Exploring the great outdoors has always been a cherished pastime for nature enthusiasts, and when it comes to breathtaking landscapes, the Midwest National Parks offer an abundance of awe-inspiring trails. Whether you’re an avid hiker or a casual adventurer seeking to immerse yourself in the beauty of nature, the Midwest region holds a treasure trove of captivating hiking experiences. In this article, we will delve into the heart of the best hikes in Midwest National Parks, guiding you through a collection of trails that showcase the region’s diverse ecosystems, stunning vistas, and the harmonious blend of wildlife and wilderness. Get ready to embark on unforgettable journeys through these magnificent parks, where the phrase “best hikes in Midwest National Parks” takes on a whole new meaning.
Last Updated: May 2023
Badlands National Park, SD
This is one Midwest national park that is severely underrated! Located between the cities of Scenic and Interior, Badlands National Park is a hidden gem spanning an impressive 244,000 acres of rugged beauty and rich history. As you approach the trailheads, you’ll be greeted by a captivating panorama of majestic buttes and towering spires, offering a tantalizing preview of the breathtaking sights you’re about to encounter up close.
While the selection of hiking trails within Badlands National Park may be relatively modest, there is one trail that stands out among the rest, captivating hikers with its unique and exhilarating features. This particular trail takes adventurers on an unforgettable journey, showcasing the park’s remarkable geological formations, fascinating wildlife, and a sense of adventure that is hard to find elsewhere.
The Notch Trail
As you set foot on this trail, the first thing that captures your attention is the diverse topography. The path winds through a mesmerizing tapestry of jagged cliffs, deep canyons, and rugged valleys, each turn revealing a new facet of the park’s geological wonders. The kaleidoscope of colors that adorn the Badlands is a testament to millions of years of natural erosion, creating a landscape that appears as if it belongs to another world.
Spanning a 1.5-mile round trip, this trail is guaranteed to leave you awe-inspired at every turn. Prepare to feast your eyes on breathtaking views of the sprawling canyon and the majestic park that surrounds it. As you delve deeper into the hike, you’ll find yourself immersed in a winding canyon, where nature’s wonders unfold before your very eyes.
But hold onto your hats, because the highlight of this trail is nothing short of extraordinary—the legendary log ladder. Imagine the thrill of climbing up this unique structure, ascending step by step until you reach a dramatic ledge overlooking the entire White River Valley. The adrenaline coursing through your veins will be rewarded with an unrivaled view that will take your breath away. It’s the kind of vista that dreams are made of, where the sheer grandeur of nature’s artwork unfolds before you in all its glory.
And it’s not just the scenery that makes this trail a must-visit. Keep your eyes peeled for the park’s fascinating inhabitants as they roam freely in their natural habitat. Spotting bighorn sheep gracefully navigating the rugged terrain or catching a glimpse of the mighty bison as they graze in the distance adds an extra layer of excitement to your adventure. As you tread carefully along the trail, you become a guest in their domain, witnessing nature’s harmony firsthand.
Tip: Go early in the morning or evening when the sun is low in the sky. The colors are magical at these times, versus midday when the light (and heat!) can be extra harsh. Also make sure to wear sturdy boots for this one and watch out for cacti.
Hot Springs National Park, AR
Sunset Trail to Balanced Rock
If you’re yearning for a thrilling adventure that will leave you spellbound, look no farther than the magnificent Hot Springs National Park. Prepare to be whisked away on an unforgettable journey as you lace up your hiking boots and embark on the mesmerizing Sunset Trail. Spanning approximately 10 miles, this trail winds its way through the park’s most remote and captivating landscapes, promising a truly immersive and awe-inspiring experience.
The Sunset Trail is a treasure trove of diverse terrain that will keep you engaged and exhilarated from start to finish. As you traverse this magnificent path, you’ll encounter a symphony of landscapes, from gentle slopes to rocky outcrops, from lush meadows to dense woodlands. Each step brings new surprises and challenges, as the trail meanders through the heart of nature’s playground.
