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Celebrating 70 Years of RVing - In the Great Lakes
Few places in the United States display as much roadside Americana as the Great Lakes states. Where else can you find the likes of Paul Bunyan and James Dean, John Glenn and Zane Grey? These American legends – and many others – came from the Great Lakes region.
We’ve come up with a few suggestions for main roads and back roads you can use in your travels. They were selected for their ability to inspire nostalgia, that sense of being someplace, at once familiar and comfortable. We believe they will lead you to some amazing discoveries, and even take you back in time. You’ll travel through quiet Amish country as well as visit booming cities borne of the Industrial Revolution. You’ll see the mighty Mississippi where she’s little more than a trickle and visit the birthplace of the recreational vehicle industry itself. So buckle up, and enjoy these Great Lakes routes.
Minnesota’s Highway 71 winds through some particularly diverse landscapes. The southern region is mostly characterized by rolling farmland until it eventually skirts the shadow of the Twin Cities. Heading northwards, we then head deep into the lush wild landscape of the North Woods until the highway reaches the doorstep of Canada. But rest assured, there’s plenty to discover and do along the way before you get way up there.
Let’s begin our tour of the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes at the town of Windom, near the Iowa border. An historical education can be had here about the plight of the Sioux Indians who once roamed these lands before being forced out around the time of the Civil War. Windom’s Heritage Village also serves as a living history museum, designed to present this important regional story. Nearby are the Jeffers Petroglyphs, with its more than 2,000 Native American rock carvings preserved along a terrific hiking trail.
The nearby town of Willmar signals the end to the pastoral ranges of southern Minnesota and the beginning of the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes region. From here lakes, ponds, rivers, and every other sort of waterway guide you north to Canada.
If you’ve never been to the region before, consider a side trip two hours east of Willmar on Hwy 12 to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul. Some of the more unique attractions in the area include the Twin Cities Model Railroad Museum; the Mall of America, where die-hard shoppers will finally meet their match; the Planes of Fame Air Museum; or check out the local artists’ wares at the Stone Arch Festivals Y Arts. Each delivers a unique diversion.
Back on US-71, keep going north into the Headwaters Region, where it seems like every river and lake across the nation originated here in Central Minnesota. The jumping urban town of St. Cloud, north of the Twin Cities on Hwy. I-94, is our first stop. Visit the Stearns County Heritage Center and learn about the town’s birth out of the once-booming granite industry.
From there, head west along US-71 until you reach Sauk Centre, the birthplace of famed writer Sinclair Lewis. Although Lewis painted the town in a less-than-flattering manner in his acclaimed Main Street, it appears the residents have buried the proverbial hatchet. Sauk Centre today boasts the Sinclair Lewis Interpretive Center, so we’re guessing there are no hard feelings remaining. Next to the historic Palmer House Hotel (itself worth a visit), still stands Lewis’ boyhood home.
Off Hwy. 71 is Lake Itasca, in Itasca State Park, where the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi River begin as a mere, quiet stream as it slips out the northern town of Bemidji and south, building up momentum as it rolls its way to the Louisiana Delta. The town loves its relationship with one mythical man whose story began here – Paul Bunyan, and his faithful blue ox, Babe. Everything in and around Bemidji seems to be emblazoned with an image of the pair. Along the banks of Lake Bemidji you can get a glimpse of 30-foot statues of this legendary twosome. Other town attractions include the Paul Bunyan Playhouse, the Headwaters Science Center, and the Paul Bunyan Amusement Center. It’s all Paul Bunyan, all the time.
US-71 then heads northeast and into the great North Woods of Minnesota. Bemidji was more or less the last outpost before entering this remote wilderness. We recommend stocking up your rig on grub, fuel, and supplies before heading out into this adventure that leads us to International Falls and the Canadian border. Outside the town, get in touch with nature in Minnesota’s only national park, Voyageurs National Park. Nearby is the popular International Bridge, suitable for either driving or parking the RV and footing it across to Frances, Ontario. The two resort towns of Rainy Lake and Rainy Falls offer plenty of recreation in the form of golf, fishing, antiquing, biking, and gold mine touring.
