

North of town, the NEW Zoo's new Adventure Park has dueling zip lines, a ropes course and climbing walls.

Stay at the Bay Motel in Green Bay. With AAA discount, you can get a pleasant room with cable TV, WiFi and refrigerator for less than $50, and guests get a $2.50 discount at the friendly motel restaurant.

For more, see Packer country.

Spring break in canoe country

Near the northern Minnesota town of Ely, YMCA Camp du Nord rents out its cabins to groups in fall, winter and spring and also offers programming on some weeks and weekends.

It offers a Cabin Fever Family Camp March 19-22 and a Family Fishing Adventure May 14-17, with guided hikes and paddles, nature programs, campfires, saunas and arts and crafts.

There are 21 heated cabins, some with gas fireplaces, in three villages. Rates depend on size of cabin; 16 people sharing Thor's Lodge pay $88 apiece, and seven people sharing Jack's II Cabin pay $109. Reserve early to get your choice of cabins.

Reserve early to get your choice of cabins, 612-465-0568.

For more, see Dreaming of Ely.

Cabin getaway in the Twin Cities

At the Baker Park Reserve Near-Wilderness Settlement in the western Minneapolis suburb of Maple Plain, groups of up to eight family or friends can rent one of eight rustic log cabins, $129 per night.

Stay May 9-10 for Mother's Day and you can join programs that include archery, rock climbing and nature hikes.

The cabins have wood stoves, and firewood and cooking/eating utensils are provided. 

Crosby dorm at the Audubon Center.

© Beth Gauper

At the Audubon Center of the North Woods, guests can stay at the Crosby Lodge.

All eight cabins and a nearby log lodge with modern restrooms and an institutional kitchen can be rented together, but individual groups can rent a cabin during weekends that include naturalist programs.

Reserve at 763-559-6700. For more, see Camping near the Twin Cities.

Maple syrup, birding and bicycling in eastern Minnesota

Near Sandstone and the 75-mile Willard Munger State Trail, the Audubon Center of the North Woods holds an annual pancake brunch and maple syrup program, March 28 in 2015, where families can learn how to tap trees and turn sap into syrup, $15, $10 for children 5-12. Reservations are required.

Then they 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.

Guests can make a weekend out of other programs, too. The lodges also can be rented by groups who want to bicycle the Munger Trail or go birding around the 535-acre campus, 320-245-2648.

Theater and bicycling in Lanesboro

In this southeast Minnesota bicycling hub, celebrate Scandinavian theater, music, art and food during Ibsen Festival April 17-19.

Stay at the Cottage House Inn, $65 through April, and bicycle the paved, 42-mile Root River State Trail for free.

This part of bluff country also is great for fly-fishing, and several companies give tours of Amish farms. For more, see Amish country.

Three prairie chickens courting.

© Beth Gauper

Two male prairie chickens try to impress a hen on the booming grounds.

Prairie-chicken courtship in central Wisconsin

On the sand plains between Wisconsin Rapids and Stevens Point, prairie chickens conduct a goofy courtship, complete with booming and stomping, that draws bird watchers from around the region. Reserve a space in a blind during Prairie Chicken Festival in April and you'll get to see the whole thing.

For more, see Playing the field in Wisconsin.

Stay in Coloma at the Coloma Hotel, an 1876 inn where the most expensive room has a king bed, gas fireplace, cable, fridge and sofa and costs $55, including breakfast.

Bring a group and rent all eight rooms for $360.

Work day in Wisconsin

In northwest Wisconsin, the non-profit Hunt-Hill Audubon Sanctuary near Rice Lake holds a Spring Helping Hands work day May 2. Free lodgings in dorm rooms are available Friday and Saturday night, and Saturday breakfast and lunch are provided.

The sanctuary includes two lakes and trails through bogs, meadows and old-growth forest.

Maypole dancers in Amana.

© Beth Gauper

Dancers circle the maypole during Maifest in Amana.