One of the highlights of the Sunset Trail awaits you at a trail spur, leading you to a true marvel—Balanced Rock. Prepare to be awestruck as you arrive at this breathtaking viewpoint, offering panoramic vistas of the surrounding area. From this vantage point, you’ll witness the sheer beauty of nature’s architectural prowess, with the majestic Balanced Rock defying gravity as it precariously balances on its slender pedestal. It’s a sight that will leave you mesmerized, with the world below stretching out in a tapestry of natural wonders.
Divided into three distinct sections, the Sunset Trail presents a diverse tapestry of landscapes and experiences. The West Mountain Section showcases the park’s highest point, Music Mountain, where panoramic views reward those who conquer its summit. Gazing out across the vast expanse of the park, you’ll feel on top of the world, embraced by nature’s embrace and inspired by its grandeur.
The Sugarloaf Mountain Section, on the other hand, beckons adventurers with its promise of discovering the awe-inspiring Balanced Rock. This geological marvel stands as a testament to the power and artistry of natural forces, and as you stand in its presence, you’ll feel a profound sense of wonder at the intricate balance of the world around you.
The final section of the Sunset Trail, Stonebridge Road, unveils another hidden gem—Rick’s Pond. This tranquil oasis provides a serene respite along your journey, offering an opportunity to observe and appreciate the rich aquatic wildlife that call this park home. Take a moment to sit by the pond’s edge, soak in the peaceful ambiance, and witness nature’s delicate dance unfold before your eyes.
*Note about the Sunset Trail.
There are many spurs along the trail that could lead you out of the park and onto private property. Be careful to stay on the marked trail by following the orange blazes.
At Pete’s Pond, there are bridges that cross the pond, however the land and trails on the other side are private property.
Indiana Dunes National Park, IN
Prepare for an exhilarating adventure like no other as you step foot into the Indiana Dunes, where the legendary 3 Dune Challenge awaits. Brace yourself for an unforgettable test of strength and determination as you take on the towering dune climbs that will push your limits to the extreme. But fear not, for the reward that awaits you at the summit is worth every ounce of effort. Prepare to be mesmerized by the breathtaking vistas that unveil themselves, showcasing the unparalleled beauty of the majestic Lake Michigan. And when you conquer the challenge, don’t forget to proudly claim your well-deserved badge of honor—a free Dune Challenge sticker that marks your triumphant accomplishment.
As you embark on this epic journey, the Indiana Dunes National Park unfolds before you like a natural wonderland. Each dune climb presents a thrilling ascent, as you push yourself higher and higher, one step at a time. The sand beneath your feet shifts and molds with each stride, offering a sense of both resistance and freedom. As you conquer each dune, you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views that extend as far as the eye can see, where the azure waters of Lake Michigan meet the endless horizon, creating a picture-perfect postcard of nature’s majesty.
But the adventure doesn’t end with the 3 Dune Challenge. If you still find yourself brimming with energy and a thirst for exploration, be sure to venture to nearby Cowles Bog. This hidden gem beckons adventurers with its untouched beauty and serene atmosphere. As you traverse the trails of Cowles Bog, you’ll find yourself immersed in a tranquil oasis, surrounded by lush vegetation, delicate wildflowers, and the sweet melodies of birdsong. Allow yourself to be enchanted by the ethereal beauty of this natural sanctuary, where time seems to stand still and the worries of the world fade away.
The Indiana Dunes National Park is a testament to the captivating wonders that can be found in the heart of the Midwest. From the invigorating challenges of the 3 Dune Challenge to the serene allure of Cowles Bog, this region offers a remarkable blend of adventure, natural splendor, and the opportunity to forge lasting memories.
Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, KS
Nestled amidst the rolling hills and tranquil beauty of Kansas lies a hidden paradise that will sweep you off your feet—the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. This breathtaking preserve is a living testament to the region’s natural splendor, boasting an incredible array of over 350 species of wildflowers, shrubs, and blooming plants that paint the landscape in vibrant hues. As you venture through the preserve, be prepared to be engulfed by the majesty of towering grasses that can reach a staggering 84 inches, creating a sight that will leave you in awe.