Wisconsin’s US-51 is one of the finest drives in all the Midwest. This highway takes you through the lush greenery of northern Wisconsin and meanders south through the center of the state and passing through such idyllic towns like Stevens Point and Madison.
Let’s start your US-51 journey in what the locals call “The Great North Woods.” The region lives up to its name. Northern Wisconsin is extremely remote and flora and fauna easily outnumber human beings. Starting at the town of Hurley, US-51 winds southeast through northern Wisconsin forests for a ways before heading south near the town of Woodruff. Once a boomtown where people flocked to make a fortune in the iron industry, Hurley is now anything but. In its heyday in the early 20th century, this tiny town boasted more than 75 saloons along its Main Street. Not surprisingly, it also attracted its share of riff-raff and quickly became equally as infamous for its rough-and-tumble streets. Today, Hurley is a normal little town and worth a stop and a visit. Check out the Iron County Courthouse, which houses many artifacts from Hurley’s glory years. If you’re looking for a little fresh air, Iron County is well-known for its hiking trails and more than 50 waterfalls.
Down the road a way you’ll soon find yourself at the two neighboring towns of Woodruff and Minocqua. You can’t throw a stone without hitting one of the pristine northern lakes here, full of walleye and pike. Don’t miss the Dr. Kate Museum, dedicated to the intrepid country doctor who, during the early 20th century, tended to the fur trappers and their families who lived in this remote outpost. Dr. Kate’s fame grew beyond the town’s borders, though, after the success of the hit 1980’s television show Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, loosely based on the good doctor’s exploits. Also in town is the Scheer’s Lumberjack Shows, where world-class lumberjacks show off their skills to a large and appreciative audience. Another worthwhile Woodruff attraction is the Woodruff State Fish Hatchery, one of the most sophisticated fish hatcheries in the world.
From Woodruff, consider an eastward jaunt off of US-51 to the delightful town of Rhinelander. A vacationer’s favorite, Rhinelander was also another enormous boomtown that eventually went bust. Rhinelander wisely turned its attention towards tourism and focused its energies on promoting the more than 230 lakes within its 12-mile radius. All are beautiful and a big hit with boaters and anglers. Don’t miss the Rhinelander Logging Complex, an authentic logging camp with logging displays and a one-room schoolhouse.
Back on US-51, head south until you reach the town of Wausau, the first “city” after you exit the Great North Woods. Downtown Wausau offers hours of pleasant walking tours, which take you from the pleasant shops and architecture to the banks of Lake Wausau.
Stevens Point is our next stop, just due south. Located along the banks of the Wisconsin River, this old lumber town has one of the oldest and finest breweries in the Midwest, Point Brewery, the home of Point Beer. Another worthwhile town exhibit is at the Wisconsin Aviary and Forestry Hall of Fame, located on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. During the summer months, don’t miss the town’s Farmer’s Market, the oldest continuously-running market of its kind in Wisconsin.
Looking for some real fun? Want to visit one of the country’s most underrated vacation spots? A decent drive southward delivers you to the Badger State’s top tourist attraction, the Wisconsin Dells. While most of the Dells fantastic landscape can get drowned out by neon lights and assorted amusement parks, there’s as much natural beauty as there is man-made fun. Some venues to consider visiting are the Tommy Bartlett Thrill Show, the American Sci-Fi & UFO Museum, and the Dells Auto Museum. A thrilling ride in one of the many amphibious vehicles, (a.k.a., “ducks”) through the area’s wondrous scenery is an absolute must-do. This way you can experience the Dells on the water and absorb the impressive natural beauty of the area. Your kids will flip.
Once you’ve torn yourself away from the Dells (you have to leave sometime), US-51 has also reached its end. But don’t stop now! Jump on I-94 and head south to the state capital of Madison. Arguably the state’s cultural capital as well,
this bustling college town is considered the “Berkley of the Midwest” and also offers great shopping, historic homes, museums, brilliant foliage and festivals. Other attractions in town are the University of Wisconsin Arboretum and the Olbrich Botanical Gardens.
