The Midwest Cabin Sampler
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Farm Life: Where Time Stands Still
An hour north of Indianapolis, a farming couple and 60 alpacas invite guests to sample their corner of paradise in an 1850s cabin.
The moment I open my car door, farm smells and noisy songbirds whisk me far away from the radio static. In lieu of a bellhop, a stray alpaca struts across the gravel driveway. Chickens form a welcome party at my feet, scurry out of reach, then linger close by. Even the landscaping lets out a raspy bark before the bushes part against the roly-poly waddle of … a polar bear? No, a Great Pyrenees, Tim Sheets says, emerging from the farmhouse. He introduces me to Jack and his shy counterpart, Frost, who stays hidden in the shrubs. "Let me show you the cabin," Tim says.
On the porch, another farm friend awaits: Charley the black cat. Home movers relocated this cabin from 3 miles away in 1988. Tim and his wife, Beth, then set about restoring the pre-Civil War relic. They added a shower two years ago and listed it as a vacation rental on Airbnb and Hipcamp. Under a maple tree near their farmhouse, it's become a rustic harbor for anyone seeking a break from modernity.
You can smell the stories in the antebellum wood beams, oil lamps and a musket. A tattered flag hangs on the wall above an ancient Bible that might disintegrate if touched. The original narrow staircase leads to a second level with four beds. A porch swing hangs on the added balcony facing Heritage Farm's storybook red barn, where the alpacas feed each morning. "Feel free to wander the grounds," Tim says after I settle in and accept an invite to help with chores the next morning.
Before bed, I wander. In the pole barn, I find a couple of alpacas plopped in front of industrial fans and munching on hay. Tim introduces me to Kenji, Vinnie and Jeremiah, who is a seven-time champion at regional and national fair shows. The Farm Store attached to the barn sells alpaca wool socks, sweaters and yarn (many items are Beth's handiwork) plus honey from the farm's beehives.
A couple of short paths behind the cabin lead past a long zipline to a footbridge and creek. Pooled above a simple stone dam, the water is surprisingly clear and irresistibly cool. I slip out of my shoes and down the bank. Shadows scurry away from my splash. Then I wait. Crayfish slowly peek out from the rocks, and I pluck a pair out of the current, starting a game of catch-and-release that takes me back to my childhood growing up beside a creek in northeast Ohio.
After the sun sets, I open a bottle of wine under string lights on the cabin's large back deck. Somehow, it's already 10 p.m., despite the glimmer of July sunlight clinging to the western horizon. On select weekends, Tim fires up the stone oven beside the cabin for pizza parties that entertain overnight guests and a couple dozen locals.
When I step onto the balcony before sliding into bed, I can faintly hear the trickling creek. The night is still, except for a haze of fireflies that laces through the tree line. It flickers into the distant field like fairy dust below a sky full of stars. Timothy Meinch
• Bring cookware, drinks and food to cook over a grill or firepit. A sink and mini fridge on the deck makes it glorified camping, 10 miles from groceries and pizza in Flora.
• Four beds sleep six in one big room. Heritage Farm also allows camping and rents a modern guesthouse on the land. Find Heritage Farm and other Midwest farm stays at farmstayus.com.
Adventure Junkie: Mine for Fun
Book a mod cabin in these sculpted Northwoods hills, where abandoned mines have given way to clear water and a natural playground for outdoors buffs.
Thirty-five years ago, the gnash of engines and excavators ground across this land. Today, I hear a lone loon call across the water outside my cabin on Armour No. 2 Mine Lake. True North Basecamp's six rental cabins flank the ridge above the water, with corrugated steel and roofs that resemble mine shafts. Otherwise, nature has reclaimed and reforested what is now the Cuyuna Country State Recreational Area, located 20 minutes northeast of Brainerd, Minnesota.
I glide across nearby Portsmouth Mine Pit Lake on a paddleboard. Near the shore, sunfish swirl among submerged birch trees that reach upward like ghostly northern coral. The full protected area covers 25 miles of shoreline between six natural lakes and 15 retired mine pits. Spring water filled the massive dig sites to create blue and green lakes (some up to 450 feet deep) after iron ore mining shut down in the mid-1980s.
Divers, paddlers, anglers and other outdoors-lovers now flock to the water. Mountain bikers cross the country for premiere trails that weave through hardwoods carpeting 200-foot hills that were once barren piles of rock and soil. Cuyuna's 30-some miles of singletrack loops earned a coveted silver-level Ride Center designation from the International Mountain Bicycling Association. Volunteers groom them even in winter for fat-tire biking in the snow. And a plan is in place to expand the trail network to 60-plus miles.
