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The Best of the Midwest: 7 National Parks You Never Thought to Visit in the Middle of the Country

Many of us have visited, or at least heard of, a lot of the national parks in the Western United States. But the middle of the United States also has some national parks that, although maybe aren’t as well-known, are still most certainly worth visiting. Check out these seven awesome Midwest national parks.

1. Badlands National Park

Location: South Dakota

Photo credit: National Park Service – M. Reed

With a name like Badlands, you’d expect the landscape to be dramatic. And it is. Rugged buttes jut out from the surrounding prairie lands in a way that’s somewhat unexpected and absolutely stunning. During golden hour, the scenery is even more spectacular as the sun’s soft light enhances the color of the buttes, making them even more striking.

Those that only have a short amount of time to visit this park should plan on driving the Badlands Loop Road (SD Hwy 240), which offers excellent views of the Badlands. Ben Reifel Visitor Center is a great stop along the way to learn more about the park’s cultural history, ecology, and paleontology.

If you have more time to explore, check out the hiking trails or bike routes, do some birdwatching and wildlife viewing, or visit the Fossil Prep Lab and watch paleontologists at work.

Badlands National Park is just one of the many things to see in the Black Hills area. Those that have a few days in the area may be interested in this itinerary.

2. Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Location: Ohio

Photo credit: Erik Drost

Located the farthest east of the parks on this list of Midwest national parks, Cuyahoga Valley National Park has plenty of historic charm in addition to its natural beauty. One example of this historic charm is the Stanford House, a house that belonged to James Stanford who was one of the original settlers of the Cuyahoga Valley. Today, visitors are able to book a room and spend the night at this historic house! Historic charm can also be seen in The Inn at Brandywine Falls, another one of the park’s lodging options.

Another piece of history that runs through Cuyahoga National Park is the Towpath Trail, which follows the route of the Ohio & Erie Canal. This canal played a pivotal role in the settlement of several communities and the United States’ industrial development.

The park also has plenty of opportunities for outdoor recreation including hiking, mountain biking, kayaking and canoeing, winter sports, and more. Questing, a treasure hunt of sorts, is another popular activity in the park. For a unique experience that’s also a great way to see the park, take a ride on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. This train can also be used as a shuttle to/from hiking and biking adventures in the park!

3. Gateway Arch National Park

Location: Missouri

Photo credit: Sam Valadi

Gateway Arch National Park is unlike most other US national parks because of its urban setting. Formerly called Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, it gained national park designation in February 2018.

Located right in St. Louis, the 630-foot Gateway Arch dominates the city’s skyline. For a unique experience and different perspective, visitors can take a tram ride to the top of the arch. While the visual focal point of this national park may be Gateway Arch, visitors shouldn’t miss the history associated with this landmark. A museum tells the story about the Native Americans, pioneers, and explorers that helped make America what it is today. The Old Courthouse is another place at this national park that visitors can tour and learn more about United States history.

4. Indiana Dunes National Park

Location: Indiana

Photo credit: National Park Service – M. Woodbridge Williams

Nestled up against Lake Michigan lies America’s newest national park, Indiana Dunes National Park. Prior to being designated as a national park in February 2019, it was known as Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. As the name indicates, this national park features sand dunes formed and shaped by wind and water depositing sand.

With fifteen miles of beach, Indiana Dunes National Park is great for swimming and beach-going as well as water activities such as kayaking, fishing, and boating. Other outdoor activities include hiking, bird watching, horseback riding, and more.

Within the national park’s boundaries are also some interesting historic buildings including some Century of Progress homes. A home tour of these unique homes is held each year. Indiana Dunes Outdoor Adventure Festival is another event the park hosts.

5. Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Location: North DakotaIn the heart of North Dakota’s Badlands lies the state’s only national park, named after Theodore Roosevelt who spent a significant amount of time there prior to becoming President in 1901. Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP) has acres of prairie lands along with the more rugged landscape of the Badlands. The Little Missouri River winds through the park as well.

TRNP is home to a variety of wildlife including bison, prairie dogs, wild horses, and more, providing excellent wildlife watching opportunities. Other activities visitors can do in the park include driving the Scenic Loop, hiking, horseback riding, canoeing/kayaking, and camping. You can also explore a few historic places in TRNP, including Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch and Maltese Cross Cabin.

To learn more about things to do near Theodore National Park, click here.

6. Voyageurs National Park

Location: Minnesota

Photo credit: Flickr user Fighting Irish 1977

Minnesota is known as the land of 10,000 lakes, so it makes sense that its sole national park includes several lakes and islands. Voyageurs National Park is located way up north, along the US-Canada border.

Because of its lakes and waterways, Voyageurs National Park is an appealing destination for those interested in canoeing, kayaking and boating. To have the best experience at this national park, you’ll likely want to find some way to get on the water, whether it’s with your own watercraft, a rental or by guided tour. Voyageurs is also a popular place for houseboats.

This national park attracts winter enthusiasts as well, with options for cross country skiing, snowmobiling, ice fishing, and other winter activities.

7. Wind Cave National Park

Location: South Dakota

Photo credit: Patrick Boyle

Wind Cave National Park is located in the Black Hills area of South Dakota, and features one of the longest caves in the world. When visiting this national park, you should definitely try to do a cave tour in order to get a closer look at this amazing underground geological formation. Above ground, you’ll find an abundance of prairie lands, with trails for hiking and horseback riding.

Those planning to visit Wind Cave National Park should also plan to make Custer State Park a part of the trip! If you’re planning to make the Black Hills area part of a Yellowstone road trip, check out this itinerary.

Instead of just driving through the middle of the country right by some of these lesser-known national parks, consider making them a destination for your next trip!




Where to Find the Best Hot Springs in South Dakota

If you’re in search of the best hot springs in South Dakota, they aren’t too hard to track down. The town of Hot Springs didn’t get its name for nothing! Not only will you find incredible natural springs in this all-American town, but you’ll be close to outdoor adventure, a world-class museum, relaxing spas, exciting water slides, and so much more.

This article was created in partnership with the Hot Springs Area Chamber of Commerce. All photos provided by Hot Springs Area Chamber of Commerce.

Hot Springs in South Dakota

Soak in the Springs

As the name suggests, there is an abundance of warm, natural, mineral spring water in Hot Springs. Some are more developed than others or have more amenities for children to enjoy.

Pin for Hot Springs, SD 

For everyone

Moccasin Springs

Most recently built, Moccasin Springs Natural Mineral Spa is a cozy, rustic dream no matter the season. There are multiple outdoor pools that range from 88 to over 102 degrees Fahrenheit (31-39 Celsius). Indoors, they offer a pool house with a fireplace to stay warm when you’re out of the water, an on-site restaurant, yoga classes, a sauna, massages, and more. Moccasin Springs also offers accommodations for people to stay for a few nights and enjoy many warm soaks and the whole experience for days.

collage of moccasin springs photos

Cascade Falls

While many of today’s hot springs have developed into spas or bath houses, there are still undeveloped natural springs in South Dakota. About 15 minutes south of town, there are warm springs that feed into Cascade Creek. A few miles downstream is a popular swimming hole called Cascade Falls, which stays at an average temperature of 67 degrees Fahrenheit (19 Celsius). The water doesn’t move very fast here, and this is is the only recommended spot to swim in the creek, making it an ideal spot for families. Though it looks like a perfect fairytale, visitors must watch out for poison ivy and rattlesnakes. 

jumping into the water at Cascade Falls

For the kids

Evan’s Plunge

Evan’s Plunge Mineral Springs was established in 1890 and is a huge wellness center with everything from a sauna and steam room to water volleyball and a jet slide. This facility is great for families who are looking for the whole package. There are pools indoors and outdoors, workout rooms with equipment, multiple slides, swing rings, food, and more. The water is kept at an average of 87 degrees Fahrenheit (30 Celsius), and there are also two hot tubs kept at warmer temperatures. 

