USA Travel

24 Must See Parks in the Midwestern United States

By
Tim Gillespie
on
March 1, 2021

Often referred to as “flyover country”, the Midwestern region of the United States can sometimes be overlooked when compared to the east and west coasts. However, the state and national parks of the midwestern region provide incredible adventures for camping, hiking, paddling, and wildlife viewing. What’s best, is that since these parks are often overlooked, they are typically less crowded thus providing more solitude for looking to enjoy the beauty of nature offered within these parks. Next time you are planning a weekend camping and hiking getaway to the midwestern United States, consider one of these parks as your next outdoor adventure destination.

Best of the midwestern United States parks, Custer State Park
Bison roaming the valley in Custer State Park, South Dakota 

Best National Parks in the Midwestern United States

Isle Royale National Park, Michigan

Surrounded by Lake Superior, Isle Royale National Park offers adventurers a unique, remote wilderness experience. Accessible only by boat or floatplane, the park is relatively untouched by the sights and sounds of civilization. Yet there are 165 miles (265 kilometers) of trails and 36 campgrounds to serve as a base for any adventure. The 43-mile (69 kilometers) Greenstone Ridge Trail travels along exposed ridges, through deep woods, across swamps, and past pristine lakes. Outfitters offer multi-day kayak and canoe expeditions for those looking to explore the park on the water. The secluded environment of this park makes it one of the least visited national parks creating the perfect location for those looking to connect with nature.

Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota

Water makes up approximately one-third of the 218,000 acres of Voyageurs National Park including four major lakes and 26 smaller ones for kayaking and canoeing the interior of the park. Renting a houseboat provides a unique experience to explore the park for those wanting the amenities of home during their adventure. On land visitors will find 27 miles (43 kilometers) of scenic trails that lead to hidden waterfalls, backcountry forests, and remote wetland areas. Voyageurs’ dark skies are ideal for viewing endless stars, shooting stars, and of course, the shimmering and colorful aurora borealis (northern lights) which it is prized for. 

New to camping? Check out our Camping Tips: A Beginner’s Guide to Their First Trip

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Within the park’s 70,000 acres you find uncrowded spaces, amazing vistas, and bison roaming free throughout a landscape that will take your breath away. Experience the park on a self-guided drive along the 14-mile (22 kilometers) scenic byway that cuts through the northern section of the park and provides plenty of spots to get out and take to the hiking trails. The Coal Vein Trail is a short, popular hike that provides hikers an opportunity to experience a little cross-section of the park’s landscapes. Spend some time at the River Bend Overlook, where you can take in panoramic views of the Little Missouri River, which can also be explored on multi-day float trips organized by professional outfitters. There are two designated campgrounds within the park and various backcountry campsites available by permit. 

Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio

This park’s 33,000 acres make up the largest protected natural area in Ohio creating a refuge for native plants and wildlife, while also providing plenty of opportunities for outdoor recreation. Hiking, biking, paddling, and even riding along a scenic railroad are among the activities found in the park. Over 125 miles (201 kilometers) of hiking trails take hikers through scenery that varies from marshy wetlands to mossy limestone ledges, including the 2.2-mile (3.5 kilometers) trail to Virginia Kendall Ledges, a must-do hike. The 65-foot (19 meters) Brandywine Falls is an easily accessible waterfall that flows all year round.  Cyclists can enjoy a relatively flat ride along the historic Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail, making connections to many natural and historic sites along the way. Unfortunately, there is no camping allowed within the park but there are several campgrounds outside the park and accommodations in nearby towns.

Interested in joining other like-minded individuals on a camping and hiking trip to one of the United States National Parks, check out our hiking trips at Under30Experiences.

Best State Parks in Illinois

Kickapoo State Recreation Area; Illinois

With 2,842 acres to explore, Kickapoo State Recreation Area provides an outdoor playground with something to appeal to every outdoor recreation enthusiast. Choose your adventure on 22 deep-water ponds, 12 miles (19 miles) of singletrack mountain biking, and 35 miles (56 kilometers) of hiking trails. Additionally, the clear, deep waters of Inland Sea and Sportsman's Lake allow access for scuba diving, and The Middle Fork of the Vermilion River, a federal and state-designated Scenic River, runs through the park. Winter activities include ice fishing and cross-country skiing. From May through October, two main campgrounds provide 184 sites for RV and tent camping.

Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

One of the most beautiful destinations in Illinois, Starved Rock State Park features 18 canyons of moss-covered stone that were formed by glacial meltwater. More than 13 miles (20 kilometers) of trails allow access to waterfalls, natural springs, sandstone overhangs, and spectacular overlooks while lush vegetation supports abundant wildlife including the migration of Bald Eagles during the winter months. The campground, which is open year-round, provides 129 camping sites. All camping sites are equipped with a tent area, fire pit with a grill, a picnic table, and electrical hook-ups for RVs.

Interesting in exploring other regions in the United States?

Best State Park in Indiana

Brown County State Park, Indiana

Nicknamed the “Little Smokies” because the area resembles the Great Smoky Mountains, Brown County encompasses nearly 16,000 acres of rugged hills, ridges, and fog-shrouded ravines. Glacial meltwater helped create the narrow ridges, steep slopes, and deep gullies that can now be explored by hikers on more than 18 miles (28 kilometers) of hiking trails. Some of the best mountain biking trails in the state are among the 30 miles (48 kilometers) of singletrack trails inside the park. Miles of tree-lined roads and scenic vistas overlooking uninterrupted forestland make this an ideal fall foliage destination. Two main campgrounds provide a variety of year-round camping options within the park.

Best State Parks in Iowa

Backbone State Park, Iowa

Backbone State Park is one of the most geographically unique locations in Iowa. The steep and narrow ridge of bedrock from the Maquoketa River forms the highest point in northeast Iowa - The Devil’s Backbone - giving the park its legendary name. Within the park’s 2,000 acres are ample opportunities for outdoor recreation including 21 miles (33 kilometers) of multi-use trails, rugged dolomite limestone cliffs for rock climbing, paddling on the waters of Backbone Lake, and freshwater streams that are great for trout fishing. There are two designated campgrounds for tent camping and RVs, as well as multiple dispersed camping sites for a backcountry experience.

Waubonsie State Park, Iowa

As a site on the Lewis and Clark Historic Trail, Waubonsie State Park in southwest Iowa is known for its exceptional vistas of Iowa’s unique Loess Hills and the Nebraska plains. Seven miles (11 kilometers) of hiking trails lead hikers through windswept gorges and quiet woodland areas. A top recommended hike is the Sunset Ridge Nature Trail, this trail traverses the heart of the park, offering sweeping views of the Missouri River Valley. There are another 8 miles (12.8 kilometers) of multi-use trails for biking, horseback riding, and snowmobiling in the winter. The 7-acre Lake Virginia is popular for kayakers and fishermen looking to snag a largemouth bass. The park also contains a modern campground with non-electric and electric campsites, modern showers, restrooms, and a sanitary dump station.

Best of midwestern United State Parks, mountain biking
Mountain biking is a popular activity in most state parks

Best State Parks in Kansas

Lake Scott State Park, Kansas

Hidden in a canyon in the western Kansas prairie, Lake Scott State Park is a stunning oasis of natural springs, deeply wooded canyons, craggy bluffs, and early American history. The 1,020 acres offer plenty of opportunities for fishing, camping, and hiking, as well as horseback riding. Canoe and pedal boat rentals are available on the spring-fed fishing lake which is also ideal for swimming. If you are a history-lover, then this park is for you. More than 26 archeological sites have been documented in and adjacent to the park including the remains of the northernmost known Native American pueblo – El Cuartelejo, a National Historic Landmark. The campgrounds within the park provide 150 RV and tent sites, restrooms, and shower facilities.

Kanopolis State Park, Kansas

From the towering Dakota sandstone bluffs to the caves and crevices of Horsethief Canyon, the park and surrounding area offer rugged beauty and stunning vistas all within the 12,500-acre wildlife area. 26 miles (41 kilometers) of multi-use trails meander along streams dotted with craggy cliffs and meadows of blooming wildflowers. Wildlife viewing and photography opportunities are plentiful. In the winter, bald eagles and ospreys fish the river while songbirds and wildflowers brighten the landscape throughout the spring and summer. The two primary camping areas in the park provide over 400 campsites that range from primitive to full utility hookups with restrooms and shower facilities.

