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The 12 Best Outdoorsy Road Trips in the Midwest

June 27, 2024

You don’t have to leave the Midwest to take an epic outdoors road trip! From waterfalls to scenic bluffs to crystal-clear Great Lakes, the midwest is full of beauty and adventure. I hope these road trip ideas inspire you to take a road trip close to home and explore an area you might not have considered.

The midwest is typically referred to as the Northern Central Part of the United States. While you might think of flat cornfields (and there is a lot of that), the region is huge and actually very diverse in its scenery. Typically, the midwest states are thought to be Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri. This road trip list covers a bit of every single midwest state!

12 Epic Midwest Road Trip Ideas

1. Michigan UP Road Trip

  • Recommended # of days: 4-5
  • Best Time To Go: Summer or fall
  • Fly into: Houghton County, Traverse City or Grand Rapids
Lover's Leap Arch seen from a boat and glowing orange at golden hour.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

The Michigan Upper Peninsula makes for an epic road trip for anyone who loves adventure! The region is rugged, sparsely populated and is perfect for camping, kayaking, hiking and more. From touring a historic mine to kayaking next to towering cliffs, this fascinating area is perfect for a road trip.

Fun Fact: The U.P. makes up 30% of the land area of Michigan, but only 30% of the state’s population.

The Top Things To Do on a Michigan UP Road Trip:

  • Visit Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and either take a kayaking tour, enjoy a sunset boat tour or go hiking (I definitely recommend all 3 if you have enough time!)
  • Hike in Tahquamenon Falls State Park
  • Hike in the Porcupine Mountains (the largest Michigan State Park)
  • Tour the Quincy Mine
  • Wheel yourself out over Michigan’s largest spring at Kitch-iti-kipi
  • Take a day trip to Mackinac Island

Read my detailed 4-day itinerary for the Michigan UP!

2. The Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota

  • Recommended # of days: 3-4
  • Best Time To Go: Summer or Fall
  • Fly into: Rapid City
A bighorn sheep up on a hill with badland rock formations towering behind it.
A ram in Badlands National Park

Explore the beauty of South Dakota with a Black Hills and Badlands road trip! South Dakota is full of variety and one of the most underrated states in the US. On this road trip, you’ll get to see a beautiful variety of rock formations and badlands, and you’ll have a great chance of seeing lots of wildlife.

The Top Things To Do on a Badlands and Black Hills Road Trip:

  • Take the scenic drive and hike in Badlands National Park
  • Take a cave tour or hike at Wind Caves National Park
  • Hike in Custer State Park
  • Chase waterfalls in Spearfish Canyon
  • Visit the iconic Mt Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial

Read my detailed 3-day itinerary for the Badlands and Black Hills!

3. Minnesota North Shore

  • Recommended # of days: 3 - 4
  • Best Time To Go: Summer or Fall
  • Fly into: Duluth
Looking straight out at both Bean and Bear Lake. The lakes are surrounded by green trees.
Bean and Bear Lake

The Minnesota North Shore refers to the stunning region along Lake Superior between Duluth and Canada. On a road trip here, you can visit rocky beaches, hike to waterfalls, taste a famous slice of pie, and more. Whether you like hiking or just want to enjoy the coastal views, you’re sure to enjoy this picturesque slice of the midwest.

The Top Things To Do on a Minnesota North Shore Road Trip:

  • Walk to High Falls in Grand Portage State Park
  • Hike in Split Rock Lighthouse State Park
  • Indulge in a slice of pie from Betty’s Pies or Rustic Inn Cafe
  • Explore Gooseberry Falls State Park
  • Hike to Bean and Bear Lake
  • Explore the town of Grand Marias

Read my detailed 3-day itinerary for the Minnesota North Shore!

4. Lake Superior: US Side

  • Recommended # of days: 7+
  • Best Time To Go: Summer or Fall
  • Fly into: Minneapolis, Duluth or Traverse City
The front of a green kayak in front of a sea cave at the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
Apostle Islands
Lydia looking down at Lake Superior from above on the Minnesota North Shore
Mt Josephine

Combine a bit of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan into one epic Lake Superior road trip! There is so much beauty along Lake Superior and each region has something a little different to offer.

