The Midwest may be regarded by some as “flyover” territory, but I would argue that anyone who says that has never taken any time to actually learn about all of the amazing places the Midwest has to offer. The Midwest may not have oceans or the tallest mountains, but there are lakes with water so crystal blue it could rival the Mediterranean, mountain ranges with expansive views, beautiful caves, and unique rock formations.
While there are lots of places with natural beauty in the Midwest, these places are the spots we found especially notable and unique. I’d dare anyone who has used the term “flyover” to visit and see if it changes their mind. I would be surprised if it didn’t.
Starved Rock State Park, Illinois
Starved Rock State Park is only 1.5 hours from Chicago, but you would never know it based on the depth of its beauty. This state park is full of tall canyons with waterfalls, unusual rock alcoves, and views that are sure to impress.
While the 2.1-mile Saint Louis Canyon Trail and 4.4-mile French Canyon Trails are the most popular (and sure to impress!), we actually enjoyed the lesser-known Ottawa and Illinois Canyons. These trails are further from the Visitor’s Center and not as crowded. We managed to have each canyon and waterfall to ourselves for about half an hour. I find I enjoy nature more when I am not surrounded by crowds, so this was a big bonus for me.
The lodge is beautiful with the cozy feel of a log cabin but more upscale. The restaurant is delicious and has indoor and outdoor seating. If you’re going with kids, make sure you allow time at the Visitor’s Center and to get their Junior Ranger badges. The Visitor’s Center also has restrooms, a gift shop, and concessions with snacks and ice cream.
Turkey Run State Park, Indiana
If you’re looking for narrow canyons and beautiful waterfalls, Turkey Run State Park is the perfect destination. Climbing down ladders to descend into canyons and wading up riversl are just two of the elements that make Turkey Run State Park feel like an adventure.
You will definitely want to stop by the Visitor’s Center and pick up a map because the trails all interconnect and are named after numbers. Instead of following one specific trail, we took a combination of trails that led us past these must-see sights: the Punch Bowl (be on the look out for this alcove to the side of the trail, many people walked right past it), Rocky Hollow, Wedge Rock, the ladders, and the Ice Box. If you have time, I also recommend seeing Falls Canyon and Boulder Canyon. The trails are rugged and involve some climbing. Our 5-year-old twins were able to do them, but we took a lot of breaks and ate a lot of snacks.
While the hiking here is impressive, you won’t want to miss the lodge, camping, fishing, canoeing, kayaking, floating, or swimming either. This area also has lots of historical covered bridges. Plan to stay a few days for the full experience.
Maquoketa Caves State Park, Iowa
When you think of Iowa, caving is probably not the first thing that comes to mind, but at Maquoketa State Park there are 13 caves within 6 miles of trails. The caves are varying sizes, from the most impressive Dancehall Cave which is 800-feet long and has three entrances, to caves so small you have to army crawl through them.
We went to Maquoketa Caves in the summer. It was trafficked, but not busy. For me, this made it more magical. So many caves are lit with artificial lighting, tours full of people, and man-made stairs/elements that you don’t get the opportunity to experience them like an explorer would for the first time. At Maquoketa Caves, many of the caves were smaller, but we had them all to ourselves. When we would walk along the trail and come up on one it felt like we were discovering it for the first time.
We spent 2 days exploring this park and it was plenty of time. My twins were 4 and walked slowly and we spent a lot of time exploring the caves and eating snacks. I recommend one to two days at this park. If you’re very adventurous, dress to get muddy and explore some of the smaller caves. We opted not to do that with three kids 4 and under, but I would love to go back when the kids are older and try it.
We stayed in Dubuque, which is about 40 minutes away. It’s a decently large city, with beautiful bluffs, great outdoor hiking, and lots of eateries. If you stay there, I recommend the Dubuque Arboretum and Mines of Spain hiking trail.
Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
If you’re looking for an underrated national park, Voyageurs National Park is it! This park is near International Falls, Minnesota and on the border with Canada. The entire park is on water, encompassed by miles and miles of beautiful lakes.
