The American Midwest road trip takes you across much of the country’s heartland and to several underrated national parks. Find out what makes these natural treasures among the most interesting places to explore in America.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Begin your road trip just 20 miles south of Cleveland at Cuyahoga Valley National Park, a verdant oasis compared to city life. The Cuyahoga River cuts through the valley, and the park encompasses around 33,000 acres of pristine forests and fertile farmlands. Ohio residents are rewarded with endless outdoor recreation that includes hiking, fishing, kayaking, skiing, and more. The park also reveals the foundations of the Ohio & Erie Canal and its importance to America’s growth and expansion. You can trace the canal’s original 19th-century path by venturing down the Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath Trail. Ride the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad for glimpses of the lush forest or watch Brandywine Falls plunge against the cliffside.
Mammoth Cave National Park
The next stop along your road trip is Mammoth Cave National Park. Kentucky doesn’t always fall into the Midwest category, but Mammoth Cave was worth adding to the itinerary. Featuring the largest known cave network in the world, this park opens your eyes to the geological wonders beneath the surface. The immense network contains more than 400 miles of caves, and more passageways are discovered every year. Guided cave tours reveal striking limestone formations in passageways like Diamond Caverns and Crystal Onyx Cave. Above ground, Mammoth Cave houses a diverse variety of plants and wildlife residing in the lush woodlands. Hikers can wander through 80 miles of trails, and the park’s waterways give you access to kayaking and boating excursions.
Gateway Arch National Park
Continue on to Gateway Arch National Park. This engineering feat is one of the rare national parks located smack dab in the middle of a bustling metropolis. The memorial honors the Lewis & Clark Expedition and the duo’s quest to map the uncharted territories acquired with the Louisiana Purchase. In addition to honoring American pioneers, the gateway arch remembers the controversial Dred Scott case that sparked the debate over slavery. Perched along the Mississippi River, the arch is unquestionably the most recognizable symbol of St. Louis, Missouri. Make sure to stop by the visitor center beneath the arch to view the exhibits on westward expansion and the arch’s creation. For the grand finale, ride the elevator to the top of the 630-ft arch for remarkable views of the Old Courthouse.
Indiana Dunes National Park
The next stop on your road trip is Indiana Dunes National Park. One of America’s newest national parks, Indiana Dunes sits on the shores of Lake Michigan and is an outdoor lover’s paradise. Wander the sandy beaches to find incredible wildlife, hike the steep dunes, and fish on its scenic waterways. The Little Calumet River is the ideal place to begin your adventure with its top-notch fishing spots and enchanting forests along the water. Bikers have access to the Calumet and Porter Brickyard Trails for exhilarating runs through temperate forests. Mount Baldy is among the park’s more challenging treks, but a swimmable beach provides a refreshing way to cool off. Glenwood Dunes Trails welcomes horseback riders, and snowshoeing comes alive during winter.
Isle Royale National Park
From Indiana Dunes, head to Isle Royale National Park in Northern Michigan. Isle Royale ranks as the least visited national park in the United States due to its remote location. The island is roughly 45 miles long, 9 miles wide, and is the largest in Lake Superior. Ferries are available to reach the island, and you can park your car at Hat Point Marina. Once you reach Isle Royale, rugged wilderness and complete solitude awaits. The park includes more than 160 miles of hiking trails, and there are hundreds of smaller islands to explore. Renting a canoe, kayak, or motorboat is the best way to navigate the waterways at your pace. There are no cars allowed inside the park which increases the odds of encountering wild animals.
Voyageurs National Park
Finally, you’ll arrive at Voyageurs National Park. Prepare to trade your car for a boat or kayak once again as you meander along the waterways of this park. This complex water-based transport system guided French-Canadian fur traders who traversed the paths centuries ago. There are only a few public access roads within the park and renting a boat or kayak will be essential to getting around. The park encompasses thousands of lakes and islands that are connected by the vast water highways. Rainy Lake, Kabetogama Lake, Namakan Lake, and Sand Point Lake are the primary bodies of water, and several sit on the United States-Canada border. The interconnected lakes attract anglers and boaters, hikers head to the interior peninsula, and some visitors camp within the boreal forests dotting the islands.
When to Go
If crowds don’t bother you, then summer provides suitable weather conditions for each park on your itinerary. You’ll have an easier time getting around in spring and fall due to the shoulder seasons’ thinner crowds. The winter can be brutal at each park, and you face the possibility of adverse road conditions in sub-freezing temperatures. Overall, spring or fall offers the best combination of gorgeous scenery, fewer crowds, and comfortable temperatures.