The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve offers a network of trails that cater to every adventurer’s appetite, ranging from 3.8 miles to 13 miles in length. To ensure you stay on the right path and make the most of your journey, be sure to grab a detailed map from the friendly rangers at the visitor center. Armed with this invaluable tool, you’ll navigate the trails with ease, uncovering the hidden gems that lie within the preserve’s vast expanse.
If catching a glimpse of the resident bison is at the top of your list, then Windmill Pasture is the place to be. Trails conveniently intersect the pasture, offering a chance to witness these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat. However, it’s essential to exercise caution as you approach this area. The electrified barbed wire fence serves as a reminder of the untamed nature of these powerful animals. Maintain a safe distance of at least 125 yards from the bison, allowing them the space and respect they deserve. If you’re hiking with small children, it’s advisable to explore other trails that may be more suitable and ensure a safe and enjoyable experience. The Southwind Nature Trail and Fox Creek Trail offer alternative options that are equally enchanting and family-friendly.
As you wander through the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, immerse yourself in the symphony of nature, where the gentle rustling of the grasses and the sweet scent of wildflowers create a harmonious ambiance. Allow yourself to become one with the prairie, connecting with the untouched beauty that surrounds you. The preserve’s trails lead you to sweeping vistas, secret groves, and secluded spots where you can bask in the serenity of this unspoiled landscape.
Before heading to the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, be sure to check the weather. Storms can happen quickly and the prairie is not where you want to be when there’s lightning. You can read my full post about lightning safety here.
The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is home to some of the very last tallgrass prairie in the United States. It takes all season for the grass to become the towering fields you see in pictures. By late September and Early October, the grasses have turned golden brown and create a magical look.
Isle Royale National Park, MI
Mount Franklin Trail
Get ready to embark on an extraordinary adventure like no other as you ascend the majestic Mount Franklin, an epitome of breathtaking beauty nestled within the heart of Isle Royale National Park. This towering summit, paying homage to the illustrious Benjamin Franklin, possesses an allure that will captivate your senses and leave you mesmerized. As you embark on the ascent, each step brings you closer to a moment that will etch itself into the depths of your memory. The summit of Mount Franklin holds a promise—a promise of breathtaking vistas that stretch as far as the eye can see. As you reach the pinnacle, prepare to be swept away by a panoramic masterpiece.
The island’s interior unfolds in all its splendor, painting a tapestry of lush greenery, meandering trails, and shimmering lakes. Gazing towards the north shore, you’ll witness the gentle embrace of Lake Superior, its vastness blending seamlessly with the horizon. And if luck is on your side, on clear days you may even catch a glimpse of the distant mainland of Canada, a reminder of the boundless wonders that lie beyond.
To access this magnificent trail, follow the guidance of the Isle Royale National Park Service. Set forth on either the Rock Harbor Trail or the Tobin Harbor Trail, immersing yourself in the beauty of the park’s surrounding landscapes. As you venture deeper into the heart of nature’s sanctuary, keep a keen eye out for a wooden post—a humble guide that points you in the direction of the Mount Franklin Trail.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, MI
Prepare to immerse yourself in a vast network of exploration as you discover the wonders of Pictured Rocks National Park, where over 100 miles of trails await your eager footsteps. Each trail within this awe-inspiring park presents a unique tapestry of natural beauty, leading you on a captivating journey through diverse landscapes and unveiling a multitude of breathtaking sights.
Venture into the depths of the park’s thick forests, where sun-dappled paths wind their way through towering trees, creating a mystical ambiance that transports you to a realm untouched by time. The serenity of these woodland trails offers a peaceful escape, allowing you to connect with nature in its purest form. As you meander along the trails, the air becomes infused with the earthy scents of moss and ferns, while the songs of birds create a symphony of melodies that guide your exploration.
