Hamilton in Chicago

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I can’t tell you how long it seems I’ve waited to see Hamilton on stage. I’ve been obsessed with this musical ever since we bought the cast recording well over a year ago. I read somewhere that fans who can’t get tickets to the show and listen obsessively to the music need to have a restraining order – and I totally get that. The music gets under your skin, and you really just HAVE TO SEE THE SHOW.

Unfortunately, back then, tickets to see the original cast in New York were nearly impossible to find – unless you wanted to spend something like $3,000 on them. So the original cast came and went and still we hadn’t seen the show. But we were optimistic, because Des Moines Performing Arts announced it would be bringing Hamilton to Iowa at the Civic Center during the 2017-18 season. And, even sooner, the show was playing an open-ended run in Chicago starting last fall.

The day the tickets went on sale for the Chicago performances (June 21, 2016), my husband Dave and I got all our computers and iPads and cell phones going at the same time to see if somehow ONE of the devices would score tickets to a show that hundreds of thousands of other rabid Hamilton fanatics were also trying to buy. My heart was racing, but unfortunately the Internet was slow and kept kicking us out of the Ticketmaster system. I thought we’d never get tickets. I thought I’d go crazy. I thought I might cry. But, miraculously, a couple of hours later we were the proud owners of tickets to a performance on Wednesday, Feb. 15. A lifetime away.

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It seemed like forever, but the day finally came. Meanwhile, I had seen clips of the show on the Tony Awards and the Grammy Awards and 60 Minutes and YouTube and a documentary. I’d bought the book Hamilton: The Revolution, which chronicles the making of the show, and I’d started following Lin-manuel Miranda on Facebook, so I was pretty well in the inner circle, right? That, and the cast recording, would have to be enough to hold me over until February.

February seemed like kind of an iffy time to drive to Chicago, but we lucked out and the weather was actually pretty nice. We drove to the city last Tuesday – Valentine’s Day, as it turned out – and spent the night at the Palmer House. Our show was a Wednesday matinee and we were so excited we didn’t know what to do with ourselves Wednesday morning. We tried to sleep late, tried to make breakfast last a very long time, tried to keep up with work emails and read the newspaper. But mostly I was just like a little kid on Christmas morning, waiting for time to open presents.

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img_1149And then, it was time. We walked to the Private Bank Theatre – literally less than a block from our hotel. Stood in line. Bought an outrageously overpriced Hamilton T-shirt. Took a selfie from the mezzanine, where we had fourth-row seats. Tried not to be disappointed that three of the biggest roles in the show – Aaron Burr, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson – would be played by understudies from the ensemble.

But here is what I learned about this show: The staging is phenomenal, the costumes are awesome, the music is spectacular, and the performances are terrific (even the understudies blew me away). But the real star of the show is Lin-manuel Miranda’s words. And I had been hearing them all along on the cast recording. The full visuals just added a new dimension. And now when I listen to the songs, I can see all the staging and choreography in my head.

I remember the first time I saw the musical Les Miserables. When it ended, I didn’t want to leave the theatre; I just wanted to turn around and watch it again. And again. I feel the same way about Hamilton. I can’t wait to see the show in Des Moines, and maybe in New York, and wherever else I have the opportunity. It’s really an amazing experience, and I just want to do it over and over.

So, obviously, Hamilton was the highlight of my trip to Chicago (and the highlight of 2017 so far, and maybe one of the Top 10 Best Days of My Life), but Chicago is an amazing city, even in February, so here are a few more things we did there:

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We ate breakfast at Wildberry Pancakes and Cafe, a yummy breakfast-and-lunch place just north of Millenium Park where, after eating, we had to do the tourist thing and gawk and take photos of Cloud Gate (above), the reflective bean-shaped sculpture by artist Anish Kapoor.

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We spent a few hours at the renowned Art Institute of Chicago, with its seemingly limitless collection of art ranging from Impressionism to early European to Modern. I love visiting my favorites – Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, and Paris Street, Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte (below) – and dozens of other recognizable and wonderful paintings.

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The view through the Art Institute’s sun shades is even sort of a work of art!

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We ate some great food, did some shopping, and listened to blues at Buddy Guy’s Legends club. And it was a real treat to stay at the elegant Palmer House (above), which was the first place I ever stayed in Chicago when I was 16 years old.

 

 

 

Late fall hiking in the Loess Hills

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My quest to find good, marked hiking trails in the Loess Hills has been satisfied – for now – with a heart-pumping hike at Hitchcock Nature Center near Honey Creek, Iowa, this week.

I’ve blogged about this county conservation park twice before: once in 2014 when I drove the Loess Hills Scenic Byway in its entirety but didn’t allow myself time to really explore any of the hiking trails, and once about a very brief boardwalk hike on a cold day in spring 2015. Neither of those visits allowed me the time to fully appreciate this park and its many hiking trails.

