How to Find the Magic and Heart of Midwest National Parks
As lifetime residents of the Upper Midwest, we’ll admit there might be some bias in our “Midwest is Best” mantra. While we don’t have snowy mountain passes or oceanfront vistas, it’s no coincidence that the Midwest is home to two of the most recent national parks.
The Midwest Region spans 11 different states and 57 of the more than 400 different units in the NPS. Of those 57 units, nine have the official national park designation. Among these, you’ll find one of our newest, one of our oldest, and one of the least visited national parks in the National Park Service. What we lack in visitor counts, we certainly make up for with an eclectic mix of history, biodiversity, and what we like to call the “Magic and Heart of the Midwest.”
Sunset at Badlands National Park/Photo by Park Chasers
At the Heart of Badlands National Park, South Dakota
On our three trips to Badlands, we’ve had the best experiences in the early and late hours of the day. Hiking first thing in the morning before the heat of the day can be matched only by what happens as the sun goes down. Some of our most gorgeous sunsets in the Midwest happened at Badlands, followed up by camping under some of the darkest skies in the NPS.
The Magic of Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
Let’s be honest, 33,000 acres of river valley sandwiched between two major industrial cities in Ohio make for an unlikely national park candidate. Yet with 2.2 million annual visitors, Cuyahoga Valley National Park ranks among the top 15 most visited national parks year after year. The magic of Cuyahoga Valley National Park can be found somewhere in the junction of geography, history, and restoration. You’ll find it all on the trails here.
At the Heart of Gateway Arch National Park, Missouri
In February 2018, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in downtown St. Louis was given a new name and became our 60th national park. After taking the tram ride to peek out the tiny windows at the top of the Arch, we bet you’ll find the rest of Gateway Arch National Park to be just as rewarding. Directly below the Arch, the recently rehabbed museum showcases some of the latest in museum curation tech. Follow that up with a stroll across the mall area to the Old Courthouse, where you can stand in the courtroom where the Dred Scott case was initially heard.
Fordyce Bathhouse at Hot Springs National Park/Photo by Park Chasers
At the Heart of Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas
On a recent night of national park trivia, we wowed some friends with knowledge of which park lays claim to the “oldest protected area in the National Park Service.” Even though Yosemite lays claim to the first public land protections and Yellowstone claims the spot as our first national park, Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas calls itself the oldest. In 1832, President Andrew Jackson set aside the land in what is now Hot Springs National Park as a federal reservation, “for the future disposal of the United States.” It would later become a national park in 1921. Today, visitors can take a traditional bath in one of the fully restored bathhouses, hike some of the oldest trails in the National Park Service, and drink the world-famous thermal waters that have attracted people here for centuries.
At the Heart of Indiana Dunes National Park, Indiana
In February 2019, Indiana Dunes National Park joined the ranks to become our 61st national park. The park protects roughly 15 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, including pristine beaches, wetlands, and of course, dunes. Two big ideas come to mind when we think about the magic of a visit to Indiana Dunes. If the reasonably unpredictable Lake Michigan weather cooperates, be sure to catch a glimpse of sunset over the downtown Chicago skyline from one of the beaches. Second, take the 3 Dune Challenge, a lung-burning hike up and down the three highest sand dunes in the park.
Indiana Dunes National Park/Photo by Park Chasers
The Magic of Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
If you’d rather trade sandy beaches for remote wilderness, then Isle Royale National Park might be the best Midwest national park for your next adventure. One of the least visited national parks in the entire NPS, only 26,000 visitors made it to the island in the middle of Lake Superior last year. With few amenities and no roads, the heart of Isle Royale National Park is having an authentic wilderness experience without leaving the Midwest. We recommend the day trip from Grand Portage, Minnesota, for a quick taste of the park, but for committed adventurers, the overnight trips across the island are recognized among the best-kept backpacking secrets in the NPS.
At the Heart of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
If you stick around the national parks long enough, you’re bound to find a soft spot for Theodore Roosevelt. On each of our trips to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, we’ve always found the wildlife to be the heart of the experience. Our first up-close encounter with a prairie dog town happened here, as well as catching a glimpse of the free-roaming horse herd along the Scenic Loop Drive. We also met our first national park bison in Teddy Roosevelt, a particularly cranky bull who thankfully chose a different adversary than the front bumper of our Mazda.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park/Photo by Park Chasers
The Magic of Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
We love how fitting it is that in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, nearly 50% of the area of our home park is water. Ask a Minnesotan about their first thought of Voyageurs National Park, and almost all will say “houseboats.” Ranging from the elaborate 18-passenger hot tub and waterslide cruiser to the small two-person floating bungalow, cruising the waters of the park via houseboat is the way the locals love to go.
The Magic of Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota
Last but certainly not least on the list of Midwest national parks is South Dakota’s Wind Cave National Park. Established as the seventh national park by President Theodore Roosevelt, it protects one of the longest and densest cave networks in the world. To discover the best of Wind Cave, you’ll have to spend time both above and below ground. Spend the morning on one of the outstanding ranger-led tours of the cave—they’re among the best in the NPS. Then pop back above ground for an afternoon hiking the 30+ miles of trails in the park, where you’ll wander through the largest remaining natural mixed-grass prairie in the country.
Bringing You The Best of the Midwest
If you’ve enjoyed reading about the magic and heart of the Midwest national parks, we hope you continue to join us here in the Hello Ranger Community. We’re excited to bring you the best of the Midwest, including detailed looks at each of these nine parks and the best ways to enjoy them. Be sure to follow the rest of our national park adventures over at Park Chasers as well, along with our Facebook and Instagram.
Header photo: Isle Royale National Park/Photo by Park Chasers
From their base camp in Minnesota, Amy and Greg Sippl, aka “The Park Chasers,” have been “chasing” the dream of visiting all 400+ units of the National Park Service. They share national park photos, stories, and travel advice to help others do the same. Even though they’ve traveled coast-to-coast, they have always called the Midwest home. As the Hello Ranger Ambassadors for the Midwest Region, they share everything the Heartland has to offer!