But the wonders of Pictured Rocks National Park extend far beyond the lush forests. Discover trails that lead you to pristine beaches, where the rhythmic crashing of waves against the shore lulls you into a state of tranquility. With each step, be prepared to witness panoramic views that stretch as far as the eye can see, unveiling the sheer magnificence of Lake Superior. The crystal-clear waters shimmer under the sun’s gentle caress, casting a spell of serenity and reminding you of the boundless power and beauty of nature.
As you traverse the trails, you’ll encounter a myriad of sights that will leave you in awe. Marvel at the towering sandstone cliffs that have been sculpted by time and the relentless forces of nature, displaying a vibrant array of colors and intricate patterns. Witness stunning rock formations that bear testament to the artistic genius of water and wind, each curve and crevice telling a tale of ancient geological processes. And at every turn, be prepared to stumble upon hidden gems—a cascading waterfall, a secluded cove, or a wildflower-strewn meadow—each contributing to the kaleidoscope of natural wonders that make Pictured Rocks National Park a true paradise for hikers and nature enthusiasts alike.
With every trail offering a unique experience, you’ll find that there isn’t a single path in Pictured Rocks National Park that isn’t worth exploring. Each step reveals a new vista, a new connection with the elements, and a new appreciation for the awe-inspiring beauty that surrounds you.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, MI
It’s no wonder that Sleeping Bear Dunes has been bestowed with the title of “The Most Beautiful Place in America” by ABC’s Good Morning America. This Midwest national park is a true gem, adorned with pristine beaches that stretch as far as the eye can see and crystal-clear waters that beckon outdoor enthusiasts to dive in and explore. For those who have a deep love for the great outdoors, this enchanting destination is a dream come true.
As you venture into the heart of Sleeping Bear Dunes, prepare to be captivated by the abundance of natural wonders that unfold before you. The park’s hiking trails offer a gateway to discover the park’s awe-inspiring beauty in all its splendor. Whether you’re seeking a leisurely stroll or a more challenging adventure, there’s a trail suited to every skill level and preference.
For families in search of memorable experiences, Sleeping Bear Dunes boasts several trails that are perfect for all ages. These family-friendly routes invite you to explore the park’s breathtaking landscapes while creating cherished memories with your loved ones. Meander through sun-dappled forests, where gentle breezes whisper secrets among the trees, or follow trails that lead you to scenic overlooks, offering panoramic vistas that showcase the park’s remarkable beauty.
For the more adventurous souls, Sleeping Bear Dunes also offers exhilarating trails that cater to the thrill-seekers and experienced hikers.
Dune Climb Trail
This trail has earned it’s “hard” rating! It takes you on a journey through sandy hills, demanding your strength and perseverance as you conquer a total elevation gain of 636 feet. The sandy terrain presents a unique workout, but fear not, for the rewarding views of majestic Lake Michigan that greet you with every climb make the effort more than worthwhile.
As you navigate this sandy trail, be prepared to feast your eyes on a tapestry of natural wonders that will leave you in awe. The trail unveils the breathtaking coastline, where the rhythmic waves of Lake Michigan caress the sandy shores, creating a picturesque backdrop that speaks to the beauty of nature. Amidst the stunning scenery, keep an eye out for a hidden gem—a shipwreck, a haunting reminder of history’s mysteries and a testament to the power of the restless waves.
Throughout your hike, you’ll find yourself immersed in a sandy landscape, with every step accompanied by the gentle crunch of sand beneath your feet. To ensure a comfortable journey, make sure to wear appropriate footwear that protects you from the hot sand, safeguarding your feet from discomfort. In these sun-drenched surroundings, it’s essential to be prepared for the elements. Shield yourself from the scorching sun and heat by carrying an ample supply of water and donning sunscreen to protect your skin from its harsh rays. As shade is scarce along the trail, consider wearing a hat and light-colored clothing to stay cool and comfortable throughout your adventure.
