The Best National Parks in the Midwest
Guest post by Samantha Beabon
National parks in the midwest often seem to get left in the dust, literally and figuratively, when people think of the best places to visit in the United States. Crowds flock to the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, or Yosemite out west.
While those spots are absolutely beautiful, there are plenty of national park service sites in the midwest to add to your bucket lists.
Despite what you might think, it’s not just farmlands and factories in these 12 states. There is something for everyone, from beautiful sandy beaches to remote wilderness. Some require a bit of effort to reach but allow you to get away from crowds of tourists, and others are great for a quick weekend getaway.
Why should you plan a visit to any of these midwest national parks? I’ll give you plenty of reasons here!
States of the Midwest
How Many National Parks Are In the Midwest?
According to the NPS, currently, there are only 9 national parks in the 12 states that make up the Midwest region of the US.
In addition to the national parks, there are 52 other sites throughout the midwest that have been designated a part of the national parks system. These include national historic sites; national scenic trails and riverways; national monuments and memorials; and national lakeshores.
This list includes more than just strictly the national parks. Why would you limit yourself just because of a name or designation? We sure wouldn’t!
The Best National Parks in the Midwest
Choosing the best national parks of a region, or in the whole country, is a lot like choosing the best of a group of fancy chocolates. Really, how can you go wrong?
These parks are recommended based on our experiences with amazing views and things to do. Some have a greater variety of activities, but these parks all have one thing in common: each left us talking about what we should do on the “next visit.”
Some of these parks are very easy to access, while others are much more remote and off the beaten path. We’ll give you the run-down on all of our favorite midwest national parks!
While you could probably gloss over each of these national parks in a day, spending at least a weekend in each will give you the best experience and bang for your buck.
Isle Royale National Park
- Scoville Point
- Rock Harbor Lodge
- Greenstone Ridge Trail
One of the more remote national parks in the lower 48, Isle Royale National Park is an island in the middle of Lake Superior. It’s technically closer to Minnesota but officially a part of the state of Michigan.
To reach the island, you have to catch a ferry or a seaplane from various spots in either of those two states. Once on Isle Royale, a ranger will give you a brief introduction to the island, and then you’ll be on your way! It’s remote, stunning, and offers an excellent backpacking experience.
The Greenstone Ridge Trail will give you countless views of the island and out over Lake Superior. Keep your eyes peeled for one of the many moose that populate the island. You may come across one when you least expect it. Isle Royale National Park is one hundred percent worth the effort required to visit.
Voyageurs National Park
- Kettle Falls Hotel
- Ellsworth Rock Gardens
- Blind Ash Bay Trail
Voyageurs National Park is a boater’s paradise! Made up of 4 large lakes with many smaller backcountry lakes nestled in the forested areas between, this national park is a great place to get away from the hustle and bustle of daily life.
Getting to some of the campsites at the backcountry lakes requires a hike combined with a canoe paddle for a little added adventure. Spend a few days fishing by day and stargazing by night. You may even be able to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights!
Even if you aren’t planning to stay at the historic Kettle Falls Hotel, still make the effort to get out there and grab a beverage from the bar. You’ll see why as soon as you walk in the door.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park
- Brandywine Falls
- Ledges Trail
- Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad
- Towpath Trail
What Cuyahoga Valley National Park lacks in backcountry wilderness experiences and sweeping landscapes, it makes up for with the sheer variety of things to do and ease of access.
Even if you have to take a flight to reach this park, a weekend visit is still doable from much of the US by flying into Cleveland. Brandywine Falls and the Ledges Trail are both extremely popular hiking spots. You can also hike on the Towpath Trail, but bicycling is much more popular there. Much of the hiking is rated easy to moderate, so this is a great beginner national park.
The one downside to this park: there are no camping opportunities within the park for those who like to get off the grid.
Badlands National Park
State: South Dakota
- Badlands Loop Drive
- Prairie Dog Towns
- The Notch Trail
Badlands National Park has quite the landscape. Seeing the sweeping prairies and barren rock formations sitting side by side provides quite a drastic contrast.
