Image || Down by the Mississippi in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Epic US Road Trip 2016 – The Upper Midwest

The Great Lakes region, a.k.a. the Midwest, is the USA’s solid, sensible heartland. Folks here shrug at the brash glitz of the East Coast and flaky sex appeal of the West Coast, happy instead to be in the plain-speaking middle.

– Lonely Planet USA, 6th edition

PICTURE OF THE DAY || DAY 1 || August 28, 2016

The State Capitol Building, Madison, Wisconsin.

Day 1 || August 28 2016

Route || Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to Madison, Wisconsin
Miles (Kilometres) Driven || 139 (224)
Posted From || Madison, Wisconsin
Today’s Highlight || Finally getting on the road.

One hundred thirty-nine miles we drove today, day 1, easing ourselves into what’s to come. It was a to-schedule day as our 8-hour flight landed on time, we picked up the car on time, and we made our way north from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to arrive in beautiful Madison, Wisconsin, on time. It is of course very early days but so far, so good.

O'Hare International Airport, Chicago, Illinois. August 28, 2016.

We have a fairly detailed itinerary for the next 36 days. It looks great on paper. Only time will tell what of that itinerary it we actually get to see. But no matter what we see or where we go to see it we’ll be taken there in our Illinois-registered, granite-coloured Hyundai Accent, one that came pre-loaded with a battered looking Illinois ‘Land of Lincoln’ (the dude was actually born in Kentucky) registration plate and 12,105 miles on the clock. We’ll plan on adding to that tally quite a bit. O’Hare International Airport, Chicago, Illinois. August 28, 2016.


State Nicknames – Badger State; America’s Dairyland. State Motto – Forward. Admitted To The Union – May 1848 (30th state). Population – 5.8 million (20th most populous state). Area – 65,500 sq miles (23rd largest state). Capital – Madison. National Parks – 0. National Scenic Byways/All-American Roads – 1/0. Famous For – Dairy farms; cheese; breweries; being the first US state to legislate gay rights. State Highlights – Milwaukee & Madison’s State Capitol. Wisconsin Titbits – The name Wisconsin, meaning “meeting of the waters”, originates from the name given to the Wisconsin River by one of the Algonquian-speaking Native American groups living in the region at the time of European contact; the state has no toll roads – motor fuel taxes fund all highway construction and maintenance; Wisconsin gave birth to the Republican Party; Wal-Mart is the State’s largest employer; it’s cheesy – Wisconsin produces a quarter of America’s cheese.
Plate, Madison, Wisconsin, USA. August 28, 2016.

Wisconsin. State #1. On the streets of Madison, Wisconsin. August 28, 2016.

Welcome to four seasons of exploring, adventuring, and enjoying all there is to do in Wisconsin. Who knew Wisconsin was a premier destination for lighthouses, waterfalls, caves, world class fishing, re-living (and making) history, professional sports, and the arts at their finest. Here in Wisconsin we have a knack for balancing the traditional with the cutting-edge, always seeking and finding new ways to have fun.

– TravelWisconsin.com

Madison & The Wisconsin State Capitol
Straddling an isthmus between Lakes Mendota & Monona, Madison is Wisconsin’s pretty capital & the state’s second-largest city with a population of 245,000. Named after James Madison Jr. (1751–1836) the fourth President of the United States, it has a reputation as a friendly, laid-back city. It’s also one of the country’s best college sports towns. Heading in a northwestern direction from Chicago, and not wanting to drive too far on this first drive of the trip, meant we’d probably have ended up spending a night here anyway. But once I read about the city’s State Capitol building then I knew Madison would definitely have to deal with us for the very first night of the epic road trip we’ve just embarked upon.

The State Capitol Building in Madison, Wisconsin, USA. August 28, 2016.

The undisputed highlight of the City of Madison (although shockingly only the city’s number 2 highlight on Tripadvisor behind somewhere called Olbrich Botanical Gardens) is the X-shaped Wisconsin State Capitol building, the largest state capitol building in the US outside of Washington, DC. This Beaux-Arts style building, the latest of three capitol buildings to grace Madison, was completed in 1917 and sits pride of place in the centre of the city’s pretty Capitol Square. Visible for miles around, it’s the tallest building in the city, and always will be – legislation prohibits city buildings taller than the 187 foot, 57 metre-high columns surrounding the dome. It underwent a 14-year total restoration between 1988 & 2002, one costing in the region of $160 million. Money well spent if you ask me; the building looked particularly beautiful when bathed in late afternoon sunlight this evening. Madison, Wisconsin. August 28, 2016.

