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Midwest: Discover 7 Surprisingly Rugged National Parks and Lakeshores

Find here the best places to visit and where to stay for a memorable trip!

After moving to Indiana, it took me a while to realize the natural appeal of the Midwest. Without an ocean or towering mountain ranges, the landscape looked deceivingly simple. But the American Midwest is a vast region, brimming with burbling streams, grassy fields, and hidden caves and cliffs within forests that change from eye-popping green to rust-red to brilliant white with each passing season.

So, what will you discover in the national parks in the Midwest? Fewer crowds, for one! The national parks in the West often attract more attention, especially from summertime road trippers. Take advantage of the Midwest’s under-the-radar national parks if you enjoy hiking through pristine pine forests, clambering along shady cliffsides, and watching for myriad animals and birds along the way.

Add the following Midwest national parks to your bucket list. Explore them in the season that’s most convenient for you, but then make a note to revisit at a different time of year. This region’s shifting weather patterns offer beauty in winter, spring, summer, and fall.

Discover the stark, wild beauty of Badlands National Park in South Dakota

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Driving into Badlands National Park feels like entering a movie set. Dramatic rock formations rise on the horizon. Multi-leveled spires and bald cliffs create a surreal, mirage-like landscape reminiscent of Mars. This weird, wild beauty is what has made Badlands National Park popular with filmmakers. It sets the scene in Dances with Wolves, Armageddon, Starship Troopers, and more.

A visit to “the Badlands” can take anywhere from an afternoon to a weekend. The park is remote, so you’ll need to pack plenty of water and snacks. Hike in the mornings and evenings when the shadows are long. Though it’s a popular stop on classic American summer road trips, consider visiting Badlands National Park in springtime or fall to enjoy the stark landscape with less worry of overheating.

This national park is in a sparsely populated swathe of the country, so a hot shower and comfortable bed require a bit of a drive. Check into the Sweetgrass Inn for good clean comfort with a local, quaint vibe.

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Climb a mountain of sand at Indiana Dunes National Park

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Before Indiana Dunes was elevated to a national park in 2019, it was listed as a national lakeshore. A shore in Indiana? Absolutely. These 15 miles of sandy beach and mountainous dunes are a favorite city getaway for Chicago dwellers and a nostalgic summer escape for Hoosiers.

You won’t need a week to explore Indiana Dunes National Park. Anywhere from an afternoon to a full weekend will do. You’ll see the park’s iconic Mount Baldy rising as soon as you pull into the parking lot. In a lucky year, you’ll get to make the Sisyphean climb to the top. Lately, the park’s biggest dune has been closed to hiking because of beach erosion. According to the National Parks Service, the dune moves 5-10 feet each year.

After a day of dune hiking, head over to Michigan City for a secluded, cozy night at the boutique Brewery Lodge. This 12-suite lodge is a perfect counterpoint to the lakeshore, with a warm beer and wine bar, multiple fireplaces, and dozens of wooded acres beribboned with streams for a morning stroll through fresh air.

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Trek through lush forests at Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota

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Voyageurs National Park is a trek from any city, but that might not be a bad thing. Drift quietly along the park’s waterways or hike through the boreal forests to the tune of birds and the crunch of your boots. Whether you arrive by canoe or charter boat, you’re also bound to spend time watching waterfowl – Voyageurs is about one-third waterways.

It’s easy to find solitude, stargazing opportunities, and wildlife in this park. Cold weather months include views of the shimmering Northern Lights reflected from the sky to the water. Visit in autumn — perhaps the park’s best time of year — for a spectacular show of orange and yellow on the Grassy Bay Cliffs.

On your way in or out of the park, stop for a night at the Cantilever Hotel in Ranier. The brick-and-metal interior will help ease you back into civilization after your time on the water. Spend two nights so you can take a tour of the on-site distillery and relax with a post-hike drink or two in the cocktail lounge.

