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.

Points of Interest at Mammoth Cave National Park

A ranger explains the wonders of Mammoth Cave along Broadway, within sight of the Rotunda, one of the cave's largest rooms.

Situated in the heart of Kentucky, Mammoth Cave National Park encompasses the world’s oldest cave system. With nearly 400 miles of caves there’s no question why this national park garners nearly two million visitors every year. If it’s your first time visiting Mammoth Cave National Park, you won’t want to miss the main points of interest. 

Frozen Niagara 

Tour the Frozen Niagara section of the cave which features ancient dripstones and flowstones that appear frozen in time. You’ll be amazed by these unique cave formations and you will learn the history of this fascinating site during your tour. 

River Styx Spring

One of Mammoth Cave National Park’s top surface trails, River Styx Spring occurs where groundwater emerges from a scenic cave. A short trail leads to the River Styx Spring, and you’ll be able to take in stunning natural landscapes all along the way.

Cedar Sink 

A massive sinkhole in the heart of Mammoth Cave National Park, Cedar Sink is one of the park’s most fascinating sites. Arrive at Cedar Sink via a 1.8-mile round trip trail which is lush with wildflowers and wildlife.

Diamond Caverns

Discovered in 1859, the Diamond Caverns are ancient caves made of limestone. Guided tours to the Diamond Caverns are offered year round and top the list of Mammoth Cave National Park’s main attractions. 

Nolin Lake 

Nolin Lake, located in nearby Nolin Lake State Park, is an excellent site for swimming, camping, and fishing. A gorgeous lake surrounded by breathtaking scenery, you’ll certainly want to head over to Nolin Lake during your visit to Mammoth Cave National Park.

Crystal Onyx Cave

The area’s premier show cave, Crystal Onyx Cave features fantastic natural rock formations throughout. Sign up for a guided tour of the cave to discover the history of this fascinating and ancient region.

Places to Visit After Mammoth Cave National Park

A small tour group gathers at the Historic Entrance of Mammoth Cave on a summer day, preparing to enter. The cool cave air, meeting the warm, humid outer air, creates a sudden zone of mist that both delights the skin and fogs spectacles, and gives a sense that one is on the threshold of another world.

Established in 1941, Mammoth Cave National Park protects the world’s oldest cave system and lies in southern Kentucky. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the park welcomes nearly two million visitors every year. Once you’ve had your fill of Mammoth Cave National Park, head to any of the following destinations to continue your trip!

Nashville, Tennessee – An hour and a half outside of Mammoth Cave National Park lies Nashville, Tennessee, home of Vanderbilt University and a world renowned country music scene. Head here for delicious food, great music, and an overall good time.

Louisville, Kentucky – Louisville is Kentucky’s largest city and home to the Kentucky Derby, a world-renowned horse race. Louisville is only an hour and a half away from Mammoth Cave National Park, making it the natural next stop along your way. 

Bowling Green, Kentucky – A charming city half an hour outside of Mammoth Cave National Park, Bowling Green is home to the National Corvette Museum and the Corvette manufacturing factory. Here you’ll also find the Kentucky Museum, which delves into the history of the region and the Civil War. 

Lexington, Kentucky – Renowned as the “horse capital of the world,” Lexington, Kentucky boasts a large number of thoroughbred horse farms and race tracks. Around two hours outside of Mammoth Cave National Park, Lexington makes for a lovely stop either before or after your visit to the park.

Barren River Reservoir State Resort Park – A scenic man-made reservoir half an hour from Mammoth Cave National Park, there are plenty of opportunities for boating and fishing at Barren River Reservoir State Resort Park. This area also contains a lodge and campground for overnight accommodation. 

Staying Safe at Mammoth Cave National Park

Dripstone formations create a panoply of textures in the Frozen Niagara section of Mammoth Cave as slowly dripping water redeposits dissolved limestone over the course of centuries. Image is a panoramic composite.

A national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site, Mammoth Cave National Park is situated in southwestern Kentucky. The park protects the world’s oldest cave system with nearly 400 miles of caves. If you’re planning a visit to Mammoth Cave National Park, be sure to take the necessary safety precautions to ensure a smooth trip. 

Weather 

The weather in the park can get extremely hot, so it’s important to drink plenty of water during your visit to avoid dehydration and heat stroke. Make sure to wear sun protection, including sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat.

Wildlife 

Mammoth Cave National Park is home to a variety of wildlife, including bats, poisonous snakes, ticks, rodents, and more. Make sure to safely store all food, trash, and scented items while in the park to avoid attracting wild animals. Never feed, touch, or approach animals for your safety and for theirs. It’s important to remain on the trails to avoid any interaction with poison ivy, which grows in this area. Keep away from all bats, as they may be rabid. Check yourself often for ticks during your time in the park to avoid dangerous tick-borne illnesses. Venomous snakes are present in the park, so watch your step, and avoid reaching into holes, under rocks, or in crevices.

Other Concerns

The caves are dimly lit and can be slippery, so it’s important to watch your step and stay on the designated trails. Make sure to mind your head in areas with low ceilings. 

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