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This time I spent several hours hiking on trails with names like Badger Ridge, Fox Run Ridge, and Hawk Ridge – you get the idea that these hikes are along the ridges of the Loess Hills, right? Many of them, with their steep ascents and descents, offer wide-open vistas of these unique landforms. Other trails take you into the valleys between the hills. The trails are very well marked and designated easy, moderate, and difficult (although I would argue with some of the designations).

Our November weather has been so warm that after a few ups-and-downs I stripped off my fleece jacket and walked the rest of the day in just a T-shirt and jeans.

As I wrote back in 2015, Hitchcock Nature Center is a 1,268-acre nature preserve. Besides its 10 miles of hiking trails along the scenic Loess Hills, the center is also home to the Loess Hills Lodge Interpretive Facility, featuring native prairie plants, hands-on activities for the kids, and an observation deck.

To get to Hitchcock Nature Center, take I-29 to the Crescent exit and travel east to the Old Lincoln Highway. The park is located 5 miles north.

Pumpkins in the Gardens

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I was driving down University Blvd. in Ames yesterday and happened to glance over to Reiman Gardens. It was FILLED with pumpkins. It seemed like about a thousand pumpkins! So I drove home and dropped off my groceries and went back with my camera.

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This weekend is Spirits in the Gardens, a Halloween event. The family-friendly event was beginning just as I was leaving. Lots of little kids in costume. What a great event for our community! (And apparently there were ONLY 500 pumpkins, not 1,000 – but they were all carved!)

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Illinois River Road

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Here are two things I really love: Fall and Midwest Living magazine. Okay, when I write it down it sounds really dorky, but it’s true. I’ve been reading this magazine since the 1980s or whenever it first came out, and it’s always been just a really reliable resource for travel in the heartland. I’ve taken its travel suggestions many times, followed its recipes, and just basically enjoyed reading about this wonderful place we live: the Midwest.

A few weeks ago I decided I wanted to try a new fall color drive. I feel like I’ve driven most of the scenic byways in Iowa, I was already planning a trip to Minnesota, and I just wanted to go somewhere different, you know? I also didn’t have a lot of time. So I started searching Midwest Living’s online archives to get some ideas and I found this.

It was a story about driving the Illinois River Road, from Havana to Ottawa, Ill. The color looked spectacular, it’s not that far from central Iowa, and there seemed to be a nice variety of things to explore: small towns, state parks, a pumpkin patch, a wildlife refuge or two, and some interesting history. So I took my trusted magazine’s advice and booked two rooms for last weekend and made a plan: I’d drive the first day (a Saturday) as far as Peoria, then do the rest of the drive on Sunday, spend the night at Starved Rock Lodge, and finish up with a hike in the state park on Monday. Dave agreed that it sounded fun and decided at the last minute to come along.

We left Ames Saturday morning and drove through Iowa, all the way down to the southeast corner to Keokuk and crossed the Mississippi River into Illinois. By this time, we were hungry and didn’t see many options along Hwy. 136, our route to Havana, so we stopped at Macomb, home to Western Illinois University. It was game day, but we found an out-of-the-way restaurant serving Greek and Middle Eastern food. I had a falafel sandwich and we continued on our way.

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At last we came to Havana, a reasonably cute small town just outside our first destination: the Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge.

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What a cool place! We took a couple of short nature walks and drove along the Chautauqua levee, which is only allowed a couple of times a year according to the park ranger we met at the entrance. We were very lucky! The “ride the refuge” 8-mile self-guided interpretive auto tour allowed us to see the area up close.

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We saw one turtle and a few individual birds – great blue herons, egrets, eagles – but definitely not the huge flocks of migrating waterfowl as I would have liked (no pelicans!). Also, the fall color was disappointing there. But it was still a neat experience.

After that, there wasn’t much to see until Peoria, the largest city on the route. We arrived at our overnight town around 5 p.m. and decided to follow the magazine website’s advice and drive the “legendary” Grand View Drive in Peoria Heights.

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Theodore Roosevelt reportedly dubbed this “the world’s most beautiful drive,” and although I’d have to disagree with Teddy on that one, it was, indeed, pretty stunning. I don’t know what I liked best about it: the truly gorgeous old homes on the left side of the road or the dramatic bluff views of the Illinois River on the right. The fall color was also very pretty in this area.

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When Grand View Drive ended we found ourselves on North Prospect Road – a charming street lined with shops and restaurants, many of which had sidewalk dining. We strolled up and down, checking menus (and prices! Dave reminded me that the homes we’d just driven past indicated a lot of wealth in this quaint suburb, and the menu prices reflected that).

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We found Jim’s Bistro, a restaurant that we not only could afford but that also offered one of my favorite beers from a previous trip: Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold. As I said, sitting that evening on the tree-lined street with Illinois yuppies and their dogs, “The fall color was disappointing. The birds were disappointing. But DORTMUNDER GOLD.”

The food was good, too.

Next morning, after an uneventful evening, a freaky middle-of-the-night hailstorm, and free breakfast at a nondescript Hampton Inn near the Peoria mall, we headed up the River Road. (There are signs to help you follow the scenic byway, by the way, but be aware that the road often does not follow the river.)