Even though you’re in South Dakota, watch out for cactuses and rattlesnakes on the hiking trails! Multiple short hikes including the Notch, Window, and Door trails lead to small openings in the rock walls for sweeping views. This isn’t just a park to explore during the day, though!
In addition to colorful sunrises and sunsets, Badlands National Park is one of the best spots for stargazing. With the wide-open landscapes, you’ll be able to see thousands of stars and maybe the milky way or another galaxy on a clear night.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
- Munising Falls
- Chapel Rock + Chapel Loop Hike
- Pictured Rocks Cruise
- Grand Sable Dunes
If you are anywhere near the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, make sure to include Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in your trip itinerary. The stunning colorful cliffs along the deep blue of Lake Superior form an adventure playground for outdoor lovers.
Hiking, biking, and kayaking galore, you’re in for a real treat! Be sure to check out the Grand Sable Dunes and Sable Falls on the far east side of the park, which features much different terrain than the rest of the hiking trails. The Chapel Loop is the most popular hiking trail, featuring 2 stunning waterfalls, unique formations, and views of the sandstone rocks from shore. The best part is the beautiful beach to relax and have a snack midway through the 10-mile hike!
Even if you’re not into taking guided tours, the Pictured Rocks Cruise is one you should consider. In addition to the spectacular views of the sandstone cliffs, the storytelling from the crew makes the rocks really come alive.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
- Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive
- Dune Climb
- Lake Michigan Overlooks
- Manitou Islands
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is another popular national park site to explore in Michigan, located on the western side of the mitten. Miles and miles of hiking and biking trails wind through the sand dunes, but these ones end with beautiful views of Lake Michigan.
The Dune Climb is the most popular of the sandy hiking trails, but many of the other trails offer more varied terrain, some sand, and fewer crowds. Don’t be afraid to check out others, such as the Old Indian or Sleeping Bear Point Trail. For more of a backcountry experience, take the ferry out to the Manitou Islands. North Manitou offers more dispersed camping and is a little larger. These are also great spots to try and get away from some of the crowds.
North Country National Scenic Trail
State: 8 states, including North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio in the midwest
- Lake Superior Shoreline (MN)
- Big Manitou Falls (WI)
- Hocking Hills State Park (OH)
In addition to being an NPS site itself, the North Country National Scenic Trail (NCNST) passes through some of the sites I’ve already mentioned including Pictured Rocks and Cuyahoga.
The North Country Trail also showcases some of the best state parks lands through these midwest states. There are so many waterfalls to see along the trail, too. (Don’t listen to TLC, you can absolutely go chasing those waterfalls!)
The Superior Hiking trail stretch covers the Lake Superior coastline in Minnesota with more than a handful of beautiful waterfalls and endless natural beauty. The NCNST also passes by the tallest waterfall in Wisconsin in Pattison State Park before making it to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
Eventually, the trail makes it to Ohio where you can see the best of the popular Hocking Hills area before crossing the state to Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Day hikes or shorter multi-day hikes are possible if you aren’t quite up for spending multiple months covering the 4,700 miles of this trail.
A Final Word on National Parks in the Midwest
Midwest national parks are varied. A common draw of many of these is the water, with the exception of the Badlands. Spending the night by a secluded lake, hiking to a powerful waterfall, or kayaking to explore are all great draws in these national parks. There are so many national parks to choose from, all you have to do is just get out and start hiking.
If you’re looking to find that feeling of wonder and rediscover what it feels like to be a child in nature, check out a national park on this list. If you’d rather someone else handle the nitty gritty details, check out some of Explorer Chick’s national park guided tours.
Meet the Writer
Samantha, the creator behind PAonPause.com, is a medical professional by day and weekend travel warrior. She loves all things outdoors,
including hiking, biking, kayaking, and trying new things. When she’s not out exploring the woods, you can find her watching any game
featuring a Pennsylvania sports team, playing with her dog Jackson, wheeling around in her ‘97 Jeep Wrangler, or sipping a new craft beer.
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