All of the Voyageurs campsites are only accessible by boat. You cannot drive to them. Our campsite had its own dock, bear locker (in the winter the lakes freeze and bears and moose can walk across the frozen lakes between the islands), and rocky shore that was fun to explore. We spent two nights camping, which was perfect for us. If you camp at Voyageurs, there are three ways to get to your campsite:
- Rent a houseboat: This is the poshest way to camp at Voyageurs. You can rent a houseboat and drive it out to your campsite This allows you more of the amenities of a hotel, but the remoteness of the campsite.
- Hire an outfitter: This is what we used when we camped at Voyageurs. We hired someone to take us out to our campsite in a speedboat. This was perfect because our twins were three and our son wasn’t even a year old yet. The outfitter transported our tent, cots, pack n play, and all our food and water. We also rented a canoe from the outfitter so we could paddle around during the day.
- Take a boat or canoe: While it is definitely possible to paddle out to your campsite, be advised that there are some larger boats that go through these lakes, including tour boats operated by the National Park Service. Their wakes can be big, so I only recommend this option for experienced canoers. If you’re looking for a more remote canoeing experience, the nearby Boundary Waters Canoe Area may be the best spot for canoeing in the country.
Even if you don’t want to camp, Voyageurs National Park is worth the trip and has a lot to offer. There are three different Visitor’s Centers: Rainy Lake, Kabetogama, and Ash River. All of the Visitor’s Centers offer guided tours during the summer and fall via boat and interpretive programs throughout the year for birding, canoeing, and other outdoor programs.
North Shore, Minnesota (various state parks)
Minnesota’s North Shore is a dream destination. Imagine driving down windy roads with crystal blue water on one side for as far as you can see and beautiful pines of Superior National Forest and waterfalls on the other side of the road. Our family travels a lot, but our trip to the North Shore and Apostle Islands (I’ll highlight this one next) sticks out to both me and my husband as our favorite.
Within the 2 hour and 45 minute drive from Duluth to the Canadian border, you will pass 7 state parks:
- Gooseberry Falls: Gooseberry Falls is an impressively large waterfall with upper, lower, and middle viewpoints.
- Tettegouche State Park: With three waterfalls, a lake, and an overlook, you’ll definitely want to add this state park to your itinerary.
- Split Rock Lighthouse State Park: This state park has a beautiful lighthouse, but if you want to get the best view of it you’ll need to drive down the hill and hike out to the rocky shore. Whether you’re up close or far away, you won’t want to miss out on this lighthouse.
- Temperance River State Park:You can see Temperance River Falls from highway 61, the main highway up the North Shore. Look for a spot to pull off and view the falls, no hike required.
- Cascade River State Park: The Cascade River Loop was one of our favorite hikes on our trip. This half mile hike has multiple waterfalls and great views. Our 3 year old twins were able to hike it on their own.
- Judge CR Magney State Park: The trail to the Devil’s Kettle waterfall is only .9 miles long. We weren’t able to make it here last time, but will be on our list next time.
- Grand Portage State Park: This state park is known for the impressive Grand Portage waterfall on the Canadian border. We didn’t make it here on our last trip, but we definitely will next time!
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Wisconsin
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is a series of islands in Lake Superior near Bayfield, Wisconsin. All of these islands are uninhabited, except for one: Madeline Island. If you’re looking for a beautiful Midwest adventure, this is a great one to choose.
If you’d like to see all the islands, a boat tour is a quick and fun way to do it. Our family took a tour and enjoyed the views and learning more about the history of the islands. If you’re more on the adventurous side, and don’t have small children with you, you can kayak through sea caves at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore as well! If you take the boat cruise, they will take you to view the caves, although it’s not as immersive as kayaking through them.
Madeline Island is a beautiful and worthwhile stop, either for a night, a few nights of camping or staying at bed and breakfasts, or a day trip. There is a ferry you can drive your car on to, which makes it easy to tour the island. If you just ride over for a day trip, most of the eateries and businesses are near the ferry port.
We drove our car to Madeline Island and spent three nights camping at Big Bay Town Park. Of all of the places we have camped, this spot was our favorite. Not only were the sites secluded and surrounded by pines, our site was a 5 minute walk from a beach, a lagoon where we could canoe, and a state park. The views were beautiful. Each night we drove into town for dinner, which made it feel more like we were glamping even though we were sleeping in a tent.
