Best U.S. National Parks in the Midwest
Best U.S. National Parks in the Midwest
The content in this guide is provided for general information only, and is not intended to address specific circumstances of any particular individuals. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice.
The 12 U.S. states that make up the Midwest may not boast sparkling ocean views but there is certainly much more to this region than just farmland, like many assume. Here you will find the impressive Great Lakes, the largest group of freshwater lakes in the world.
These lakes offer their own unique shorelines and are stunning to behold. The Midwest is also home to major U.S. attractions like the towering 630-foot tall Saint Louis Gateway Arch, Mount Rushmore and Minnesota’s Mall of America, where 35 million people flock each year to shop, dine and socialize. The Midwest is sometimes referred to as America’s Heartland, not only because of its central geographical position but also because of its citizens who represent crucial American values like hard work, small-town heritage and integrity.
Farmers are an integral part of the Midwest economy, with agriculture providing thousands of jobs and accounting for billions of dollars’ worth of exports. Fertile soil produces an abundance of crops such as corn, wheat, oats and soybeans. Often called the country’s “breadbasket” for its profusion of wheat crops, this area also has the Corn Belt, which is not a delicious clothing accessory but rather where the vast majority of corn in the U.S. is grown.
Three important waterways pass through the Midwest: the Ohio River, Upper Mississippi River and Missouri River. Mark Twain’s childhood home in Missouri is the site where he was first inspired by the river that would feature prominently in his classic novel, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” The Midwest is also nestled between the majestic Rocky Mountains and the Appalachian Mountains. From the waterways to the mountains, natural beauty abounds in this region—and there are many unforgettable National Parks to enjoy here.
East North Central Division
Lincoln Home National Historic Site
Three hours from the bustling urban center of Chicago, find sanctuary in this idyllic, historic site in Springfield. Take a step back in time to the 1840s as you visit President Lincoln’s Illinois home of 17 years. The home and surrounding neighborhood have been meticulously restored and preserved for the public to enjoy. Stroll around the four block area to see 12 historic homes and buildings that have existed since Lincoln walked these same streets.
The Lincoln Home was originally built in 1839 and purchased by the Lincoln family in 1844. Abraham, Mary and their firstborn son, Robert, quickly began to outgrow the space, spurring a long series of renovations in the years that followed. They added numerous bedrooms and a pantry, installed stoves and built a woodshed. It presently stands two stories tall with 12 rooms, totaling a square footage of 3,000—and as the house grew, so did the Lincoln family. Mary Lincoln would go on to bear three more sons in the house: Edward, William and Tad. Sadly, Edward passed away at a young age. His funeral was held in the Lincoln home.
Your visit won’t be complete without taking the informative and fun ranger-led tour of the Lincoln home. Walk through the formal parlor, sitting room, dining room and family bedrooms to learn more about Lincoln’s home life. See where one of the most famous presidents ate and slept. Secure a free, timed ticket at the Visitor Center for this unique tour. Tickets are first come, first served and limited to 15 people for each 20-minute tour. The summer months are particularly busy at the Lincoln home. Arrive early, as tours can quickly fill up and tickets run out.
Here in Springfield and in this house, Lincoln developed into the man the world remembers him as. He married and grew his family, and he lived and worked in this town for over a decade. During this time, his political views also developed and evolved. His ambitions and aspirations grew as he made a name for himself as an American politician. While serving as a statesman, his wife Mary was often left at home as he traveled. She became close friends with Mrs. Sprigg, a neighbor whose house is also available to tour. Mrs. Sprigg’s daughter even acted as babysitter for the Lincoln children who may have had little idea at the time that soon they would be living and playing in the White House. When even the babysitter’s home is preserved, you know you are learning about a very influential family.
Spend an educational, exciting day in this historic neighborhood admission fee-free. In the summer, the park offers living history experiences as actors reenact daily life as it used to be. Enjoy outdoor exhibits like the Heirloom Garden and learn how people ate, gardened and grew food during the Lincoln era. Other attractions in the park include the Jameson Jenkins lot, a stop on the Underground Railroad, the Rosenwald House, where Julius Rosenwald, a philanthropist and former president of Sears, Roebuck and Company lived and indoor exhibits at the Dean and Arnold Houses.
Consider stopping by the Lincoln Tomb nearby as this is the final resting place for Abraham Lincoln, Mary and three of their sons. For those interested in learning more about this iconic president, there are several nearby sites including the Old State Capitol, where Lincoln served as state senator, the New Salem State Historic Site, 20 miles northwest of Springfield, which features a reconstruction of the town where Lincoln spent his early adulthood and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum & Library.