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See towering Brandywine Falls at Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio

Cuyahoga Valley National Park‘s easy access from Akron and Cleveland makes it an ideal one-day or weekend escape from the city. It’s also Ohio’s only national park, though hikers often flock to Hocking Hills State Park.

Getting a glimpse of 65-foot-tall Brandywine Falls is a must while visiting the park. The waterfall is a short stroll from the parking lot, and a wooden boardwalk makes it wheelchair-accessible in most weather. For a more heart-pounding hike over mossy cliffs and caves, try the Virginia Kendall Ledges trail.

Skip the handful of mid-range hotels and rent a vacation apartment in the 797 Building for a unique Ohio stay. You’ll enjoy a comfortable, secure night in chicly decorated rooms with a full kitchen, keyless entry by facial recognition, and a fitness room.

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Watch Wildlife at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota

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North Dakota’s only major national park is named after the U.S. President who loved to hunt bison in the region. Hunting is strictly forbidden in Theodore Roosevelt National Park now, of course, though you can certainly spend a day or weekend fishing and wildlife spotting. Catch a glimpse of lumbering bison, wild horses, elk, deer (both white- tailed and mule), and more.

While Theodore Roosevelt National Park might not give you the same thrill as the stark Badlands National Park cliffs or the sulphuric geysers and craters of Yellowstone National Park, it has a quiet and rugged beauty of its own. Trod through serene grasslands and across aromatic sagebrush flats. Catch a glimpse of a wild horse or giggle at the antics of families of prairie dogs. The perfect moment for a photo might sneak up on you when you least expect it.

A hot shower and comfortable bed await you just a short drive outside the park. The Hotel AmericInn has plenty of room for unwinding after a day in the park. Soothe sore muscles or sunburn in the rustic indoor pool and start the next morning’s adventures with a cup of coffee from the lobby.

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Climb the bluffs at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan

If you’ve never been to West Michigan, you’re in for a treat. Lake Michigan’s vast, deep blue waters make up an entirely freshwater coastline for salt-free swimming, snorkeling, and boating. Sleeping Bear Dunes is designated as a National Lakeshore, but its indigo horizon against giant mounds of white sand is just as spectacular as Indiana Dunes National Park.

The coastline draws crowds to Sleeping Bear Dunes, but you can also enjoy hiking around or kayaking through shimmering inland lakes, or tromping through crisp evergreen forests. Lake Michigan’s Manitou Islands also beckon hawks, eagles, and boaters. While you’re there, don’t miss a glimpse of the Morazan shipwreck.

Bring the whole family — including pets — to live like a local at this rental near Sleeping Bear Dunes. Warm up by the wood-burning stove on chilly spring nights, or watch the sunset from your porch. Make sure to leave time to relax with yard games on the lawn!

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Visit Wisconsin's "Crown Jewels" at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

Credit- Travel Wisconsin

Wisconsin’s 12 islands and 21 miles of beaches make up the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Your weekend excursion begins when you arrive at the marina in Bayfield. Stroll downtown shops and restaurants for an evening of small-town luxury, then rest your head to prepare for a day of explorations.

The next morning (and the morning after that!), lather on the sunscreen and take your pick of a Devils Island dinghy tour through sea caves, a sail around Sand Island or Oak Island, a climb to the Sand Island Lighthouse, and more. In the evenings, don’t forget to fortify your aching feet with ice cream or a handmade candy treat.

Bayfield, Wisconsin serves as the entrance to days of exploring the Apostle Islands. Stay at the Old Rittenhouse Inn for tastefully themed rooms that will remind you of international vacations gone by. A favorite local wedding venue, the bed and breakfast will feel like the perfect balance of home and holiday. If you’re not packing a picnic for Island hopping, enjoy breakfast, brunch, or dinner at the on-site Landmark Restaurant. In the evening, unwind from hiking by the fireplace or in one of the inn’s whirlpool tubs.

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Hero Image: Courtesy of Travel South Dakota