We tried to find a trailhead to hike at the Marshall State Fish & Wildlife Area near Chillicothe, touted on the Illinois River Road Byway website as a 3,000-acre wildlife preserve with a 3.25-mile nature trail “coursing through bluff and ravine hardwood forests.” We found the preserve but not the trailhead, so we moved on.

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Midwest Living suggested stopping at Boggio’s Orchard near Granville. I love pumpkin patches and I’m a sucker for all those little decorative gourds, Indian corn, apple butter, and all that kind of stuff you find at roadside stands and farmsteads this time of year. Also, I’ve been trying to eat really healthy, but I have to admit I was hoping for an apple cider donut, one of the most delectable food items on the planet.

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I was not disappointed. Not only did Boggio’s have tons of pumpkins, they had beautiful baskets of mums for just $8.50 each (too bad we were on the road!), all the other things you’d expect…and probably the yummiest, WARM, melt-in-your-mouth cider donut I’ve ever eaten. I ate the donut, bought three baby pumpkins, and we continued on our way.

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Our true destinations for today were twofold: Matthiessen State Park (above/below) and then Starved Rock State Park. Oh, my goodness, we loved both of these places. If the fall color would have been at its peak, these parks would have been akin to paradise.

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We hiked pretty much all the trails at Matthiessen’s dells area, to places with fun names like Giant’s Bathtub, Devil’s Paint Box, and Strawberry Rock. Many of the trails are made up of wooden steps or boardwalks.

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We navigated bridges and trails to canyons, waterfalls, and ridges – a total of just 3.2 miles but such an exhilarating experience!

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Breakfast seemed a very long time ago, so we went to the nearby small town of Utica to find some lunch. It turns out that Utica is a charming little town with a number of places to eat. Just cross the river bridge and avoid the tourist area and you’ll find yourself in a quaint downtown. We ate at Duffy’s Tavern in a historic building on the corner.

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We spent the rest of the day exploring – with several hundred other visitors – Starved Rock State Park. What a gem of a place this is! We hiked and hiked and hiked – to Starved Rock, Lover’s Leap, French Canyon, LaSalle Canyon, and along the scenic river trail. We climbed up and down LOTS of stairs.

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A bit of Starved Rock history: It gets its name from a Native American Legend that involves a battle by two tribes, one of which took refuge on a great rock (above). After many days, the warriors died of starvation. (I never promised it was going to be a fun story.) Flooding from a melting glacier some 17,000 years ago carved out the many exposed rock canyons. The entire park comprises some 2,630 acres.

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Waterfalls can be found in 14 of the 18 canyons. We loved the French (above) and LaSalle (below) Canyon waterfalls, and we met a hiker from Chicago who says he comes every winter to see the frozen waterfalls, which he says are really spectacular.

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We loved the hikes. They’re well marked and offer glorious views of the river and canyons and other geological wonders. Like Matthiessen, there are a lot of stairs and bridges and boardwalks. And a lot of fellow hikers. But it was really awesome. Dave and I took pictures of each other through the waterfall at LaSalle Canyon:

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We hiked until we were very tired (Dave’s Fitbit said we’d walked 24,000 steps) and very hungry. I’d booked a room at the Starved Rock Lodge some weeks before, and we had spotted the lodge up on the bluff as we’d hiked (below), so I was anxious to get checked in.

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The big, rambling lodge was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. It’s a pretty neat place, with a lodge wing and hotel wing (a confusion they could easily clear up by calling the whole place the lodge), a great hall, large dining room, lounge, wrap-around veranda, and also a number of private cabins.

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We checked in (first to a tiny room on the third floor of the lodge wing with such a small bed that I could not imagine two adult humans fitting in it, and then to a much larger room for an extra 10 bucks in the hotel wing); I showered off the day’s sweat and grime, and we headed to the lounge for a much-deserved beer.

It was such a nice night (did I mention that it was a balmy 80 degrees today?) we opted to sit on the veranda overlooking the park, and we ordered food and drinks and – if you don’t mind drinking beer from a plastic cup and swatting annoying little black bugs while you eat – had a nice, relaxing end to our otherwise exhilarating day.

We settled in to our room, and I fell asleep even earlier than usual, only to be awakened at around midnight by a fire alarm. I groggily pulled some jeans and a sweatshirt over my pajamas and we went to the main lobby, where we sat for half an hour or so with similarly clad and groggy people until we were cleared to go back to our rooms. (The fire alarm, it turned out, was caused by someone starting a fire in an unventilated fireplace, along with a few sparks on the carpet.)

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The next morning we got up early and hit the trail, because although it felt like we had hiked every trail in Starved Rock the day before, we had not. Not by a long shot. So we headed out to hike the trails that were to the west of the lodge. We had an inauspicious start, walking in circles for about half an hour before ending up right back where we started (I blame my interrupted-by-fire-alarm sleep for my inability to read a trail map), but once we got on the correct trail, we quickly found Aurora and Sac Canyons and finally came to the end of the trail: St. Louis Canyon. The whole thing took only about 40 minutes and was a lovely way to start the morning.