Evan's Plunge mineral spring in Hot Springs

Fall River 

One of the best parts about the town of Hot Springs is that the Fall River, which is fed by thermal warm springs, runs directly through the entire length of town. The mile-long paved Freedom Trail runs alongside the river and connects two city parks: Centennial Park and Brookside Park. Exploring the warmer, deeper spots in the river is a favorite pastime of locals. Fall River is great for kids because it’s shallow in many sections. 

Fall River

Enjoy the Great Outdoors

The Parks: Wind Cave National Park & Custer State Park 

Just north of Hot Springs is Wind Cave National Park, where visitors can experience extraordinary landscapes above and below ground. Above ground, bison, elk, and other wildlife roam the grasslands of the Black Hills. Below ground, park service rangers offer tours of one of the longest and most complex caves in the world. Tours are required to see the cave and are offered 362 days of the year.

Just north of Wind Caves is Custer State Park. Granite cliffs shoot out of the water in the five lakes in this park. Custer State Park is great for swimming, boating, biking, camping, and paddling. 

Wind Cave National Park

Closer to Town: Angostura State Recreation Area & Golfing

Lucky for the people—and guests—of Hot Springs, there is no shortage of water around the town. To the south is Angostura State Recreation Area, a reservoir established in the 1950s. The water is clear, the beaches are sandy, and the views are expansive. This is a great local spot for water sports, camping, and fishing.

If you like to golf, you don’t want to miss Southern Hills Golf Course, rated by Golf Week as the #1 Golf Resort in South Dakota.

Golfing in Hot Springs

Be Inquisitive

Mammoth Site

Just another incredible fact about Hot Springs, South Dakota: It’s home to the world’s largest mammoth research center, The Mammoth Site. Tour this indoor active dig site view Ice Age fossils of woolly mammoths. 

Searching for fossils at the Mammoth Site

Town Architecture

Construction in Hot Springs began in the late 1890s, and the town was built to be a destination, so it sure looks like one. The historic downtown area was constructed from locally quarried sandstone and many of buildings have not since been changed. The town was named a ‘Distinctive Destination’ by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and is worth walking through to learn more about the unique architecture. 

Sandstone architecture of Hot Springs

While this quaint town does have some of the best hot springs in South Dakota, it’s easy to tell that there is more to do in Hot Springs than just soak in the natural waters. If you plan on stopping here on the classic Black Hills route to Yellowstone, check out our itinerary here.




Sturgis, SD: The Perfect Base for a Black Hills Vacation

In the southwest corner of South Dakota lies the sometimes underrated Black Hills region. The area is home to multiple national parks, memorials, and monuments as well as a couple very impressive state parks. Several charming small towns also dot the Black Hills region—one of those towns is Sturgis, SD.

While Sturgis is likely best-known for its annual motorcycle rally that draws hundreds of thousands to the area each year, the town is worth a visit any time of the year, on a motorcycle or not. It’s also a great option as a base for your Black Hills vacation. With this three-day itinerary, discover Sturgis, the Black Hills, and beyond.

THIS STORY WAS CREATED IN PARTNERSHIP WITH THE STURGIS AREA CHAMBER OF COMMERCE & VISITORS BUREAU. ALL IMAGES PROVIDED BY THE STURGIS AREA CHAMBER.

Day 1: Explore Sturgis

Black Hills Vacation Sturgis pin

After arriving and getting settled in, you’ll want to get acquainted with the small-town charm that Sturgis has to offer. Take a walk down Main Street through the historic downtown district. Stop in some of the local shops like Sturgis Photo & Gifts, Just For Looks, and Black Hills Rally & Gold.

For car and motorcycle enthusiasts, visiting both the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum & Hall of Fame and the Saab Heritage Car Museum USA are musts. To learn a little more about the area’s unique history, take a tour at The Old Fort Meade Museum.

Or, if you’d like to imbibe in a beverage, head to The Knuckle Brewing Company for some craft beer. Maybe wine is more your style, in which case you should plan to visit Belle Joli Winery Sparkling House. At Belle Joli, you can tour the vineyard and learn about the production process, or just enjoy a glass of wine on the beautiful outdoor patio.

Looking to get some exercise and enjoy the outdoors? You’re in luck. Sturgis has an expansive trail system near town that’s perfect for hiking and biking. Another option is to make the short drive to nearby Bear Butte State Park and hike to the summit of Bear Butte, where you’ll be greeted with spectacular views.

Day 2: Black Hills Sightseeing

Rise and shine early to ensure you see as much as possible in Black Hills country! Grab coffee at Sturgis Coffee Company, or, if you can’t resist a good donut, try Weimer’s Diner & Donuts. After you get caffeinated and/or fed, hit the road and head for Wind Cave National Park.

Wind Cave National Park is an incredibly unique park featuring a complex cave system that includes Wind Cave, one of the longest caves in the world. To get the most out of your visit, schedule a cave tour ahead of time. If you just can’t get enough of the caves, you may also want to check out Jewel Cave National Monument. After you get your fill of cave exploration, the next stop is Custer State Park.

No Black Hills vacation is complete without a visit to Custer State Park. You could easily spend three days there, but if you don’t have that much time, here are a few recommendations for making the most of a quick visit to Custer State Park.

  1. Drive the Wildlife Loop
    Along this scenic byway, you’ll get up close and personal with a variety of wildlife including bison, elk, and burros. Even though these animals may act friendly, they are still wild, so be sure to respect them and give them their space.
  2. Take the breathtakingly scenic drive along Needles Highway
    This route features views of magnificent rock formations, forested hills, and maybe even a mountain goat or two. For a closer look, pull over at the scenic overlook or take a short hike on the Cathedral Spires trail.  After driving through the nail-bitingly narrow Needles Eye Tunnel, it won’t be long before you arrive at Sylvan Lake.
  3. Stop at Sylvan Lake and admire the views
    Aptly named the “crown jewel” of Custer State Park, Sylvan Lake is one of the most peaceful and picturesque places in the park. Stroll around the lake, enjoy a lakeside picnic, or take a kayak out for a relaxing paddle. 

While in the Custer area, also plan to visit the Crazy Horse Memorial. Although you’ll be able to see the Crazy Horse sculpture from the highway, it’s definitely worth stopping at the visitors center to learn more about the memorial as well as the area’s American Indian history and culture.

Once you’ve finished exploring in the Custer State Park area, get back on the road and head toward Mount Rushmore.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial is undoubtedly one of the most well-known attractions in the Black Hills. Seeing four former United States presidents’ faces carved into stone towering above you inspires patriotism. Those interested in learning more about the creation of Mount Rushmore should also make time to visit the Lincoln Borglum Visitors Center and the Sculptor’s Studio.

From Mount Rushmore, you can head back to Sturgis via Interstate 90, or take the scenic route through Spearfish Canyon.

Day 3: Badlands and Good Vibes

Just a little over an hour from Sturgis lies another national park that must be part of your Black Hills vacation itinerary. Badlands National Park is something of a geologic wonder with colorful formations jutting up from the prairie.  We encourage devoting at least half a day to exploring this rugged and beautiful place. Stop by the Ben Reifel Visitor Center to see exhibits showcasing the area’s cultural history and paleontology, drive the Badlands Loop Road, and go for a hike or two. One of the most popular hikes in the park is Notch Trail, which features a log ladder. Badlands National Park is home to a variety of animals so be sure to keep an eye out for wildlife along the way, whether on foot or in the car!

