National Parks in the Midwest
Getty Images: benedek

5 National Parks in the Midwest to Add to Your Bucket List

When most people think of National Parks, they are thinking of the sprawling wilderness of a place like Yellowstone, Yosemite, or Grand Teton in the western part of the United States. Many people don't realize there are some supremely impressive National Parks located right in the heart of the Midwest, many of them less than a day's drive away from major cities, just waiting to be discovered during your summer adventures. Awesome boating and kayaking, beautiful vistas, winding hiking trails, and fascinating history can be found in many of these overlooked parks. A few of them are even on the list of least-visited National Parks in the lower 48, even though many are close to heavy population centers. We'll bring up the five best National Parks and Lakeshores in the Midwest, and we're including some other types of public lands maintained by the National Park Service, too. Some of them you may never have heard of before, but you'll want to add these to your bucket list because all are worth seeing at least once in your life. We'll also note things like campgrounds and recreational activities that are popular in each location so you can start getting a better idea of where to book your next vacation.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

National Parks in the Midwest

Travis Smola

This hidden gem is well-known to Michigan residents but seems to be almost unknown to everyone outside the state's borders. Which is a shame because it's a gorgeous piece of shoreline unlike anything else on Lake Superior. The real attraction here are the 15 miles of seaside cliffs that plunge nearly 200 feet into the lake in certain places. Along the way are fascinating rock formations like Chapel Rock, Miners Castle, and Lover's Leap. You can see most of them in a two- to four-hour boat tour operated out of Munising, which is a charming little town itself. However, the real way to see the formations is to kayak to them yourself.

Pictured Rocks has several campgrounds including some gorgeous backcountry sites within a stone's throw of the beach that see little activity because they're a decent hike from the nearest parking areas. There are some incredible waterfalls in and just outside the borders of the park. Most people do the hike to Miners Falls since it's the closest to the main parking area at Miners Castle, but I suggest you take the time to check out Chapel Falls and Bridalveil Falls too.

I also highly recommend the three-mile round trip hike to Au Sable Light Station. It's a beautiful, flat hike to one of the most spectacular lighthouses in Michigan. They usually open it for tours in the summer, too. Be sure to walk the beach on your way back to see the remains of multiple shipwrecks either on the beach or in the shallows where you can literally walk up and touch maritime history.

Voyageurs National Park

National Parks in the Midwest

Getty Images: Steve Schremp

Despite being over 232,000 acres, Voyageurs receives surprisingly little attention. It only gets around 240,000 visitors annually and many of them are repeat visitors. Located in the extreme northern part of Minnesota, this park is a fishing, kayaking, and canoeing enthusiast's dream come true. We suspect the lack of visitors is mostly because the nearest major city is Duluth, and even that is nearly a three-hour drive away. Plus, most of the park can only be accessed via watercraft. All of Voyageurs' 270+ campsites are accessible by water only. There are no RVs, no generators, no noise, and no light pollution with this style of camping. There are few places in the lower 48 you can truly call a backcountry getaway, and this is one of them. There are guided tours on a boat out of the visitor center, but it's more fun to take your own canoe or kayak  and explore the literally dozens of lakes available to visitors. There are also more than 50 miles of trails for hikers looking for a backcountry adventure. In the winter, the National Park Service opens several ice roads and miles of snowmobile trails for some serious sledding in a true wilderness.

For fishermen and women, Voyageurs is a great place to visit simply for the diversity of species available there. Everything from crappie, smallmouth bass, and walleye to lake trout and muskie call Voyageurs home. If you go deep enough into the park, it's possible to find fish that may have never seen an artificial lure before. Voyageurs does have some specific fishing regulations special to the park, so be sure to review those before you go.

Voyageurs is also an awesome place to view wildlife. It's home to the usual residents like black bears, moose, and whitetail deer. But it's also home to several packs of timber wolves, thousands of bald eagles, loons, owls, otters, beavers, weasels, and more. There aren't a lot of places where you can see all those animals in one spot this far east.