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After that, we showered and ate breakfast in the main dining room, with its vaulted wooden ceilings and huge windows. I ordered coffee and blueberry pancakes and was not disappointed.

We’d met a photographer in St. Louis Canyon who said we must hike in the Illinois Canyon area – on the far east end of the park – before we left. So we drove our car to find a parking area that would allow us easy access to the trailhead. Only a few people were on those trails – it was a Monday – so it was really nice to explore the Council Overhang, Ottawa Canyon, and the Illinois Canyon area mostly on our own.

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We did not make it to the very end of the trail because we would have had to cross a stream three times and decided we didn’t want to have wet feet all the way home.

By late morning, we were on I-80 heading toward Iowa. We opted not to stop in Ottawa, a town that seemed like it might have been fun, because we needed to get on the road.

Looking back on the experience, I would definitely return to the Starved Rock/Matthiessen State Parks area and would stay again at Starved Rock Lodge. I’d probably go back to Utica and maybe explore Ottawa a bit. I’d go later in October for better color, preferably during the week to avoid the crowds. To the good folks at Midwest Living, I say: I do not recommend driving the rest of the Illinois River Road. It just wasn’t that great, and it added many, many hours to our weekend exploration. Just drive across I-80 and get yourself to those terrific parks as fast as you can, that’s what I recommend.

Here’s a parting shot of just a splash of fall color in Starved Rock:

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The Superior Hiking Trail

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I’ve been visiting the north shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota since 2000. With this last trip (Oct. 2-4, 2016), I’ve visited a total of 20 times. The fall is the best time to visit; there’s absolutely no such thing as going to the north shore too many times.

The reason I started visiting the north shore was to hike the Superior Hiking Trail – a foot path that was then about 205 miles long and has now been expanded to a total of around 260 miles (not including spur trails), starting in northern Duluth and ending at the Canadian border, roughly following the ridgeline along Lake Superior. It’s sort of like a much shorter, more accessible Appalachian Trail.

There’s primitive camping along the trail, and I’ve often encountered campers and thru-hikers – serious backpackers who hike the whole trail in one big 2- to 4-week chunk. Lucky for the rest of us there are access points all along the trail where we can park our cars and just hike one section at a time.

If you love to hike, you really need to experience this trail. It’s truly beautiful, lined with maples and aspen and birches and firs, with views of Lake Superior and inland lakes. The trail is mostly narrow and intimate, with boulders to clamber over and rocks and tree roots to maneuver. Sometimes the trail is very steep, and some sections have been stepped, either with wooden steps or large rocks. Wooden walkways and bridges have been installed to help hikers avoid the worst of the muddy, marshy areas. The mountaintops are mostly bald granite – tricky for me to climb – and provide the most spectacular views. But mostly I just love the narrow, secluded trails. I could walk there for hours and hours.

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This past weekend I took four short hikes. The first one (pictured above and below) was just an hour-long leg stretcher as I drove northeast along Hwy. 61, the highway that hugs the shoreline of Lake Superior. The Caribou River Wayside (mile post 70.5) is my go-to stop as I head to Cascade Lodge, my lodging of choice about 10 miles south of Grand Marais.

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This hike is easily accessible, with a trailhead right next to the highway, and it doesn’t take long before you encounter a fast-moving river with a viewing platform, then a steep wooden staircase to a lovely waterfall, and a bridge that crosses the river. You get a lot of bang for your one-hour hike here, and the fall color is usually good.

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Speaking of fall color, the first weekend in October is usually the peak on the north shore. You catch the end of the red maples and the peak of the golden aspen and birch. Unfortunately, the color was not too spectacular this year – subtle as opposed to brilliant. Word on the trail was this year just wouldn’t be too great; it’s not that I was either late or early. The maples, especially, just didn’t really turn.

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I started the next day (after a night in my cozy cabin, above, and a hearty breakfast at Cascade Restaurant) hiking up Oberg Mountain, one of the most accessible and beautiful spur hikes along the Superior Hiking Trail. There’s a large parking lot (accessible from Onion River Road, mile post 87.5) and you don’t have to do much hiking to get to the top.

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Along the way, the fall color was lovely. The many views from the top were pretty, even with the less-than-perfect color. As you walk around the hiking trail at the top of Oberg Mountain, you can see Lake Superior, Moose Mountain, Leveaux Mountain, and an inland lake. The whole hike is only about two miles, but give yourself a couple of hours to stop and take pictures and enjoy the views.

From the same parking lot, you can hike north toward Moose Mountain (I’ve done this hike before and remember it being fairly difficult) or you can go south to Leveaux Mountain, which is what I did this time. Leveaux is a fairly easy hike through an enchanting forest and a not-too-difficult climb to get to the top along a loop trail. The views of fall color, again, were less than spectacular, but the trail was awesome (3.7 miles total).