We could have ventured inside but this evening we were content with snooping around the outside of the State Capitol. We did so shortly after arrival in the city and shortly before watching the evening Madison scene from the street-side seating of The Coopers Tavern on the edge of Capitol Square. There we had a beer, our first of the trip and our first in a state renowned for its brews & breweries; Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s largest city, means Miller, it being home to the Miller Brewing Company. It was all very laid-back, maybe too laid-back, and Madison eerily quiet. School/university is out & not many places were open (it is Sunday after all), the city seemingly in hibernation ahead of the new work week in the morning. We’ll take another look at the State Capitol building tomorrow, this time from the inside. Then we’ll be back on the road continuing the jaunt north.

PICTURE OF THE DAY || DAY 2 || August 29, 2016

Copula of the State Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin.

Day 2 || August 29 2016

Route || Madison, Wisconsin to Saint Paul, Minnesota (via Pewit’s Nest State Natural Area & Prescott, Wisconsin)
Miles (Kilometres) Driven || 302 (486)
Posted From || Saint Paul, Minnesota
Today’s Highlight || Touring the Wisconsin State Capitol building.

We returned to the Wisconsin State Capitol early this morning, when Madison was just as sleepy as it was the previous evening, and were quickly amazed at both its beauty & how one can explore the building innards at will. So we did just that, killing time while waiting to join the free 1-hour guided tour of the building’s polished interior with Jason.

Cupola of the State Capitol Building in Madison, Wisconsin, USA. August 29, 2016.

The cupola of the Wisconsin State Capitol as seen looking skyward from the centre of the rotunda, the most impressive part of an impressive building. Thanks to an abundance of polished marble, symmetry, & the aforementioned 14-year restoration, the whole place is a photogenic treat, a wide-angle nirvana inside & out. Every nook & cranny is picture-perfect, no more so than the dome. Madison, Wisconsin. August 29, 2016.

Rarely… is the edifice empty of camera-laden tourists, who come from every part of the world.

– Eric Hansen, An Architectural Biography

Madison, Wisconsin. August 29, 2016.

Madison, Wisconsin. August 29, 2016.

Madison to Saint Paul
We left Madison aiming to make it to somewhere called Dr. Evermor’s Sculpture Park en route to Saint Paul, Minnesota. We made it to Saint Paul but somehow missed the sculpture park, seemingly home to the world’s largest scrap metal sculpture. Suffice to say my navigator isn’t pulling his weight, not yet at least. As something of a consolation we did get to stop and stretch our legs at Pewit’s Nest State Natural Area outside Baraboo, Wisconsin, about 40 miles north of Madison and 40 miles closer to the Minnesota state line. Home to shaded cliffs & Skillet Creek, a 30- to 40-foot deep gorge formed during the retreat of the last glacier, it’s a popular spot with swimmers but not so with epic road-trippers. It also didn’t photograph very well.

Wisconsin welcomes you. Prescot, Wisconsin, USA. August 29, 2016.

State sign #1 || We took something of a detour to get from Pewit’s Nest State Natural Area to Saint Paul, Minnesota, going via Prescott, Wisconsin, on the Minnesota state line. It’s not the quickest way but being off the interstate and driving through endless farm country (corn fields, silos & farm machinery abound) means it’s one of the more scenic routes in this part of the world. We also got access to this ‘Welcome to Wisconsin’ sign. Of course we cheated somewhat as we were actually leaving Wisconsin but being on a mission to be pictorially welcomed to every state we visit means we can bend our own rules every now and then. Lots more of this silliness to come. On US Highway 10 in Prescott, Wisconsin. August 29, 2016.

It was a long day today, something we’ll have to get used to. Day 2 is done and we now know what we’ve gotten ourselves into.

PICTURE OF THE DAY || DAY 3 || August 30, 2016

Facade of the massive Cathedral of St. Paul in St Paul, Minnesota.

Day 3 || August 30 2016

Route || Saint Paul, Minnesota to Bemidji, Minnesota (via St Cloud, Brainard & Walker, Minnesota)
Miles (Kilometres) Driven || 259 (417)
Posted From || Bemidji, Minnesota
Today’s Highlight || The banks of the Mississippi in Minneapolis.