Iowa Highway-6 runs east to west, more or less, down the center of the state from Davenport, Iowa, along the banks of the Mississippi River, to Council Bluff along the Nebraska border. And there are plenty of places for adventure, and nostalgia, in the heart of the American Heartland.
Start your road trip in the classic and charming river town of Clinton. Like many of the towns situated along the Mississippi, river life dominates culture down here – and Clinton is very proud of this heritage. Your first stop should be the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre aboard the City of Clinton. This theater group performs year-round onboard an authentic paddleboat permanently docked here. Can’t get enough of showboats along the Mississippi? Head on over to the Mississippi Belle II, a gambling casino harkening back to yesteryear.
From Clinton head south a bit ‘til you reach the town of Davenport. Here is what is known as the “Quad Cities,” the largest metropolitan area in Iowa. Once a major trading hub during the 19th century, the area is steeped in history. However, it’s the military history that draws people to the area. The appropriately named Arsenal Island, located just east of Davenport, was one of the nation’s most important producers of military equipment. Nearby, don’t miss the Rock Island Arsenal Museum, the second-oldest military museum outside of West Point. To get more of the city’s historic charm, visit the Village of East Davenport, a showcase of historic homes and shops dating back to 1851. There are also several gambling boats on-hand to whisk you away along the Mississippi and tempt you to part with your nest egg.
Once you’re finished your Davenport visit, continue west until you reach Iowa City, home to the University of Iowa. The town is also rich in culture and has become affectionately known as the “Athens of the Midwest.” One peculiar stop in Iowa City is the Devonian Fossil Gorge. In 1993, great floods ravaged the area. After the water receded, a 15-foot chasm full of dinosaur fossils was revealed.
From Iowa City, stop by the progressive town of Grinnell. Home of the acclaimed Grinnell College, the town was founded by J.B. Grinnell who made his town an important stop along the Underground Railroad. Learn these and other exciting tales at the Grinnell Historical Museum.
From there, continue west to the town of Newton, home of the Maytag Company for nearly 100 years. Two worthwhile destinations explain to visitors the company’s major influence on the town include the Jasper County Historical Museum and the Maytag Dairy Farm.
Don’t miss Trainland U.S.A., located just north of the town of Colfax. Nearly one mile of model railroad track runs throughout this converted two-story house, which doubles as a museum dedicated to the model rail as well. Your inner child will thank you for visiting here.
Go west, young man (or woman), and you’ll soon arrive in the Iowa capital city, Des Moines. City sights include the Iowa State Capital Building, the Iowa Historical Building, and the Heritage Carousel, a charming and historic carousel located downtown. While in the area, be sure to take a tour of the six covered bridges of Madison County. Several historic bridges capture the romantic life of yesteryear. Hint: A nostalgic picnic lunch with the Mrs. wouldn’t be a bad idea, you old softie.
Heading west from Madison County, your last stop along Highway 6 is the border town of Council Bluffs. Named after the meeting place between the Lewis and Clark expedition and local Native American tribes, the town later became a major stopover for folks traveling the Mormon Trail. Explore the Loess Hills Scenic Byway offering Iowa’s best scenery and outdoor recreation. Council Bluffs, designated as the eastern terminus of the first transcontinental railroad and also a hub during the railroad boom, is doubly celebrated at both the Union Pacific Railroad Museum and the RailsWest Railroad Museum.
Illinois portion of Highway 51 splits the state more or less down the middle as it runs from the Wisconsin border south to Cairo at the very southern tip of the state along the banks of the Ohio River. As US-51 picks up in Illinois, the city of Rockford is the first stop.
Visit the town of Oglesby, known as the “Shortcut to Starved Rock,” a geological oddity located right in Northern Illinois. Starved Rock State Park is one of Illinois most wonderful scenic spots, full of opportunities for wandering among this impressive landscape carved from the glaciers that receded from this area eons ago.
Heading south, you’ll soon find yourself in the mini twin cities of Bloomington and Normal. The area hosts a bevy of outlet shops that aren’t too hard to find, especially if you’re driving on the highway since nearly every billboard advertises some outlet or another.