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After a quick lunch stop at the Coho Café in Tofte (an overpriced but delicious salad and a latte, consumed on the outdoor patio), I hiked south on a section between the Temperance and Cross Rivers (below).

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This is not one of the more popular trails, so it was a quiet, remote, and intimate hike without running into a lot of other people. There were a few scrambling-up-and-down sections and a few nice views, ending at Cross River (3.8 miles total). Here’s a view of the Cross River, not from the hiking trail but from the highway bridge:

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My trail total was 9.8 for the day – not bad for an old gal – and I was hungry, so I cleaned myself up at the cabin (Cabin 2, my favorite) and headed into Grand Marais (see below for an evening view of the harbor) for beer and pizza at Sven and Ole’s. Unfortunately, the Pickled Herring, the bar upstairs, was closed, so I was forced to eat my wild rice pizza in the restaurant. (The pizza here is to die for, but not so much the dining atmosphere.)

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There are about 35 trail sections on the Superior Hiking Trail, and I’ve hiked most of the ones north of Two Harbors. (The sections between Duluth and Two Harbors are relatively new, and I haven’t hiked any of them. I am guessing they are crowded, given their proximity to Duluth. There are also some sections from the Minnesota-Wisconsin border to Duluth that are now apparently part of the Superior Hiking Trail system, but I don’t know anything about those.) Here are some of my favorites hikes:

  • Temperance River to Britton Peak: One of the most popular sections, and for good reason; it’s awesome. (4.8 miles)
  • Britton Peak to Oberg Mountain: This section includes the Leveaux Mountain loop I took this year. (5.7 miles)
  • Lutsen to Caribou Trail: This is one of my very favorite sections, although my old legs have a hard time doing it anymore. Highlights include Lake Agnes, a crazy log ladder, moss-covered boulders, and spectacular fall color. (6.4 miles)
  • Cascade River Loop: I’m proud to say I’ve done this very difficult hike twice, but that was back when I was younger. I couldn’t do it today, but I recommend it to hearty hikers who want to see spectacular falls.
  • Caribou River Wayside to Cook County Road 1: This is the section I like to hike on my way up to the cabin, but I don’t do very much of it these days. If you do the whole thing (9 miles), the highlight is Alfred’s Pond, one of my favorite places along the whole trail. It’s closer to the northern end (about 3.2 miles from the trailhead). I hiked to the pond and back one time and never saw another human.
  • Cook County Road 1 to Temperance River State Park: Highlights are the Tower Overlook and the Cross and Temperance Rivers. (I did a section of this hike this year.) (8 miles total)
  • Silver Bay to Tettegouche State Park/Hwy. 1: The south end of this section includes Bean and Bear Lakes – very challenging but an awesome hike with incredible views. The north end features Round Mountain and Mt. Trudee. I’ve done both ends separately, because I can’t hike the whole thing (11.1 miles) and then back to my car, because that would be WAY too much hiking for one day, even in my younger years. I’ve done the Mt. Trudee section several times, and it’s incredible – but treacherous. I especially like that section for spring flowers.
  • Gooseberry Falls State Park to Split Rock River: This hike doesn’t start out too exciting, and it’s über popular due to its location. But the Split Rock end of the trail is pretty awesome, even though I distinctly remember how hard it rained on the day I hiked and how I slid down one of the trails in the mud (6 miles).

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  • Split Rock River Loop: Also really, really popular; moderately difficult but pretty (5 miles). The photo of the Split Rock Lighthouse above was shot from the wayside on Hwy. 61.
  • All the really northern trails (Grand Marais to Cook County Road 58, with its Devil Track River; Kadunce River Wayside to Judge Magney State Park, and others) are probably the most remote and least traveled sections, which make them really special to me. These are the sections on which you can literally hike all day and not see another person.

If you’re going to hike the Superior Hiking Trail, even just a section or two, I’d recommend buying this book: Guide to the Superior Hiking Trail, now in its seventh edition. This and other books, maps, clothing, and other stuff can be purchased through the Superior Hiking Trail Association web store. The SHTA keeps the trail in hiking shape, and it’s all run by volunteers, so it’s a great organization to support.

Hanging Rock State Park

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Hanging Rock State Park, located in north-central North Carolina, is one of those awesome state parks that’s worth driving out of your way to explore. Not all the way from Iowa…but if you’re in Chapel Hill, N.C., as I was last week, it’s well worth the meandering trip.

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This is a state park with great hiking trails that are well marked, a visitor center staffed with park rangers who know what they’re talking about, and maps you can actually follow. Iowa state park management could learn a thing or two from this place.

Dave and I were at Hanging Rock on a Sunday, and so were hundreds of other people looking for a late-summer outing. The weather was glorious, and the trails were active.

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We wanted to take the namesake Hanging Rock trail, deemed “moderate” by the website, for expansive views of North Carolina’s green mountains.