True North is primed for the growth, recently adding five permanent canvas cabin tents with cots, bedside power stations and Internet. Its original minimalist cabins from 2015 still feel like a splash of luxury after my day on the water. Inside mine, I find crisp air conditioning, plus charging stations and Internet. A mural adds an urban touch. And a shared shower and bathroom building nearby lets me wash off the iron-red dirt speckling my legs and clothing.
The two rejuvenated mining towns of Crosby and Ironton beckon for dinner. Restaurants, bars and gear shops are within a short walk or bike ride via the paved Cuyuna Lakes State Trail or city streets. Just half a mile from my cabin, Red Raven bike and coffee shop in Crosby rents bikes and serves daily specials, such as deconstructed egg roll rice bowls and a grilled Cuban sandwich. A few blocks away, Cuyuna Brewing Company pours cold beer across the intersection from Iron Range Eatery, where you can get pizzas and lobster salad lettuce wraps.
Back at Truth North, sunset pinkens the silver siding of the cabins, and fires crackle to life. Campers trickle back outside to share the day's adventures. "There are so many fish everywhere," says my neighbor Kealy Olson, who spent the day snorkeling and convinces me to swap my paddle for a mask and fins on the next visit. Her scuba-certified husband, Zane, ventured into deeper (and much colder) water, best explored in a wet suit.
Our sore bodies bask in the modern comforts that help us recharge on the periphery of wilderness. Before turning in for the night, the loon calls out from across the now-darkened lake. It feels like a thank-you for letting nature reestablish itself where industry once ruled. Lisa McClintick
• There are plenty of good eats and drinks 5 blocks away in town, so save cooler space for drinks, snacks and maybe a pack of dogs for a fireside dinner.
• True North's techy cabins are modern but minimalist. BYO bedding and towels for the four bunked beds (twin- and full-size) and shared bathrooms with showers.
In the Treetop: Rock-a-Bye Cabin
These elevated homes tuck you into the tree canopy, just like your childhood clubhouse-except for the kitchens, stained glass and designer cred.
Shortly after sunrise, a dramatic iron chandelier sways from side to side above my head. I feel subtle movement from my comfy king-size bed, which stirs me out of my dreams and into reality. My home for the past night, El Castillo, is still settling into its foundation: a few towering pine trees, which I think I share with an owl.
Last winter, El Castillo (or "the castle") became the seventh of its kind-though each themed tree house is unique-at The Mohicans, a cabin resort in northern Ohio. And this year, three more dwellings appeared in neighboring trees, including a 1978 Airstream secured 20 feet above the forest floor.
Laura and Kevin Mooney ditched the corporate grind in 2005 to build cabins on a remote plot of land they own near Mohican State Park and a state forest. During the process, they met Pete Nelson, host of Animal Planet's Treehouse Masters. Pete inspired the Mooneys to raise the stakes at The Mohicans, and they hired him to design their first two aerial concepts. Recruiting the help of local Amish carpenters, they now lay claim to one of the largest tree house villages in the country. It's spread out above four traditional cabins and an events barn on their 75-acre property.
"It's all sustainable," Kevin says. "I use trees on the property and mill them down. All the siding is 100-year-old barnwood." The designs incorporate passive solar energy and recycled materials for furniture, windows and decks. They're open year-round and have become some of the state's most photogenic backdrops for weddings.
Each of Laura and Kevin's tree houses wears the cabin aesthetic in its own way. White Oak Treehouse has a three-sided wraparound porch overlooking the Mohican Valley. Tin Shed Treehouse's garage-door wall opens fully into the forest canopy. The Little Red Treehouse that Pete designed has been featured on Animal Planet. On sunny mornings, a 5-foot stained-glass window on its east wall lights up the inside with a spectrum of colors.
To reach my round two-story castle, I scale two sets of stairs and bounce across a suspension bridge. Inside, black walnut floors and cherry ceilings grace the efficient space. Huge two-story windows frame the forest like landscape paintings. High-end touches include a granite countertop in the compact kitchen and a bathroom featuring a stone shower. A narrow spiral staircase of black walnut with a tree-branch banister leads to the bedroom under an octagonal wooden roof. There's no Internet and spotty cell service in my nest-which means maybe no one will find me if I decide to stay forever. Cynthia Earhart
• Pack food and drinks for the kitchen (cookware included). Seven miles away, Loudonville is the closest town with some groceries and restaurants, like the Mohican Tavern.
• Booking is limited to 60 days or less in advance. Four-wheel drive is ideal for the private tree house roads. Less than 10 miles away: zipline tours, canoeing and Mohican State Park trails.