Speaking of wildlife, if you didn’t get enough wildlife watching over the past couple days, check out Bear Country USA in Rapid City on the way back to Sturgis.

After returning to Sturgis, it’s time to enjoy an evening out and unwind. Grab a drink and a bite to eat at Iron Horse Saloon, The Knuckle Saloon or Loud American Roadhouse. If you happen to be visiting on a Wednesday in June or July, head to Harley Davidson Rally Point to catch some live music during Music on Main.

Looking to incorporate a Black Hills vacation into a trip to Yellowstone National Park? Check out our Yellowstone Road Trip Itinerary: The Black Hills Route.




The Western Great Lakes Region

The Western Great Lakes Region

The great lakes are one of the most unique areas in the world. With a total surface area of nearly 32,000 square miles, the lakes span a vast area from new york to Minnesota. This itinerary is going to take you through some of the best the western regions has to offer.


#thisismyroute

Prepared by:
James

States: 
Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan

Start/End: 
Chicago, Illinois

Total miles:
1,800

Suggested days: 
At least 16

Type: 
scenic road trip

Recommended for: 
First-timers to the United States, honeymooners, photographers, road trippers, 

Suggested season
spring, summer, fall

Overview

This route is perfect for those who want to experience the beauty of the Great Lakes Region. In this itinerary you will travel through three states and visit Lake Michigan, Lake Superior and Lake Huron. The upper reaches of this region are full of spectacular scenery, rolling hills and forests that stretch on to the horizon.  You are going to fly into Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. We know you are going to want to spend a few days in America’s Second City, but save it for the end of your trip when you can unwind after all your travels. 

How to Prepare

We recommend approximately 16 days for this trip in order to experience each town and activity without feeling too rushed. You have a lot of miles to cover, so we suggest spending at minimum a day at each stop.  This itinerary is full of suggestions of some of the best places to fully experience the area, with overnight stops in the towns along the way. Plan your trip accordingly so that you experience the places that spark your interest the most. These areas can be crowded in the summertime, and for good reason. There are multiple events and the weather is beautiful. Wintertime can be beautiful in these places, however, the regions around the Great Lakes can be very cold with significant amounts of snowfall, so take that into account as you decide your travel dates. Fall in this region is characterized by beautiful blue skies and amazing fall foliage.  The majority of this trip will be short drives between stops, but this is to allow you the most time at all the amazing places that you have traveled so far to see. Though this itinerary is a day to day guide, it is only a guide and you should feel free to adapt it however you want, taking as much time as you need to fully experience this wonderful part of the world.

DAY 1: land in Chicago, travel to green bay

3.5 hours/200 miles

Once you get into Chicago, we would recommend getting your things together and heading off to start your road trip.  Once you get into Green Bay, our recommendation would be to head to Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary to get your first look at the Green Bay of Lake Michigan. It’s a well earned way to stretch your legs after your long day of travelling. After your exercise, you are going to need some refreshments and we would recommend heading to the Noble Roots Brewing Company to get this done.  Get a room for the night at St. Brendan’s Irish Inn. It’s a great hotel with an old-world feel right on the banks of the Fox River.

Best place to get outdoors:

Fox River State Trail

Can’t miss it:

Lambeau Field-Home of the Packers

Best place to see a waterfall:

Fonferek’s Glen County Park

Best place to see trains:

National Railroad Museum

Best place for a stroll:

Vulture City

Classic Wisconsin Dinner:

The Stadium View

DAY 2: Escanaba in da Moonlight

2 hours/110 miles

Welcome to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, or the Yooper, if you want to sound like a local. Escanaba is a port city located on the shores of Little Bay De Noc, and is a great introduction to the Northern regions of the Great Lakes.  Yoopers are known to be extremely friendly and welcoming people and make anyone feel at ease. Most tourists leave the UP with a feeling that they can’t wait to return. We agree. The first place you must visit when you get to Escanaba is Sand Point Lighthouse. It will give you a commanding view of the bay.

Eat candy:

Sayklly’s Confectionery

Best hike:

Days River Trail

Shop Local:

Ludington Street

Go for a swim:

Aronson Island

Get some culture:

William Bonifas Fine Arts Center

Best place to eat like a Yooper:

Swedish Pantry

DAY 3: Houghton and Isle Royale National Park

3 hours/160 miles

Included on the list of “100 Best Small Towns in America” Houghton, is also the gateway to the Keweenaw Peninsula and an access point to one of the least visited National Parks in the Lower 48, Isle Royale. If you decide to visit Isle Royale, you should maybe think about spending at least an extra day in the area so that you have time to do everything there is in this amazing area. One of the first things we would recommend doing when you get into town is to head to the Breyers Lakefront Resort for a great night’s rest.

Best hike:

Nara Nature Park

Best scenic drive: 

The Covered Road

Best photo op:

Kwewwnaw Rocket Range

Buy a book:

The Bookworm

Best place for a stroll:

Downtown Houghton

Best place for dinner:

Pilgrim River Steakhouse

DAY 4: Marquette

Sunset over Lake Michigan.

2 hours/100 miles

With a population of almost 22,000, Marquette is the biggest city in the Upper Peninsula, and it shows in the myriad of things there are to do here. Because of it’s almost unfathomable number of outdoor recreation opportunities, Marquette is a young, hip and vibrant town with a thriving scene. It’s also a great place to find a waterfall, with somewhere around 77 in the surrounding area. One can’t miss experience is to take a plunge off the famed Black Rocks into the deep waters of Lake superior. A great place to stay for the night is the Birchmont Hotel.

Best way to learn about the area:

Marquette Maritime Museum and Lighthouse

Must see:

Marquette Farmer’s Market

Best scenic hike:

Sugarloaf Mountain

Best place to shop local:

Downtown Marquette

Eat like a Cajun in the Yoop:

Lagniappe

Best Local Beer:

Ore Dock Brewing Company

DAY 5: munising and the Grand Isle

1 hour/42 miles

You have a short driving day today, which is good because that means you can have the time to eat a leisurely breakfast at Donckers. Try the Bacon Waffles. Once you roll into Munising you will notice one thing. There seem to be a lot of beautiful trees around. That’s because Munising is completely surrounded by the Hiawatha National Forest. Munising is an outdoor wonderland, so get prepared to snap a lot of photos. The first thing you need to do when you get into town is to head to the Munising Vistor’s Center. Its a great little start to your visit, with a nice gift shop attached. Just off shore, is the exquisite Grand Isle National Recreation Area.

Best place a natural history lesson:

Pictured Rocks Interpretive Center

Can’t miss it:

All the waterfalls

Best place for a hike:

Grand Island

Best place for a stroll:

Downtown Musining

Best way to see Pictured Rocks:

Superior Parasail

Best place for a burger:

Eh! Burger

DAY 6: Grand Marais and Pictured Rocks

1 hour/50 miles

The historic village of Grand Marais is located on the south shore of Lake Superior at the eastern gateway to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The town may be small, but it has a big heart and will be your base camp to explore the surrounding area. One thing this area is known for, are all the beautiful agates just waiting to be found. Visit the Gitchee Gumee Agate and History Museum to start your hunt. The first thing we would recommend doing is heading to the Agate Cross Bed and Breakfast. It’s a beautiful base from which to explore this beautiful place.