Minnesotans have a reputation for being nice. Well, the ones we’ve interacted with ain’t letting the side down. The crew in the Holiday Inn in Saint Paul; the lady in the Guthrie Theater & the guy who drummed up conversation overlooking the Stone Arch Bridge spanning the Mississippi River, both in downtown Minneapolis; our servers in IHOP in St Cloud; the women in the gas station in Brainerd; the half-Irish girl (the other half is German) checking us into the Motel 8 here in Bemidji; and of course Bob, our server this evening in Applebee’s who’s ‘probably’ going to go to Ireland on his honeymoon next year. Charming. Each & every one. We passed through the centre of the state today from the capital Saint Paul on a mission to see some of the many, many lakes you invariably come across in this part of the world. Yes, we interacted with a few characters en route but unfortunately none of them sounded like they did in the movie Fargo, set in the aforementioned Brainard. That said, all were still undeniably & very noticeably ‘nice’.

The cultural characteristics of Minnesota nice include a polite friendliness, an aversion to confrontation, a tendency toward understatement, a disinclination to make a fuss or stand out, emotional restraint, and self-deprecation.

– Wikipedia on Minnesota nice

St Paul, Minnesota. August 30, 2016.

St Paul, Minnesota. August 30, 2016.


State Nicknames – Land of 10,000 Lakes; North Star State; The Gopher State; Agate State; State of Hockey. State Motto – The Star of the North. Admitted To The Union – May 1858 (32nd state). Population – 5.5 million (21st most populous state). Area – 87,000 sq miles (12th largest state). Capital – Saint Paul. National Parks – 1 (Voyageurs). National Scenic Byways/All-American Roads – 7/1. Famous For – European influence; niceness, a.k.a. Minnesota nice; funny accents; snowy, butt-freezing winters; lakes. State Highlights – The lakes. Pick a lake. Any lake will do. Minnesota Titbits – Minnesota is a native Dakota, a member of the Siouan people (commonly called the Sioux) of the northern Mississippi valley, word meaning “clear blue water”; it is the most northern of the Contiguous United States, i.e. the lower 48 states; ‘Land of 10,000 Lakes‘ is a bit of an undersell – the state officially boasts close to 12,000 bodies of water.
Plate, Hastings, Minnesota, USA. August 29, 2016.

Minnesota. State #2. Hastings, Minnesota. August 29, 2016.

Saint Paul & Minneapolis
The metropolitan areas of the cultured Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, located in east-central Minnesota along the banks of the Mississippi River, combine to make by far the largest urban centre in this Midwest region of the US; collectively the cities are home to 60% of Minnesota’s 5.5 million population. Shaped heavily by mass 19th century European immigration, Saint Paul is more German and Irish-Catholic, whereas Minneapolis is more Germanic & Nordic. We had a to-do list which saw us paying a visit to a rather big & impressive church and to the banks of the Mississippi River prior to hitting the road north for our present location up by the Minnesota lakes.

The facade of the Cathedral of Saint Paul in Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA. August 30, 2016.

Statues of Christ & the Apostles on the upper reaches of the imposing facade of the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul, Minnesota. August 30, 2016.

Saint Paul
Saint Paul is smaller & quieter than neighbouring Minneapolis, boasting more historic character. It has been Minnesota’s capital city since 1849, first as capital of the Territory of Minnesota and then as state capital since Minnesota’s admission to the Union in May 1858. Being influenced by us Irish over the years, it didn’t come as much of a surprise to find a massive church here, one of the largest in the US. It also didn’t come as a surprise to learn earlier today when exploring the building’s innards that it was an Irishman who was the driving force behind getting the whole shebang built in the first place. Enter Archbishop John Ireland. Yes, John Ireland from Ireland. From Burnchurch, Co. Kilkenny, to be precise.

Let us build a great church for a great city.

– John Ireland, the 1st Archbishop of Saint Paul from 1888-1918

The interior of the Cathedral of St. Paul in St Paul, Minnesota. August 30, 2016.

The present & fourth building known as the Cathedral of St. Paul was built between September 1906 and March 1915. Dedicated to Paul the Apostle, also the namesake of the City of St. Paul, the massive Classical Renaissance-style building, the third largest church in the US, sits like an unmissable beacon on Cathedral Hill overlooking downtown St. Paul, it’s most distinctive feature being its towering 186 feet-high (57 metres) dome, one measuring 96 feet (29 metres) in diameter. The cathedral is equally impressive inside, its warm, gold leaf-heavy interior illuminated by no less than twenty-four stained glass windows featuring angelic choirs & an impressive rose window in the transept. The interior of the Cathedral of St. Paul in St Paul, Minnesota. August 30, 2016.

Minneapolis: Milling & The Mississippi

Minneapolis shines a hipster beacon out over the cornfields.