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore
A wonder of nature, this Indiana park is one of the most biologically diverse within the National Parks system. The Indiana dunes are an ideal home to a diverse array of wildlife, birds included which is why it’s renowned for birdwatching. The national lakeshore is an important resting, nesting and feeding area for migrating birds. Over 350 different species of birds have been spotted here! The lakeshore and beaches are located at the base of Lake Michigan, whose fresh water nourishes and sustains a habitat for an abundance of fish and aquatic life. Near the beach, the sand dunes, from which the park gets its name, rise to a towering 200 feet. There are also over 1,100 flowering plant species at the Indiana Dunes such as native prairie grasses and white pines. With 15,000 miles of swamps, bogs, dunes, marshes, rivers and forests this area is a treasure trove of natural resources and diversity.
There are many outdoor activities to enjoy here. Perhaps the most popular attractions are the sandy beaches along Lake Michigan. This is a great place to build a sand castle, fly a kite, throw around a beach ball or take a dip in the Great Lake during the summer. Be aware that swimming in Lake Michigan is different from ocean-side beaches. Be extra cautious. The bottom of the lake can be uneven with steep drop offs. West Beach is the only beach here with lifeguards, so it is a good choice if you have small children. Don’t miss the picturesque summer sunset in the park—the perfect opportunity to snap a photo of this beautiful landscape.
Enjoy biking, fishing, boating, camping, hiking and even horseback riding here. All skill levels of hikers are welcome and will love the 14 trail systems that explore the range of different environments this area has to offer. Sunny prairies fill with spring wildflowers providing the perfect place for an afternoon picnic. Or go on a geocaching adventure with the children to find hidden items around the park. Don’t forget that this park offers the crème de la crème of bird watching, especially along the Great Marsh Trail. Spring and fall migrations draw a variety of bird species to the vast expanse of Lake Michigan’s glittering waters and these feathered friends can be seen from the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk Trail. You can spot hawks along the rugged dunes or watch the waterfowl bob lazily on the surface of the lake. Consider bringing along your binoculars to this birder’s paradise.
The peaceful forests and sandy shores of the Indiana Dunes are particularly popular during the summer months. If you plan on a summer visit to the beach, arrive early as the parking lots fill up quickly. Or perhaps explore the forested parts of the park until later in the afternoon when parking may once again open up. Try to avoid summer weekends if you aren’t a fan of big crowds. If a summer trip sounds a bit too busy, every season offers an opportunity for fun at this park. Spring flowers paint the landscape with blooming colors. Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are available during the chilly winter snows. Because this park was created by a retreating continental glacier over 14,000 years ago, the ecosystems are ever-changing and evolving. No two visits will be exactly alike as the transformation continues. Whatever time of the year you choose to visit, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore will be the perfect backdrop to create new memories in the great outdoors.
Isle Royale National Park
Isle Royale is a haven for outdoor activities and discovery. Located on an island in the northwest corner of Lake Superior, this park is far from the bustling activity of the city and offers peaceful forests and waterways to explore in solitude and can be reached either by ferry or seaplane. The park is open April 16-Oct. 31 and is closed during the winter due to extreme weather conditions. Enter the park at the Houghton Visitor Center, where you can take the ferry, get a boating permit and pay entrance fees.
If you prefer wilderness adventure, you can go hiking, fishing, kayaking and scuba diving! Enjoy a short stroll down the winding trails or step up to the challenge of an all-day hike. Bring plenty of water and wear sturdy hiking boots to manage the uneven terrain. The rugged shoreline is surrounded by forests of fir and spruce. Perhaps you will spot an osprey at the water’s edge or hear the call of a loon. Only 19 species of mammals can be found in this park, as all animals would have had to cross 14 miles of cold water to arrive here, but one of those is moose. The moose population on the island fluctuates from 500 to 2,400, so you have a good chance of seeing one in one of the inland lakes or beaver ponds. Also be on the lookout for wolves, the dominant predator here.
Isle Royale offers miles of stunning scenic waterways to paddle; however, boaters should be aware that Lake Superior is infamous for its fog and sudden squalls. Sea kayaks are recommended for navigating these tricky waters. The Rock Harbor Lodge offers boat and kayak rentals. If you plan on fishing in Lake Superior and the surrounding waterways, a fishing license is required and you must be 17 years of age or older, however no license is required for fishing in the inland lakes. Visitors can also push past the water’s surface on a scuba diving adventure featuring a variety of shipwrecks for the seasoned diver to explore. Maneuvering through these shipwrecks requires confidence and skill as darkness can reduce visibility and debris can entangle divers. The water in Lake Superior is deep and cold throughout the year, so wearing a full wetsuit or drysuit is a necessity. These areas are preserved and protected by the National Park Service and divers are expected to respect and care for this natural environment to preserve it for future generations to enjoy.