When you reach the end of this challenging trail, reward yourself by indulging in a refreshing cooldown. Take a dip in the cool waters of Lake Michigan, allowing the waves to wash away the fatigue of your journey. Alternatively, even dipping your feet in the tranquil lake water can provide a soothing respite, rejuvenating your senses and leaving you refreshed.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park is more than just a place of unparalleled beauty; it’s a testament to the boundless wonders of the natural world. It invites you to connect with nature, to feel the soft sand between your toes, and to immerse yourself in the invigorating embrace of the great outdoors. Whether you’re a leisurely explorer or a seasoned adventurer, the hiking trails of Sleeping Bear Dunes promise an unforgettable journey through the Midwest’s finest landscapes.
Voyageurs National Park, MN
Cruiser Lake Trail
Picture this: You’re embarking on a thrilling journey along the Cruiser Lake Trail, where adventure awaits at every turn. This scenic trail takes you on an incredible exploration, guiding you up rocky cliffs and leading you through remote wetlands that are simply teeming with life. And let me tell you, the sheer beauty of the surrounding landscape alone would be reason enough for this trail to secure its spot on any must-hike list. But guess what? It has an extra special surprise in store for you—an opportunity to encounter large wildlife in their natural habitat.
As you make your way through the rugged terrain of Cruiser Lake Trail, get ready to be enchanted by the stunning vistas that unfold before your eyes. The trail rewards your efforts with awe-inspiring views that seem straight out of a nature magazine. Imagine majestic rocky cliffs rising proudly, casting their dramatic shadows across the land, providing a breathtaking backdrop to your epic journey. And the remote wetlands? Oh, they’re alive with vibrant flora and fauna, like a symphony of colors and sounds that invigorate your senses and make you feel truly connected to the wild.
But here’s the real icing on the cake—encountering magnificent wildlife. You see, Voyageurs National Park is home to a diverse array of large animals, including the grand and majestic moose. As you venture along the Cruiser Lake Trail, you’ll find yourself stepping into their world, increasing your chances of crossing paths with these gentle giants in their natural habitat. Picture it: the sight of a moose, standing tall with its imposing stature and gracefully antlered crown, is a moment that you’ll cherish forever—a memory etched deep within your heart.
And hold on, the wildlife wonders don’t stop there. The wilderness surrounding the Cruiser Lake Trail is also home to a population of wolves, their haunting howls echoing through the dense forest. Can you imagine being lucky enough to hear the soul-stirring melody of these elusive creatures? It’s a chorus that resonates through the tranquil stillness of the park, sending chills down your spine and filling you with a sense of wonder and awe.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, ND
Theodore Roosevelt National Park has got a hiking extravaganza waiting just for you. With a whopping 19 hiking trails to choose from, ranging in completion times from a quick 10 minutes to an epic 12-hour journey, there’s bound to be a trail that suits you and your group perfectly.
Now, let’s talk about the diversity of these trails. Theodore Roosevelt National Park has made sure to cater to hikers of all levels. Whether you’re a beginner looking for a leisurely stroll or a seasoned trekker craving a challenging escapade, they’ve got you covered. Picture this: there are trails that are as flat as a pancake and only a short distance, perfect for a quick nature fix. On the other hand, there’s an 18-mile trail that will truly test your endurance, featuring substantial elevation gain that will leave you feeling like you’ve conquered the world.
But don’t worry about getting overwhelmed with the multitude of options. The National Park Service at Theodore Roosevelt National Park has your back. They’ve put together a handy-dandy chart to help you choose the ideal trail. This chart is a treasure trove of information, listing trail lengths and estimated completion times, giving you a clear idea of what to expect. Not only that, but it also highlights any obstacles you might come across during your hike. Think river crossings, my friend! This means you can be well-prepared and choose a trail that matches your abilities and desires.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park, OH
The Ledges Trail at Cuyahoga Valley National Park is an absolute gem that has something for everyone. Whether you’re a seasoned hiker or just starting to explore the great outdoors, this trail promises a delightful and captivating experience.