Maifest in Iowa's Amana Colonies

There's always something going on in the Amanas, a group of once-communal villages southwest of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Maifest festivities include the Taste of the Amanas food fair, Maypole dancing, German music and a parade May 2-3.

The Guest House Motel in Amana is in the middle of everything and rents rooms for $79; call 877-331-0828.

Or, stay in one of four family cabins, $50, at beautiful Palisades-Kepler State Park, just east of Cedar Rapids. They can be reserved up to a year in advance, online or at 877-427-2757. Admission to all Iowa state parks is free.

For more, see Truly Amana.

Spring on the Gunflint

In far northeast Minnesota, do some chores while enjoying a spring weekend in the north woods.

Near the end of the Gunflint Trail, the luxurious Gunflint Lodge also offers Helping Hands Weekend April 24-26. Guests put in about five hours of work, then get the rest of the weekend off.

Cost for two nights is $149 per person, including two dinners. It's for the best available cabin, so reserve early.

Photographing wildflowers.

© Beth Gauper

A photographer shoots marsh marigolds in Whitewater State Park.

Wildflower hunt in southeast Minnesota

May is a fantastic time to explore the bluffs on southeast Minnesota. Spring ephemerals bloom all month, and morel mushrooms pop out around Mother's Day.

Whitewater State Park, along with the state wildlife area surrounding it, is considered the best morel-hunting grounds in Minnesota; stay at its heated camper cabin, $55-$60.

It's also known for carpets of marsh marigolds, false rue anemone and hepatica, and on Sundays in May, it offers bird-banding demonstrations.

Carley State Park, just west of Whitewater, is known for its masses of Virginia bluebells, and it celebrates Bluebell Festival May 9 with games, wildflower walks and trout fishing for kids.

Eat inexpensively in nearby Plainview, which celebrates with a pancake supper and barbecue contest.

Beaver Creek Valley State Park, just west of Caledonia, is known for lots of trout lilies and has a heated camper cabin, $55-$60. The cabins sleep up to five people; reserve up to a year in advance online or at 866-857-2757. Reservation fee is $8.50.

For more, see Chasing spring wildflowers and Searching for mushrooms.

Backpack through Iowa forests

Backpacking always is cheap. But if you first need to learn the basics, go on the Beginner's Backpacking Trip May 15-17 with Crawdaddy Outdoors outfitters and store in Waverly, Iowa.

You'll hike in Yellow River State Forest in the hilly northeast corner of Iowa. Cost is $85, including food, transportation and gear.

A sampler of outdoors sports

Every spring, the Minnesota Rovers Outdoors Club puts on an Outdoors Extravaganza to introduce prospective members to the club. It's June 5-7 at Banning State Park in eastern Minnesota.

Cost of $20 includes two nights of camping, Saturday supper, Sunday breakfast and guided hikes, paddling and caving trips and bicycling. Kids camping with adults pay $6.

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

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

Outdoor concert in Trempealeau, Wis.

© Beth Gauper

Festival-goers enjoy Blues Bash at the Trempealeau Hotel on the Mississippi.

Listen to reggae on the Mississippi

In the Wisconsin town of Trempealeau, the 1871 Trempealeau Hotel still includes eight of the original "working-man'' rooms, $44-$54. They don't have private baths, but most have river views.

Guests are right in the middle of the fun during the hotel's annual Reggae Fest May 16. Watch river traffic while drinking beer, eating the hotel's renowned walnut burgers and listening to well-known musicians; tickets are $15-$20.

The hotel also is a good base for hiking up to Brady's Bluff in adjacent Perrot State Park, paddling the 4˝-mile Long Lake Canoe Trail through the river sloughs and bicycling on the 24-mile Great River State Trail, which slices through town.

For more, see Hitting the trails in Trempealeau.

A cabin in northeast Iowa

Iowa state parks have a wonderful variety of cabins, and they're a bargain, but they rent by the week in summer.

