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The Best State Parks in the Midwest—and How to Visit

By AFAR Editors

Sep 15, 2020

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Starved Rock State Park in Illinois is one of the top parks in the Midwest.

Photo by Shutterstock/Owen Weber

Starved Rock State Park in Illinois is one of the top parks in the Midwest.

From Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin to Grand Portage State Park in Minnesota, hikers, campers, and outdoor adventurers will want to add these 12 best state parks in the Midwest to their list.

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This story is part of our “See America, One State Park at a Time” series. Though COVID-19 has stalled many travel plans, AFAR is continuing to cover the world, because while you may not be traveling right now, there’s always room for inspiration.

The states between the East and West Coasts have long been dubbed “flyover country”—places many only see by air and don’t bother to explore on the ground. But ask anyone familiar with the Midwest, and most will tell you that this designation has its pros: It means fewer people in some of the country’s most scenic state parks. These 12 states—Indiana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Illinois, Ohio, and Missouri—offer old-growth forests, million-year-old sandstone gorges, ambling bison, and an abundance of water in the form of rivers, waterfalls, and lakes galore. 

Illinois

Starved Rock State Park

Illinois’s Starved Rock State Park is an amazing place to visit. The canyons and waterfalls take you to a different time and place, and the bluffs with eagles soaring overhead are special.” —Bernie Rupe, executive director of Chicago Voyagers, which serves more than 400 at-risk teens from Chicago and the surrounding area through outdoor adventure programming

  • Nearest city to Starved Rock State Park: Chicago, IL
  • Where to stay when visiting Starved Rock State Park: Stay steps from the Chicago River at the Kimpton Hotel Monaco, to ensure you’re close to water wherever you find it. 

Turkey Run State Park in Indiana is known for its sandstone caves.

Indiana

Turkey Run State Park

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Located in the west-central part of the state, Turkey Run State Park allows visitors a glimpse into Indiana’s past: Here, you can walk amid old-growth trees and descend into sandstone gorges that are between 300 to 600 million years old. (Some 285 acres of the state park are virgin timber, meaning there has never been any logging or cutting.) In warmer months, canoeing and fishing on scenic Sugar Creek—which flows through the heart of the park—is a popular pastime.

  • Nearest city to Turkey Run State Park: Indianapolis, IN
  • Where to stay when visiting Turkey Run State Park: Book a stay at an Amish barn home on Airbnb, right across from the park

Backbone State Park was the first state park in Iowa.

Iowa 

Backbone State Park

So named for its steep bluff carved by the Maquoketa River, Backbone State Park was dedicated in 1920 as Iowa’s first state park. Its significance remains: Today, it has 21 miles of mixed-use trails—including one up to the Devil’s Backbone itself—lush woodlands, and a cold, quick stream beloved by trout fishers. 

  • Nearest city to Backbone State Park: Cedar Rapids, IA
  • Where to stay when visiting Backbone State Park: In the late 19th century it was the Clayton County jail—now reborn as the Elkader JailHouse Inn. It’s conveniently located 17 miles from the park.

Mushroom Rock State Park is Kansas’s smallest state park.

Kansas

Mushroom Rock State Park

At just five acres in size, Mushroom Rock State Park is Kansas’s smallest state park. No matter: Its main attraction—some of the most unusual rock formations in the United States—makes it worth a visit. Resembling giant mushrooms creeping up from the ground, the rocks are the remains of beach sands and sediment from the Cretaceous Period—a cool 144 to 66 million years ago. The largest rock in the state park is 27 feet in diameter. 

  • Nearest city to Mushroom Rock State Park: Kansas City, KS
  • Where to stay when visiting Mushroom Rock State Park: Book this charming, historic limestone cabin Airbnb all to yourself and you’ll be 15 minutes from the park by car. 

Mackinac Island State Park was established in 1895.

Michigan

Mackinac Island State Park

Michigan’s first state park, Mackinac Island was established in 1895 and is located on a car-free island where the lower and upper peninsulas meet. Be sure to venture beyond the fudge shops near the historic downtown where the ferries let out. We recommend renting a bike and doing the 8-mile loop of the island on Lake Shore Boulevard. Staying for more than a few hours? There are 70.5 miles of roads and trails to explore.

  • Nearest city to Mackinac Island State Park: Traverse City, MI
  • Where to stay when visiting Mackinac Island State Park: Book one of the 397 rooms at the historic 1887 Grand Hotel, one of the island’s most recognizable landmarks and home to the world’s longest porch.

Grand Portage State Park is the only state park jointly managed by a state and a Native American band.

