9 Best National Parks in the Midwest

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Sleeping Bear Dunes near Traverse City, one of the best Michigan weekend getaways
Photo credit: Melody Pittman

The US National Parks in the Midwest are not as well known as Yellowstone, Yosemite and Glacier. But they have unique features that make them must-sees. You’ll find towering sand dunes, a massive underground cave system and refreshing hot springs. Some are off the beaten path; one’s a city landmark. Here are the highlights of each of the nine national parks in the Midwest as defined by the NPS, plus other designated monuments, lakeshores and memorials to explore.

Entrance sign and building at Hot Springs National Park one of the best national parks in the midwest
Tulips bloom in front of one of the many lovely buildings at Hot Springs National Park. Photo credit: National Park Service

1. Hot Springs National Park

Arkansas and Rome have more in common than you might have known! This national park site aptly named Hot Springs National Park features bathhouses and natural springs. The parks’ Bathhouse Row consisting of eight beautifully constructed buildings is located in the city of Hot Springs, AR. We know that what YOU want to know is: where can I get my soak on? Well, surprisingly, you CAN soak in two of the bathhouses: Buckstaff and Quapaw. (Quapaw was closed for renovations at the time of writing, but expected to open in the near future.) Don’t miss the chance to fully submerge and relax in the thermal water. Both experiences must be booked via external websites just like you would any spa service unrelated to a national park. 

There are no soaking opportunities outdoors in the park. You can still enjoy the water and its exemplary drinking quality at one of several fountains around the park. Do so, and check “quaff the elixir” at Hot Springs National Park off your bucket list. Adventures outdoors are all over the park in the form of fishing, hiking and biking. The lush greenery nourished by the springs makes for very nice family photos! 

Within the park, Gulpha Gorge Campground and the Hotel Hale are lodging choices, but since this is an urban park, you have many options in town.

Explore more of Arkansas since this national park is close to the state capital of Little Rock as well! 

Lake Michigan views with sand dunes in Indiana Dunes National Park
Sandy dunes and blue waters of Lake Michigan. Photo credit: National Park Service

2. Indiana Dunes National Park

Lake Michigan provides the shoreline for sandy beaches and dunes stretching out in this National Park in Indiana. It’s a very cool spot to spend some time outdoors; the park is involved with the Indiana Dunes Outdoor Adventure Festival – nine days of events in nature and fresh air. Geocaching is popular here and is an activity which can involve the skills and smarts of the whole crew. Indiana Dunes National Park offers hundreds of interpretive talks and guided tours, so make sure to put a tour on your travel plan! 

Feel like a good ghost story? How about a hike? The Diana Dunes Dare is for you! Interpretive signs along the trails start from the West Beach parking lot. You can get a sticker at the Visitor Center after completing your challenge. This hike and lore are about a woman named Alice who lived alone on the dunes. Follow the signs and vicariously live the story of her life during your hike. 

One of the best national parks in the Midwest, Isle Royale, is a place you can often see moose swim like the two in this picture.
Moose are surprisingly great swimmers and are frequently seen in the park. Photo credit: National Park Service

3. Isle Royale National Park

This island national park is home to wolves, moose and few amenities, making it the perfect spot to have an unplugged, off-grid getaway. Since Isle Royale National Park is in fact an island, a visit requires a bit more logistical planning to pull off. The first notable planning point is to consider it is closed annually from November through April to visitors during the frozen winter season. You can arrive by seaplane or ferry, both require advanced bookings and you can visit the Houghton, Michigan Visitor Center by land. Hiking trails and campsites are the main activities in the park and you will need a National Parks permit to explore. There are a few lodging and restaurant options at Rock Harbor, but most visitors pack in all they need for a self-sufficient sojourn in nature.

SheBuysTravel Tip: You’ll need to pay a daily entry fee per person for being in the park. If you’re staying a while, you should consider the Isle Royale Season Pass which costs $60 and includes up to 3 adults (16 and older) traveling with the pass holder (4 total people per pass) for all visits during the park season (April 16 through October 31).

More Michigan National Park Service Sites

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Florida isn’t the only state with miles of sandy beaches! Want your toes in the sand? You should look at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore! Some of the sandy landforms, known as dunes, are perched high over Lake Michigan. This lakeshore is home to lighthouses to guide ships across the big waters. Start your visit to the park at the Phillip A. Hart Visitor Center in Empire, MI to get all the maps, current information and ranger suggestions for the best places to explore

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Another water-based park in the Midwest, hugging the shores of Lake Superior is Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The color of the lake water here can look a lot like the Bahamas, but it’s situated an easy drive from Chicago and Detroit. This park is full of maritime history and has a good mix of terrestrial and water activities available. Sandstone cliffs and waterfalls are ample and provide lots of backdrops perfect for photos and sunsets. Hiking trails tunnel through dense forests and offer grand views from beaches. In addition to lighthouses and Coast Guard stations, there are many interesting shipwrecks to learn about.

Michigan is chock full of adventures, especially in nature. 