One quirky stop nearby is the Oliver P. Parks Telephone Museum, where you can glimpse dozens of early specimens of the telephone era from 1900 to present. For those seeking a little more adventure, try out Upper Limits, where you can test your rock climbing skill at the world’s tallest indoor climbing facility. Finally, take a stroll through the charming and historic downtown district of Bloomington where you can end the day with a stroll through Miller Park Zoo.
There’s a unique town south of there that’s worth a visit. Centralia enjoys a rich railroading heritage. One thing you don’t want to miss in town is a visit to the Centralia Carillon. This 165-foot tower hosts an arrangement of bells played each day by a professional carrilloneur. The tower hosts regular concerts throughout the summer.
Heading south, the landscape changes as you begin to enter the Ohio River Valley. Soon you’ll find yourself in the town of Carbondale. Located along the edge of the impressive Shawnee National Forest, Carbondale has put together several “trail” ideas for tourists visiting the area. Two of the finest are the orchard and wine trails, which take visitors on a tour of the finest offerings from the respective categories.
Indiana’s Highway 31 could be one of the most quaint roads in America. Start at the town of South Bend, work your way through Amish Country, stop by the biggest small town in the Midwest, and finish with the rolling, lush farmlands of southern Indiana. Hoosiers are fiercely proud of their state, and from a trip down this highway you will soon find out why.
Much of Indiana was borne out of great traditions and your first stop along US-31 is one of the finest examples. South Bend is home to the University of Notre Dame and the tradition of college football must have originated here. Visit the College Football Hall of Fame to brush up on the legends of the game, from the Fighting Irish to all the other gridiron teams from around the country. Don’t pass up a chance to take a leisurely stroll inside the campus and glimpse the steeples of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart and the legendary Golden Dome.
For nostalgia, pure and simple, head on over to the Studebaker National Museum, also in South Bend. The facility houses dozens of automotive specimens and traces the history of some of the industry’s most unique autos, from the company’s inception as a wagon builder in 1835, to the unveiling of their “cars of the future” at 1956 World’s Fair.
Travel east on US-20, stop by the town of Elkhart. There you’ll find the RV/MH Heritage Foundation, a hall of fame, library, and museum dedicated to the RV lifestyle! Take a tour through more than 90 years of RV history and experience life as it was when American families hit the road with the very first RVs – some of which were called “spam cans”, for obvious reasons. Oh, how far we’ve come.
Back on Hwy 31, keep going until you near the town of Peru. Consider heading a few miles east on Route 124 until you reach the International Circus Hall of Fame and Museum. This sleepy little town was, for years, the wintering grounds of the famous Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. Today, the land has been turned into a temple for the circus and carnival crowd. Inside is housed one of the most unique collections of artifacts, photos, stories, and memorabilia from those nomadic troupes that traveled around the country capturing the imagination of generations of children and adults.
Keep driving south until the town of Kokomo comes into view and its impressive Automotive Heritage Museum. More than 100,000 square feet of exhibits and displays showcase dozens of classic automobiles and the rich history of Indiana’s automobile industry. Those up for a little side trip east of here are rewarded by the birthplace of American legend, James Dean, in the city of Fairmont. Today the town hosts regular events honoring their favorite son, James Dean.
Your next stop is Indianapolis, where your US-31 tour comes to a close. Indy is a big city with a small town feel. Make a point to visit the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame and Museum to walk through 80 some years of racing history and heroes. If you happen to be in town during the Indiana State Fair, don’t miss a visit to Hook’s American Drugstore Museum. Only open during the fair weeks (mid-August), the museum takes you back to yesteryear when the thing to do on Saturday night was to gather at the drug store, knock back a malt, and catch up with the neighbors.
From Indy, head east on I-70 until you pass into Ohio and reach the town of Springfield. There you can pick up US-40, the National Road, and the next highway on our tour of Americana. In town, get out of the rig and stretch your legs along the Little Miami Scenic Trail, a multi-use trail tracing 69 miles of old railway, connecting Springfield to Milford. The Pennsylvania House Museum is a quaint little stop in town as well. Operated by the Daughters of the American Revolution, the 1822 building is a historic National Road tavern housing an impressive collection of dolls and buttons.