Isle Royale offers a dock for boat owners and a campground if you wish to extend your stay. A backcountry permit is required for overnight camping. Unfortunately, you will have to leave your furry companions at home—dogs and cats are not permitted in the park. Families may enjoy the Junior Ranger Program for children ages 6-12 or the Wilderness Ranger program for the teenagers. Hike, paddle and explore on your own or, if you want extra guidance, take a sightseeing tour at Rock Harbor Lodge, where you can also grab a bite. Consider a boat tour during which you can spot the deck of a sunken ship in the chilly lake waters. There is a small daily entrance fee to visit the park and some additional fees may apply for boat tours, camping and add-on activities. This unique, remote island is ideal for exploring nature’s finest untouched beauty, whatever activities you choose to enjoy during your stay.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Surrounding the 100-mile long winding Cuyahoga River, this Ohio national park is bursting with wetlands, swamps, marshes, deep forests and rolling hills. Located a short drive from the city life of Akron and Cleveland, Cuyahoga Valley National Park is a hidden oasis complete with hiking trails, historic buildings and even a picturesque cascading waterfall. The park is open every day of the year and admission is free.
The trails here offer a wide range of choices for all hiking skill levels. For the adventure seeker, use stepping stones to travel across flowing streams and climb rocky hills. Or take the path more often traveled like the Towpath Trail which is accessible to all visitors, including those in wheelchairs and cross-country skiers in the winter. The Towpath Trail follows the historic Ohio and Erie Canals and is the most popular and accessible trail to explore because it guides visitors to a series of the park’s destinations including the Beaver Marsh, a spectacular area of wetland built by beavers.
One of the other popular places to be in Cuyahoga has to be the remarkable Brandywine Falls. Bring your camera along and perhaps you’ll be lucky enough to catch sight of a rainbow at the base of this 60-foot classic waterfall. Another photo-ready spot here is the Everett Covered Bridge, the only remaining covered bridge in the county and the perfect place to snap an adorable couples’ shot. There is plenty of land to cover by foot within the 125 miles of hiking trails, or you can take one of the five major biking paths for an invigorating ride. There is even a one-of-a-kind scenic train ride through Cuyahoga Valley. While canoeing and kayaking are allowed on the river, be cautious on the Cuyahoga River. This is a “paddle at your own risk” area because the river can be dangerous and water levels vary. But don’t let that scare you away from exploring this lovely national park in other ways.
Stop by the Canal Exploration Center for exhibits about the history and influence of the waterways in this region. The building itself is over 150 years old! The park is also rich in history of Black Americans from pre-Civil War days through the 20th century as well as various Native American tribes throughout the centuries. Cuyahoga Park also features a number of exhibits highlighting the contributions of area women.
There is no one-size-fits-all trip to Cuyahoga and, as the seasons change, so do the recreational activities. Visit in the summer to take advantage of the fine weather and extended daylight. Once you have thoroughly explored the park, you can golf at one of two nearby golf courses. A fun family activity available in the park is Questing. Follow rhyming clues and a map to find hidden quest boxes and learn about the natural and cultural surroundings along the way. Or don your snow apparel for downhill and cross-country skiing, snow tubing, sledding and ice fishing during the winter months. The Winter Sports Center is your go-to place for cold-weather fun and gear rental. Starting in November, you can take the kids on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad North Pole Adventures, where you can enjoy hot cocoa, cookies and fun on your way to hand-deliver your letter to Santa.
The busiest times are mid-day on warm, sunny weekends. You can avoid crowded parking lots on weekdays, in the mornings and in the late afternoon or early evening. If you live in the area, this may be your all-season weekend destination but, if you’re just visiting, be aware that there are no campsites available in the park. No worries though, as there are numerous choices for campgrounds as well as lodging available nearby.
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
When you think about Wisconsin, you probably don’t picture tranquil islands with secluded rocky grottos, but this park has all that and more. Travel off the beaten path to these unique, natural islands of Wisconsin. Getting there is part of the adventure; take your own boat to one of the islands, paddle a kayak or take a boat shuttle or tour. The Apostle Islands Cruises take off from Bayfield and offer stops at several islands as well as narrated sightseeing tours. The 21 islands have so much to offer in terms of pristine sand-scapes featuring abundant beaches, sandstone cliffs and silky sand pits. One of the highlights of the Great Lakes region, this national lakeshore is much more than just sand and windswept cliffs. Six historic lighthouses, a wealth of sea caves and the greenery of the old-growth forests bursting with Canada yew are waiting for you to explore.
Boat tours are available from late May to mid-October, weather permitting, and are one of the best ways to view the islands. The popular Grand Tour is a full 55 miles through the national park. Scuba diving is another water-related recreational activity the Apostle Islands offers. Be sure to closely monitor the weather, as storms can quickly form. As is the norm for this region, the water is cold and a full wetsuit is a must-have for your scuba trip. Once you’re suited up, take an excursion to one of the ghostly shipwrecks or underwater rock formations on a licensed charter dive boat.