Tall pines along a trail by a lake.
Towering pines along sky blue waters near a hiking trail in Voyageurs National Park. Photo credit: Amanda Williams

4. Voyageurs National Park

My first job out of high school was as a naturalist at Voyageurs National Park so take these recommendations from a pro. Ellsworth Rock Gardens is a pretty spot to visit (especially in the late spring when flowers are in bloom) and is only accessible by boat. Actually, most of the park is best seen from the water. Many outfitters in the gateway towns of Kabetogama, Ash River, Crane Lake and International Falls offer canoes and camping equipment, even houseboats rentals, to experience this gem along the Canadian border. Birdwatching, fishing and enjoying campgrounds are all popular ways to connect with nature here. 

Nearby International Falls, the gateway town to not only the Rainy Lake district of the park, but also to Canada at the international border, is a lovely town. Still small, but with more modern amenities that include grocery stores, hotels and several restaurants and bars. If you aren’t interested in camping, you might plan to base your excursions here and stay at the Cobblestone Hotel & Suites or the boutique Cantilever Hotel & Distillery in nearby Rainier. International Falls, MN also has an international airport, with limited flights and one gate. 

SheBuysTravel Tip: Like Isle Royale National Park, Voyageurs National Park is a great place to look up at the night sky and do some stargazing. It’s actually been designated as an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association. If you brave the park by winter, you can experience dark skies and maybe even see the Northern Lights. 

If you get enough nature and want to see the city sites, Minnesota has a whole megamall of fun to explore! 

Shadow of gateway arch on the ground below in St. Louise
A view from the top is exhilarating and the shadow of the arch makes a great panoramic feature! Photo credit: Amanda Williams

5. Gateway Arch National Park

The famous arch towering over the St. Louis skyscape and casting fun shadows upon the ground nearby is a surprising delight with and without kids in tow. Gateway Arch National Park is an easy rideshare journey from the airport (STL.) Take a tram ride to the 630-foot top of the arch for the best view in town! The Visitor Center and museum are very well laid out, offering a ton of information in a small area. Seeing the view from the top will definitely bring Judy Garland’s voice twittering “Meet Me in St. Louis” to mind and this is one spot you MUST visit. Tickets must be purchased for the tram ride, but the museum at ground level is always free.

St. Louis is massive and has no shortage of culture, arts and entertainment to offer. When you’re done with the Arch, consider the St. Louis Zoo, City Museum or Union Station to round out the trip. The St. Louis Union Station Hotel, Curio Collection by Hilton, is a sight to behold and a fun spot to stay while in the city. If you happen to visit during the holidays, make sure to read this holidays in St. Louis post for fun planning tips and ideas!

Entrance sign for Theodore Roosevelt National Park
You’re in the right place when you see the iconic arrowhead sign for the entrance! Photo credit: Amanda Williams

6. Theodore Roosevelt National Park

This national park is full of wildlife encounters, hikers, campgrounds and is very similar to South Dakota’s Black Hills, but less frequented. We’ve actually written about fun things to do in Medora, the gateway to this national park, which you should check out if you’re thinking of a road trip to Teddy Roosevelt National Park. Watford City near the the North Unit of the park and has more amenities. You should easily spy prairie dogs but might need to try harder to spot the wild horses which inhabit the park. The abundance of wildlife and outdoor adventure and lack of crowds make this one of the best national parks in the Midwest! 

Most of the entertainment and lodging options in Medora, ND are run by the same company. Though it’s not part of the park system itself, the town of Medora is half the fun of this national park trip. Make sure to secure tickets for the Medora Musical and Pitchfork Steak Fondue! Stay at the Elkhorn Quarters to spread out with kids or the Rough Riders Hotel for a more elegant stay. The Medora Musical and many other places operate during that midwestern window of peak tourism, May-September. 

SheBuysTravel Tip: The North Unit of the park is the only spot you’ll find the Longhorn cattle herd, if you’re working on that Junior Ranger book!

Passenger train at Cuyahoga Valley Railroad.
Jumping aboard a Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad train is a must when visiting the park. Photo credit: National Park Service

7. Cuyahoga Valley National Park

It’s hard to believe a national park could be so close to the city, but Cleveland is only about 20 miles away. One of the main points of interest you must visit is the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. Riding the train allows visitors to cover a lot of territory while also presenting great opportunities for wildlife viewing. Tickets for the National Park Scenic Excursion range from $13 – $38. Save time for a visit to Brandywine Falls while you’re at Cuyahoga Valley National Park or simply follow the winding Cuyahoga River. 

One of the best national parks in the midwest for kids to hike around is badlands national park, shown in this photo.
The colorful landforms of Badlands National Park provide many mini adventures for hiking and exploration. Photo credit: Amanda Williams

8. Badlands National Park

The Badlands are anything but! This landscape is reminiscent of something you’d see on another planet and though, at first glance, things might seem a little drab, upon closer investigation, you will discover this National Park is full of color, critters and fewer crowds than some other popular South Dakota parks! The rich history includes fossil beds, so plan to swing into the Ben Reifel Visitor Center in the North Unit of Badlands National Park to learn all about fossils at the lab inside.

