Ready to get out of Dodge? These Midwest national parks are the breath of fresh air you're looking for.
"Nothing could be more lonely and nothing more beautiful than the view at nightfall across the prairies to these huge hill masses, when the lengthening shadows had at last merged into one and the faint after-glow of the red sunset filled the west."
- Theodore Roosevelt
Just say the words "Midwest national park," and you can't help but think of fresh air and quiet mornings. Colorful expanses of the rugged Badlands, cool breezes from the Great Lakes, and wooded trails along the banks of America's first national river are all enticing road trips.
There are 60 national parks in 13 states across the Midwest. Not all parks are big outdoor adventures, though. You can get a complete tour of some parks, like the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, Missouri or Abraham Lincoln's home in Springfield, Illinois in as little as a few hours. From history to nature to national monuments, a Midwest national park road trip has something for everyone. But first, you have to get there.
The Midwest has three of the most visited national parks in the country: Badlands National Park, Hot Springs National Park, and Cuyahoga National Park. But don't let the number of visitors determine which park to visit or not visit; there's a park for any interest. Here are some that are most definitely worth a road trip.
10 Midwest National Parks You Don't Want to Miss
Park Pass: Free - $30
You may know this memorial better as the St. Louis Arch or the Gateway Arch. The 63-stories tall arch spans the Mississippi River, connecting Missouri on the west with Illinois on the east. A round trip on the tram to the top of the arch takes approximately 10 minutes, however, visitors can stay at the top as long as they like. Other sections of the park include the Old Courthouse, most famously known as the location of the Dred Scott Trial, as well as exhibits about the American westward expansion.
Park Pass: $15 per private vehicle, valid for 7 days
For an outdoor adventure, Sleeping Bear Dunes might be one of the gems of the Midwest national parks. With 65 miles of shoreline and dunes rising 400 feet above Lake Michigan, this park is a nature lover's dream. It's also an ideal spot for bird watching, stargazing, and hiking, although more intrepid families can go scuba diving to explore the wreckage of schooners, barges, and steamships from Lake Michigan's past.
Park Pass: Free (partner sites may have fees)
The Pullman Historic District was the "first model, planned industrial community in the United States." The neighborhood includes the Pullman factory and the Hotel Florence. While the Pullman Company is known for originating the idea of company towns, it is also known for the violent 1894 Pullman strike, which ended with fights between strikers and the U.S. military, leaving two dozen dead and many more injured.
Park Pass: Free
Explore the pristine waters of the St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers as you paddle your canoe or kayak along gorgeous stretches of this 200-mile waterway. Take a day trip or camp along the shores on a multi-day excursion. For an educational component, work alongside biologists to record the diversity of plants, trees, insects, fish, birds, and mammals during a "BioBlitz."
Park Pass: $20 per private vehicle, valid for 7 days
There are good reasons the Badlands are one of the most well-known and visited of the Midwest national parks. Rugged, full of colorful, stunning scenery, and home to bighorn sheep and prairie dogs, this 244,000-acre park is easily worth several road trips. But if there's one thing you don't want to miss at this park, it's the Night Sky Program. Grab a complimentary telescope and look for the constellations, stars, and planets with a park ranger as your guide.
Park Pass: Free
Take a short hike through ancient sand dunes and fossil grasslands to a major Miocene Epoch mammal fossil site. See the fossilized bones of the Palaeocastor, the Moropus, and the Menoceras, a North American rhinoceros. Indoor exhibits include life-size dioramas and a collection of Lakota Sioux artifacts from the late 1800s.
Park Pass: $25 per private vehicle; valid for 7 days
Teddy Roosevelt may be the grandfather of conservation-minded Presidents, and it began with his trip to Dakota Territory. Follow Roosevelt's footsteps with a guided tour along river bottoms and through ancient canyons. For a truly unique experience, pack your bag and head into isolated backcountry for a camping trip your kids will never forget.
Park Pass: Free (There is an amenity fee for tent campsites)
Voyageurs National Park is in the "heart of the North American Continent" and boasts "water highways" through the rivers and lakes of northern Minnesota. While over 40% of the park is water, one fascinating feature of this park is the appearance of the Aurora Borealis after dark.
Park Pass: Free
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court decided on the Brown v. Board of Education case that would desegregate public schools. Three years later, the "Little Rock Nine" faced angry crowds and a defiant Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus to enter Little Rock Central High School. Tours of the high school are free, but require a reservation made at least 24 hours ahead of time. Though a historic site, the school is an active school, so only guided tours are available.
Bonus Tip: A mere one hour away is Hot Springs National Park, in Hot Springs, AR. Take a traditional bath or soak in a thermal pool at "The American Spa" then hike some of the 26 miles of trails on Hot Springs Mountain.
Park Pass: Free (some activities may include fees)
Nestled between the cities of Cleveland and Akron is an oasis of forest, farmland, river, and wetlands. Hop on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad for a vintage train ride through the park, then hike the 1.4 mile Brandywine Gorge Trail to the 65-foot Brandywine Falls. There are several other short hikes ideal for families, so pack a picnic and enjoy nature.
We love road trips, but it's always a good idea to make sure your auto insurance is up to date with your needs. Get in touch with your local Pekin agent today to find out if you have the coverage you need.
Park access fees may vary.