Best Midwest State Parks

Amnicon Falls State Park, Wisconsin
Amnicon Falls State Park. Photo: Gervase Thompson/Wisconsin DNR

We hiked. We swam. We even peeked in the bathrooms. All to bring you a state-by-state guide to 35 of the Midwest's greatest natural treasures.

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Michigan: Porcupine Mountains State Park

Hiking the Escarpment Trail above Lake of the Clouds at Porcupine Mountains State Park
Aaron Peterson

"The Porkies" (150 miles west of Marquette) embody Michigan's remote Upper Peninsula, with 59,000 wild acres, 90 miles of trails and, if you get away from the campsites, not too many visitors. Choose from beaches, bird-filled marshes and hemlock groves. If you only go once, be sure to stop and drop your jaw at the Lake of the Clouds vistas.

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Michigan: Ludington State Park

Big Sable Point Lighthouse
Bob Stefko

Ludington State Park (100 miles northwest of Grand Rapids) is busy enough to warrant a rich lineup of amenities and programming--including boat rentals, lighthouse tours and guided dune walks--but large enough, at 5,300 acres, to escape summer crowding. Lake Michigan beckons, cobalt waves washing onto unruly dunes. Trails hopscotch over bridges and boardwalks along inland Hamlin Lake. A bike path traces the tranquil Sable River, and a 2-mile hike north through wild sands leads to the lighthouse tower at Big Sable Point.

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Michigan: Wilderness State Park

Carp Lake, Michigan: Wilderness State Park Campground

One of the biggest parks on the Michigan "mitten" sprawls over a wooded Lake Michigan peninsula. Wilderness State Park (100 miles northeast of Traverse City) offers a perfect mix: Swim and sunbathe, then head inland to hike. Most visitors stick to the shore, so the trails are quiet. And really, is there anything more lovely in life than waking up with a Great Lake outside your tent?

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Indiana: Brown County State Park

Brown County State Park
Kevin J. Miyazaki/Redux

The peaceful vistas alone warrant a day trip to Brown County State Park, Indiana's largest state park (60 miles south of Indianapolis), but resort-style extras make this a full-fledged destination. The great on-site stable offers horseback trips and pony rides, and the restaurant-lodge includes an indoor water park.

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Indiana: Falls of the Ohio State Park

IDNR / Falls of the Ohio State Park
Courtesy of IDNR / Falls of the Ohio State Park

What's the draw to this utterly unwild park across the Ohio River from Louisville? Fossils. Tons and tons of them, preserved in a rockbed along the river. Visit the excellent museum first, so that when you're down on the rocks, you know your tubes from your tusks.

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Indiana: Indiana Dunes State Park

Chesterton, Indiana
Photo Courtesy of Christine Livingston/Indiana Dunes Tourism

Yes, the surroundings are a bit industrial, but once you hit the sand, it's all sparkling Lake Michigan goodness. Most people come to Indiana Dunes State Park to swim or slide down the huge dunes, some up to 100 feet tall. Inland, though, you'll find great trails. Check out the brochure that breaks down hour-, day- or week-long visits to the park (40 miles southeast of Chicago).

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Indiana: Turkey Run State Park

Turkey Run State Park in Bloomington, Indiana

Turkey Run State Park, Indiana's best all-around park (65 miles west of Indianapolis) has a large lodge; hiking trails through deep, wooded ravines; horseback riding; and an impressive, year-round lineup of naturalist programming. Just one minor quibble: You have to go off-site for popular canoeing and tubing on Sugar Creek.

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Ohio: Hocking Hills State Park

Hocking Hills Hike Ohio
Ryan Donnell

Seven park units cradle soaring shelf caves, fern-filled valleys and sweeping overlooks at Hocking Hills State Park (55 miles southeast of Columbus). Expect company on the trails, especially in fall, when crowds snake past Ash Cave and Old Man's Cave. But on weekdays, you might have the stunning Conkle's Hollow Rim Trail all to yourself.

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Ohio: Hueston Woods State Park

Ohio Department of Natural Resources
Courtesy of Ohio Department of Natural Resources

Hueston Woods State Park is an action-packed resort park on Acton Lake (35 miles northwest of Cincinnati) that offers canoe, pontoon and mountain bike rentals; horseback riding; an 18-hole golf course; archery—even paintball! The amenities turn what might be a quite ordinary lake-and-woods vacation into an adventure.