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About halfway up the trail I started to grumble, “Moderate, my ass.” It was quite a haul, with wooden and stone steps and loose gravel. But the views were worth it: nearby rock formations and expansive vistas of the Sauratown Mountain range (above). We got to the top and climbed around on the rocks a bit before heading back down.

We stopped by the visitor center to ask advice about what to do next. We wanted to explore the park more, but we didn’t want to take any long or strenuous hikes. The park ranger was extremely helpful; she suggested a short hike to the Upper Cascades Falls, with a trail that connected right to our parking lot, followed by the Lower Cascades Falls, which were a short drive away followed by a .8-mile hike to what she described as the best scenery in the park.

Off we went on a .6-mile round-trip hike to the upper falls, which were lovely. A family and their dog were enjoying the waterfall and surrounding rocky pool.

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Next we drove to the lower falls parking lot and did the suggested hike. It was mainly stairs – about 160 of them – but not at all difficult. And the falls were indeed spectacular, so we were very pleased with our guide’s advice – especially since the park has many miles of trails in 21 separately named hikes. It would have been totally overwhelming for a first-time visitor to choose which hikes to take. At the lower falls, there were more couples and families with dogs, all splashing about and enjoying the glorious day.

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Dave’s Fitbit said we walked 14,507 steps, or 6.6 miles in the park. More telling: We walked 89 flights of stairs. It was a good workout as well as being really, really pretty.

We were glad we went to Hanging Rock on Sunday, because it rained for the duration of our time in North Carolina.

If you go, Hanging Rock State Park is located at 1790 Hanging Rock Park Road, Danbury, N.C., directly north of Winston-Salem.

Clay County Fair

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So here’s a weird, out-of-character thing I did this week: I attended a county fair. I’m not exactly sure why I did this; it was way up in Spencer, Iowa, so it was quite a long drive, and I really do not like fairs all that much.

But for some reason, THIS county fair has always intrigued me. Is it because it’s held in the fall instead of the sticky, drippy summer? Is it because of the location up near the Iowa Great Lakes? Is it because I heard someone say that this county fair was once called the “World’s Greatest County Fair” and deemed the largest county fair in the whole country?

Well, it turns out that these claims to fame were made in 1932. But I have to admit, it’s a pretty good fair, as county fairs go. I had a fun time, and I’m glad I went.

Here were some of the highlights on the day I was there:

  • Bingo. Like, bingo all day. Never-ending bingo.
  • A tribute to veterans.

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  • Plenty of musical entertainment on the Ag Partners Discovery Stage, Dish Plaza Stage (above), Farmers Bank Stage, KICD Courtyard, Northwest Bank Stage, and Sea Lion Splash, plus strolling entertainment such as Hillbilly Bob (and his famous car, Old Ruthie, below) and Rock-it the Robot. I mean, you have to admit that’s a LOT of entertainment for a county fair for ONE DAY.

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  • Farm animals! Everything from baby animals (adorable piglets, baby cows, baby alpacas, and more) at Grandpa’s Barn to cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, and horses each in their respective barns, pavilions, and show rings. These facilities are excellent.

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  • Speaking of facilities, these fairgrounds have an unusually large number of very nice, permanent buildings. The grandstand is huge. There’s an events center, ag building, creative living center, industrial building, and more.

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  • A large carnival midway with gobs of rides. More on this later.

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  • A strong presence by Iowa State University’s county extension service and 4-H.

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  • Waterless cookware and hot tubs. What’s a fair without guys wearing headsets, hawking stuff we absolutely do NOT need to buy?

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  • An extensive model train display in The Depot – really awesome!

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  • Vegetable competition winners on display. I loved seeing the pumpkins and corn and tomatoes and other bright, pretty veggies in the ag building.

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  • Photography competition winners on display in the photography building.
  • A horse show at the outdoor arena.
  • Farm implements on display. Some of the animal implements look like torture devices (and they probably are).

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  • A wide, walkable grand concourse that I walked up and down no fewer than 12 times.

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  • People sleeping in the animal barns with their prize cows and such.

This county fair seems to be just one step removed from the state fair held every August in Des Moines. They have many of the same kinds of activities, and definitely many of the same food vendors. Here are some differences I noticed:

  • No beer tent
  • No politics (although maybe there is, and I just picked the right day to attend)
  • No goofy contests (cow-chip throwing, husband calling, pie eating and the like)

Other than that, it seemed very much like the state fair, just on a smaller scale.

The food stands, of course, are a big focus of both fairs. On the day I visited the Clay County Fair, I saw tater ribbons, blooming onions, fried mac and cheese, roasted sweet corn, pork chops, corndogs, Chinese food, tacos, funnel cakes, homemade rootbeer, and more.

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There was a pineapple ice cream stand (above) selling a product similar to the Dole Whip they serve at the Magic Kingdom, so I had to try it. (Yum!) I ate lunch at the Kiwanis building, where they were still serving breakfast at 1:30 p.m. I ordered a veggie omelet, and it was pretty good (below). The servers were very friendly and accommodating, and everyone eating there seemed to know each other.

