When America’s first national park Yellowstone was established in 1872, 2 million acres were set aside “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” as stated in the act signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant.
This year, as Yellowstone marks its 150th anniversary, the numerous national parks, national forests and state parks dotting the Midwest continue that important legacy and provide plenty of unique adventures on and off the beaten trail.
“The Midwest offers both natural and cultural resource stories,” says Rachel Daniels, spokeswoman for the National Park Service Midwest Region. “We are not the flyover region. We have something for everybody here.” Set your sights on these seven spots that show off the natural splendor of the Midwest.
Located along the banks of Ohio’s Cuyahoga River, this national park is under a half-hour drive from Cleveland and Akron, but feels far removed from city life. Brandywine Falls, one of the most idyllic features of the park, is said to have the appearance of a bridal veil as the water rushes over stone. Locals once utilized the falls and Brandywine Creek to power mills. A historic Greek Revival farmhouse, now the bucolic Inn at Brandywine Falls (innatbrandywinefalls.com), is a reminder of those early communities.
When the Ohio and Erie Canal was completed in 1832, connecting local manufacturers with the wider market, the economy boomed. The remains of this crucial waterway are a backbone of the park and can be traced by the Towpath trail.
For a truly unique park experience, climb aboard the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad (cvsr.org). This is the only nonprofit heritage railroad in the country operating within a national park. With the Explorer program, you can even flag down a train after a day of exploring, load up your bike or kayak, and get a ride. nps.gov/cuva
The 3-million-acre Superior National Forest takes up much of northern Minnesota’s Arrowhead Region, named for its jagged, pointy shape. For the drive-by approach, the Superior National Forest Scenic Byway runs between the towns of Silver Bay and Aurora, with plenty of roadside picnic areas, trails and campgrounds to enjoy.
Within the forest is the rugged and breathtaking Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, which offers more than 1,500 miles of canoe routes. The area is also the world’s largest dark sky sanctuary. Stay overnight for views of the Milky Way — a rare opportunity for urbanites. You may even get a glimpse of the aurora borealis as it lights up the sky. fs.usda.gov/superior
Indiana’s second-smallest state park is named for the 10 unique earthworks that exist there, created by the prehistoric Adena-Hopewell people. The earthworks are part art and part feats of engineering, made by shaping forms in the land. The largest of the 10, called the Great Mound, dates from around 160 B.C. Historians believe these spaces were intended for gatherings and religious ceremonies.
The park is also a stop on the Indiana Birding Trail (indianabirdingtrail.com), maintained by the Indiana Audubon Society. Indiana’s skies are a major thoroughfare during migration seasons. Depending on the time of year, visitors may get a glimpse of bald eagles, ruby-throated hummingbirds, yellow-bellied sapsucker woodpeckers and more. in.gov/dnr
In the 1930s, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula would have looked vastly different than it does now. Logging had devastated much of the natural landscape, before the Great Depression stalled work efforts. Many companies chose to sell land back to the government, which in turn created new national forests. The newly established Civilian Conservation Corps got right to work replanting those trees.
These days, the natural beauty of Michigan’s Hiawatha National Forest can be enjoyed year-round. Summer visitors can hike through biologically diverse forests and rolling sand dunes, or take advantage of the numerous campsites available, including Grand Island, or the quaint and intimate Milkweed Inn (milkweedinn.com), operated by Chicago chef Iliana Regan and sommelier Anna Regan. In late September, the woods erupt with the reds, oranges and golds of changing leaves and are not to be missed. Winter brings groomed trails for snowshoeing, snowmobiling and more.
Hiawatha’s extensive shoreline — which touches Great Lakes Superior, Huron and Michigan — is also dotted with six historic lighthouses, including Port Iroquois Light Station, now a local maritime history museum. fs.usda.gov/hiawatha
Grab your headlamps! Northeastern Iowa’s Maquoketa Caves system has been a popular destination for adventurers since the 1860s. Dancehall Cave, a nod to the area’s historic reputation as a party spot, is the most popular option for exploration because of added walkways and lighting, while some of the 13 caves in the park are only for experienced spelunkers. Wye Cave, which is not for the faint of heart, can only be accessed by climbing down a 15-foot hole.
The park is part of the Driftless Area, which remained glacier-free during the last ice age. The landscape is unlike the greater Midwest region, including the karst topography known for caves. Long ago, water flowing underground eroded the bedrock, forming the cave system. Visitors will surely notice that water can still be found underground. The erosion continues, but at a much slower pace than it once occurred. iowadnr.gov
This South Dakota national park’s name comes from the Lakota phrase “mako sica,” meaning bad lands and likely alluding to the difficult terrain, but a visit doesn’t have to feel like a treacherous expedition. Gazing out from either Pinnacles Overlook or Conata Basin Overlook, the area’s buttes and spires are especially striking at sunset. You’ll be able to see the geological layers from the Pierre Shale — which formed around the same time dinosaurs roamed the earth and the Great Plains were a shallow sea — to the youngest layer, the 30- to 28-million-years-old Sharps Formation.
Bison might be the most recognizable local inhabitant, but you’re in luck if you spot a black-footed ferret. North America’s rarest mammal, black-footed ferrets were thought to have gone extinct, but thanks to dedicated conservation efforts, numbers are on the rise. There are about 120 of them living within the park at present.
If you can’t resist roadside kitsch, be sure to check out Wall Drug (walldrug.com). What started in 1931 as a humble oasis for weary travelers in the nearby town of Wall, has become a sprawling must-visit destination. Grab a souvenir and don’t forget to take your photo with the miniature version of South Dakota’s most recognizable landmark: Mount Rushmore. nps.gov/badl
Situated on the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin is known for the towering quartzite bluffs left by receding glaciers. At the turn of the 20th century, the park boasted several upscale hotels, plus its own post office and jail. The Ringling Brothers Circus summered in nearby Baraboo, and elephants were rumored to have been seen drinking from the lake itself.
While you’re not likely to come across any elephants these days, there’s still plenty to see. Explore more than 29 miles of trails, including the Balanced Rock Trail, which features its precarious namesake Balanced Rock formation and sweeping views of the lake from the eastern bluffs. The park is also home to many earthwork mounds made by early ancestors of the nearby Ho-Chunk community and other culturally associated tribes. If you look closely, you’ll see the mounds were sculpted into the shapes of bears, birds and other sacred creatures. dnr.wisconsin.gov
Jaclyn Jermyn is a freelance writer.