Best place for a hike:

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Best photo op:

The Log Slide

Best museum:

The Pickle Barrel House

Stock up on supplies:

Grand Marais Outfitters

Can’t miss it:

Au Sable Lighthouse

Best night out:

The Dunes Saloon and Lake Superior Brewing Company

DAY 7: St. Ignace and the straits of mackinac

2 hours/110 miles

Today you are going to leave the shores of Lake Superior for Lake Huron and the port city of St. Ignace. St. Ignace is the second-oldest city founded by Europeans in Michigan, and sits on the northern end of the Mackinac Bridge. The town is proud of its history, and shows it with the amazing number of festivals it holds each year. But more than that, it has a vibrant downtown with shops and boutiques that line State Street. One can’t miss experience is to take one of the ferries to Macinac Island. In fact, there is so much to do between these two communities, that you may want to seriously consider spending more than one day here. Stop in at the Chamber of Commerce to help guide you on your way.

Best place to get some culture:

The Museum of Ojibwa Culture

Best hike to a scenic view:

Castle Rock

Most unique experience:

The Mystery Spot

Best place for a stroll:

The Huron Boardwalk

Get a Yooper pastie:

Bessies Homemade Pasties

Best night out:

Biere De Mac Brewing

DAY 8: Alpena

2 hours/102 miles

Say goodbye to the Yoop as you travel the shore of Lake Huron to Alpena. Alpena is a unique town, in the fact that a marine sanctuary exists with the city limit’s. Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary encompasses 4,300 square miles of Lake Huron, protecting one of America’s best-preserved and nationally-significant collections of shipwrecks. But Alpena is also a bustling modern city of almost 11,000 people with numerous art galleries, museums and wineries. Nearby Thunder Bay Island has an amazing lighthouse and is worth the 13 mile trip by water.

Best place for outdoor recreation:

Rockport State Park

Best shopping:

The Center Building

Best place to get some culture:

The Besser Museum

Best place to view some wildlife:

Island Park and Wildlife Refuge

Best place to shop local:

Alpena Farmers Market

Best local beer:

Austin Bros. Beer Co.

DAY 9: Unwind in Tawas Bay

1.5 hours/70 miles

Known as the Sunrise Coast, Tawas Bay is known for giving its visitor’s one very important thing; the ability to relax and unwind in one of the most tranquil settings in America. Made up of the small communities of Tawas CityEast TawasOscoda and Au Sable, The Tawas Bay area is all about stopping to smell the breeze off Lake Huron.  And the best place to start is the Tawas Bay Beach Resort. The name of the game in the Tawas Bay area is all about strolling the miles of beaches, shoes in hand, cares left behind.

Best place for a stroll:

Shoreline Park

Best outdoor recreation:

Tawas Point State Park

Best scenic drive:

River Road Scenic Drive

Most eclectic museum:

Wurtsmith Air Museum

Best way to see the coast:

Au Sable River Queen

Best way to dine on a cruise:

Charity Island Dinner Cruise

DAY 10: Bay City

1.5 hours/70 miles

Its back to the bright lights and big city, Bay City, Michigan. We’re going to give it to you straight–this is a really fun town. From the river walks to the museums to the thumping downtown area and the numerous city parks, Bay City truly has a little something for everyone. Your first stop should be the Bay County Chamber of Commerce in downtown Bay City. They will have all the information you need to explore the town.

Can’t miss it:

Center Avenue Historic District

Best museum:

Saginaw Valley Naval Museum

Best place to stock up on candy:

St. Laurent Brothers Candy

Bet place to shop local:

City Market

Get out on the water:

BaySail

Best place for dinner:

Old City Hall

DAY 11: Traverse City

2.5 hours/140 miles

Fancy a cherry? Well then you have come to the right place. Traverse City is the largest producer of Tart Cherries in the United States. Near the time of cherry harvest, the city hosts the annual week-long National Cherry Festival in the first full week of July, attracting approximately 500,000 visitors annually. The surrounding countryside also produces grapes, and is one of the centers of wine production in the Midwest. Not bad for a city of around 15,000. Traverse City also runs the gamut of outdoor activities, mixed with a city that is all about things to do. How great is Traverse City? It has been named the Number 2 small town travel destination in the United States by Trip Advisor. Not too shabby at all. The first thing we would recommend doing when you get into town is head to the The Village at Grand Commons. It is a great introduction to all things Traverse City.

Best way to see the city:

KaBrew! Kayak brewery tour

Best museum:

Dennos Museum Center

Best hike:

Manistee River Trail

Best shopping experience:

Downtown Traverse City

Can’t miss it:

Mission Point Lighthouse

Best place to find amazing food and craft cocktails:

FireFly

DAY 12: muskegon

2 hours 45 minutes /219 miles

With 27 miles of beaches and dunes, Muskegon is a truly of a water recreationist’s paradise. It;s the largest city on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. While technically located on Lake Muskegon, the city has access to Lake Michigan through a narrow channel at Muskegon State Park. The harbor areas around Lake Muskegon are a simply fantastic way to spend some time, though one are that you can’t miss would be Harbor Town, located on the spit of land between Lake Muskegon and Lake Michigan. And while you are there, make sure you check out Docker’s Fishhouse and Lounge. Its a great place to watch the boats.

Cant miss it:

USS Silversides Submarine Museum

One of a kind experience:

The Monet Gardens of Muskegon

Best hike:

PJ Hoffmaster State Park

Best place to catch the sunset:

Pere Marquette Park

Best shopping area:

Downtown Muskegon

Best place for dinner:

The Hearthstone

DAY 13 and 14: To Chicago and the Windy City

3 hours/187 miles

Chicago is a world-class city, though one that is somewhat peripheral due to its location away from the coasts. This perhaps makes the city even better, though, as Chicago has retained much of its local culture and history over the centuries. There is enough to do in Chicago that one could easily spend a week sightseeing there, but if you only are dedicating a couple days to the city, you can easily concentrate your time on the key attractions. As the city is fairly spread out, you could pick a neighborhood to concentrate on – like the famous Loop, or the less traveled PilsenUkrainian VillageLogan Square and Wicker Park – or ping pong around the city by public transit to see Cloud Gate and Millennium Park, the Magnificent Mile, the Field MuseumGarfield Park Conservatory and other deservedly known places. There is a lot to explore in Chicago and anywhere you go will be worthwhile.

Best place to get some culture:

The Art Institute of Chicago

Best American experience:

Watch the Cubbies play at Wrigley Field

Best place for a stroll:

Lakefront Trail

Best place to catch the blues:

The House of Blues

Best Chicago style deep dish pizza:

Gino’s East

Best neighborhood:

Streeterville



Morgan County: Where the Prairie Meets the Sky

The warm weather is approaching in Colorado, which means the highways heading for the mountains are about to get jam-packed. Have you ever thought about straying away from the crowds and heading the opposite direction? Morgan County, Colorado is just an hour east of Denver and offers a new kind of Colorado adventure! Intriguing history, historic bridges, artistic treasures, sandy reservoir beaches, towering landmasses, starry skies, and so much more are all waiting to be discovered in this itinerary!

This story was created in partnership with Morgan County Tourism, Colorado. Photos courtesy of Morgan County Tourism, Dave Samples, and Emily Goggins.

Morgan County Colorado

Day 1: Festivals, History, Arts, Racing, and More!

Summertime Happenings

Morgan County, Colorado comes to life in the summertime! If you plan your trip just right, you may be able to experience one of the many exciting events that take place such as the Glenn Miller Swing Fest, the concert series in the park, the Bobstock Music Festival or the annual rodeo in Brush. These events are a great chance to spend the weekend outdoors with activities for the whole family.