Anglers can catch lake trout, brown trout, brook trout, rainbow trout and coho salmon with their Wisconsin fishing license and Great Lakes trout/salmon stamp, either from land, from a private boat or on a fishing charter. The spring, from ice-out to late May or early June is prime fishing season, when the trout and salmon congregate along the Bayfield Peninsula and around spawning streams on the Sioux, Onion, Pikes, Cranberry and Flag Rivers. Hunting and trapping is allowed in the park with a hunting license. A variety of animals make their home here, including white-tailed deer, beavers, the endangered American marten, black bears, bobcats, coyote and foxes. These islands are a major stop of migratory birds such as passerines, hawks, falcons and waterfowl and are also breeding grounds for a number of other bird species such as herring gulls and piping plover.
Ready to venture off the water and explore some solid ground? Birdwatch, picnic, hike or visit the old lighthouses. In the past, people have actually called these wild, rugged islands home, including Native Americans and early pioneer farmers. You may see the remains of an old, one-room schoolhouse or the stone walls and rusty equipment abandoned in the Bass Island Brownstone Quarry pit. If you wish to extend your stay on the islands to make time for more adventure, camping is available on 19 of the Apostle Islands. Staying overnight to enjoy the starry Wisconsin sky requires a permit, which you can obtain by paying a small camping fee.
The geology of the region makes for truly spectacular rock formations with layers of orange, black and beige sculpted by water and wind over billions of years. If you plan on visiting during the winter, be certain to catch a glimpse of the sparkling ice caves, which are truly a sight to behold! The sometimes treacherous two-mile hike is well worth the effort to observe the intricate patterns of ice crystals glittering like diamonds on the cave walls and ceiling. Traveling across the lake ice to the caves can be dangerous if you don’t remain informed of the weather and ice conditions. Depending on the weather, the caves may remain closed for certain lengths of time. Park rangers monitor these conditions and report them regularly to the Ice Line, which you can access by phone, or the park website prior to your visit to ensure that the caves are accessible and safe. Rangers suggest wearing layers of clothing to stay warm and a pair of sturdy boots and an ice pick to navigate the ice and snow. It is imperative that winter trekkers stay on high alert as ice formations within the caves can fall at any time.
West North Central Division
Ozark National Scenic Riverways
The Ozark National Scenic Riverways protects 134 miles of the Current and Jacks Fork Rivers in southeastern Missouri. The clean, clear waters are perfect for tubing, canoeing, swimming and fishing. Surrounding the rivers are plenty of streams and hundreds of springs nestled in oak-pine forests. Big Spring is one of the largest springs in the United States with an average flow of 276 million gallons of water per day!
There are a number of outfitters that rent canoes or tubes and some of them also have guide-led adventures on the river, fly fishing or horseback riding along the over 25 miles of horse trail. You may even encounter wild horses in some of the open fields. When horseback riding, be sure to cross the river only at designated fords. The waters are considered to be Class 1 streams, which is the least difficult to navigate. These calm waters are why canoeing and floating are some of the most popular activities in the Riverways. See if you can spot collared lizards, hear the call of the Swainson’s Warbler or catch a glimpse of a bear, mountain lion or otter as you float down the river. Fishing enthusiasts will find that the Ozark National Scenic Riverways has some of the best fishing spots for smallmouth bass, rainbow trout and brown trout in the country. A valid fishing permit is required, as is a trout permit if fishing for trout.
The Riverways have over 300 recorded caves, some of which are critical habitat for the endangered Indian and Gray bats. At the Round Spring and Cave, you can see the spring itself, which is around 55 feet deep and is a favorite place for otters, wood ducks and great blue herons in the spring. During the summer months, you can register for a strenuous ranger-led hike through the beautiful natural cavern. Be sure to wear sturdy shoes and bring a jacket, since it can get quite chilly in the cave. If you have a boat, be sure to access the Jam Up Cave in the Jacks Fork Natural Area where you can see a small underground waterfall with a natural skylight. Another interesting site is the Welch Hospital, an abandoned hospital for people with tuberculosis (called “consumption”) that is built over a cave. The doctor who built the hospital in 1913 claimed that the spring water and the cool air from the adjacent cave would cure these patients.
There are plenty of campgrounds in the park, some with amenities such as electricity, showers and pavilions and others that are purely rustic. Reservations for front country campgrounds must be made in advance but back country and primitive sites do not require reservations. In addition, there are cabins, hotels and bed and breakfasts in the nearby communities.
Effigy Mounds National Monument
There is a special place where the western prairies meet the eastern forests, a place that many American Indian tribes believe to be sacred—that place is Iowa’s Effigy Mounds. Three miles north of Marquette, located along the scenic Mississippi River Trail Bikeways, you’ll find these mysterious mounds. Native American tribes built these mounds somewhere around 1400-750 B.C. for reasons that still remain unknown. The over 200 mounds are a regional cultural phenomenon for visitors to contemplate and explore during their time here. This area of Iowa is wild with beauty, from the thriving wildlife to the blossoming wildflowers peppered alongside the mounds. Stroll through the tall prairie grasses and take in this stunning landscape or hike through rows of tall oak among the hilly forests.