Wilson Lake State Park, Kansas
Wilson Lake State Park has a beautiful crystal blue lake, sandstone rock formations that aren’t like anything you’d expect in Kansas, and mountain biking trails that rival those of Utah.
Our favorite trail at Wilson Lake is the Rock Town Trail which is 2.5 miles long. It winds through hills and prairie grass to the lake. There are rock towers which the trail is named for because they look like a little town and a beach area. Afterwards you’ll climb up the hill and continue past craggy rocks and prairies.
Wilson Lake has multiple camping areas, fishing, boating, kayaking, and mountain biking. The Switchgrass Trail is 22+ miles long and sure to excite any mountain biking enthusiast. There is a novice portion of the trail and a beginners portion too, as well as technical areas for the most hardcore mountain bikers.
Hocking Hills State Park, Ohio
Hocking Hills State Park was so incredible that I was surprised it was a state park and not a national one. The trails wind through caves, by waterfalls, and through jungle-esque woods that made me feel like I was in Jurassic Park.
Cedar’s Cave and Old Man’s Cave are two of the most popular spots. They can be reached by a 1-mile loop trail from the Visitor’s Center. Cedar’s Cave has a beautiful waterfall with a bridge overhead. Old Man’s Cave is an enormous open cave with winding walkways and expansive views.
You’ll want to spend at least two to three days at Hocking Hills to see it all. I also highly recommend the Rock House trail. There is a unique cave with multiple openings that looks kind of like a house with rooms and windows. My kids loved exploring this unusual space which was unlike anything I have ever seen.
Ash Cave is also worth seeing. It has a small waterfall flowing over a huge open cliff. The out-and-back trail is only .5 miles long and relatively flat. My kids enjoyed admiring the fauna and playing in the sand near the cave. It was relatively crowded, but people came and went quickly and we stayed for a while. This gave us a few opportunities to have the entire place to ourselves.
The Lower Trail to Conkle’s Hollow is .75 miles long one-way and paved, making it mostly wheelchair accessible but the very end of the trail was rocky. This trail made me feel like we were walking through a jungle. There were rocky cliffs with ferns and moss. The end of the trail has some impressive big rocks that lead to a rocky alcove with two waterfalls.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is one of the most beautiful places I have been in the United States. Imagine cool rock formations on beautiful blue water with miles of uncrowded beaches next to a pine forest and that is Pictured Rocks. We spent 5 days here and still didn’t do it all.
Did you know there are shipwrecks in Michigan? Hike the Au Sable Trail and you’ll see three as well as a lighthouse! Or if you want to see beautiful waterfalls check out Munising Falls, Miner Falls, or Sable Falls, to name a few. Take a boat tour to see Bridalveil Falls and Spray Falls as well as the incredible rocky bluffs.
For the most adventurous, you can backcountry hike along the shore through the whole park. Pictured Rocks, like Apostle Islands, has sea caves and you can kayak to them too! The Log Slide is a huge steep sand dune you can slide down. It’s a lot of fun, but we only went part way down because if you do the whole thing it takes about an hour to walk back up!
Johnson Shut Ins and Elephant Rocks State Park, Missouri
These are my two favorite Missouri state parks, which is saying something because Missouri has a lot of gems. These two parks are only 20 minutes away from one another, making them the perfect destination to see at the same time.
Johnson Shut Ins State Park is most famous for a river with a series of unique boulders. This makes a fun swimming hole to explore, swim, and climb on the rocks. While this park is most popular for its swimming, it also has camping, backcountry camping and hiking, and rock climbing.
Elephant Rocks State Park is one of the most unique places in Missouri. It has an unusual grouping of round bouldered rock formations unlike any I have ever seen anywhere else. They are said to look like elephants, hence the name. This is a relatively small state park. Hiking the whole trail won’t take long, but my kids always enjoy exploring between the rocks and climbing. We usually stay for about two hours.
If you have extra time, I recommend also trying to fit Taum Sauk State Park into your itinerary. This state park includes the highest point in Missouri, the tallest waterfall, and some epic views that will not disappoint. There are also basic walk-in campsites available.
Looking for more Midwestern destinations? Check out these Kansas Hidden Gems, the Best Camping near Kansas City, the Best Waterfalls near Kansas City, or sign up for my mailing list to download a Weekend Trips from Kansas City Guide.