Morgan County Colorado

History at the Fort Morgan Museum

Fort Morgan lies on the old Overland Trail, making it a destination that holds a ton of history important to Colorado. The best place to dive into this history is at the Fort Morgan Museum. Here you will find wonderful exhibits and treasured artifacts telling the stories of farming in the early days and the lives of Native Americans on the Great Plains.

Morgan County Colorado

Appreciating Historic Places

After exploring Colorado’s intriguing history, take a walk across the South Platte River on the Rainbow Bridge. This unique bridge is the only one of its kind in Colorado and is on the National Register of Historic Places. You’ll have to visit to find out why. It will leave you in awe of the views overlooking the river and Riverside Park.

Morgan County Colorado

Lunch and Endless Activities! 

Let your taste buds explore lunch at Elaine’s Place, one of the best Greek restaurants in the area. Afterwards, hop over to Quail Dunes Golf Course for a relaxed afternoon on the green.   If you aren’t much of a golfer and more of a sportsman then head to Wiggins. You can test your aim at Longmeadow Game Resort, Clays Club and Event Center on one of the multiple sporting clay courses or hunting experiences! In Brush you can get a taste of that old fashion feel, while you watch a film at the historical Sands Theater.

Morgan County Colorado

Artsy Afternoon

Morgan county is a hidden gem for art lovers. If you want to add some unique up-cycled farmhouse decor to your home or if you’re looking for some local souvenirs, then Rebel Girl Kollectables will be your new favorite place! The Art Spot is perfect if you want to “energize your creativity” by painting your own canvas with friends or family.

Morgan County Colorado

A Not-So-Quiet Night in Morgan County 

Head over to the I-76 Speedway for a night of racing. It is a fun and exciting spot to bring the family for a great night out full of entertainment.

Morgan County Colorado

Day 2: Mini Road Trip

Wake up to Coffee and the Great Plains

Start your day with the best coffee in town and some delicious breakfast at Zazzy’s. Then head north on Highway 52 to begin your journey on the Pawnee Pioneer Trail Scenic and Historic Byway. Feast your eyes on the enchanting prairie expanse. Put yourself into the shoes of early settlers who looked at this land as life changing.

Pawnee Pioneer Trails

Pawnee Buttes

Eventually you will reach the Pawnee National Grassland. As you enter, keep your eyes opened for wildlife, especially birds! This area is one of most renowned spots for bird watching in the country. The grasslands will appear flat at first, but eventually you will come to the Pawnee Buttes. These two towering landmasses dramatically jut 300 feet from the high plains floor! If you wish to get a closer look at the magnificent vistas and excellent wildlife viewing then explore the nearby trails.

Pawnee Buttes Colorado

Jackson Lake State Park

After a morning of breathtaking views in the warm summer sun, it’s time to head for Jackson Lake State Park to cool down and relax. This large reservoir is known to be an oasis on the prairie. The warm waters are perfect for boating, jet skiing and fishing, while the sandy beaches surrounding it are perfect for sunbathing and swimming.

Jackson Lake State Park

A Night on the Plains

The reservoir is surrounded by 250 campsites making it the perfect spot to call home for the night. Enjoy dinner around a campfire next to the calm waters. Watch the sun set in the distance and the millions of stars take over the sky. It’s a night to sit back and truly understand why the eastern side of Colorado is known as the special place where the prairie meets the sky.

Morgan County Colorado

Morgan County Colorado Pin




Things to do in East Texas and the Gulf Coast

East Texas and the Gulf Coast

Texas is a big state. How big? Almost 270,000 square miles big. Its so big, you could fit Slovenia, Austria, Luxembourg, The Czech Republic, Switzerland, Macedonia, Belgium, Slovakia and Macedonia inside its borders. That’s Texas. In this itinerary we are going to take you through the Eastern Part of the state and down into the Gulf.


#thisismyroute

Prepared by:
James

States:
East Texas

Start/End:
Dallas-Ft. Worth

Total miles:
1,800

Suggested days:
At least 14

Type:
scenic road trip

Recommended for: 
First-timers to the United States, honeymooners, photographers, road trippers, Music buffs, Foodies

Suggested season: 
year round

Overview

This route is perfect for those who want to experience the culture and beauty of East Texas. When you think of Texas, more times than not your thoughts are drawn to the dusty plains where vast open spaces are long between water holes and cowboys and bandits and quick-draw lawmen are sharing dusty saloons. But that is West Texas, East Texas is a land of sparkling lakes and Big Piney woods that stretch on for miles. It’s a land of green trees and BBQ that like of which you have never had before. It’s the kind of place where on any given evening, on any given porch on any given main street business, you’ll find live music. In this itinerary you will start and end in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and from there you will be following the eastern border all the way down to the very tip of Texas, before making your way back up north through Texas Hill Country.

How to Prepare

We recommend approximately 14 days for this trip in order to experience each town and activity without feeling too rushed. You have a lot of miles to cover, so we suggest spending at minimum a day at each stop.  This itinerary is full of suggestions of some of the best places to fully experience the area, with overnight stops in the towns along the way. Plan your trip accordingly so that you experience the places that spark your interest the most. These areas can be crowded in the summertime, and for good reason. There are multiple events and the weather is beautiful. Wintertime is still beautiful in these places, but the outdoor life that typifies East Texas Culture will not be as active. On the other hand, summertime temps in these places can often exceed 100 degrees, so take that into account as you decide your travel dates. The majority of this trip will be short drives between stops, but this is to allow you the most time at all the amazing places that you have traveled so far to see. Though this itinerary is a day to day guide, it is only a guide and you should feel free to adapt it however you want, taking as much time as you need to fully experience this wonderful part of the world.

DAY 1: land in DFW, travel to Paris

1 hour 52 minutes/112 miles

This is a shorter day for a good reason. We suggest arriving early into Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport and renting your car from the airport and setting out east toward your first stop, Paris. It is the perfect town to get prepared and excited to start your road trip.  Paris sits on the edge of the Piney-Woods region of East Texas, is a great way to acclimate yourself to the region’s unique culture. One of the first things we recommend doing when you get into Paris is to head to the Eifel Tower (yes we are still talking about Paris, Texas, it has a red cowboy hat on it) and get a selfie. It would be a great way to kick off your trip.

Can’t miss it:

Culbertson Fountain and Paris Town Square

Best museum:

Lamar County Historical Museum

Best historical site:

Sam Bell Maxey House

Best place to stretch your legs:

Trail De Paris

Best place for dinner:

107 Texas

Best place to catch some live music:

Buffalo Joe’s

DAY 2: The Oldest Town In Texas

3.5 hours /180 miles

Nacadoches is a great town, one that combines the two distinct cultures of the Hispanic and the Southern, and does it in a seamless way. The reason why they call it the Oldest Town in Texas, is because there is evidence the area has been continually inhabited for over 10,000 years starting with the Cado Indian Tribe. Before you roll into Nacadoches, though you have two stops to make. The first stop is to Sulpher Springs so you can visit the only public bathroom in the America with see-through walls. It is of course totally up to you whether or not you would like to use these bathrooms…but stop and see you must! The second stop will be in Tyler. Make sure you have and appetite, because you are going to eat at possibility the best BBQ joint in the world, Stanley’s.  Once you pull into Nacadoches, head to the Fredonia Hotel for the night. You won’t regret it.

