An Insider’s Guide toNational Parks in the Midwest

When talking about national parks, the Midwest doesn’t immediately pop up on most people’s radar. And it’s true, that most of the iconic images of the national parks—the Grand Canyon, Old Faithful, giant redwoods, and desert arches—are found out West. But while the national parks in the Midwest may not feature as many big, tourist-drawing features, you’ll still find plenty of amazing places to explore with postcard-worthy vistas.

With much of the Midwest turned to farmland in the 19th century, the national parks are one of a few ways to experience the land like it was before the pioneers arrived. Located on an Island in Lake Superior, Isle Royale National Park just off of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, is a prime example of taking a step back in time to when the first trappers started exploring the region. The park consists of the largest island in Lake Superior—about 45 miles long—as well as about 400 other islands sprinkled throughout the lake adjacent to the Canadian border. It’s a rugged and isolated place, accessible only by boat, that features very harsh winter weather—meaning that the park is only open from April until the end of October. More people visit Yosemite in a single day than visit Isle Royale all year—so expect some peace and quiet.

Isle Royale National Park
Isle Royale National Park Jackie Dangl

But those who make the trek are rewarded with an incredible Northwoods experience. The 40-mile long Green Ridge Trail bisects the island and offers amazing views for backpackers who take on the 4 to 5 day hike. For those who prefer to travel by boat, you’ll find many coastal bays and inland lakes that make up a one-of-a-kind kayak route, where you’re more likely to see moose than people.

Also next to the Canadian border is Voyageurs National Park near International Falls, Minnesota. Named for the French-Canadian fur traders who first settled in the area, Voyageurs is also known largely for its canoe and kayak routes that are a popular way to access the park. You’ll also find incredible night skies, and if you’re lucky, a view of the aurora borealis.

In Northeast Ohio, Cuyahoga Valley National Park is a somewhat unexpected wilderness oasis tucked between the urban pillars of Akron and Cleveland. It’s one of the newer national parks, having been named a park in 2000 after being established as a national recreation area in 1974. The 33,000 acres isn’t huge by national parks standards, but visitors will find 125 miles of hiking trails to explore the low-density forests that are particularly impressive in the fall when the park is cloaked in a red and gold quilt of deciduous color. You’ll also find several spectacular waterfalls as well as historical structures that date back to the 1800s.

In South Dakota, Badlands National Park looks more like a western park, with its rugged buttes that look like they could be in Utah… or even Mars, for that matter. But it is in fact part of the largest mixed-grass prairie in the United States, providing an amazing mix of greenery and rock that make this place unique. The geography may not scream Midwest, but it is the only place you’ll find anything like it. Also in South Dakota, Wind Cave National Park is known more for its incredible sights under the prairie, as the park includes one of the most complex cave systems in the world. It was the seventh national park (designated by Theodore Roosevelt) and the first cave designated a park anywhere in the world.

Speaking of the president most associated with the National Park System, Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota is known for its amazing rock formations and rugged terrain. Roosevelt spent time in his youth hunting bison in the area, and he developed a huge respect and love for the land.

Finally, once you’ve finished all that hiking, paddling, and climbing, head to Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas to soak in the warm waters that have been thought to have medicinal properties for hundreds of years. Located in the Ouachita Mountain Range, you’ll find bathhouses form the Gilded Age—as well as plenty of fascinating, curious history involving Andrew Jackson, Al Capone, and more.

Featured photo by Jake Wheeler.

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