One of the best things about the Ledges Trail is its accessibility. It’s an easy and enjoyable hike, perfect for the whole family to tackle together. The trail meanders through a picturesque landscape, revealing fascinating rock formations that will ignite the curiosity of explorers of all ages. Imagine stumbling upon enchanting nooks and crannies, intriguing crevices, and captivating rock faces that will have you feeling like you’ve stepped into a hidden world of natural wonders.
Now, here’s a little secret for you photography enthusiasts: if you want to capture those perfect scenic shots without any interference, consider visiting the Ledges Trail early in the day or on weekdays when many people are busy with work. This way, you can truly immerse yourself in the tranquil beauty of the surroundings, allowing your creativity to flow uninterrupted. Picture it: basking in the golden morning light, the serene atmosphere embracing you as you frame your shots and capture the essence of the trail in all its glory. It’s a photographer’s dream come true!
Read: Hiking the Ledges Trail
Brandywine Gorge Trail
This 1.7-mile loop is a delightful journey that will awaken your senses and leave you awe-inspired.
As you set foot on the trail, be prepared to be greeted by stunning river views that accompany you throughout your hike. The rhythmic flow of the water creates a soothing soundtrack, setting the tone for a peaceful and immersive experience. Keep your eyes peeled, as you may be fortunate enough to spot some of the park’s abundant wildlife along the way. From graceful birds gliding through the air to curious critters scurrying amidst the foliage, nature’s wonders are never far from sight.
But the true gem of the Brandywine Gorge Trail lies in its centerpiece—the magnificent Brandywine Falls. Cascading from a height of 60 feet, this captivating waterfall is a sight to behold. As you approach the falls, the rush of the water fills the air, creating a symphony of nature’s power and beauty. Be prepared to be captivated by the sheer force and grace of the falls, as the water tumbles down into the pool below, creating a mesmerizing display of nature’s artistry.
While the allure of Brandywine Falls draws visitors from near and far, it’s worth noting that it can get quite busy, especially between 10 am and 2 pm on pleasant weather days. If you prefer a quieter experience, consider visiting during off-peak hours to fully immerse yourself in the tranquility and grandeur of this natural wonder.
What makes the Brandywine Gorge Trail truly special is its ability to transform with the changing seasons. No matter the time of year, there is always something remarkable to behold. During spring, the trail unveils its vernal pools, which come alive with an array of colorful salamanders, providing a fascinating glimpse into the delicate balance of nature. And when autumn arrives, prepare to be dazzled by nature’s fiery display as the maple trees ignite in vibrant hues, contrasting against the steadfast evergreens. The trail becomes a tapestry of red, orange, and gold, inviting you to witness the magic of the season unfold before your eyes.
Wind Cave National Park, SD
Sanctuary (Trail #5)
Stroll right through prairie dog town! This 3.6 mile trail winds through rolling hills and ends where it meets with Highland Creek Trail
Highland Creek Trail (Trail #7)
s the park’s longest trail, spanning an impressive 8.6 miles, this immersive journey promises an unforgettable experience that will leave you in awe.
From the moment you set foot on the Highland Creek Trail, you’ll be greeted by a tapestry of enchanting landscapes. Prepare to be captivated as you traverse vast prairies, where the golden grasses sway in the gentle breeze, painting a picture of tranquility and serenity. The open expanse of the prairies offers a sense of freedom and spaciousness, allowing you to truly connect with nature and embrace the untouched beauty that surrounds you.
As you continue along the trail, the landscape transforms before your eyes. Dense pine forests envelope you, creating a sanctuary of greenery and serenity. The scent of pine fills the air, mingling with the melodies of birds chirping overhead. The forest offers a welcome respite from the outside world, allowing you to immerse yourself in its peaceful embrace and reconnect with the natural rhythm of life.
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, WI
With several sea cave overlooks, this ~4.5 mile trail is simply stunning. Just 2 miles from the trailhead located at Meyer’s Road parking area, you’ll encounter a natural bridge as well as the first overlook. This trail is recommended for more experienced hikers due to stream crossings and steep slopes.