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Ohio: Lake Hope State Park

Lake Hope State Park, Ohio Department of Natural Resources
Courtesy of Ohio Department of Natural Resources

Wooded hills surround Lake Hope (70 miles southeast of Columbus), where kayakers can paddle through fields of pink water lilies. The atmosphere at this pretty little park is decidedly kid-friendly (Disney movies in the campground), but there are grown-up touches, too, like a rent-a-tent program for newbie campers. If you stay in a cabin, try to snag one of the historic Forest Cottages, named for trees.

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Wisconsin: Amnicon Falls State Park

Amnicon Falls State Park, Wisconsin
Amnicon Falls State Park. Gervase Thompson/Wisconsin DNR

Even locals sometimes forget about this little gem of a park (20 miles southeast of Duluth), where water tumbles over rocks into a swimming hole, and a historic covered bridge spans the falls. The short (though pretty) trails at Amnicon Falls State Park will disappoint hard-core hikers, but if you just want to get your Zen on listening to water splash over stones, this is a lovely spot to do it.

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Wisconsin: Door County state parks

Things to Do in Door County--Rock Island

Five state parks—Newport, Peninsula, Potawatomi, Rock Island (pictured) and Whitefish Dunes—preserve the pebbled beaches, rocky bluffs and pine forests along the 80-mile-long Door Peninsula. Each park has its own landscape, but isolated on a peninsula, the Door County parks feel interrelated, too, like chapters in a book. So if you come all the way out here, you ought to visit more than one.

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Wisconsin: Interstate State Park

Interstate State Park

Choosing between Minnesota and Wisconsin's Interstate State Parks feels a little like asking a mother which child she prefers. A mom can't play favorites, but we can. The parks face off across the St. Croix River. Both offer cool hikes by rocky glacial potholes, but the larger Wisconsin park (50 miles northeast of Saint Paul) also has a large swimming lake, a heron rookery, a wildlife trail and naturalist-led hikes in the summer. If you want to visit both, the US-8 bridge links the parks.

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Illinois: Cache River State Natural Area

Cache River State Natural Area.
Cache River State Natural Area..

A blue heron screeches overhead, and the floating boardwalk groans in the eerie, strangely beautiful swamplands of Cache River State Natural Area (150 miles southeast of St. Louis). This 14,000-acre preserve protects one of just six spots in the country where four ecological regions overlap, making for an incredible diversity of landscapes and wildlife.

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Illinois: Starved Rock State Park

Starved Rock State Park, LaSalle County
Starved Rock State Park, Lasalle County. Ryan Donnell

You could come here and never leave the lodge, kicking back with a burger, watching a fiery sunset over the trees. But then you'd never know the beauty of this pocket of Illinois (90 miles southwest of Chicago). So tear yourself away from your Wi-Fi-equipped room and head out on the well-marked trails, which climb past waterfalls, rock formations and gorgeous Illinois River views. A short drive away is Matthiessen State Park, Starved Rock State Park's pretty (but much less crowded) little sibling.

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Minnesota: Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park

Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park

Around 1900, a forward-thinking farmer bought up the dying town of Forestville and patiently waited for the state to recognize what he had saved. Today, interpreters chat with visitors in this beautifully resurrected pioneer town (120 miles south of Saint Paul). The village shares a park with Minnesota's longest cave, open for tours in the summer.

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Minnesota: North Shore state parks

Gooseberry Falls State Park
Beth Mancuso

North of Duluth on State-61, the turnoffs for fabulous North Shore state parks come one after another, like Burma Shave signs flashing past your window: Gooseberry Falls, Split Rock Lighthouse, Tettegouche. All told, eight parks sit along the North Shore, loaded with waterfalls, forest trails and achingly beautiful Lake Superior views (40 miles northeast of Duluth).

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Minnesota: Blue Mounds State Park

Blue Mounds State Park
Blue Mounds State Park. Beth Mancuso

Blue Mounds State Park offers a change in landscape from most Minnesota parks: wide-open spaces. Visitors come for simple prairie pleasures, like prickly pears blooming in June and July, bison grazing on wild grasses and quiet hikes along windswept trails (35 miles northeast of Sioux Falls, South Dakota).