Your first stop: the Mounds. What are they and what were they for? Researchers have been studying these mounds for years to find the answers. While it is known that cone-shaped mounds were used for burial purposes, the iconic animal-shaped mounds in this area are a symbol of a unique cultural legacy and tradition. The bear and the bird are two of the largest and most recognizable mounds in the United States, but turtle and panther shaped mounds are common as well. The mysterious mound-builders also made long, rectangular mounds that are believed to have been used for some sort of ceremonial purposes, possibly celestial or seasonal events. The 20 tribes who were involved with the creation of the mounds still regard them as culturally significant today. How did so many tribes communicate, share and create these monuments together? Scientists have not proven any direct connection between the tribes but do know that many were in contact through intricate trade networks. Much of this area’s history and past significance, however, still remains a mystery that you can ponder while visiting the Effigy Mounds.
Located in a section of the Upper Mississippi River Valley, the natural resources surrounding the mounds are bountiful. The diversity of the flora and fauna in this region influenced the lives of the Native Americans and still delight visitors today. Whitetail deer, turkey, raccoon and chipmunks all call this place home. This picturesque location along the Mississippi River is situated between several ecological communities: savanna, prairie and forests. During the summer, the forests are often full of songbirds’ music. Shagbark hickory, red oak, maple and basswood all grow here. The bark of the white oak –once used by farmers as their main building material —provides shelter while the acorns are food for squirrels, deer and hungry woodpeckers. The highly sophisticated Native American tribes used these acorns to make flour and utilized various plants in the surrounding areas for medicinal purposes.
Stop along the north unit trail at overlooks like Fire Point, Eagle Rock and Twin Views to see a sweeping view of the Mississippi River Valley. The area looks much as it looked centuries ago, with rugged terrain carved out of the limestone bedrock. At Fire Point, you can also see where the Yellow River empties into the Mississippi and remnants of the prairie peek out from among the trees. You can see the entire line of conical mounds lined up through the woods, including the Little Bear Mound, one of the best-known mounds. Ranger-led programs like hikes, special talks about the mounds and a spear throwing demonstration are available mostly during the summer.
Admission is free and pets are allowed to join you along the trails. In the late summer, when the grasses are at their tallest, the landscape is painted with the vibrant colors of coneflowers, jewelweed, cardinal flower, goldenrod and bright purple asters. During the spring, the stunning landscapes boast a motley hue provided by wild geranium, violets and Dutchman’s breeches. And of course, in the fall you can catch the gorgeous fall foliage. Can’t get enough of Iowa’s great outdoors? Pikes Peak State Park and Yellow River State Forest are nearby and will give you more of the natural wonder that you crave.
Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
At one time, tallgrass prairie covered more than 170 million acres of North America; today only 4% of this remains. The only park in the National Park system dedicated solely to protecting and preserving this rare ecosystem is the nearly 11,000-acre Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas. The preserve is home to over 200 animal species and 500 plant species. Go on an invigorating nature hike with your canine friend, explore through a self-guided tour or participate in some catch-and-release fishing in one of the three ponds open to the public. Immerse yourself in the tall grasses and take your time moving through them; your patience will pay off as many of the beautiful nuances can only be enjoyed when you get up close and personal.
A short and easy 1.7-mile hike on the Southwind Nature Trail will allow you to take in the panorama from the sweeping vistas. Don’t miss the historic Fox Creek Schoolhouse, which opened in 1884. The Bottomland Trail has two short loops, each with wayside panels pointing out the natural and cultural significance of the area. The Bottomland Trail is wheelchair accessible in dry weather and also has benches along the way for quiet reflection and appreciation of the natural vistas. To learn more about the prairie, download a cell phone tour. If you wish to spend the entire day on the trail, there are longer and more challenging routes too, including backcountry hiking. Don’t miss a stop at Windmill Pasture where the herds of bison roam, though it’s advised to use caution around these powerful wild animals. Bring a camera with high quality zoom so you can observe them from a safe distance. Another hazard to be aware of are the venomous snakes – copperheads and massasauga in particular, which are known to slither through the tall grasses across your path. Watch where you step!
You can visit Tallgrass Prairie any time of the year because the trails are always open. Each season offers something different so it all depends on what you want to see. During the hot summer, the cattle graze lazily in the still prairie grass. The springtime, meanwhile, is primarily for prescribed burning that helps to maintain the integrity of the prairie environment. Just two weeks later, new grass will already be popping up. The grasses reach their highest in the fall and can grow well above the average person’s head. Even the winter snows here are enchanting in their own way.