Indiana Dunes National Park

National Parks in the Midwest

Getty Images: Jon Lauriat

It's easy to think there's no way to truly enjoy nature and get away from it all while close to a city like Chicago, Illinois. However, less than an hour from the concrete jungle is Indiana Dunes. Formerly a National Lakeshore, it was upgraded to a National Park in 2019 and preserves 15 miles of gorgeous shoreline. There are also towering sand dunes like the famous wandering dune known as Mount Baldy, bogs, and even a historic farm and cemetery. There are approximately 50 miles of hiking trails here that will take you over a variety of terrain. Make no mistake, the dune portions are no joke, even for experienced hikers!

The park has one campground, known as Dunewood Campground. It has 53 sites that are RV only and 66 that are tent only. There are also 13 walk-in sites for those who want a more primitive setup. There are no hookups, but there are modern restrooms and showers, so plan accordingly. Dunes is a great place for a day trip if camping doesn't suit you.

We can easily recommend Dunes as a great place for the kids. They have a highly interactive visitor center with fun activities for the youngsters scheduled all year-round. They also have multiple beaches where you can cool off in the waters of Lake Michigan during the summer months. Another reason we're including this one on the list is simply because of the accessibility. This is one of the few Midwest National Parks, or National Parks anywhere for that matter, that can be easily accessed via public transportation. The Dune Park train station for the South Shore Line runs very close to the Dunes, which means you can access this park from any of the major cities in Northern Indiana, but also Chicago and parts of Southwest Michigan, too.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park

National Parks in the Midwest

Getty Images: Kenneth Keifer

Located just south of the urban sprawl of Cleveland, Ohio is this 32,000-acre park, the only National Park in the state. While that's small by National Park standards, there's no denying the beauty of this place. Historically, it was the home and hunting land of dozens of Native American tribes. Today it's a popular spot for day hikers and features some sights you might not expect for eastern Ohio. There are waterfalls, gorges, and even a historic covered bridge over a quiet stretch of river. Bring a camera or you might regret it, because this place's terrain and scenery is a far cry from the immediate areas around it.

Many people go to Cuyahoga Valley to hike the popular Brandywine Gorge Loop Trail. It's a 1.5-mile hike that will take you to an awesome view of beautiful Brandywine Falls. Wear some quality footwear, as there's an elevation change of approximately 150 feet involved. We can also heartily recommend the Ledges Trail if you're into spectacular rock formations. For those looking for something a little quieter and away from the crowds, consider hiking the more challenging trail to Blue Hen Falls instead. It's a three-mile round trip hike with nearly 600 feet of elevation change.

The only real downside is that Cuyahoga Valley doesn't allow camping, at least not anymore. That means if you're planning multiple days to see it all, you'll have to make do with a hotel or commercial campground nearby. Still, this area is a huge contrast from the big city that's only 30 minutes away. It makes for a perfect day or weekend getaway from the stresses of the rat race.

Isle Royale National Park

National Parks in the Midwest

Getty Images: jstewartphoto

Isle Royale is the least visited park in the lower 48. That's partially because it's closed from October 31 to April 15 every year, but mainly because it's located in the middle of Lake Superior and it's a roughly four- to six-hour boat ride to get there. The only other way in is to charter a float plane from either Michigan or Minnesota. This park often sees less than 30,000 visitors a year, which makes it a great place to go if you want to get away from it all for a week or two, but don't have the budget for a larger adventure someplace further away. Isle Royale is 570,000 acres of mostly raw wilderness crossed with approximately 150 miles of hiking trails and 36 walk-in tent campgrounds to stay at. Most people who visit once end up as frequent repeat visitors.

We recommend the 41-mile Greenstone Ridge Trail which runs across the island interior. Depending on your skill level, it takes most backpackers four to eight days to complete and the people who accomplish it come home with the experience of a lifetime. The views are often spectacular, and you're almost guaranteed to see a moose or two during that trip. At night, listen closely for the few remaining wolves howling.

If hiking isn't your thing, consider taking a kayak or canoe to explore the shoreline of Lake Superior, or take your fishing rod to one of the hundreds of inland lakes. The biggest challenge in enjoying one of the best wilderness experiences in the lower 48 is simply in traveling there. See our complete guide to camping in Isle Royale National Park for more on the logistics of organizing such a trip.

For more outdoor content from Travis Smola, be sure to follow him on Twitter and Instagram For original videos, check out his Geocaching and Outdoors with Travis YouTube channels