Best short hike:

Lanana Creek Trail

Can’t miss it:

General Mercantile and Old Time String Shop

Take a trip through history:

Millard’s Crossing

Best place to stretch your legs:

Historic Downtown Nacadoches

Best place to see some wildlife:

Angelina National Forest

Best place for dinner:

Macklemore’s

DAY 3: Beaumont and the Port Arthur Coast

3 hours/118 miles

Today you are going to get a chance to see Texas Untamed. Your route is going to take you on Highway 103 through Angelina National Forest and the Sabine to Milam. The Sabine has a storied history in East Texas. Located right on the border with Louisiana, it was the haunt of smugglers and bootleggers and now is home to countless bayou-centric wildlife. When you get to Milam, head to Martin’s Corner and get you some fried fish straight from the banks of the Sabine. From Milam, head down Highway 87 to Beumont and Port Arthur. Head to Port Arthur first and Texas Point to get your first look at the Gulf of Mexico.

Best Museum-Port Arthur:

Museum of the Gulf Coast

Best scenic drive-Port Arthur: 

Rainbow Bridge

Can’t miss it-Port Arthur:

Buu Mon Buddhist Temple

Best place for a stroll:

Beaumont Botanical Gardens

Best place to people watch:

Historic Downtown Beaumont

Best place to have dinner:

Floyd’s Cajun Seafood

DAY 4 and 5: Space City

1.5 hours/109 miles

The biggest city in the biggest state in the lower 48. That is Houston in a nutshell. It prides itself on being at once a world-class metropolitan city with a hip, happening vibe. Home to around 2.4 million people and the location of the Johnson Space Center, the Museum District, the Art District, the Theater District and numerous fun neighborhoods with great boutique shopping and restaurants. As with any big town, your first stop should be to head downtown to the Visitor’s Center. As always, they will have any of the things you need to make your stay in Houston everything it can be.

Place a bet on a turtle race:

Little Woodrows

Best place for a stroll:

Buffalo Bayou

Best place to shop:

19th Street in the Heights

Take a side trip:

Galveston Island

Treat yourself:

Taste of Texas

Best night out:

Good Night Charlie’s

DAY 6: Corpus Christi

3.5 hours/230 miles

Today you are heading to the true gulf town of Corpus Christ. Sitting on the shore of Corpus Christi Bay, this is a true Texas town, in that it is an amalgamation of Hispanic and Anglo culture that makes Texas so unique. But we are going to send you on a little side quest to get there. When you get to Victoria, hang a left on Highway 87 and head to Port Lavaca. Once you get there, head to Don Julio’s and get breakfast. From Port Lavaca, head south on Highway 35, and follow the Gulf all the way into Corpus Christi. Upon arrival, head to the Emerald Bay Hotel. It’s right on the beach and a beautiful place to stay.

Best place to experience the gulf:

Mustang Island State Park

Can’t miss it:

Padre Island National Seashore

Best shopping experience:

The Outlets at Corpus Christi Bay

Best place for a stroll:

Corpus Christi Seawall

Best seafood in town:

Black Diamond Oyster Bar

Best night out:

Cassidy’s Irish Pub

DAY 7: the Rio Grande Valley and SOuth Padre

1 hour 45 minutes/95 miles

Today you are headed south to the Delta of the Rio Grande and Brownsville. Make time for a breakfast stop at Mr. Jaime’s Taqueria in Kingsville. They have the best breakfast in town. Once you get into Brownsville, you will realize first hand that you are definitely in a border town, not because of the dynamic cross-cultural vibe of the city, but because you can see the evidence of the border between the countries by heading to Alice Hope Wilson Park. It will give you great views of the border wall, the Rio Grande and Mexico beyond.  One side-trip that you can’t miss is to South Padre Island. South Padre is not just a party stop for college students on Spring Break. It’s a world renowned sanctuary for wildlife of all kinds. One can’t be missed experience would be the turtles at Sea Turtle, Inc. This rehabilitation and conservation organization will  be an educational highlight. Speaking of things to do in East Texas, make you sure you swing by Pier 19 for the best seafood in the coolest setting, period.

Best place for a hike:

Resaca De La Palma State Park

Best photo op:

Palo Alto Battlefield

Best museum:

Costume of the Americas

Best place to shop and find some treasures:

77 Flea Market

Best original dinner spot:

La Pampa

Best place for a stroll:

Mitte Cultural District

DAY 8: The Streets of Laredo

things to do in east texas

4.5 hours/200 miles

There is a song, written long ago, extolling the dangerous life of a cowboy on the Streets of Laredo. Sung by cowboy crooner Marty Robbins, it doesn’t really offer any insight into Laredo itself, but it’s still kinda neat. Anyways…Laredo sits right on the border with the Mexican town of Nuevo Laredo, but before you get there we are are going to take you on a little tour of the United States Border as it follows the Rio Grande. But you need to fuel up though, and the best spot for breakfast, hands down, is El Cortijo. After that, continue along Old Military Highway 281 until you reach the Santa Anna National Wildlife Refuge. It’s worth a stop and definitely remember to take your camera. Once you pull into Laredo, head to the La Posada Hotel.

Our itinerary does not extend any further south than Laredo, but you are right on the border, and if the pull of Mexico proves too much, here are some things you should know about crossing over.

Can’t Miss It:

St. Agustin Plaza

Best hike to a scenic view:

Lake Casa Blanca International State Park

Best place to shop:

Zaragoza Street

Best place for a stroll:

Carleen Bright Arboretum

Great little museum:

Republic of the Rio Grande

Can’t miss dinner:

Briskets and Beer Smokehouse

DAY 9 and 10: Remember the Alamo in San Antonio

2 hours/150 miles

San Antonio holds a unique place in the annals of American history. The Alamo, an 18th-century Spanish mission preserved as a museum, marks an infamous 1836 battle for Texan independence from Mexico. The defenders were wiped out, but the legend lives on in the famous battle cry, “Remember the Alalmo”.  But San Antonio is not the sum of its history, its a progressive, modern metropolis, in which, you are going to have a lot of fun. Speaking of fun, one thing you can’t miss is Six Flags Fiesta Texas. It is one the greatest amusements parks in the world. Though there is enough to do in San Antonio to last a lifetime, your first stop when you get to town should be the San Antonio River Walk. Filled with shops, restaurants and galleries, it is the cultural and economic hub of the city.

Most unique way to see the city:

The Sisters Grimm Ghost Tour

Can’t miss it:

Natural Bridge Caverns

Best historical hike:

Mission Trail

Best photo oppotunities:

San Antonio Botanical Gardens

Best taco in town:

Garcia’s

Best place for libations:

Durty Nelly’s Irish Pub and Piano Bar

DAY 11: The coolest Town in Texas

things to do in east texas

1 hour/80 miles

Your next stop is the hip town of Austin, the state capital and the home to the flagship campus of the University of Texas. Like Portland, San Francisco and Brooklyn, Austin is usually considered to be one of the epicenters for the Youth of America these days. Yet with nearly a million people within its borders, Austin has enough for everyone: a booming music scenecheap and tasty food, lots of unique shopping and cultural opportunities, and a unique local vibe around every corner.

Go for a swim:

Barton Springs

Best way to see Austin:

Austin in a Nutshell bike tour

Coolest street in the coolest town in Texas:

South Congress Street

Can’t miss it:

Museum of the Weird

Go for a stroll:

Wild Basin

Best Place for dinner:

The Salty Sow

DAY 12: the heart of texas

1.5 hours/100 miles

Founded in 1850 along the banks of the Brazos River, Waco has a long history as an important economic hub for the center of Texas. Today, Waco is the home of a number of one-of-a-kind museums like the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum and the Dr. Pepper Museum. Baylor University’s Mayborn Museum Complex includes a natural history museum and a historic village. One can’t miss experience is a visit to Waco Mammoth National Monument. After all that learning, head to Schmaltz’s Sandwich Shop to refuel.