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Iowa: Backbone State Park

Backbone State Park, Northeast Iowa RC&D
Backbone State Park. Courtesy of Northeast Iowa RC&D

At Backbone State Park, elevation-starved Iowans love Backbone Trail, a rocky ridge high above Backbone Lake with a string of knee-knocking overlooks. The trail alone is worth a visit, but Backbone is actually a nice all-around park (55 miles west of Dubuque), with canoe rentals, a popular trout stream and a handful of pleasant cabins.

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Iowa: Maquoketa Caves State Park

Iowa: Maquoketa Caves State Park

Cornfields and combines feel eons away from the lush and strangely exotic landscape at Maquoketa Caves State Park (30 miles south of Dubuque), where a long wood staircase descends from a concrete picnic area into an almost prehistoric world. Towering stone walls, moss-covered rocks and an emerald canopy unfold around the Maquoketa Caves' 16 caves and crawl spaces. Ducking under low-hanging rocks and clambering along a roller coaster of steps, visitors feel like real explorers. Bring a flashlight-and a towel to wipe mud off your shoes. Check the park website before you go for cave accessibility; Iowa's Department of Natural Resources monitors the bats in the park's caves to help prevent the spread of White Nose Syndrome by humans.

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Iowa: Ledges State Park

Ledges State Park, Iowa
Andy Barlett

At Ledges State Park, a web of steep trails loops over the sandstone cliffs along Pease Creek. The campground is pleasant (and a few walk-in sites are very cool), but most visitors are day-trippers from Des Moines (40 miles southeast) who come to picnic, hike and wade along the Canyon Road. Parents: Pack extra clothes. The splashy spots where the path crosses the creek are kid magnets.

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Missouri: Ha Ha Tonka State Park

Ha Ha Tonka State Park.
John Noltner

Most visitors head straight for the stone ruins that overlook Lake of the Ozarks. And with good reason—no other state park has skeletal remains of a blufftop mansion. But Ha Ha Tonka State Park (80 miles northeast of Springfield) also has wonderfully varied nature trails, which snake along a hilltop, by a spring-fed river and under a natural bridge.

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Missouri: Katy Trail State Park

Katy Trail, Missouri
Starboard & Port Creative

Katy Trail State Park, the nation's longest rails-to-trails bike path starts northwest of St. Louis in St. Charles and loosely follows the Missouri River west for 225 miles, through small towns, farmland, prairie and wine country. Ultimately, the 25-year-old trail will link to city and county bike paths to Kansas City, making it possible to pedal across all of Missouri.

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Missouri: Meramec State Park

Meramec State Park, Missouri
Courtesy of Missouri Department of Natural Resources

Every summer, thousands of people canoe near Mark Twain National Forest on the Meramec River, but most never realize they've entered one of the Midwest's most diverse river ecosystems. (There are 45 varieties of fresh-water mussels alone!) Besides canoe rentals, Meramec State Park (70 miles southwest of St. Louis) has a good nature center, nicely spaced cabins and guided cave tours.

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Missouri: Sam A. Baker State Park

Sam A. Baker State Park, Missouri
Courtesy of Missouri Department of Natural Resources

Sam A. Baker State Park in the St. Francois Mountains (125 miles southwest of St. Louis) stands out as much for its homey atmosphere as its verdant landscape. Friendly staff and great amenities (free sports equipment, nicely spaced cabins and campsites, a well-stocked store and a noticeably pleasant laundry room) make Sam A. Baker a camper's dream. Most people rent canoes for leisurely float trips along the St. Francois River.

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North Dakota: Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park

Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park
Courtesy of North Dakota Tourism

Touring Fort Abe Lincoln (10 miles southwest of Bismarck) feels a little like time-traveling to your last elementary field trip--not least because, on many weekdays, you'll see busloads of schoolkids wandering around the grounds. But the history preserved here is compelling, no matter your age. Highlights include interpreters in Civil War-style uniforms, rows and rows of beds in the barracks, a re-created Native American village and George Custer's actual "Mansion on the Prairie." A great museum ties all the historical pieces together.