The prairie dogs might steal the thunder from even the most epic and rugged geological features. Boardwalk trails make easy excursions around the parks’ loop road. We always hope to see a black-footed ferret, but so far they have managed to stay elusive. The park is home to bison and bighorn sheep as well. All the prairie dwellers are fair game for spying eyes, so bring binoculars! You might also spot a snake sunning on the pavement, so do drive slow!

Check out more South Dakota family fun while road tripping the parks!

child at interpretive sign at wind cave national park
The pristine prairie ecosystem of the topside of Wind Cave is a great spot to see wildlife including hundreds of prairie dogs in a town like this one. Photo credit: Amanda Williams

9. Wind Cave National Park

While many parks are above ground (and Wind Cave National Park has some gorgeous prairies and wildlife to enjoy topside), the real lure to this park is what lies below the surface. This is one of the longest and complex caves in the world. Cave tours are popular and you must purchase a guided cave tour ticket. These book extremely fast, so make sure to secure them months in advance of your trip. Space is finite on each, so if you have a big group, even more advance planning is needed. Camping is available in the park, but not in the caves! One of the neatest hikes is to the natural entrance to Wind Cave. This is spiritual spot for the Lakota tribe and is a short hike; no cave tour necessary.

Wind Cave is immediately adjacent to the wildly popular Custer State Park so you should plan to spend some time exploring all the Black Hills has to offer.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Do not trust your GPS app to get you to the Visitor’s Center. Refer to the directions on the NPS site.

More South Dakota National Park Sites

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

A lot of folks think this is a National Monument — but it’s actually a National Memorial. Make sure to walk down the Avenue of Flags and take photos with the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson in the background. The site is busy unless it’s really bad weather, so just expect crowds. Many people only visit the main information center, but there are also several hiking trails to enjoy at this park. Mount Rushmore National Memorial is one spot which deserves a visit at least once in your life, but due to the crowds, is one we now typically admire as we drive through the Black Hills.

sea caves at sunset
The sea caves provide excellent frames for sunsets year around. Photo credit: National Park Service

National Park Service Sites in Wisconsin

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

Wisconsin doesn’t have an NPS-designated National Park, it does have the gorgeous Apostle Islands. Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is comprised of 21 islands, but there are some parts of the park you can access on the mainland. This spot in northern Wisconsin, set inside the shores of Lake Superior, is a lovely spot for kayaking in the summer and scenic drives on a midwestern road trip. Taking a scenic cruise is a fantastic way for many visitors to see the landscape from the water. Sailing and fishing are other adventurous options while touring Wisconsin’s national park site. 

In the winter, the park is popular with bundled visitors to the sea caves which are only accessible on the ice roads when Lake Superior freezes under perfect conditions – it doesn’t happen every year. If you can bear the cold, this is a bucket list activity when Mother Nature provides the right weather.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Outside the Memorial Day to Labor Day timeframe, it may be harder to find access to amenities while visiting. Plan ahead! 

Wisconsin has splashing good times outside the lake life. Check out Wisconsin Dells while you’re in the state!

Kansas National Park Service Sites

The Oregon National Historic Trail

Perhaps the most significant NPS historic trail  is the Oregon National Historic Trail. Visiting this neat site will bring back memories of playing the monochromatic green pixelated computer game of the same name. If you’re traveling in Kansas, you can see ruts made by the epic pilgrimage westward through six states and over 2,000 miles. The NPS website offers a nice interactive map in which to look at various places of interest along each Oregon Trail state, including many points of interest in Kansas.

Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Park

The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 was a landmark decision on the road to equality in our nation. Topeka and the 13 families of children who initiated this historic step toward desegregation will forever be memorialized by this historic park. Learning about heritage and culture here includes a Clark Doll exhibit, a curious part of the case which was pivotal to the ruling and available for all to see.

Monument Rocks

Monument Rocks isn’t a national park; it’s a National Natural Landmark, but it’s a really neat outdoor space in Kansas, near Oakley, and is managed under the National Park Service umbrella. The site is an abundant spot for fossils from the Cretaceous period of marine animals.

Amanda Williams is a journalist in rural Minnesota. Her stories have been published in Matador Travel Network, Midwest Living, Family Handyman, and several other publications. A solo mother of two young boys, she writes about adventures from National Parks to waterparks. She loves sharing tips and insider information for others to use to make their trip just a little bit better. She and her kids scuba dive and live for new experiences and thrills. Road trips are always on the horizon and she’s embraced van life and has driven from the Midwest to Alaska (via Canada) with her kids encompassing 32 days of wild adventures. Amanda is classically trained as a wildlife biologist and has worked as a National Park Ranger, in addition to other exciting jobs like being a wildland firefighter and even playing the part of a living historian, as a cook in a turn-of-the-century logging camp. Because of these outdoorsy experiences, stories relating to outdoor adventure are often a focus of her writing. She hopes to inspire other solo parents to take on Disney, camping, and trips abroad with their families with the confidence to make those memories, even as the lone adult in the mix! Her most recent obsession is photographing adventures from the land, water, AND skies, as a licensed small unmanned aircraft system (drone) pilot. Learn more about her at https://www.wayfaringmandy.com/ or follow her on Instagram, @WayfaringMandy.
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