Best State Park in Michigan

Ludington State Park, Michigan

This 5,300-acre park is located between 2 lakes and has everything from sand dunes and shorelines to marshlands and forest. Three campgrounds offer 355 campsites complete with showers and bathrooms. There are also 10 hike-in-only campsites if you are looking for a backcountry experience. The park is open year-round but camping is only permitted from mid-May to late November. Campsites fill quickly so we recommend calling early in the season for a reservation. Recreational activities include hiking, biking, fishing, canoeing, and kayaking. The Ludington Canoe Trail, a unique loop through marshy coves and ponds, is a must-do when visiting this park.

Best State Parks in Minnesota

Tettegouche State Park, Minnesota

With spectacular overlooks, rocky cliffs, and inland bluffs, Tettegouche State Park embodies the essence of Minnesota’s North Shore. With miles of trails overlooking the Sawtooth Mountains and inland lakes accessible by foot only, this park is a hiker’s paradise. Be sure to hike to the spectacular 60-foot (18 meters) High Falls. There is also an extensive network of multi-use trails that are open year-round. The campground provides 28 campsites and 5 backcountry campsites located along a section of the Superior Hiking Trail that cuts through the park.

Banning State Park, Minnesota

The Kettle River, a designated Wild and Scenic River, is the highlight of this park, drawing kayakers and canoeists to shoot the turbulent rapids. Within a few miles, the river valley narrows to a gorge worn by the river through Precambrian sandstone to a depth of 100 feet. At Hell's Gate, the river flows through sheer cliffs which rise to 40 feet above the water. However, hikers can find over 17 miles (27 kilometers) of trails along the Kettle River with a few leading to the stunning Wolf Creek Falls and the historic ruins of Banning Sandstone Quarry. The park features 33 wooded campsites and 11 sites with electrical hook-ups for RVs.

Best State Parks in Missouri

Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park, Missouri

The signature feature of the park is the shut-ins with its spectacular chutes and waterfalls confined within the gorges of the East Fork of the Black River. The wilderness of this park and the ruggedness of the surrounding St. Francois Mountains provide the perfect backdrop for camping, hiking, splashing in shut-ins, and simply enjoying nature. The 2-mile (3.2 kilometers) Shut-ins Trail, the park’s namesake trail, leads to an observation platform over the flowing waters of the shut-ins and then through an oak-hickory forest and small glade clearings. The campground provides 49 tent and RV sites with restrooms, shower facilities, and a camp store.

Lake of the Ozarks State Park, Missouri

Missouri’s largest state park has 89 miles (143 kilometers) of shoreline with two swimming beaches and plenty of water-based recreational activities to keep you busy. Anglers will be able to reel in a wide variety of fish and paddlers can spend the day discovering secluded coves hidden along the shoreline. On land there are dozens of multi-use trails that wind through open woodlands, sunny glades, small springs, and streams to blufftop views of the lake. For something completely different, go below the surface of the earth on a tour of Ozark Caverns. Multiple campgrounds within the park provide over 150 campsites with restrooms, shower facilities, and a camp store to stock up on supplies.

Best of midwestern United States parks, canoeing
Paddling on a lake is a great way to spend the day at a state park

Best State Park in Nebraska

Smith Falls State Park, Nebraska

The centerpiece of this park is the 63-foot (19 meters) Smith Falls, Nebraska’s tallest waterfall. The only way to get to the falls is by hiking across the footbridge. Not only is the park home to the beautiful falls, it is also an area of biological significance where several ice age species can still be found. The park straddles a portion of the Niobrara River, a National Wild and Scenic River, which serves as a launching point for paddlers looking for adventure. The south side of the river, where the falls are located, is maintained in a natural state. Hiking is limited to established trails to prevent erosion and protect rare plants. Picnic sites, tent camping, restrooms, and pay showers are available on the north side of the river though no RV facilities are available.    

Best State Parks in North Dakota

Lake Metigoshe State Park, North Dakota

Nestled in the scenic Turtle Mountains along the U.S./Canadian border, Lake Metigoshe provides excellent outdoor recreation possibilities. In summer, explore the park’s woods and watch for wildlife on more than 8 miles (12.8 kilometers) of hiking and biking trails. During the winter, visitors can spend their day cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, fat tire biking, sledding, and ice fishing. Fishing is available year-round where you can cast for northern pike, walleye, sunfish, and bass. Campgrounds provide 85 modern campsites with electrical and water hook-up plus an additional 39 primitive sites for tent use only.