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Given the northern location of this county fair, I spotted a few food vendors I haven’t noticed at the state fair. There was one booth offering Alaskan salmon, one serving “Minneapple” fried pies, one selling deep-fried Spam, and a “Quebec style” gourmet treat called poutine (cheese curds and French fries covered with gravy). Oh, I forgot to mention cheese curds! So many flavors of cheese curds.

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And Spudnuts! I have heard of these donuts made with potato flour, but I’ve never seen them actually being served. Spudnuts used to be really popular with Iowa State students and other folks who lived in Ames back in the day. The Spudnuts vendor seemed to be busy frying up these hot, sugary treats all day long; there was always a line of people patiently waiting.

I visited the Clay County Fair on a Monday, and the midway attractions didn’t open up until 4 p.m. I was headed home by then, so I didn’t get to experience any of the rides. But I was endlessly amused by the signs for the “Strangest Show on Earth” and “Freaks of Nature” exhibits. I mean, is there really a two-headed monkey and an ape woman in there? A wild woman and a lobster-claw man? How about a two-headed baby and a headless girl? One very large sign promised many different “strange girls” inside. I cringed a little but was nonetheless intrigued. (How strange do you have to be to get included in this show? Can I apply?)

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Hats off to this delightful county fair for entertaining me for a day!

 

Adventures in western Iowa, part 4: Le Mars

I spent a weekend in northwest Iowa recently with two main goals: Drive the Glacial Trail Scenic Byway and hike in the Loess Hills. But I had some other adventures along the way. Here is the last of a 4-part series:

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I wrote what was probably a snarky post back in June 2013 about Le Mars’ “Ice Cream Capital of the World” claim to fame. Let’s just say I was not impressed during my first visit there.

But I needed a place to stop for the night during my weekend in western Iowa, so I decided to give Le Mars another chance.

I spent the night at another off-brand motel, the Amber Inn, 635 8th Ave. SW. It didn’t look too promising on the outside, and the location was bad. But my room was very comfortable and didn’t have an odor, so it was better than the Sail lnn in Storm Lake the night before. (And the free breakfast the next morning was not half bad.)

After I checked in, I went downtown and got an ice cream cone at the Blue Bunny Ice Cream Parlor & Visitors Center (hey, when in the Ice Cream Capitol of the World, right?) I have to admit that it was a darn good ice cream cone. I ordered a single scoop of butter pecan in a waffle cone, and it was pretty much heavenly. Yes, I know it’s just regular ol’ Blue Bunny ice cream that I can probably get at my local grocery store. But it was so huge and drippy and yummy that I actually just called it dinner and didn’t need to find anything else to eat that Saturday night.

I also found another (and maybe better) reason to travel to Le Mars: the alley art. I knew a little bit about this from the Iowa tourism book, and I thought it sounded cool. It was actually really fun. I walked around the downtown area and was completely entertained every time I found more murals tucked away in alleys and parking lots – areas that otherwise would be eyesores  – all produced by local artists. What an awesome idea! Take a look:

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After viewing all the art I could find, I got completely turned around on the way back to the hotel. The streets in this town are ridiculous. Good thing I brought the city map from my room or I’d still be there, driving aimlessly.

 

Adventures in western Iowa, part 3: Hiking the Loess Hills

I spent a weekend in northwest Iowa recently with two main goals: Drive the Glacial Trail Scenic Byway and hike in the Loess Hills. But I had some other adventures along the way. Here is part 3 of a 4-part series:

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Leaving behind the Glacial Trail Scenic Byway late Saturday morning, I drove west toward the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway. I had explored the entire length of the byway back in summer 2014 and blogged about it here.

One of my regrets from that trip was being in such a hurry to see it all that I had little time to truly explore any one area of these beautiful landscape formations. This time, I really wanted to hike in two specific locations along the byway: the Broken Kettle Grasslands / Five Ridge Prairie area and the Preparation Canyon State Park / Loess Hills State Forest area.

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At the northern end of the byway, I took the Ridge Road Loop. This is, in my opinion, one of the most stunning parts of the whole drive. Cruising slowly along the gravelly hills, I tried to find a trail to hike in the Broken Kettle Grasslands Preserve. This 4,500-acre preserve is home to Iowa’s largest remaining prairie as well as a large herd of bison (I saw just two animals, below), and it’s preserved by The Nature Conservancy. It’s a truly beautiful place.

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I had found a map online that showed the area with roads and suggested viewing areas – and a small section highlighted as “recommended hiking.” I know I drove through that section. But even with the map, I didn’t find any place to park, much less hike – no trails, no trailheads, no signs, nothing. Most of the prairie is fenced off, with signs that specifically prohibit entrance. I took a lot of pictures from the road. Hiking or no hiking, this place is just spectacular.

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Also on the Ridge Road Loop is Five Ridge Prairie, a Plymouth County park that promises hiking trails through loess bluffs with a mixture of oak-timbered valleys, native prairie ridge tops, and west-facing slopes. It’s not the easiest place to find – there’s a west and an east entrance – but I finally found the west entrance off Hwy. 12. The hiking in that part of the park didn’t turn out to be so great – very open and scrubby and with no signage – and I didn’t want to get lost.