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North Dakota: Lake Metigoshe State Park

Lake Metigoshe State Park
Courtesy of Bottineau EDC

Right on the Canadian border, 200 miles north of Bismarck, Lake Metigoshe State Park offers a well-rounded, classic lake vacation--walleye fishing, a tidy beach, clean cabins, a friendly Fourth of July fireworks show and canoeing—with way less noise and crowds than you'll find at big, better-known Lake Sakakawea.

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South Dakota: Custer State Park

American bison on road at Custer State Park
Ryan Donnell

At 71,000 acres, Custer State Park (30 miles south of Rapid City) is one of the nation's largest state parks, known for granite spires called Needles and the 1,500 head of bison that wander freely throughout the park. Seeing them shuffle through a campsite or along the 18-mile Wildlife Loop road never loses its thrill. Iron Mountain Road into the park from Keystone takes lots of switchbacks, offering absolutely stunning views. The 1922 State Game Lodge is one of four on-site resorts.

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South Dakota: Lewis and Clark Recreation Area

Lewis and Clark Recreation Area
Lewis and Clark Recreation Area. Chad Coopess

Lewis and Clark Recreation Area is one of the Midwest's largest state recreation areas—with some 600 campsites, a small motel and cabins—that hugs the north shore of Lewis and Clark Lake along the Missouri River (90 miles southwest of Sioux Falls). Amenities include a fun restaurant, pools, a well-run marina and picnic areas with Nebraska bluff views. Just one tip: Pack bug spray.

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South Dakota: Palisades State Park

Garretson, South Dakota: Palisades State Park

Gorgeous red cliffs flank Split Rock Creek, some climbing 50 feet above the water at Palisades State Park (20 miles northeast of Sioux Falls). Swimming isn't allowed, but picturesque picnic spots—perfect for relaxing with a book—are abundant. In fact, one summer ranger program is "Photography at the Palisades."

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Nebraska: Eugene T. Mahoney State Park

Ashland, Nebraska: Eugene T. Mahoney State Park

Eugene T. Mahoney State Park is all about amenities: trail rides, miniature golf, a driving range, a water park, pedal boats, theater performances, a hotel-restaurant and an ice rink in winter. The grounds are as manicured as a golf course, and the cabin clusters look like suburban subdivisions. Rugged, it's not, but you can't beat the price for a family-friendly resort vacation (30 miles southwest of Omaha).

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Nebraska: Fort Robinson State Park

Fort Robinson State Park, Nebraska
Courtesy of Fort Robinson State Park

Fort Robinson State Park fuses history and nature. Pine-topped bluffs frame the site where Indian wars were fought, Crazy Horse died and soldiers trained for World War I. Jeep and horseback tours head into the hills, a theater shows live musicals, and lodging includes motel-style rooms in the former cavalry quarters (125 miles south of Rapid City, South Dakota).

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Nebraska: Ponca State Park

Nebraska: Ponca State Park

For such a little-known park, Ponca (125 miles north of Omaha) offers a surprisingly well-rounded experience. Choose from a nine-hole golf course, 20 miles of varied hiking trails, a rich lineup of naturalist programs, horseback trail rides and a first-class park museum. Slick recently built cabins sleep eight--perfect for family reunions.

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Kansas: Cheney State Park and Crawford State Park

Hocking Hills Hike Ohio
Ryan Donnell

At Cheney State Park, Cheney Reservoir (35 miles west of Wichita) serves up three summertime essentials—water, sand and sunshine. Hidden swimming coves punctuate the shoreline, and strong winds make for one of Kansas' most striking (and surprising) sights: sailboats zipping across bright blue water under the bright blue dome of the prairie sky.

At Crawford State Park, shade trees soften the edges of Crawford Lake (110 miles south of Kansas City, Missouri), so it looks more natural than some man-made lakes. The leafy landscape--unusual in Kansas--might explain the fierce local pride for the park. (Volunteers plant flowers and tidy the grounds.) Most visitors come to camp or fish, but it's worth walking to a moving memorial to the Civilian Conservation Corps, whose workers built the stone-and-log buildings that are hallmarks of state parks.

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