Heading east, pull off at Columbus to visit the Camp Chase Military Prison and Confederate Cemetery. Used during the Civil War to house Confederate prisoners, the prison was soon turned into a cemetery after a deadly 1863 outbreak of smallpox claimed hundreds of soldiers. On the lighter side of Columbus, take a tour of the American Whistle Corporation, the only maker of metal whistles left in the United States. Afterwards, blast off to the John and Annie Glenn Historic Site, a museum dedicated to the life and times of the first American to orbit Earth.
Keep heading east and just before you reach the town of Concord, you’ll find the National Road-Zane Grey Museum, your last stop in Ohio. This two-for-one museum tells the story of the National Road through impressive exhibits and authentic examples of vehicles that have traveled the road over the years. Next, shift gears and explore the life and accomplishments of the great American author through Grey’s writings and memorabilia.
Michigan’s Highway 27 is another nostalgic highway that courses its way down the center of the state. However, the northernmost section of US-27 has been absorbed by I-75. No matter, there’s still plenty of fun to be had.
Begin at the scenic town of Mackinaw City, located at the very northern tip of Michigan along the banks of Lake Huron. This tiny, seaside-like village “boasts” a year-round population of less than 1,000, a number that escalates wildly only during its amazingly popular summer months. Visit historic Fort Michilimackinac (say that three times fast) to learn more about the area’s participation in the French and Indian War.
While you’re in the area, consider a sojourn to Mackinac Island is an absolute must. The island abounds with endless charms where it seems time has stopped. You’ll have to leave the RV behind as the island has major automobile restrictions that help preserve island’s charm that is
reminiscent of New England’s Cape Cod. But don’t worry about getting around. More than 600 horses serve visitors for horseback rides, horse-drawn carriages, and horse-drawn taxis. One historic visit is the Grand Hotel which hosts live entertainment each night for guests and non-guests alike. Natural beauty is Mackinac’s main draw and it begins and ends with Mackinac Island State Park. The park’s craggy cliffs were carved out of glaciers and today tumble into the icy waters of the Great Lakes and provide stunning views. The island also abounds with artistic bounty as several art galleries showcase some of the finest
artists in the Midwest. Thousands of revelers come out during mid-June, when the islands plays host to the annual Mackinac Island Lilac Festival.
South of Mackinaw City, head on over to Gaylord, where a duffer might think they’ve discovered heaven on Earth. Gaylord is world-renown and one of the finest golf destinations in America. The area in and around the city hosts – be still my heart – no less than 22 courses, several of which are ranked as some of the best in the nation. If you’re still in the area and looking for a little angling, head down to Grayling and the world-famous Au Sable River, home to some of the finest trout fishing in the nation. South of Grayling I-75 and US-27 go there separate ways.
Southward, you’ll find yourself in Houghton Lake, a charming town along the banks of its namesake lake. Plenty of fishing and camping can be found around here. And if you’re lucky enough to find yourself in town during January, don’t miss the annual Tip-Up Town U.S.A., a weeklong celebration of everything ice fishing.
The state capital of Lansing is south on US-27. One of the more unique stops in Lansing – which also, sadly, is saddled with an awfully dull name -- is the Michigan Museum of Surveying. The Michigan Territory was once the wild frontier and a hotbed of exploration and clashes with Native Americans during the late 18th Century. Learn all about it here. Two other worthwhile stops are the Oldsmobile Heritage Center and the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum. Ransom E. Olds first produced cars here – way back in 1897 – and everything is on display.
Our last stop along US-27 is the town of Jackson, best known as the birthplace of the Republican Party, formed in 1854 with the goal of eliminating slavery across the United States. Be sure to take off your “Kerry/Edwards” bumper sticker. From the past of Jackson, step into the future at the Michigan Space & Science Center, which offers up a myriad of educational interactive exhibits.