Best place to find a hidden treasure:

The LaSalle Shops

Best place to get outside:

East Brazos Park

Best place to get a true American experience:

Heart of Texas Speedway

Best place to shop:

Magnolia Market

Best place for a stroll:

Downtown Waco

Best place for a burger and brew:

The Backyard

DAY 13 and 14: d-town and the metroplex

things to do in east texas

1.5 hours/90 miles

Welcome to Dallas!  Long associated as the financial heart of the Texas Oil Boom, the town has grown a lot from it’s wild younger days. It is now a city that prides itself on its dedication to history and culture. Downtown’s Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza commemorates the site of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. In the Arts District, the Dallas Museum of Art is a world-renowned institution. Dallas has a number of great and eclectic neighborhoods all waiting for you to explore. Though Dallas is a great town, make sure you leave time for Fort Worth. Originally the last stop on the Chisolm Trail, today, it’s a modern city.  Fort Worth has acclaimed museums, fantastic modern architecture and an array of wonderful dining and shopping opportunities.  The Fort Worth Stockyards are home to rodeos, and the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame honors the pioneers that made this area great.

Best place to get some culture:

Kimbell Art Museum

Take a ride on a roller coaster:

Six Flags Over Texas

Take a hike:

Fort Worth Nature Center

Best place get outside:

Klyde Warren Park

Can’t miss it:

Dallas World Aquarium

Put on your dancing boots:

Billy Bob’s Texas Honky Tonk



Two Days of R&R in Hot Springs, South Dakota

If there was ever a town where you could check off a full American experience, Hot Springs, South Dakota would be it. Founded on historic discoveries and built on leisure this small town has it all. Let’s get down to it and carve out the ideal weekend experiencing the American West!

 

This article was created in partnership with the Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce, South Dakota. Photos courtesy of Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce.

 

Day One Morning

 

Start out by diving into the history and exploring the millions of years old mammoth site the town was founded on. Having unearthed 61 mammoths, both Woolly and Columbian, this site is known for having the greatest concentration of mammoth remains. Still an active site, this is possibly one of the oldest such ruins in the U.S. and brings in over 100,000 people each year.

 

two kids dig up fossils in Hot Springs, South Dakota

 

Day One Afternoon

 

Follow the first half of the day with a little exploration of the town itself. Let the Freedom Trail guide you a little over a mile to discover downtown Hot Springs. Along the way, you’ll pass a couple of parks as well as some fantastic art work. While walking the town, take note that many of the buildings were constructed of a beautiful local pink sandstone by pioneers in the late 1900s.

 

Downtown Hot Springs

 

This gem of a community has many shops, restaurants, museums, and galleries to enjoy. You may even consider a quick game of mini golf or bowling. After discovering what the unique downtown community offers make sure to get a good night’s rest. Day two will really display why pioneers settled and frequented this area.

 

Day Two Morning

 

 

Evans Plunge, Hot Springs

 

Start the day by visiting the Evans Plunge mineral springs. The waters feeding into the pools stay at a consistent and warm 87 degrees year round and are a true mineral spring without the sulphur smell. During the summer—and especially in the winter, everybody can appreciate Evans Plunge in an indoor or outdoor pool. Children have slides and areas where they can play, while adults can choose to relax with access to a spa, health club and sauna.

 

As an alternative to Evan’s Plunge don’t be afraid to get away from the crowd and appreciate other outdoor attractions. The local golf course offers some spectacular views of the surrounding Seven Sisters Mountain Range and is a wonderful way to spend the morning.

 

Day Two Afternoon

 

 

Cascade Falls, South Dakota

 

This friendly community truly appeals to people of all ages. After a hearty lunch you can continue and get more immersed in the endless outdoor activities. Plenty of water and surrounding trails offer a different perspective from the pool. Nearby springs and lakes give way to water activities such as paddle boarding, boating, and fishing.

 

 

Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary

 

Another way to enjoy the outdoors is to observe and connect with wildlife by visiting Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary. Here, wild mustangs roam free on 11,000 acres of open land. Book your tour in advance to experience the wild west of South Dakota.

 

Not to be forgotten are the parks nearby. Hot Springs is only 10 minutes away from Wind Cave National Park and a short distance from Custer State Park. The southern Black Hills still offer more with Crazy Horse Memorial and Pine Ridge Indian Reservation all within short road trip distance.

 

Hot Springs truly has it all. This resort town may be small, but you can find more than enough to do and immerse yourself in a truly American experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hot Springs South Dakota Pin




National Parks and Midwest Road Trips

National Parks and Midwest Road Trips

From Chicago all the way down to the tip of Texas, these midwest road trips will take you on adventures right down the middle of the United States. In this trip you will visit America’s second city, with a number of great parks and a trip to the home of Elvis along the way.


#thisismyroute

Prepared by:
Matt

States:
Illinois, Kentucky, Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico

Start:
Chicago, Illinois
End:
Albuquerque, New Mexico

Total miles:
2,687

Suggested days:
At least 14

Type:
scenic road trip

Recommended for: 
First-timers to the United States, honeymooners, photographers, road trippers

Suggested season: 
Spring through Fall

How to Prepare

We recommend at least two weeks to encompass all of the possible offerings that are suggested for midwest road trips. A lot of distance is covered here, so it would be ideal to spend a couple of days in, say, Big Bend, after driving many hours to and from there. (Of course, the drives themselves are uniquely impressive, so it won’t feel long at all! The journey is the destination, as they say.) Only a few of the drives are relatively short, around 3 hours or so. But, as you go through Texas, many drives will take up a good part of your day, so plan accordingly. (These longer drives could be broken up into segments, too, but there may be few decent stopping points in the more desolate regions.) The weather through this drive is variable depending on the season. In the summer, it will be quite hot everywhere, muggy in Chicago and dry in Big Bend. In the autumn, it will be much more pleasant in the south, but it could definitely snow in Chicago towards the end of the season. The majority of this trip could be done any time of year, but possible heavy snow November through February can make driving in the upper Midwest a bit treacherous. Follow the forecasts accordingly.

DAY 1: arrival in Chicago

midwest road trips

After flying into Chicago O’Hare International Airport, you’ll rent your car and have the city at your fingertips. Chicago is a world-class city, though one that is somewhat peripheral due to its location away from the coasts. This perhaps makes the city even better, though, as Chicago has retained much of its local culture and history over the centuries. There is enough to do in Chicago that one could easily spend a week sightseeing there, but if you only are dedicating a couple days to the city, you can easily concentrate your time on the key attractions. As the city is fairly spread out, you could pick a neighborhood to concentrate on – like the famous Loop, or the less traveled Pilsen, Ukrainian Village, Logan Square and Wicker Park – or ping pong around the city by public transit to see Cloud Gate and Millennium Park, the Magnificent Mile, the Field Museum, Garfield Park Conservatory and other deservedly known places. There is a lot to explore in Chicago and anywhere you go will be worthwhile.

Best place to get some culture:

The Art Institute of Chicago

Best American experience:

Watch the Cubbies play at Wrigley Field

Best place for a stroll:

Lakefront Trail

Best place to catch the blues:

The House of Blues

Best Chicago style deep dish pizza:

Gino’s East

Best neighborhood:

Streeterville

DAY 2: Into the bluegrass state and Kentucky

4.5 hours

When you’re ready to leave Chicago, you will head south, through Indiana and into Kentucky, the lovely Bluegrass State. A recommended stopping point is Louisville, the largest city in the state and one that has plenty of shopping, eating and sightseeing to offer travelers. For history buffs, there are a lot of monuments and museums to discover in the city, one of the oldest west of the Appalachian Mountains. For culture hounds, there is a thriving local music scene and a few great art museums. If you happen to be in town during the Kentucky Derby in May, that may be your best bet on getting a taste of one of the most longstanding traditions in the state.

