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Heartland Classics: 11 Family Favorite Summer Destinations

School is out! Summer is here, and the entire family is ready for a break and some fun. Can we suggest a road trip to one of these quintessential Midwest family vacation destinations?

The heartland has it all—lakeside retreats, amusement parks,  iconic landmarks, vibrant cities and towns. This is meant for inspiration, whether you're looking to get away from it all or jump into the thick of it. No matter which one you pick, we promise your family will make memories that last a lifetime. —

Best Midwest Vacations for Families

Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

Early morning light at Council Overhang with fall/autumn colors. Starved Rock state park, Illinois, USA.

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If your idea of family fun is heading into the great outdoors, you should check out Starved Rock State Park. An hour and a half drive from Chicago, this Illinois State Park features 13 miles of hiking trails, seasonal waterfalls, and 18 canyons to explore. With outdoor activities for all ages, this historic site is one of the most loved natural areas in the entire state.

If you have young kids, take one of the guided trolley tours. Kids love trolleys. You can also take a guided river cruise, which is fun and easy way to explore the place. If you're interesting in hiking but kind of new to it, look into the Starved Rock's guided hiking program. You'll learn more about the natural world than if you hiked yourself.  Other recreational activities include fishing and boating. While you're in the area, the kids will also love to go to the Legoland Discovery Center and the legendary Navy Pier in central Chicago.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

A weathered wooden walkway on the Empire Bluffs Trail is the perfect overlook to see Lake Michigan, the Sleeping Bear Dunes, and the Manitou island

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Located 40 minutes from the small town of Traverse City on the gorgeous shores of Lake Michigan, Sleeping Bear Dunes is one of our favorite family destinations for an outdoorsy weekend getaway. There's nothing that says family time like spending a few nights camping along a lake, soaking in the natural beauty with your loved ones. At Sleeping Bear Dunes, you can discover miles and miles of sandy beaches, 450-foot bluffs above the lakeside, dense forests, and unique plants and animals that make for a truly unforgettable outdoor adventure.

Indianapolis, Indiana

Canal in Indianapolis,IN,USA

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The capital of Indiana does get as much attention as some other midwestern cities, but it's a great town for family vacation destination. With a wide array of family-friendly attractions, unique eats, and sightseeing for days, Indianapolis provides a vacation chock-full of fun for the whole family. Our favorite spots include the Indianapolis Zoo, the Children's Museum, the Canal Walk, White River State Park, and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (home to the iconic Indy 500).

RELATED: 10 Reasons to Circle Indianapolis, Indiana for a Vacation

The Black Hills and Badlands

Father and teenager boys hiking in green field.

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Home of the Oceti Sakowin, the Black Hills and Badlands are composed of the seven bands of the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota people. Known for Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park, and the Black Hills of South Dakota, you have almost too many options on how to spend time with your crew.

We recommend skipping the tourist trap at Mount Rushmore and instead visit the amazing Indigenous cultural and historical sites to immerse your children in the real history of the area. Here is a list to get you started: The Journey Learning Museum Center, Crazy Horse Memorial, Red Cloud Heritage Center, Wounded Knee Site, Bear Butte State Park, and Black Elk Peak.

Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin

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When the heat gets to be too much, it's time to jump in the pool. Few things will make kids as happy as a trip to the water park capital of the country. The giant indoor waterpark Kalahari is one of the most famous. The other two most popular water slides and wave pool spots are Wilderness Resort and Great Wolf Lodge.

St. Louis, Missouri

view of skyline with ferris wheel

Jon DeJong, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Centrally located in the great Midwest, St. Louis is an ideal city for an urban family vacation. You absolutely have to devote a day to visit the incredible City Museum, a 100-year-old warehouse repurposed into bridges, tunnels, slides, a rooftop terrace, secret passages, playgrounds, and more. I promise it'll become your kids favorite museum.

Minneapolis & Saint Paul, Minnesota

Front entrance of the Mall of America in Bloomington, MN

Tyler Vigen, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Home of the world-famous Mall of America, Minneapolis is an excellent destination for a weekend getaway. Kid-centric activities include the Nickelodeon Universe, the Crayola Experience, the Sea Life Aquarium, blacklight mini-golf, an indoor theme park with a rollercoaster, just to name a few. If you instead opt outside, the city offers a multitude of amazing public gardens to discover. You can even drive 15 minutes to Saint Paul for even more fun, including a Minnesota Science Museum trip.

Branson, Missouri

titanic museum branson missouri

Brad A. Totman, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Nestled three hours south of Kansas City, Branson, Missouri, serves as a hub for family-friendly activities. Still Water Resort sits on the shores of Table Rock lake and offers a fun resort-style setting for a stay, while Silver Dollar City is an amusement park that caters to kids of all ages. The Shepherd of the Hills has historic farm, aerial ropes course, zipline, and mountain coaster. Take in the beauty of the Ozark Mountains with an outdoor-centered camping adventure at Table Rock State Park where activities include biking, swimming, boating, kayaking, and paddleboarding. The Track Family Fun Park is another place for more go-karting and entertainment.

RELATED: Forget Branson: Experience a Quieter, Wilder Ozark Mountains

Mackinac Island, MI

Children chasing birds (seagulls) on Mackinac Island, Michigan.

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Dating back to the 1800s as a one-of-a-kind summer vacation spot, Mackinac Island is a sure bet for your family getaway. With no cars and no chain hotels and restaurants, we promise this Great Lakes destination is off of the shores of Lake Michigan will look like nowhere you've ever been. It feels like an oasis of beautiful golf courses, horse-drawn carriage tours, famous fudge and ice cream, ferry rides, and all things water sports.

Omaha, Nebraska

Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo Kids and Family's Having a Fun day at the Zoo

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Omaha is another unsuspecting hub for entertainment and activities geared towards families. Some of our favorites are the Omaha Children's Museum, the Joslyn Art Museum, the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, and the Lauritzen Gardens (the Omaha Botanical gardens). For more nature vibes, plan a trip to Mahoney State Park, where you can go horseback riding, do arts and crafts, go biking and hiking, and skate and sled in the winter.

Cleveland, Ohio

Storm Clouds Over Cleveland

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Cleveland, Ohio, is the perfect place to take your kids who are into all things music. Take a tour of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, then go to the immersive Great Lakes Science Center. Additional family-friendly spots include The Children's Museum of Cleveland and the Greater Cleveland Aquarium.


An avid adventurer and lover of all things outdoors and travel, Sydney Paschall has explored and discovered as many beautiful places as she can, with extra time spent in Oregon, Colorado, and driving up and down the west coast. Now based in Austin, Sydney focuses her time on writing, social justice, activism, living more mindfully, and staying active to optimize the mind, body, and soul. Instagram: @_sydshine

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