Consult the park’s calendar for special events or coordinate your trip to coincide with the cowboys rounding up the cattle for transport. However, if you are extending your stay, you will need to find lodging in Emporia or another nearby town. Unfortunately, camping is not permitted in the park. Visitors are not allowed to drive, bicycle or ride horses in the park; it is strictly for pedestrians.
Voyageurs National Park
The name of this park alone beckons you to visit. After all, voyageur means traveler in French and that’s exactly what you’ll be when you take in the magnificent lakes and waterways here. The boreal forest is bursting with diverse plant life and at least 240 species of thriving wildlife. Eagles soar overhead, beavers splash in the clear waters, moose roam and gray wolves howl. Black bears, foxes, otters, hares and white-tailed deer are some of the other unique animals you might spot during your stay. Once a site for commercial fishing, the waters are full of yellow perch and various other fish species. The landscape here varies from rocky outcrops to conifer and hardwood forests. Lakeshore environments, swamps and marshes add to the incredible diversity.
This ancient landscape was formed by volcanoes, earthquakes and glaciers. Once one of the most important routes for the fur trade and home to Native Americans, it was also the site of mining, logging and commercial fishing throughout the years. This is one of the rare places where you will be able to see and touch rocks that are half the age of our planet. Massive volcanoes exploded and formed the volcanic bedrock that birthed the continent, and these are some of the very rocks you will see all around you. Glaciers later moved through the area, exposing granite and creating bogs and lakes. The area even experienced a brief gold rush in the 1890s. A prime example of this is the imposing Grassy Bay Cliffs, which tower 125 feet about the surface of Sand Point Lake. For a sense of perspective, take some photos near the massive boulders that were deposited by glaciers during the last ice age.
Voyageurs is an ideal destination for boaters and boat owners. Forty percent of the park is water so come prepared by reserving or bringing your own watercraft. If you visit during the warmer months, enjoy a ranger-led, scenic boat tour. If you time and plan your trip well, and get really lucky, you may catch one of the most incredible night sky phenomena in the world: the Northern Lights. Radiant, ethereal colors light up the dark, Minnesota night sky. The aurora borealis occurs sporadically in the northern hemisphere but chances of its occurrence are a bit more likely during the winter. Perhaps you might catch an awe-inspiring meteor shoot across the sky. Pitch your tent and stay for the night under a blanket of millions of shining stars.
Visit the Ellsworth Rock Gardens, a photo-ready garden blending art, architecture, gardening and engineering in what is known as the “Showplace of Lake Kabetogama.” Two-hundred abstract art sculptures and 13,000 lilies alone make this spot a must-see. Perhaps the warmer months might be the best time to see the park in its fullest splendor but there is still plenty to do in Voyageurs during the winter. The landscape is blanketed in white, for a sparkling winter wonderland as far as the eye can see. Snowmobile trails, ice roads, snowshoe and ski trails, ice skating, ice fishing and a sledding hill will surely keep you busy.
The park is open all year and is entrance fee free. If you plan on camping overnight, keep in mind that all park campsites are accessible only by watercraft so be sure to plan ahead. Those wanting a more comfortable stay can get a room at the historic Kettle Falls Hotel. For a unique experience, rent a houseboat during the summer months; reservations open up November 15 for the following summer season. Dock your houseboat at a designated houseboat site or at an undesignated site as long as it is at least 200 yards away from any developed site or structure. A houseboat permit and reservation are required.
Scotts Bluff National Monument
Walk in the footsteps of the Pony Express who travelled this western Nebraska route over 150 years ago. The Scotts Bluff National Monument is situated along the famed Oregon and Mormon Trails in western Nebraska. The park spans 3,000 acres and features the prominent Scotts Bluff, which rises to a staggering 800 feet. This remarkably steep hill is near the North Platte River and is one of five major rock formations here. In addition to Scotts Bluff, you’ll find South Bluff—another of the large, cliff-rimmed bluffs. Barren badlands dwarfed by the steep cliffs behind are also a sight to behold. There are many species of birds and mammals such as deer, badgers, coyotes, red fox, porcupines, jack rabbits and prairie dogs that live among the short grass prairies and native trees and shrubs.
Hike the Saddle Rock trail where you can see Crown Rock, Dome Rock, Eagle Rock and Saddle Rock or drive the 1.6 miles to the summit off Scotts Bluff to take in the unforgettable view. If you are interested in the unique geology of the region, take the Saddle Rock Trail Geology Hiking Tour. The Prairie View Trail and the Summit Road are open to bicycles during the day, for an invigorating ride. By car, you can travel to the top of Scotts Bluff via Summit Road and through the only three vehicular tunnels in the state. Built in the 1930s, the 1.6-mile scenic road to the summit allows visitors to comfortably drive their way up. A free shuttle service is also available and a great option for those who wish to hike their way back down via the Saddle Rock Trail. During the 10-minute drive, the park ranger guide will share the rich history of the area and interesting facts about the natural surrounding environment.