Turtle River State Park, North Dakota

Turtle River State Park is situated in a scenic, wooded river valley just 30 minutes east of Grand Forks. The park features year-round recreational activities, including camping, picnicking, hiking, mountain biking, cross-country skiing, and sledding. 13 miles (20 kilometers) of hiking and mountain biking trails vary in difficulty as they run along the Turtle River, which is also the only fly fishing stream in North Dakota. The designated campground provides 65 tent and RV sites with electrical and water hook-ups, and there are also an additional 26 primitive campsites for tent use only.  

Before you head out on your next camping adventure, make sure you have the Essential Camping Gear.

Best State Parks in Ohio

Beaver Creek State Park, Ohio

Beaver Creek State Park is nestled in the sandstone hills of eastern Ohio in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. The park includes Little Beaver Creek, a state and national wild and scenic river, and acres of forest wilderness. The valley of Little Beaver is characterized by steep walls, high rock cliffs, and numerous gentle rapids, making it one of the most exciting canoe trips in the state of Ohio. In addition to water-based activities, the park offers nearly 16 miles (25 kilometers) of hiking trails that lead to historic canal locks and beautiful waterfalls. The campground is scenically located high above Little Beaver Creek and offers 55 large shaded sites that have tables, fire rings, pit latrines, and a dump station.

John Bryan State Park, Ohio

This 752-acre park contains a remarkable limestone gorge cut by the Little Miami River which is designated as a national scenic river. Several lookouts let you peer down through the layers of bedrock into the rushing water more than 100 feet below. The Little Miami River is excellent for canoeing, with twists and bends around steep rock cliffs and towering sycamores. Hikers can enjoy 10 different trails that follow the scenic river gorge and meander through majestic woodlands. The campground has 100 non-electric partially shaded sites equipped with picnic tables, fire rings, bathrooms, drinking water, and a dump station.

Best State Park in South Dakota

Custer State Park, South Dakota

Encompassing 71,000 acres in the Black Hills, Custer State Park is home to abundant wildlife and adventure. Inside the park are miles of trails for hiking, including French Creek Natural Area where hikers can make their path along a creek flowing beneath sheer canyon walls, past mixed stands of pine and hardwood forest, and lush native vegetation. Sylvan Lake, a picturesque destination for swimming and paddle boarding beneath granite crags is a must-visit destination. Rock climbers will find over 500 climbing routes on the towering granite peaks. The park offers 9 designated campgrounds all with a variety of scenic sites.    

Best State Parks in Wisconsin

Peninsula State Park, Wisconsin

Perhaps Wisconsin’s most popular camping destination, this park has 5 campgrounds offering a total of 468 campsites. Each campground has different amenities available to campers, though each you will find showers and flush toilets at each location. Weborg Point Campground is the smallest with only 12 sites, while Tension Bay campground is the largest with 188 sites. Firewood is available during the summer seasons, if visiting outside of that time, local businesses outside the park have firewood for sale. The 8-miles of shoreline allows for plenty of activities including boating, kayaking, canoeing, fishing, and swimming. Inland there are hiking and biking trails for all levels.

Copper Falls State Park, Wisconsin

Ancient lava flows, deep gorges, and spectacular waterfalls make Copper Falls State Park one of Wisconsin's most scenic parks. Spanning the boundary of Wisconsin's North Central Forest and Superior Coastal Plain ecological landscapes, the park is home to beautiful hemlock and sugar maple forests as well as white cedars that border the gorges. 17 miles (27 kilometers) of trails lead to several overlooks of the waterfalls and 13.7 miles (22 kilometers) of cross-country ski trails that are groomed on regular basis during the winter season. The two designated campgrounds provide shaded campsites that are well-separated from the popular public use areas to provide campers a sense of seclusion.   


Further reading:  The Top Solo Travel Destinations in the United States

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Tim Gillespie
Tim is U30X's Thailand Manager & Community Builder, and has been living, traveling and accumulating experiences in SE Asia since 2009. He loves being in the outdoors, immersing himself in local cultures, and tasting exotic foods.

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