Spend a few days exploring the Minnesota North Shore and the town of Duluth, where you can chase waterfalls, hike and enjoy the small towns. Then, spend at least a day exploring the Apostle Islands in Wisconsin. It's an incredible place for a kayaking tour!

Finally, explore the Michigan Upper Peninsula. From the Keweenaw Peninsula to Pictured Rocks to the Porcupine Mountains, there is a ton to do there.

If you have enough time, you can also visit Isle Royale National Park on this trip! Ferries and seaplanes leave from either Michigan or Minnesota.

The Top Things To Do on a US Lake Superior Road Trip:

  • Explore the town of Grand Marias
  • Hike along the Minnesota North Shore at places like Bean and Bear Lake or Gooseberry Falls
  • Explore the town of Duluth and be sure to check out the lift bridge
  • Take a kayaking tour at the Apostle Islands
  • Explore the Keweenaw Peninsula and visit the town of Houghton
  • Visit Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
  • Take a tour through the Soo Locks at Sault Ste. Marie

5. The Sandy Shores of Lake Michigan (Traverse City to Chicago)

  • Recommended # of days: 5+
  • Best Time To Go: Spring or Summer
  • Fly into: Chicago, Grand Rapids or Traverse City
Lydia hiking on sand towards the water at Indiana Dunes
Indiana Dunes National Park
Lydia hiking on sand dunes at Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Seashore

Take a road trip down the coast of Lake Michigan from Traverse City to Chicago! This beautiful region of Michigan (plus a bit of Indiana) is known for its white sand beaches that will make you question if you’re in the Caribbean instead of the midwest.

Along the way, you can take a dip in the lake, hike or ATV among sand dunes. Plus, it’s worth exploring some iconic Michigan cities such as Holland and Grand Rapids.

The Top Things To Do on a Lake Michigan Road Trip:

  • Hike in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
  • Rent a boat to explore Torch Lake
  • Rent a UTV at Silver Lake State Park
  • Explore the Dutch Heritage in Holland
  • Visit Oval Beach in Saugatuck
  • Hike in Indiana Dunes National Park

6. A Wisconsin Road Trip from Madison to Door County

  • Recommended # of days: 3+
  • Best Time To Go: Spring, Summer or Fall
  • Fly into: Madison or Milwaukee
The gold Thai Pavilion at Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison, Wisconsin
Madison, WI
Looking down at a green coastline and blue water at Peninsula State Park
Door County

Travel between the Wisconsin capital to the stunning Door County for a road trip that is full of variety. Madison is known as a college town, but has a fantastic culinary scene, great museums and more. It’s a city surrounded by lakes, so you’re never far from a beautiful view.

Door Country is located about 3 hours away and refers to a peninsula surrounded by the waterfall of Lake Michigan. Door Country is famous for its beautiful parks, lighthouses and miles of shoreline. Known as the “Cape Cod of the Midwest,” the peninsula has a great mix of quaint towns and outdoor activities.

The Best Things To Do in Madison and Door County:

  • Explore Peninsula State Park
  • Look for goats on the roof at Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant & Butik
  • Hike in Cave Point County Park
  • Visit the Wisconsin Capitol Building
  • If you visit on a Saturday, visit the Dane County Farmers' Market in Madison

Read about all of the best things to do in Madison, Wisconsin!

7. North Dakota: Fargo to Theodore Roosevelt

  • Recommended # of days: 3-4
  • Best Time To Go: Summer
  • Fly into: Bismarck, Fargo or Minneapolis
A baby bison running, with more bison further in the distance, at Theodore Roosevelt National ParkStripey hills turning pink at sunset in Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Explore the top cities and natural sights in North Dakota on this road trip! Fargo is an adorable town with amazing food and shops, and Theodore Roosevelt is an underrated national park full of wildlife. In my opinion, North Dakota is definitely an underrated state to explore!