Minnesota

Grand Portage State Park

Minnesota has no shortage of state parks, from Itasca (where the Mississippi River begins) to Glendalough (whose land was once visited by presidents Eisenhower and Nixon). But Grand Portage State Park, on the U.S.-Canada border, is the only Minnesota state park not owned by the state—instead, it’s leased to Minnesota for $1 a year by the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, whose land it’s on. (It’s also the only state park jointly managed by a state and a Native American band.) Famed for its 120-foot waterfall—the tallest in the state—the park has a wheelchair-accessible path and three viewing platforms. 

  • Nearest city to Grand Portage State Park: Duluth, MA
  • Where to stay when visiting Grand Portage State Park: The hip Mayhew Inn is Grand Marais’s only boutique hotel. With just six artist-designed suites inside the brick building from the 1900s, the hotel has the feel of an Airbnb (unsurprisingly, its rooms are listed there, too).

Elephant Rocks State Park has million-year-old boulders.

Missouri

Elephant Rocks State Park

Where to find elephants in Missouri? If you’re looking for them in the form of Precambrian granite boulders, the aptly named Elephant Rocks State Park is your best bet. Standing in line like a frozen-in-time traveling parade of elephants, these 1.5-million-year-old rocks are popular with geologists and children alike. For an excellent vantage point, hike the Braille Trail loop, which is primarily wheelchair accessible and has more than 20 educational placards written in English and Braille.

  • Nearest city to Elephant Rocks State Park: St. Louis, MO
  • Where to stay when visiting Elephant Rocks State Park: For out-there living, book this renovated silo in Bonne Terre (35 minutes away).
Platte River State Park offers peaceful views of the Platte River.

Nebraska

Platte River State Park

Situated evenly between state biggies Omaha and Lincoln, Platte River State Park offers peaceful views of the Platte River. Hiking and biking trails abound, and those who hoof it to the top of the two observation towers will be rewarded with spectacular views of the Platte River Basin below. The state park used to be two camps—Harriet Harding Campfire Girls Camp and Camp Esther K. Newman—and vintage cabins that once housed young campers remain.

  • Nearest city to Platte River State Park: Omaha, NE
  • Where to stay when visiting Platte River State Park: In a 1923 building modeled after Florence’s Bargello Palace, the Magnolia Hotel is in the heart of Omaha’s arts and entertainment district. 

Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park is the oldest state park in North Dakota.

North Dakota

Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park

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The oldest state park in North Dakota, Fort Abraham Lincoln was established in 1907 on grassy plains once home to the Mandan tribe. Today, it has six reconstructed lodges to showcase the tribe’s meeting places. For a bird’s-eye-view of the Missouri River, head to the top of the park’s blockhouse. 

  • Nearest city to Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park: Bismarck, ND
  • Where to stay when visiting Fort Abraham Lincoln State ParkBook an 18-foot tepee inside the park and sleep next to the Mighty Missouri for only $35 a night, or shell out a little more for a camping cabin ($60 per night). 

Hocking Hills State Park has a number of activities for travelers.

Ohio

Hocking Hills State Park

Hocking Hills is so big—thousands of acres, with some 25 miles of hiking trails—it gets its own tourism site. It’s also fairly thrilling to consider all the different adventures you could have here: hiking to caves that also attracted the Adena people some 7,000 years ago; rock climbing and rappelling; mountain biking and zip-lining. The state park is incredibly popular, for good reason.

  • Nearest city to Hocking Hills State Park: Columbus, OH
  • Where to stay when visiting  Hocking Hills State Park: Book anything from a one- to five-bedroom cabin or cottage within the park.
Bison roam wild at Custer State Park in South Dakota.

South Dakota

Custer State Park

As one of the largest state parks in the nation, Custer State Park covers a whopping 71,000 acres. Nearly 1,500 bison roam these acres, which is why maximum driving speeds in the park are 35 mph, and guests are asked to keep their distance from the animals, which can top 2,000 pounds each. Within its borders, Custer State Park also counts shimmering Sylvan Lake, a ghost town, and vistas of granite spires stretching into the sky. 

  • Nearest city to Custer State Park: Rapid City, SD
  • Where to stay when visiting Custer State Park: Glamp in comfort at Under Canvas’s Mount Rushmore outpost, which is 10 minutes by car from the memorial and around 30 from Custer State Park. 
Devil’s Lake State Park has some of the best rock climbing in Wisconsin

Wisconsin

Devil’s Lake State Park 

“I am particularly fond of Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin. Not only does it have one of the best rock climbing areas in the Midwest, it offers wonderful picnic areas and beaches, plus it’s right along the Ice Age National Scenic Hiking Trail. For outdoor recreation, Devil’s Lake pretty much has it all.” —James Edward Mills, founder of the Madison-based Joy Trip Project

  • Nearest city to Devil’s Lake State Park: Madison, WI
  • Where to stay when visiting Devil’s Lake State Park: This gorgeous A-frame cabin in the Baraboo Bluffs is minutes from the park, sleeps six, and is $322 per night.

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