In spring, there's only a two-night minimum. One year, on Mother's Day weekend, we rented a $50 cabin with bath and kitchen in Backbone State Park, near Strawberry Point.

Park cabin in Iowa.

© Beth Gauper

Iowa's Backbone State Park rents family cabins.

We hit the peak of wildflower season, hiking the trails around Backbone Lake; the park was named for knobs of rock that erupt from the middle of the trail.

It doesn't look like most people's idea of Iowa; twisted cedars grew out of fissures, and we passed huge white pines and squeezed between house-sized piles of limestone.

Cabin guests can bring pets, and entrance to Iowa state parks is free. For more, see A cabin in Iowa.

A deal on an indoor water park

During spring break, no resort with an indoor water park is a cheap getaway. Even after Easter, you'll have to work the angles to get a deal.

The best deals are for midweek stays at water parks outside the Dells. But even resorts in the Dells offer stays for $99 or less, especially Chula Vista. If you have smaller kids, book at one of the smaller resorts; the tourism folks list six with “medium'' water parks and six with “small” water parks.

And if there are only two of you, and you only want to spend a few hours at a water park, stay at a mom and pop motel and buy a day or evening pass for a water park.

I like the Dell Creek Motel next to the Cheese Factory, near the Kalahari, which offers passes to its water park as well as theme park. Through May, its rooms are $49-$59.

High Trestle Trail in Iowa.


The High Trestle Trail north of Des Moines is named for its spectacular bridge.

And some resorts include passes to water-parks at other resorts, including the very nice, wooded Birchcliff Resort, where cabins start at $70 and include passes to the Chula Vista.

For more about water parks in the Dells, see Making waves. For more about water parks in other places, see Water, water, everywhere.

Bicycling Iowa's trails

Iowa has dozens of bike trails and hundreds of cabins in county and state parks. Put them together, and you've got a cheap weekend.

The Raccoon River Valley Trail west of Des Moines is 89 miles, with a dog leg between Clive and Jefferson and a new loop that crosses the North Raccoon River in Dawson.

That's where Sportsman Park rents two cabins that sleep five and have a bathroom and kitchenette. They rent for just $30 through April, then $40 on weekdays and $50 weekends.

Near Adel, the Glissman Lodge in Glissman Conservation Area sleeps eight and rents for $50-$80.

And check MyCountyParks for dozens of other cabins around the state.

Julie's Park Motel in Fish Creek.

© Beth Gauper

In Fish Creek, Julie's Park Motel is on the road to Peninsula State Park.

Spring in Door County

In May, come to see the lilacs and get a good deal on this Wisconsin peninsula, one of the region's most popular destinations in summer.

Door County has an especially good selection of mom-and-pops, including Julie's Park Cafe and Motel in Fish Creek, right on the road to Peninsula State Park. It opens for the season in late April, and you can get a queen room for $55-$65 all the way through mid-June.

Bring your bike or rent one across the street, then ride the scenic trails in the park and look for wildflowers. There are many other high-value places to stay in Door County, too.

For more, see Where to stay in Door County.

Swap your home

Home exchanges are the best possible way to save money. You have to put in some elbow grease cleaning your own home for guests, but everything else is free and often includes the use of bicycles and museum passes.

One of the biggest services, Home Exchange, charges an annual fee of $119. If you don't want to pay a fee, you can take your chances on Craigslist or other online listings.

We went to Chicago one Memorial Day and stayed at a condo two blocks from Lincoln Park. For more, see Pinching pennies in Chicago.

If you don't have a home to swap, you can save money by staying in someone else's spare room through Airbnb.

More ideas

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

To find out about other inexpensive places for groups to stay, see Cabins for a crowd.

Last updated on March 12, 2015

Sign up for our free weekly newsletter

Get our weekly stories, tips and updates delivered a day early — directly to your Inbox. Wondering what you'll get? Take a look at our newsletter archive.

* indicates required