– Lonely Planet

Moving on and crossing the Mississippi River into neighbouring Minneapolis, Minnesota’s most populous city (it is home to over 410,000 nice Minnesotans), saw us stopping off at the city’s rejuvenated Riverfront District, a.k.a. Mill Ruins Park. The city’s tourist central is an historic old milling centre lining the Mississippi River. In the early part of the 20th century Minneapolis was the biggest flour producer in the county. Flour manufacture had declined steeply by the 1930s and today preserved & restored remnants of the milling heyday still dominate the area, mostly on the the western bank of the river, the so-called West Side Milling District. The Mississippi is the reason there’s a city here (2 cities, actually). The chief river of the largest drainage system on the North American continent, it rises in northern Minnesota and meanders slowly southwards for 2,320 miles (3,730 kilometres) to the Mississippi River Delta at the Gulf of Mexico. The river’s only fall of any note alone its whole length, Saint Anthony Falls, occurs right here in Minneapolis; it – the fall – was harnessed to drive the early milling industry upon which Minneapolis grew. Today was our first sighting of “Old Man River” but it won’t be the last. We plan to get reacquainted with it later in the trip in St Louis, Missouri, & Memphis, Tennessee, 560 miles & 830 miles respectively south from here.

Riverfront District, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. August 30, 2016.

It was an overcast day when we first arrived by the shores of the Mississippi River here in Minneapolis. It had taken up somewhat by the time we were leaving some hours later meaning a panorama of the Riverfront District as seen from the as seen from the so-called Endless Bridge of the Guthrie Theater was all the more prettier as a result. Restored & preserved remnants of the milling past can be seen to the left of the image, the West Side Milling District. In the foreground can be seen the iconic Minneapolis Stone Arch Bridge crossing the Mississippi River. Constructed as a railway bridge between 1882 and 1883 and renovated most recently between 1993 & 1994, the bridge now provides pedestrian access across the Mississippi River and is a very popular spot for joggers and strollers. Minneapolis, Minnesota. August 30, 2016.

This viaduct… is the only one of its kind that spans the Father of Waters, and is one of the largest and most noteworthy in the United States. Firmer than the earth which supports it, it is constructed to stand the test of time.

– The Daily Minnesota Tribune commenting on the city’s new Stone Arch Bridge, November 23, 1883

Northern Minnesota
Somewhat embarrassingly, we initially hadn’t planned to visit the lakes of northern Minnesota, opting instead to take the Interstate straight from the Twin Cities to the Minnesota/North Dakota State line. But doing that, i.e. not visiting the lakes in the state of ‘10,000 Lakes’, would have been a massive oversight. So we altered things a bit. Needs must.

Fishing in Walker City Park on the edge of Leech Lake. Walker, northern Minnesota, USA. August 30, 2016.

Fishing in Walker City Park on the edge of Leech Lake. Walker, northern Minnesota. August 30, 2016.

Where you come to do some fishing.

– Lonely Planet USA, 6th edition, commenting on Northern Minnesota

Bemidji & Dakota Bound
Walker was nice, as is Bemidji, another lakeside town we’re calling home for the night. Founded in 1896 & billed as both the curling capital of the US & the ‘First City on The Mississippi’ (the town sits on Lake Bemidji, the northernmost lake feeding the Mississippi River), Bemidji is one of many cities to claim to be the birthplace of Paul Bunyan, a fictitious giant lumberjack in American folklore, a massive statue of whom, accompanied by his trusty companion Babe the Blue Ox, adorns the lakeside visitor’s plaza. We’ll say hi to Paul & Babe in the morning before getting back on the road. Tomorrow will be a busy day. We’re en route to the Dakotas and as someone once sang ‘we’ve a long way to go and a short time to get there’ ahead of an arrival in the Back Hills of South Dakota, in two days’ time. Seemingly there’s not a whole lot to see between here and the Black Hills region but no doubt the road, & the Dakotas, will keep us entertained regardless.

The Paul Bunyan & Babe the Blue Ox statue in Paul Bunyam Park on the shores of Lake Bemidji, Bemidji, northern Minnesota, USA. August 31, 2016.

The Paul Bunyan & Babe the Blue Ox statue in Paul Bunyam Park on the shores of Lake Bemidji, Bemidji, northern Minnesota, USA. August 31, 2016.

