In addition to a whole lot of good people, the Midwest also has plenty of amazing adventure opportunities waiting to be explored.
Ranging from the Black Hills of South Dakota to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, with an overabundance of lakeshores, caves, and statewide bike rides in between, the Midwest delivers on vacation-worthy destinations the whole family can enjoy. While the more Western states might get the most notoriety for adventure, whether you’ve lived there your whole life or have just driven through, the Midwest may surprise you on the degree of solitude you’ll find and the depths of the landscapes you’ll discover.
Maah Daah Hey Trail Sytem—North Dakota
The Maah Daah Hey Trail System is located in western North Dakota where the rugged Badlands clash with expansive prairies. Consisting primarily of the 144-mile Maah Daah Hey Trail, the entire system encompasses eight shorter trails that branch out from the main route, and all provide stunning views of a North Dakota landscape you probably didn’t know existed. The Maah Daah Hey Trail System is well maintained by the Maah Daah Hey Trail Association, meaning you’ll find maintained campgrounds and water caches along your way.
Custer State Park—South Dakota
Western South Dakota has a lot going for it—awesome town names like Custer, Deadwood and Spearfish, plus National Park attractions like the Badlands and Mount Rushmore. Sprawling for more than 71,000 acres, the Black Hills of Custer State Park draw thousands of outdoor enthusiast each year to hike, bike, rock climb, fish, camp, and lose themselves in the granite beauty and thick forests of this enchanting state park. Featuring plenty of wildlife including bison and bighorn sheep, scenic drives that inspire awe, and community events including the annual Buffalo Roundup & Arts Festival, Custer State Park rivals many of its national brethren, and can serve as your single reason to visit South Dakota.
Located in southwestern Nebraska, Lake McConaughy is the state’s largest reservoir, and on any given day during the warmer months you can expect to find plenty of locals and tourists enjoying the refreshing water and picturesque beaches. Whether you’re looking for a place to ride your jet ski or perhaps an idyllic location to lay down a sunbathing towel, Lake McConaughy has over 100 miles of shoreline to explore or find your solitude. You can pitch your tent right on the beach at Lake McConaughy, or you can use either of the three modern campgrounds found not far from shore. Either way, it’s wise to spend a few days at Lake McConaughy State Recreation Area to explore this adventure-gem in the Midwest.
While tallgrass prairie once dominated the landscape of the Midwest, in recent times, one of the last remaining places to see this environment is in the Flint Hills and National Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Kansas. Located in northeast section of the state, roughly 130 miles southwest of Kansas City, the National Tallgrass Prairie Preserve not only features 11,000 acres of abundant space and stunning vistas, but the tallgrass is home to many forms of wildlife, including wild bison, which are impressive to view from afar. The National Tallgrass Prairie Preserve has backcountry trails to explore, 19th century limestone homes to tour, and plenty of scenic vistas to take your breath away…all adding up to a pretty good reason to book a trip to Kansas.
Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness—Minnesota
While Minnesota is known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes, that moniker doesn’t even begin to describe the beauty of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in the northern part of the state. As part of the Superior National Forest, the Boundary Waters includes over one million acres of sprawling waterways, remote forest clumps, and a solitude found in few other places. Featuring 1,200 miles of canoe routes and over 2,000 designated campsites to choose from, it’s a real wild experience the further north you head into the Boundary Waters. Backcountry experience and mental fortitude are needed to tackle this dazzling environment, but you’ll see some of the best natural splendor the Midwest provides.
The Register’s Annual Great Race Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) takes place over one week in July each year, and sends thousands of bike riders pedaling across the entire state of Iowa from west to east. The route to bike across the state of Iowa averages about 468 miles, and that means to complete it all during the seven days of RAGBRAI, riders are required to pedal 60-70 miles each day. Though named a race, with some pretty decent mileage goals, RAGBRAI is far from a competitive event. It’s treated much more like a celebration of everything Iowa has to offer. Every Iowa small town that RAGBRAI passes through suddenly becomes inflated with live music, food, and scores of friendly faces.
Lake of the Ozarks State Park—Missouri
The Lake of the Ozarks is a large reservoir in central Missouri that has over 1,000 miles of shoreline to explore. Arguably one of the best places to experience this man-made water feature is on the southeast side in Lake of the Ozarks State Park. Surrounded by thousands of acres of woods and forest, Lake of the Ozarks State Park has everything you could possible need for a vacation outdoors—plenty of water access and beach availability, cabins, yurts and campgrounds, and even Ozarks Caverns, which provide the perfect spot to explore underground.
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore—Wisconsin
Designated as a National Lakeshore, the Apostle Islands feature a dense collection of small islands found off the Bayfield Peninsula of northern Wisconsin in Lake Superior. While there are plenty of things to check out on the mainland of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, the treasure of this Midwest adventure comes from exploring the small islands and wild ecosystems found in the waters. Visitors have a few options to explore the remote islands, including personal expeditions in boat or kayak, Apostle Islands Cruises, or chartered tours and outfitters to show you the ropes. If you brave the elements at the right time of the year, you can check out the many ice caves that comprise the shoreline and give off a brilliant shine.
Garden of the Gods Recreation Area—Illinois
Located within the Shawnee National Forest in the southern tip of Illinois, the Garden of the Gods Recreation Area provides a stunning example of the geology that has been forming our world for millions of years. Comprising of an abundance of ancient sandstone formations, the Garden of the Gods Recreation Area is a great place to hike, camp and generally appreciate the scenery. Very few other places in Illinois or the rest of the Midwest can provide the views and shots of nature like the Garden of the Gods, and the perfect place to start your adventure is the ¼-mile Observation Trail, which gives you a good look at the surrounding environment as well as access to other trailheads to expand the adventure.
Marengo Cave National Landmark—Indiana
In proximity to Hoosier National Forest in Southern Indiana, Marengo Cave isn’t only a National Landmark, but it’s also a show cave. That means that unlike many of the other approximately 3,000 known caves in Indiana, this cave is easily accessed and toured by members of the public. Within a visit to the Marengo Cave National Landmark, tourists have the option to choose between six guided tours catered towards different levels of comfort and abilities. Because caves are fragile environments that require guidelines to explore, Marengo Caves provides you with the guidance, gear and knowledge to explore the cave safely.
Located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Porcupine Mountains State Wilderness Park contains 60,000 acres of some the last remaining areas designated as Wilderness in the Midwest. To get the true experience of this natural space, it’s worth spending a few nights in the backcountry exploring the solitude. Featuring nearly 90 miles of trail sprawling throughout the designated wilderness plus many more in connecting recreation areas, you’ll find waterfalls, wildlife and an abundance of natural splendor in the “Porkies".
Situated between the cities of Cleveland and Akron, Cuyahoga Valley National Park provides a stunning display of natural environment defined by the flowing waters of the Cuyahoga River. Steep ravines, rolling hills, waterfalls, and great hiking paths—there are many reasons to visit Cuyahoga Valley. Perhaps the best method to experience Cuyahoga however, and a great way to see all the environments that make up this nationally recognized space, is by hopping aboard the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. It operates four days a week throughout the summer and fall, plus special excursions like the Polar Express ride in the winter.