I was sitting in the pub on the ground floor of the Water Street Inn when I realized it: This is the American Heartland everyone thinks is gone. Old-school towns that carved themselves into limestone bluffs and rivers that sweep by quiet forests—it’s all right here in “flyover country.” Most of us Midwesterners hate that particular moniker but certainly don’t mind having this all to ourselves.
On the other hand, certain national parks are being loved to death. Long lines, shuttle systems, and cramped campgrounds make them more akin to adult theme parks than vast nature reserves. But the six sites along the upper Mississippi—the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway bordering Minnesota and Wisconsin down to the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in Missouri—have managed to go unnoticed, holding on tight to their serenity and their roots.
Instead of booking it to the nearest big-ticket national park, try exploring the Midwest, escaping the crowds, and having a new, unique experience at these six national park sites along or nearby the Great River Road.