Quiet Time: Lovers' Lake
Sometimes a cabin stay means not roughing it at all, and leaving the kids behind. Enter Canoe Bay. The western Wisconsin resort offers Scandinavian-style cottages on a glacial lake, plus Escape Village, with newer tiny homes in the woods. Here's a taste of an oh-so-hectic day there.
8 am Coffee and breakfast arrive at your door in a wooden box. Sip and eat on the porch while deer graze in the sea of ferns leading to the lake.
9 am Paddle a canoe to a cove of lily pads dotted with blooms. Turtles and an otter swim below the surface.
11 am A wooded hike leads to a smaller hidden lake that you get all to yourself, except for woodpeckers and songbirds.
2 pm After lunch (also delivered to your cabin), an empty floating dock lures you into the water for a swim in midday sun.
4 pm Grab a book and settle into the cozy loft of the mod A-frame library overlooking the water. Snag a DVD to bring back to your cabin.
6:30 pm Prix fixe dinner is served in the lakeside lodge: ramp and asparagus tartine with edible flowers, tender pork medallions, and a fresh berry dessert.
9 pm Unwind with a glass of wine and a soak in your jacuzzi tub by the fireplace.
Into the Woods: Cabin Meccas
Venture to one of these vacation havens, and you don't need our help finding a cabin. They sprout by the hundreds, like mushrooms in springtime, from the waterfronts and forests.
Brown County, Indiana
Going green The scenery rapidly transforms 18 miles east of the university town of Bloomington. Trees and bluffs are king of these hills, where Brown County State Park meets Yellowwood State Forest and a swath of Hoosier National Forest. Explore via hiking boots, horseback at Schooner Valley Stables, mountain bikes, watercraft or zipline cables.
Find your stay You'll find plenty of cabin listings at browncounty.com/stay. Among the choices: Rent two-story cabins at Abe Martin Lodge in the state park, or head to the fields and kick back in a cabin with a hot tub at Bittersweet Farm (pictured above).
Land of lumber Thousands typically flock to this northern Wisconsin town near the Spider Chain of Lakes each summer for heated matches of logrolling, sawing and chopping at the Lumberjack World Championships (scheduled to return in 2021). But logs are a year-round fixture, with enough cabins to host a Bunyan family reunion. The town is loaded with gear shops, outfitters and a half-block-long musky, while the area's many lakes offer fishing, boating and cool summer swims.
Hocking Hills, Ohio
Under the canopy In southeast Ohio, forests sprawl across the foothills of Appalachia. Below the trees, 70-plus miles of trails weave through Hocking Hills State Park and the surrounding area. Pick a route for waterfalls, caves, Hocking Hills Canopy Tours or a micro-moonshine distillery.
Find your stay Some 500 cabins and cottages are scattered about the Hocking Hills area. Scope out a tiny new off-the-grid cabin, The Box Hop shipping container cabin, or the upscale Inn and Spa at Cedar Falls.
Family Budget: A Night in the Park
The Midwest's robust state park system means you're never far from an affordable weekend away. Keep it basic in a camper cabin: roof, bunk, maybe power. Or go ultramodern with resort-level comfort (bravo, Nebraska). Here's where state park officials sent us when asked for their cabin wisdom.
Rock Cut State Park, Illinois A rustic cabin sleeps up to six near fields of summer wildflowers.
Pokagon State Park, Indiana Historic cabins renovated in 2018 pack a bathroom, mini fridge and TV into 160 square feet.
Pine Lake State Park, Iowa Near a beach and bike path, four cabins each have a stove, fridge and bathroom. Closing for updates through May 2021.
Cheney State Park, Kansas Just a stroll from the marina, three new cabins opened this year on Cheney Lake.
Tawas Point State Park, Michigan The digs here sit near Lake Huron. But Michigan is an overachiever, with 100-plus cabins and lodging options scattered across more than 50 parks.
Whitewater State Park, Minnesota Four new camper cabins put you within half a mile of Whitewater River.
Washington State Park, Missouri Enjoy the pool, boat rentals and newly refurbished cabins.
Eugene T. Mahoney State Park, Nebraska Lodge rooms and cabins near a wide variety of activities including a ropes course.
Icelandic State Park, North Dakota Simple camping cabins are a short walk from Lake Renwick and a nature preserve.
Kiser Lake State Park, Ohio Set up camp at basic cabins before sailing and paddling.
Sandy Shore Recreation Area, South Dakota Two lakefront cabins opened recently on Lake Kampeska.
Harrington Beach State Park, Wisconsin An ADA cabin accesses an observatory near Lake Michigan. Seven other Wisconsin parks rent cabins to campers with disabilities.