Epic Road Trip Home

THE UPPER MIDWEST || Wisconsin & Minnesota

DAY 01 139 miles || Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to Madison, Wisconsin

DAY 02 302 miles || Madison to Saint Paul, Minnesota (via Pewit’s Nest State Natural Area & Prescott, Wisconsin)

DAY 03 259 miles || Saint Paul to Bemidji, Minnesota (via St Cloud, Brainard & Walker, Minnesota)

THE DAKOTAS || North & South Dakota

DAY 04 458 miles || Bemidji to Bismarck, North Dakota (via Grand Forks, Lakota & Rugby, North Dakota)

DAY 05 459 miles || Bismarck to Deadwood, South Dakota (via Fort Yates, North Dakota & Badlands National Park, South Dakota)

DAY 06 167 miles || Deadwood & The Black Hills (Mount Rushmore National Memorial & Crazy Horse Memorial)

THE NORTHERN ROCKIES || Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, & Northern Utah

DAY 07 354 miles || Deadwood to Billings, Montana (via Devil’s Tower & Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monuments)

DAY 08 262 miles || Billings to West Yellowstone, Montana (via the Beartooth Highway & Yellowstone National Park)

DAY 09 227 miles || West Yellowstone to Jackson, Wyoming (via Yellowstone National Park & Grand Teton National Park)

DAY 10 280 miles || Jackson to Salt Lake City, Utah (via Alpine, Wyoming; & Montpelier, Paris, & Bear Lake, Idaho)

THE SOUTHWEST || Southern Utah, Arizona & New Mexico

DAY 11 330 miles || Salt Lake City to Panguitch, Utah (via Brian Head & Cedar Breaks National Monument)

DAY 12 273 miles || Panguitch to Page, Arizona (via Bryce Canyon National Park, & Zion National Park)

DAY 13 307 miles || Page (Horseshoe Bend) & Grand Canyon National Park (North Rim)

DAY 14 175 miles || Page to Kayenta, Arizona (via Upper Antelope Canyon, Arizona & Monument Valley, Utah)

DAY 15 252 miles || Kayenta to Durango, Colorado (via Monument Valley, Utah, the Four Corners Monument, & New Mexico)

THE ROCKIES || Colorado

DAY 16 348 miles || Durango to Leadville, Colorado (via Wolf Creek Pass & Monarch Pass)

DAY 17 299 miles || Leadville to Estes Park, Colorado (via Independence Pass, Aspen, Berthoud Pass, & Rocky Mountain National Park)

THE GREAT PLAINS || Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri & Arkansas

DAY 18 307 miles || Estes Park to Cheyenne, Wyoming (via Laramie, Como Bluff, Medicine Bow, & Buford, Wyoming)

DAY 19 404 miles || Cheyenne to Burwell, Nebraska (via Scotts Bluff National Monument & Carhenge, Nebraska)

DAY 20 407 miles || Burwell to Kansas City, Missouri (via Spalding, Nebraska; SW Iowa; & Omaha, Nebraska)

DAY 21 286 miles || Kansas City to St Louis, Missouri

DAY 22 322 miles || St Louis to Memphis, Tennessee (via Dyess, Arkansas)

THE SOUTH || Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama & Georgia

DAY 23 308 miles || Memphis to Vicksburg, Mississippi (via Clarksdale, Yazoo City & Bentonia, Mississippi)

DAY 24 336 miles || Vicksburg to Prattville, Alabama (via Selma, Alabama)

DAY 25 297 miles || Prattville to Cornelia, Georgia (via Montgomery, Alabama & Stone Mountain, Georgia)

THE APPALACHIANS || Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia & West Virginia

DAY 26 261 miles || Cornelia to Asheville, North Carolina (via Helen & Brasstown Bald, Georgia & Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina)

DAY 27 200 miles || Asheville to Galax, Virginia (via the Blue Ridge Parkway)

DAY 28 004 miles || Galax, Virginia

DAY 29 354 miles || Galax to Lewisburg, West Virginia (via the Blue Ridge Parkway & Shenandoah National Park)

KENTUCKY & THE GREAT LAKES || Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana & Illinois

DAY 30 404 miles || Lewisburg to Lexington, Kentucky (via Chesapeake, Ohio; Cordell, Kentucky; & Sandy Hook, Kentucky)

DAY 31 241 miles || Lexington to Beaver Dam, Kentucky (via Lincoln Homestead State Park & Mammoth Cave National Park)

DAY 32 190 miles || Beaver Dam to Bloomington, Indiana (via Rosine & Owensboro, Kentucky)

DAY 33 282 miles || Bloomington to Chicago, Illinois (via Indianapolis, Indiana)

DAYS 34-36 017 miles || Chicago, Illinois

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