The Top Things To Do on a North Dakota Road Trip:

  • Spend time exploring the downtown area and food scene in Fargo
  • Visit the Hjemkomst Center, which features a Viking ship and a wooden stave church
  • Stop to see the World's Largest Buffalo
  • Explore Bismarck
  • Explore Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Don’t miss the Painted Canyon Overlook, Cannonball Concentrations and the Caprock Coulee Loop

8. Ohio, Indiana and Illinois Waterfall Road Trip

  • Recommended # of days: 5+
  • Best Time To Go: Spring
  • Fly into: Cleveland, Columbus, Indianapolis or Chicago
A View of Brandwine Falls with the water flowing strongly.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park
A rocky cove with green moss and a waterfall inside of Turkey Run State Park.
Turkey Run State Park

Take a road trip between all of the best waterfalls in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois! I would recommend traveling between Cleveland and Chicago with a route packed with state parks, a national park and more along the way. From caves and waterfalls in Hocking Hills to the famous Starved Rock right outside of Chicago, there is no shortage of beauty across these 3 states.

Beautiful Waterfalls to see in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois:

  • Brandywine Falls and Blue Hen Falls in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
  • Ash Cave, Cedar Falls and Old Man’s Cave in Hocking Hills State Park, Ohio
  • Glen Helen Nature Preserve in the quirky town of Yellow Springs, Ohio
  • The various waterfalls (including one you climb up!) in Turkey Run State Park, Indiana
  • McCormick’s Creek State Park, Indiana
  • The various waterfalls in Starving Rock State Park, Illinois
  • The various waterfalls in Matthiessen State Park, Illinois

For more trails in Indiana, check out my list of Indiana's best hikes!

9. The Best of Missouri

  • Recommended # of days: 4+
  • Best Time To Go: Summer or Fall
  • Fly into: St Louis or Kansas City
Looking through a stone window at ruins at Ha Ha Tonka State Park
Ha Ha Tonka State Park
Lydia looking at the view of the lake. Trees are orange with fall foliage
Lake of the Ozarks State Park

Experience the best of Missouri on a fun road trip through the state. I recommend traveling between St Louis and Kansas City, with a detour to the Lake of the Ozarks Region (plus Springfield if you have time). St Louis and Kansas City both offer amazing restaurants and cultural activities. Don’t miss the Gateway Arch in St Louis or the WWI Museum in Kansas City.

In contrast, the Lake of the Ozarks is a beautiful place to go boating, hiking and enjoy a slower pace of life. If you can only go to one place, visit Ha Ha Tonka State Park and admire castle ruins, a large natural spring and explore the various hiking trails.

If you have more time, it would also be worth spending a day or two in Springfield or Branson, Missouri. Branson is home to the famous Dolly Parton’s Stampede Dinner, while Springfield has activities such as the Wonders Of Wildlife Aquarium inside of Bass Pro Shop.

The Top Things To Do on a Missouri Road Trip:

  • Visit Gateway Arch National Park
  • Hike in Ha Ha Tonka State Park
  • Hike in Lake of the Ozarks State Park
  • Visit the National WWI Museum and Memorial
  • Visit the City Market in Kansas City

10. An Iowa Road Trip from Des Moines to the Driftless Region

  • Recommended # of days: 4+
  • Best Time To Go: Spring, Summer or Fall
  • Fly into: Des Moines
The sun setting over the river at Ledges State Park
Ledges State Park
A red sculpture in a lawn, with tall buildings in the distance, in downtown Des Moines
Des Moines

Travel from Des Moines to the Driftless Region on a beautiful Iowa road trip. Des Moines is a fun city with great food and museums. From the Pappajohn Sculpture Park to Asian pizza at Fong’s, there is plenty here to explore.

If you like nature, the Driftless region is sure to impress you. The Northeast corner of Iowa has epic limestone bluffs, beautiful rivers and lots of outdoor adventures. P.S. Field of Dreams was filmed here!