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So I hiked a bit, but after the trail split three times I figured it was time to go back to the car. It was a hot day, and the trail provided no shade. I was glad I had plenty of water in my car.

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I then attempted to find the east entrance, thinking it might be more hiker-friendly, and when I found the road to turn on – the crazy, roller-coaster road (above) – I realized that I had briefly hiked this place before. When I was there two years ago (this very weekend) I drove to the entrance, walked a short distance, and then got back in the car – because I had no idea what to expect from the park and didn’t have time to explore. I was in such a rush to drive the whole Loess Hills Byway. On this visit, I had plenty of time, so I did hike there for an hour or so. It was pretty, but the hiking itself was just OK. Hot and scrubby, with little shade and no spectacular views. Overall disappointing.

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If you want to visit Five Ridge Prairie, it’s officially located 7 miles west of Westfield on Hwy. 12 (west entrance) or 15561 260th St. (east entrance). Blink and you’ll miss either one. Good luck.

I spent Saturday night in Le Mars, but I’ll write more about that in Part 4.

Sunday morning, leaving Le Mars bright and early, I had to drive about an hour to get to my next destination. I took Hwy. 75 to Sioux City, hopped on I-29 south, then got off at Onawa to get back on the Loess Hills Byway.

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Once I got off the interstate, the drive was beautiful. I found the Byway quite easily, but trying to follow the map I once again had a hard time finding what I was looking for. I ended up getting turned around (AKA lost) and taking a different route than I’d planned, but I was loving the show I was listening to on NPR, and the scenery (below) was gorgeous so I didn’t mind at all.

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I finally got on the Preparation Loop road (above) and found Preparation Canyon State Park…but could NOT find a single hiking trail, despite the map’s promise of many, many backpacking trails. (What am I doing wrong? All I found was campgrounds and dead ends.)

The state park is 344 acres with forests, savannas, and prairies. It’s located in Monona County at the north end of Loess Hills State Forest.

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My friend Jim told me that the state forest has a spectacular overlook and some hiking trails. Luckily there was a SIGN that helped guide me to the wooden, easily accessible overlook (above) – finally, the quintessential Loess Hills view! – and I took a short hike on the overlook loop.

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I would have taken a much longer hike, but the trail was so overgrown with tall grasses (do you see that adorable baby hiding in the grass above?) that it wasn’t even fun after awhile, so I turned around and walked back. I walked for less than half an hour. I was hoping to hike all day. Fail!

This is a beautiful part of Iowa, and I highly recommend a visit. But if you go,  I hope you have better navigational skills than I do.

Adventures in western Iowa, part 2: Glacial Trail Scenic Byway

I spent a weekend in northwest Iowa recently with two main goals: Drive the Glacial Trail Scenic Byway and hike in the Loess Hills. But I had some other adventures along the way. Here is part 2 of a 4-part series:

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I’ve been working on a story about Iowa’s geological history for VISIONS, the Iowa State alumni magazine, and I’ve become quite enamored by this state’s glacially carved landscape. So I just was really excited to drive the official Glacial Trail Scenic Byway, located north of Storm Lake and Cherokee and south of Spencer in northwest Iowa. The 36-mile driving loop goes through the towns of Linn Grove and Peterson and very close to Sutherland.

The Iowa Byways brochure says: “Glaciers carved the picturesque landscape of this unique byway. Travelers are treated to spectacular views of rolling hills, forested valleys, and the Little Sioux River.”

Indeed, the byway crosses the Little Sioux River no fewer than four times, and the hills are truly unique and picturesque.

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I started the drive at the northeast corner of this mostly rectangular byway route. Hwy. 10 is the northern anchor. This state highway (along with M12, the western “side” of the route) is the most scenic. I drove it twice and followed two off-shoots to the north, one to the Prairie Heritage Center near Peterson and another gravel road to nowhere in particular that was just so beautiful I couldn’t resist.

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More than a dozen pickup trucks crowded the Prairie Heritage Center parking lot that Saturday morning, but the building appeared to be locked, so I’m unclear what was going on. Perhaps it was a private meeting, or perhaps everyone met in the parking lot and went somewhere else. No matter, the outdoor environment was lovely, with a paved path through a restored prairie and spectacular views of the glacially carved hills. There was even a replica oxen-pulled covered wagon.

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Had it been open, I’m sure I would have enjoyed the center’s information about geology (glacial tills! catsteps!), natural history, and Native American cultural heritage. Artifacts from the Mill Creek culture date back to around 1000 AD.

Other stops along or near the route include parks (Wanata State Park, Buena Vista County Park, Dog Creek Park), a couple of museums, and the historic Inkpaduta Canoe Trail.

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The route is well marked and only takes an hour or so to drive. I’d definitely recommend the drive if you’re headed up to the Iowa Great Lakes or the surrounding areas.