American Midwest Road Trip

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.

Places to Visit After Isle Royale National Park

A remote island in the heart of Northern Michigan’s Lake Superior, there are several options for where to go next after your visit to Isle Royale. With plenty of options for outdoor activities, your next stops will help you appreciate the natural wonders of this North American region. 

  • Boundary Waters Canoe Area – Located in the Superior National Forest in Minnesota, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area provides excellent paddling opportunities in a strikingly beautiful landscape. Not far from Isle Royale, the Boundary Waters makes for your perfect next stop.
  • Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore – This gorgeous natural hiking area is situated just southeast of Isle Royale National Park. A dramatic landscape defined by colorful cliffs, you’ll love checking out the unusual rock formations at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
  • Cooper Harbor – Known as the gateway to Isle Royale National Park, Cooper Harbor is located on the breathtaking Keweenaw Peninsula. You’ll enjoy spending time in this charming town, which offers plenty of activities, dining options, and panoramic views of Lake Superior.
  • Duluth, Minnesota – This lovely lakefront city is only five hours from Cooper Harbor, the easiest port from Isle Royale. With plenty to do and explore, Duluth is the natural next stop on your trip. The big city feel will come as a welcome contrast to the remoteness of Isle Royale National Park!
  • Thunder Bay, Canada – Don’t forget to pack your passport if you plan to head to Thunder Bay after your visit to Isle Royale! Another bustling lakeshore city, Thunder Bay is brimming with restaurants, historic sites, boat tours, and more.

Staying Safe at Isle Royale National Park

Isle Royale National Park is located in Northern Michigan in the heart of Lake Superior. This rugged, untouched national park is a stunning wilderness preserve with few modern conveniences or services. There are several safety precautions to note before embarking on your trip to Isle Royale.

Weather 

Weather in the park is cool to cold year round, and can dip below freezing at night. Be prepared for rain and inclement weather any time of year by bringing plenty of layers, rain gear, and sturdy hiking shoes. The park is closed in the winter, as temperatures are inhospitable. Lake Superior remains cold year round, so it’s important to be prepared to manage hypothermia if you fall out of your boat while canoeing, kayaking, or otherwise.

Wildlife

As Isle Royale is primarily a wilderness preserve, you’re likely to encounter your fair share of wild animals, namely moose and wolves. Make sure to keep your distance and never feed any animals you encounter. Never put yourself between mother and calf as the mother will be very protective and more likely to attack. 

It’s important to keep your food stored safely, as foxes and squirrels are known to steal food and scented items from campsites. Make sure your food is secured and out of their reach, both for your safety and for theirs as they could develop a reliance on human food which, in turn alters the ecosystem and could cause those animals to starve during the winter months when there are no humans in the park. 

Other Concerns 

Never drink untreated water from lakes or streams, and be sure to bring a treatment device or water treatment pills with you, or you’ll need to bring all your drinking water with you into the park.

Due to the remoteness of Isle Royale National Park, the backcountry offers limited medical assistance so bring everything you’ll need to care for yourself in case of emergency. Cell service is unreliable so consider bringing a satellite phone with you in case of emergency.

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How to Spend a Weekend in Isle Royale National Park

A massive island situated in Michigan’s Lake Superior, Isle Royale National Park is both an International Biosphere Reserve and a National Wilderness. Green forest and breathtaking coastline characterize this national park, as well as a plethora of hiking trails since the park does not have any roads.

What to Do

Hiking

As hiking is one of the only ways to get around in the park, you’re sure to be doing a lot of it during your trip! Isle Royale landscape is rugged and wild, making for a unique national park experience. The Greenstone Ridge Trail runs the course of the island, from one end to the other. The most popular areas of the park include Rock Harbor and Windigo, with many hiking trails cutting through the backcountry as well. 

Wildlife Viewing

As there are strict wilderness preservation rules and no roads anywhere in the park, the wildlife viewing at Isle Royale is fantastic. Here you will experience untouched wilderness, so keep your eyes peeled for foxes, moose, loons, wolves, birds, and more.

Northern Lights

An utterly remote wilderness, Isle Royale lends itself especially well to stargazing, and the lack of light pollution allows for frequent viewing of the aurora borealis, or the Northern Lights. Head to Isle Royale from late spring to early September for your best chance of seeing this unique natural phenomenon. 

Fishing

Fishing is an incredibly popular activity at Isle Royale National Park, but be sure to get a permit at one of the port’s ranger stations before heading out.

Canoeing

Another of your limited options for getting around Isle Royale is by canoe. Canoes are available for rent and there are plenty of areas in and around the park to explore by water. This is a great and peaceful way to experience the park from a different perspective.

Where to Stay

The only option for lodging within Isle Royale National Park is Rock Harbor Lodge. However, the far more popular option is camping. The park has a wide variety of campsites and all of them are completely free. 

How to Get There

You have several options for how to get to Isle Royale National Park. If you plan to fly, the closest airport to the park is Thunder Bay International Airport in Ontario, Canada. From there, you will need to take a ferry to enter the park. Most visitors to Isle Royale arrive by ferry, and it’s important to make your ferry reservations well in advance as they do tend to fill up. Arriving by floatplane is also an option, though it’s much more expensive than taking the ferry but is quicker and offers phenomenal aerial views.

When to Go 

July and August are the best and most popular times to visit Isle Royale. Temperatures in the park remain mild to cold year round, and at night can dip below freezing. This is the only US national park that completely closes during winter, which lasts from November through mid-April. The park offers limited access before Memorial Day and after Labor Day, so be wary of the date when making your travel plans.

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