This Iowa road trip combines a larger city and a beautiful natural area, which makes for an epic midwest road trip.

The Best Things To Do on an Iowa Road Trip:

  • Explore Pappajohn Sculpture Park
  • Hike in Ledges State Park
  • Take in the views at Effigy Mounds National Monument
  • Hike in Pikes Peak State Park
  • Visit Dutton Cave

11. The Kansas and Nebraska Badlands

  • Recommended # days: 4+
  • Best Time To Go: Spring, Summer or Fall
  • Fly into: Denver
Lydia standing and looking out at interesting rocks at Little Jerusalem State Park
Little Jerusalem State Park
Lydia walking towards some giant rocks next to the water at Rock City Park
Rock City Park

Take a unique road trip through the often-overlooked states of Nebraska and Kansas! Both are home to unique rock formations that will probably surprise you. In Central and Western Kansas, explore areas such as Castle Rock, Little Jerusalem and more. In Nebraska, head to the Northwest corner and visit beautiful parks such Scotts Bluff and Toadstool Geological Park. These areas are pretty remote, so fill up on gas when you can and pack at least some of your own food.

The Best Things To Do in Western Kansas and Nebraska:

  • Visit Little Jerusalem State Park
  • Explore Rock City Park
  • See Castle Rock and Monument Rocks in Kansas
  • Visit Scotts Bluff National Monument
  • Visit Toadstool Geological Park and Campground

12. Road Trip from Chicago to Minneapolis

  • Recommended # of days: 6+
  • Best Time To Go: Summer or fall
  • Fly into: Minneapolis or Chicago
A large rock formation that resembles a doorway at Devil's Lake State Park
Devil's Lake State Park
Holding up a glass of beer at brewery nønic in Wisconsin
A brewery in Eau Claire

Finally, take a road trip between two iconic midwest cities: Chicago and Minneapolis. Traveling between these cities will take you through Wisconsin, where you can visit some fun smaller towns and natural areas.

On your road trip, spend some time in the Wisconsin Dells, where you can hike in Devil's Lake State Park, explore Witches Gulch and more. The area is also known as the “Waterpark Capital of the World,” so there are many of those to visit if that’s your thing.

I also recommend spending time in Eau Claire. Eau Claire is nicknamed “The Indie Capital of the Midwest” and is full of independent businesses, artists and entrepreneurs. Take a self-guided sculpture tour around town, visit a local brewery and spend an afternoon kayaking on a local river.

One more area of Wisconsin you might want to visit is La Crosse, which is in the beautiful Driftless Region of Wisconsin. It’s a great area to bike, hike in the Hixon Forest, go kayaking and more.

Along with all of these Wisconsin stops, take your time exploring Chicago and the Twin Cities at the beginning and end of your trip. Chicago is known for its theater scene, the famous Navy Pier, huge museums and more. The Twin Cities are known for their lakes, craft beer scene and for the famous Mall of America.

The Best Things To Do on a Chicago to Minneapolis Road Trip:

  • Visit the Field Museum in Chicago
  • Explore natural places in the Wisconsin Dells such as Devil’s Lake State Park and Witches Gulch
  • Visit a Wisconsin Dells waterpark
  • Go hiking in the Driftless region near La Crosse
  • Explore the town of Eau Claire
  • Visit Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis

Helpful Road Trip Tips

  • Always fill up on gas when you can - some of these areas can be remote.
  • Download offline maps on Google Maps before you go
  • Roadtrippers is a helpful app to map out your itineraries
  • Use Gas Buddy to find the best gas prices
  • Always leave no trace when you’re exploring the outdoors
  • Bring a cooler and get snacks and lunches for your trip! You’ll save a lot of money and time this way

Final Thoughts

The Midwest is anything but boring, and I hope these road trip ideas inspire you to explore this region deeper. From waterfalls in Indiana to white sand beaches in Michigan to badlands in Kansas, there are endless places to see in the “flyover” states.

For More Midwest Travel Ideas, check out these blogs:

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