At the visitor center, historical exhibits and works by the famous artist, geological photographer and explorer William Henry Jackson, who loved this area, are on display. Hours of operation vary throughout the year but the grounds are typically open from sunrise to sunset. An entrance fee of $5 per vehicle is valid for seven days, giving you plenty of time for an adventure in this rugged landscape.
Here in the Western Great Plains you will see the path that early pioneers traveled in their covered wagons during western expansion. Notice the tell-tale signs of the impact early travelers had on the area– even the vegetation was changed by the presence of livestock that accompanied them. While the expansive prairies, wide plains and tall bluffs remained largely unchanged for a while after the arrival of the pioneers, today the areas around the monument are used primarily for ranching and farming. Visitors to the region will see modern buildings, homes and paved roads in the surrounding area.
Because of the impact of modern civilization here, which disturbed the native vegetation, there are very few native seed sources remaining. Today visitors will find a patchwork of native and non-native plants. Even the bison that once grazed here are now gone, further impacting the area. Add to that the natural erosion of the area and the future of Scotts Bluff is unknown, which is why you should plan your trip sooner rather than later.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
There are six national parks dedicated to Roosevelt and peppered throughout the U.S., which is fitting since he was the president who spearheaded conservation and created the national parks system. Among the parks dedicated to this iconic president, North Dakota’s is one that simply can’t be missed. Theodore Roosevelt, our beloved conservationist President, first visited the North Dakota Badlands in 1883 to hunt bison. He even stated, “I would not have been president had it not been for my experience in North Dakota.” So come see the area that inspired him to make such a bold claim!
His adventure in this remote environment would be the catalyst for his efforts in conservation later in his life. In his namesake park you will have a chance to observe a wide array of animals, from 186 species of birds to bison, elk, deer, wild horses, pronghorn sheep and prairie rattlesnakes. Immerse yourself in the abundant woodlands, badlands, flood plains and grasslands. There are a wide range of hiking trails from the easy Boicourt Overlook Trail, a short 15-minute walk that leaves you in the prime position to take in the sun setting above the badlands. If you’re looking for a more strenuous hike, the Caprock Coulee trail can take 2-3 hours to complete, featuring grassy hills, high ridges and a spectacular view from above. Slide your boat into the Little Missouri River and explore the catfish, ducks, beavers and geese that are sustained by this aquatic environment in the midst of the arid badlands. For the daring and skilled, an opportunity for a week-long, 107-mile boat trip through the park might be an attractive option.
The park’s history is fascinating. It bears Roosevelt’s name and reflects his legacy of preserving our country’s most valuable natural resources. Roosevelt was a sportsman-hunter but he was left saddened as he watched species after species dwindling quickly. He saw the effects of overgrazing and felt deep loss as elk, bighorn sheep and bison were decimated. In response, he spearheaded the preservation of 230 million acres of public land. Even his North Dakota home and ranch has its own story to tell. The Maltese Cross Cabin was one of his temporary homes and strangely enough, traveled the country from Missouri to Portland in the World’s Fair and the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition. You can visit the home within the park and can get an idea of Roosevelt’s life and love of this area.
Another major feature of Theodore Roosevelt National Park is Scenic Loop Drive, a 36-mile roadway with multiple pullouts to stop and take in the natural splendor. The roadway is open to bikers and cyclists too. The South Unit Visitor Center has a variety of displays including the fossil of a huge, crocodile-like reptile that lived around 55 million years ago, when what is now prairie was swampland.
The park is open all hours, all year. If you are looking for colorful sprays of wildflowers, the late spring and early summer are the perfect time to visit. Grazing animals like deer and elk take full advantage of the thriving plant life that sustains them. During September, point your gaze upwards at the Dakota Nights Astronomy Festival, no telescope required. Walk in Roosevelt’s footsteps when you visit the park during the winter and shoeshoe through the silent snowy woods. Experienced cross-country skiers can blaze a new trail through the snow near the Little Missouri River and on closed park roads. This area is wonderful for camping with your family and friends, reflected by the three different campsites available that offer any amenities you might require.
Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park of South Dakota has a wealth of heavily eroded geological deposits that formed over 28 million years ago to create fantastic formations of layered sculpted stone. Erosion continues to affect the badland environment and, as such, it will someday completely wear away—all the more reason to visit before it disappears into the surrounding landscape. Its barren beauty attracts visitors from all over who come to see the stately formations, which are also one of the world’s richest fossil beds. The 244,000 acres here were once home to ancient rhinoceros and saber-toothed cats that lived as long as 30 million years ago. The rocks and fossils here hold the secrets of ancient life, and are prepared and studied by scientists and archeologists at the Badlands Fossil Preparation Lab in the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. The Lab, which is open to the public from June to September, includes a display of fossils and provides visitors with the opportunity to learn about ancient animals and plants from paleontologists, lab staff and interpretive park rangers.
