When someone mentions the heartland, perhaps the most common image that comes to mind is golden wheat and corn fields. But there are surprising scenic drives throughout the Midwest and state parks worthy of a detour.
From sand dunes to rolling prairies, here are a few places that make the Midwest an excellent road trip and camping destination.
1. Indiana Dunes State Park, Indiana
The outdoor experience at Indiana Dunes State Park is so alluring that a few years ago it spawned a new national park. The state park is located right next door. Sand dunes, some nearly 200 feet high, frame the shores of Lake Michigan. These overlapping habitats mean it’s biodiverse, and you’re likely to see butterflies and birds, singing frogs, and peacefully grazing deer.
Just offshore, under 25 feet of water, lies the wreck of the J.D. Marshall, a ship that sank in 1911 and is a popular stop for divers and kayakers. Onshore, there are 3 miles of beach and seven hiking trails ranging from less than 1 to more than 5 miles. In the winter there’s also cross-country skiing. Nearby attractions include Indiana Dunes National Park; Michigan City, Indiana; Gary, Indiana; and Chicago, which is about an hour away.
Where to Camp
The park has 140 RV sites with 50-amp electrical hookups. The campground has direct access to the dunes, including Mount Tom, the tallest dune in Indiana. Other amenities include showers, a playground, a nature center, and a seasonal store with firewood and other helpful items. Reservations are recommended, especially in summer, and can be made online. The park and campground are open year-round and dog-friendly, except for the beach.
2. Wilson State Park, Kansas
Driving past the farm fields and prairies along Interstate 70 in Kansas, you’d never suspect that just a few miles north lies an oasis of water sports and interesting geology. The 9,000-acre Wilson Lake is particularly beautiful for a reservoir, with a fingered shoreline, rocky outcroppings, and excellent mountain biking trails.
Besides kayaking, motorboating, waterskiing, and fishing, nature lovers appreciate Wilson State Park‘s diverse wildlife and expansive trails, which wind through the prairie ecology of the Smoky Hills. Nearby attractions include a string of refuges and protected areas, the historic African American town of Nicodemus, and the quirky small town of Wilson, home to the World’s Largest Czech egg (it’s 20 feet tall).
Where to Camp
There are several campgrounds in the park, totaling 96 sites with power and water, 30 with power, and four with full hookups. Other amenities include cabins, primitive tent sites, and a marina. Some of the sites and bathhouses are open year-round. All areas are dog-friendly, except for the beaches and swimming areas. Reservations are recommended in the summer and can be made online.
3. Smith Falls State Park, Nebraska
At 70 feet, the tallest waterfall in the state is the namesake attraction here, and worth the drive in itself. But the Niobrara River (a designated National Scenic River) also flows through Smith Falls State Park, making it a refreshing cool-off and float destination. The park is the take-out point for outfitters offering canoe, kayak, and tube floats along the river.
While it’s an easy hike to the falls across a historic bridge, other trails cross more rugged terrain, amidst the naturally rich canyons of Nebraska’s Sand Hills. There’s also a visitor center and an interpretive hiking trail. Nearby attractions include the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, Merritt Reservoir State Recreation area, and the quaint-yet-vibrant town of Valentine, Nebraska.
Where to Camp
Primitive tent camping is available in the park. Amenities include restrooms, showers (for a fee), and a seasonal concession stand. Reservations are recommended in the summer and can be made online. The park and campgrounds are open year-round and are dog-friendly.
4. Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park, Missouri
Geologically speaking, shut-ins are playful canyon rock formations with sculpted rock chutes, waterfalls, and inviting plunge pools, which makes Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park one of the more interesting places one can take a dip after hiking along the park’s miles of trails.
If you don’t feel like swimming, you can still get a great view of the formation from the boardwalk overlooking the shut-ins. There’s also horseback riding and biking through the St. Francois Mountains. Nearby attractions include Taum Sauk Mountain State Park and the small town of Lesterville, Missouri.
Where to Camp
The park has 20 full-hookup sites, 21 electric-only (50 amp), and 10 equestrian sites with electricity and water. Other amenities include cabins, walk-in tent sites, showers, a general store, and a visitor center. Reservations are recommended in the summer and can be made online. The park and campground are open year-round and are dog-friendly, except for the shut-ins proper.
5. Devil’s Lake State Park, Wisconsin
Partly sculpted by glacial ice sheets, Devil’s Lake State Park shows off the varied ecology and geology of the Baraboo Mountains and Wisconsin’s Western Coulee and Ridges landscape. Swim and paddle on the 360-acre lake. Or hike and mountain bike along a backdrop of 500-foot quartzite bluffs—and maybe even climb them.
Devil’s Lake is a coveted Midwest rock climbing area, with more than 5,000 routes from beginner to expert. If you’re not already a honed rock buff, there are local guides who can (literally) teach you the ropes. Nearby attractions include the towns of Baraboo and Madison, Wisconsin, along with their numerous museums and entertainment possibilities.
Where to Camp
There are three campgrounds in the park. Quartzite, with 75 electric and 25 dry sites, is the most open and best for larger rigs. Northern Lights has 71 electric sites and 71 dry ones, plus wooded sites. Ice Age has 89 dry sites and is fully wooded. Other amenities include showers, water taps, a playground, a camp store, a nature center, and seasonal concessions.
The park and Quartzite campground are open year-round, but dump stations are closed in the winter. Reservations are recommended in summer and can be made online. Pets are allowed in many areas in the park, and there’s even a pet picnic area and off-leash swim area for them.