Cheap spring getaways
Here are 20 spots where a fun weekend costs $100 or less.
© Beth Gauper
Bicyclists on the Raccoon River Valley Trail pass the courthouse in Adel, Iowa.
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.
On the Raccoon River in Iowa, stay at a county-park cabin and ride a new bicycle loop. In Milwaukee, slumber with pirates. In
the bluffs of southeast Minnesota, walk through bluebells and watch bird banding.
Think a little bit outside the box, and you'll save a ton of money.
Here's our 2014 edition of great spring trips, each costing $100 or less per person.
A cabin on an Iowa bike trail
This spring, one of the nation's longest paved bicycle trails debuts in central Iowa.
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.
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 21, April 11 and May 16 in 2014, 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.
© Beth Gauper
In Fish Creek, Julie's Park Motel is on the road to Peninsula State Park.
In May, come to see the lilacs and get a good deal on this Wisconsin peninsula, one of the region's most popular destinations
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.
Football and a roller coaster 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. It's open weekends in May, and the adjoining wildlife area is popular with birders.
Also tour Lambeau Field and the Packers Hall of Fame, plus Heritage Hill Historical Park and the National Railroad Museum.
© Beth Gauper
Green Bay boasts the Zippin Pippin, a replica of Elvis Presley's favorite ride in Memphis.
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.
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.
We belong to Home Exchange, which 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.
If you don't have a home to swap, you can save money by staying in someone else's spare room through the Airbnb service. For more, see Staying with Airbnb.
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.
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.
© 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 April 11-13 in 2014 and you'll get to see the whole thing.
For more, see Playing the field in
Cost of $25 includes blind space, a Dutch-oven breakfast, bird-banding and guided birding tours, 715-343-6215. 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 $320.
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 Spring Fling and Grandparents Weekend March 20-23, a Spring Women's Retreat May 1-4 and a Family Fishing Adventure May 15-18, 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 Cabin pay $78 apiece per retreat, and seven people sharing Jack's Cabin pay $98 apiece.
Reserve early to get your choice of cabins, 612-465-0568.
For more, see Dreaming of Ely.
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.
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.
© Beth Gauper
Iowa's Backbone State Park rents family cabins.
Cabin guests can bring pets, and entrance to Iowa state parks is free. For more, see A cabin in Iowa.
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, $115 per
Stay March 15-16 (and catch the Maple Syrup Festival) or May 10-11 (Mother's Day activities) in 2014 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.
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 29 in 2014, where families can learn how to tap trees and turn sap into syrup, $15,
$10 for children 5-12. Reservations are required.
© Beth Gauper
At the Audubon Center of the North Woods, guests can stay at the Crosby Lodge.
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 ride the Munger Trail or go birding around the 535-acre campus, 320-245-2648.
Work day in Wisconsin
In northwest Wisconsin, the non-profit Hunt-Hill Audubon Sanctuary near Rice Lake holds a
Spring Helping Hands work day on April 26 in
2014. Lodgings in dorm rooms is 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.
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,
It's also known for carpets of marsh marigolds, false rue anemone and hepatica, and on Sundays in May, it offers bird-banding demonstrations.
© Beth Gauper
A photographer shoots marsh marigolds in Whitewater State Park.
Carley State Park, just west of Whitewater, is known
for its masses of Virginia bluebells, and it celebrates Bluebell Festival May 10 with games, wildflower walks and
trout fishing for kids. Eat inexpensively in nearby Plainview, which celebrates with a pancake supper and barbecue
Beaver Creek Valley State Park, just west
of Caledonia, is known for lots of trout lilies and has a heated camper cabin, $50. The cabins sleep up to five people;
reserve up to a year in advance online or at 866-857-2757. Reservation fee is
Theater and bicycling in Lanesboro
In this southeast Minnesota bicycling hub, Commonweal Theatre opens its 2014
season in April.
© Beth Gauper
In spring, lilacs bloom along the Root River State Trail near Lanesboro, Minn.
Farther down the trail, Old Barn Resort opens in April and has a three-season heated pool, 18-hole golf course and canoe and kayak rentals.
Its hostel has three rooms with up to 16 bunks, $23-$25 per person, and one with two beds, $44-$50 for one or two.
Tent sites are $24-$28 for two people and camper sites are $32-$40, $3-$5 each additional person.
Birding at Crex Meadows
This wildlife preserve in western Wisconsin, in Grantsburg near the St. Croix River, offers birding workshops in May.
In spring, the arrival of migratory birds means the preserve is hopping every day. The best time to spot them is at dawn, so it’s most convenient — and cheap — to stay in Crex Meadows' two bunkhouses, $10 per person, or cabins, $15.
There's also good hiking along the St. Croix on the Sandrock Cliffs Trail.
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 3-4.
© Beth Gauper
Dancers circle the maypole during Maifest in Amana.
The Guest House Motel in Amana is in the middle of everything and rents rooms with one bed for $59, two beds for $65; 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.
Sprucing up the Gunflint
In far northeast Minnesota, be a do-gooder while enjoying a spring weekend in the north woods.
The Gunflint Lodge also offers Helping Hands Weekend in April. Guests put in about five hours of work, then get the rest of the weekend off. Cost for two nights is $130 per person, including two dinners. It's for the best available cabin, so reserve early.
© Beth Gauper
Festival-goers enjoy Blues Bash at the Trempealeau Hotel on the Mississippi.
Listen to reggae and blues on the Mississippi
In the Wisconsin town of Trempealeau, the 1871 Trempealeau Hotel still includes eight of the original "working-man'' rooms, $40-$49. 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 17, and Blues Bash May 31. Watch river traffic while drinking beer, eating the hotel's renowned walnut burgers and listening to well-known musicians; tickets are $15.
The hotel also is a good base for hiking up to Brady's Bluff in adjacent Perrot State Park, paddling the 4½-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.
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 16-18 with Crawdaddy Outdoors outfitters and store in Waverly, Iowa.
You'll hike in Ingawanis Woodland on the Cedar River near Waverly.
Cost is $85, including food, transportation and gear.
Ride the Badger State Trail in southern Wisconsin
© Beth Gauper
Bicyclists emerge from the Stewart Tunnel on the Badger State Trail.
Together, these crushed-limestone trails have 53 miles; from Madison, the Badger heads 40 miles south to the Illinois border; from there, the Addams heads 13 miles south to Freeport.
Stay in Monroe, Wis., at the Super
8, two blocks from the trail (and Brennan's Farm Market, a great spot to
pick up picnic supplies). Rooms are about $70 on weekends, including breakfast, 10 percent less with an AAA card.
On one day, ride 20 miles to Freeport; on the next, ride 26 miles to Paoli, or branch off onto the Sugar River State Trail and ride to New Glarus. Trail pass is $4 daily.
For more, see A slice of cheese country.
A sampler of outdoors sports
Every spring, the Minnesota Rovers Outdoors Club puts on an Outdoors Extravaganza to introduce prospective members to the club. In 2014, it's May 16-18 at Forestville-Mystery Cave State Park in southeast 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.
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.
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.