The Fossil Exhibit Trail will take you through some of the areas where fossils have been discovered, and features fossil replicas and exhibits. The moderate Cliff Shelf trail winds through a forest of juniper trees, and the pond that occasionally forms here often draws thirsty animals. If you aren’t sure which trail is best for you, a park ranger at the Visitor Center will be happy to provide a recommendation for a path you’d enjoy. If possible, bring along your bike so you can zoom (or just casually peddle, that works too) through the twists and turns of the many designated paved and dirt biking roads.
Pinnacles, buttes and spires—all types of rock formations—are situated within the mixed-grass prairie land. One of the best ways to experience all that the Badlands has to offer is to drive through this unique landscape. The South Unit road goes around the perimeter of the park in the north part of the park but if you want to catch a glimpse of wildlife, the Sage Creek Rim Road is a must. Sage Creek Rim Road is a dirt/gravel road with several scenic overlooks that are great photo opportunities. Keep your camera out when you drive through the Sage Creek Wilderness Area where you can see iconic bison and bighorn and a variety of birds such as golden eagles, owls and cliff swallows, which build their gourd-like nests right on the rock. Be sure to stay at least 100 feet away from wildlife for safety.
Badlands National Park is home to many species of animal. Today, bighorn sheep, pronghorn and bison roam the land while over 200 species of birds glide and butterflies float through the natural vastness. The animals here have learned to adapt to the extreme climate; some hibernate while others, like prairie dogs, dig deep underground to find cooler shelter. Visiting children can learn more about the wildlife here through the Junior Ranger Program or by completing a GPS Adventure that leads to various points of interest throughout the park.
The sunsets and sunrises here at the Badlands are simply spectacular because of the unique way that the light is reflected on the red, yellow and buff folds of the rock formations. For the best sunrises, check out the Big Badlands Overlook, Door Trail, Norbeck Pass area or Panorama Point. The best sunset spots are Pinnacles Overlook, Conata Basin Overlook, Bigfoot Pass Picnic Area or the Norbeck Pass area.
The park is open 24 hours a day, all year long. Admission is $20 for each private vehicle and is valid for one week. If you’re looking for an extended stay, you can choose from different campgrounds depending on your experience with camping. For the camping novice, there are two front-country campgrounds with amenities. For the seasoned explorer, back-country overnight camping is permitted nearly anywhere in the park. Campfires are not permitted but camp stoves and contained charcoal grills are allowed substitutes. If you wish to stay overnight but prefer something a little more comfortable than a sleeping bag, the park also has a Forever Resort where you can park your RV or rent a cozy cabin. Summer stargazing offers unobstructed views of constellations, stars and planets. Park rangers are present most nights to help you with telescopes and tell you more about the marvelously clear Milky Way planets, star clusters and nebulae. You may even catch sight of the International Space Station!
Wind Cave National Park
Not far from Badlands National Park, you can find Wind Cave National Park, one of the oldest and—at slightly over 28,000 acres—smallest parks in the National Parks System. Most famously, this park boasts one of the longest and most complex caves on the planet! Wind Cave is named for the winds that helped shape its iconic box-work pattern of speleothems, a unique, beautiful and rare cave formation. You can explore the caves on a ranger-guided tour and learn more about the processes that form this and other formations here. All tours of the caves are guided and tickets are first come, first served. If you visit in the busy summer months, you might have to wait a while for your chance to see the caves up close; however, it is well worth the wait. Take an elevator ride into the caves on the Garden of Eden tour, the easiest and most accessible route. Or consider the Fairgrounds Cave Tour which explores the upper and middle levels of Wind Cave. See the so-called popcorn, frostwork and famous box-work formations. Keep in mind that there are 450 stairs on this particular tour so you will be getting a workout while you learn.
If you would like to take one of the popular nighttime candle-lit tours, reservations are required. To participate, your travel companions must be older than seven years of age to accompany you on an exploration of the caves by candlelight. Carry a candle bucket through an unlit section of cave to experience true darkness on the Candlelight Cave Tour. Whatever tour you choose to take, exploring the special cave system here is priority #1 during a visit to the park.
After your cave tour, there are over 30 miles of hiking trails above ground, which span a range from easy to strenuous. Picnic in the open prairie or set up camp at its edges. Horseback riding and junior ranger programs are also available. Wind Cave National Park offers spectacular views above and below ground making it the perfect park for your next adventure. The rolling prairie grasslands and forest hills present the perfect opportunity to view wildlife in its natural habitat. Wind Cave National Park is an ecotone, a transition area between ecosystems, where the mountains meet the plains and where tall grass meets short grass. The mixture of natural systems here provide the perfect home for the black-backed woodpecker, the western meadowlark, bluebirds and ovenbirds. Prairie dogs are also common in this area as well as the fastest North American land mammal, the pronghorn antelope. But there is more to see here than grasses and wildlife.