Best place for s stroll:

Louisville Waterfront

Can’t miss it:

Kentucky Derby Museum

Best way to see the city:

Mint Julep Tours

Best place try Kentucky Bourbon:

Sitzel-Weller Distillery

Best place for dinner:

HammerHeads

Best for a night out:

Old Louisville

DAY 3: Descending into Mammoth Cave

midwest road trips

1.5 hours

A couple of hours south of Louisville is one of the more stunning geological features in the United States, the massive underground chambers of Mammoth Caves. This is the longest known cave system on the planet and is designated as a World Heritage Site and an international Biosphere Reserve. In other words, prepare to be blown away. There are 405 total miles of surveyed passageways at Mammoth Cave and the system goes as deep as 379 feet beneath the ground. It might be best to take a guided ranger tour, as there is a lot of significant historical and geological information that you can’t obtain on your own.

Best hike:

Big Hollow Trail

Best way to see the cave: 

Ranger led tours

Go spelunking:

The Wild Cave Tour

Stock up on gifts:

The Roosters Crow

Best place for BBQ:

Bucky Bee’s BBQ

Where the locals eat breakfast:

The Watermill

DAY 4: Tennessee

4.5 hours

There is a fair amount of distance between Mammoth Caves and your next park destination at Hot Springs National Park, but luckily you pass through two of Tennessee’s great major cities. Nashville and Memphis each have a lot to offer to travelers, but you can choose which one you’d like to break up your drive to Arkansas. In Nashville, you can take in the Grand Ole Opry, the Country Music Hall of Fame and everything else related to this form of American traditional music. On the other hand, in Memphis you can go to Elvis Presley’s Graceland, visit the famous Sun Studios and, perhaps most importantly, eat some of the country’s best barbeque. Either way, plan on spending the night in Memphis so that you get a full day in Hot Springs after the next drive.

Best museum:

National Civil Rights Museum

Can’t Miss It:

Graceland

Best way to see Memphis:

Memphis Mojo Tour

Best place for a stroll:

The Crystal Shrine Grotto

Best Memphis style BBQ:

Central BBQ

Best night out:

Beale Street

DAY 5: Hot Springs National Park

midwest road trips

3 hours

Adjacent to and within the town of the same name, Hot Springs National Park is the oldest park maintained by the National Park Service and was initially designated as a federally protected area before the national park system was established. It is also one of the most conveniently located national parks, as portions run through downtown Hot Springs. There are 26 miles of trails around the park and a few places to take the kind of traditional hot spring bath that has been attracting visitors to the site for thousands of years.

Best place for a stroll:

Bathhouse Row

Best hike:

Goat Rock Trail

Best place to soak:

Quapaw Baths

Can’t miss it:

Arkansas Alligator Farm

Best place to eat Southern style:

Mr. Whiskers

Best morning pancakes:

The Pancake Shop

DAY 6: Onwards to Texas

5 hours

You will next head into Texas, the Lone Star State, for a few days. The first of these stops will be the charming town of Fort Worth, part of the larger DFW (Dallas – Fort Worth) metropolitan area, one of the most populated urban regions in the South. Though Dallas is the largest of these cities, Fort Worth has a lot of charm to offer to visitors. The city has renowned art museums, fantastic modern architecture and an array of wonderful dining and shopping opportunities.

Best place to get some culture:

Kimbell Art Museum

Take a ride on a roller coaster:

Six Flags Over Texas

Take a hike:

Fort Worth Nature Center

Best place to learn about cowgirls:

Cowgirl Hall of Fame and Museum

Can’t miss it:

Fort Worth Stockyards

Drink local:

Martin House Brewing Company

DAY 7: The coolest Town in Texas

midwest road trips

Your next stop, a few hours south, is the hip town of Austin, the state capital and the home to the flagship campus of the University of Texas. Like Portland, San Francisco and Brooklyn, Austin is usually considered to be one of the epicenters for the youth of America these days. Yet with nearly a million people within its borders, Austin has enough for everyone: a booming music scene, cheap and tasty food, lots of unique shopping and cultural opportunities, and a unique local vibe around every corner.

Go for a swim:

Barton Springs

Best way to see Austin:

Austin in a Nutshell bike tour

Coolest street in the coolest town in Texas:

South Congress Street

Can’t miss it:

Museum of the Weird

Go for a stroll:

Wild Basin

Best Place for Dinner:

The Salty Sow

DAY 8 through 10: Big Bend National Park

big bend national park

6.5 hours

You have a long drive of several hours to reach your next destination, the spectacular landscapes of Big Bend National Park. In a sense, this is one of the best ways to experience the magnitude of Texas, as you will drive through hundreds of miles of flat desert expanse to reach the park, which is nestled along the border with Mexico. This park is especially ssignificant as it is the largest protected area of Chihuahuan Desert topography and ecology in the United States. The park – which sprawls over 800,000 acres – is host to more than 1200 species of plants, 450 species of birds, 56 species of reptiles and 75 species of mammals. Backpacking, horseback riding, birdwatching and fishing are all popular within this desert paradise. Plan on spending at least a couple of days in Big Bend to take it all in.

Best breakfast burrito in Austin:

Mi Madre’s

Can’t miss it:

Whataburger in Del Rio

Stock up on supplies before Big Bend:

The French Co. Grocer in Marathon

Best desert hike:

Chimneys Trail

Best river hike:

Hot Springs Trail

Best desert hike:

Lost Mine Trail

DAY 11: Refresh in Marfa

2 hours

To get a dose of high culture in an unexpected place, head a couple of hours north to Marfa, a tiny West Texas town that has become a cultural mecca in recent years. What was for decades a sleepy old military town became a mark on the art-world’s map when minimalist sculptor Donald Judd bought numerous buildings in Marfa to turn into studio and living spaces in the 1970s. Today, though still quite rural, the town is host to many world-famous art institutions like the Chinati Foundation, the Judd Foundation and the Lannan Foundation, as well as a handful of smaller galleries and shops. The town has retained its mid-century looks over the years and many Hollywood movies are filmed here to evoke that time. There are, surprisingly, a few stellar places to eat in this middle-of-nowhere locale.

Soak your muscles:

Chinati Hot Springs

Stock up on reading material:

Marfa Book Company

Can’t miss it:

Prada Marfa

Have an Alien experience:

The Marfa Lights

Best place to eat:

Boyz2Men

Fun night out:

Lost Horse Saloon

DAY 12: Carlsbad Caverns National Park

2.5 hours

Your next stop is amazing Carlsbad Caverns National Park, a few hours north of Marfa. Like your earlier trip to Mammoth Caves in Kentucky, the geology of Carlsbad Caverns is truly astounding. Though there are a handful of aboveground hiking trails, the cave itself is the real reason to visit. Home to countless stalagmites, stalactites and other geological wonders at every turn, Carlsbad Caverns also has a large 4,000-foot-long and 255-foot-high chamber (“The Big Room”), making it the fifth largest in North America and the twenty-eighth largest in the world. Plan on spending a full afternoon here.

Best place to start:

Carlsbad Caverns Visitor Center

Best cave experience:

King’s Palace Tour

Can’t Miss it:

Dawn of the Bats

Best place to stretch your legs:

Black River Recreation Center

Best taco in Carlsbad:

La Patrona Taco Truck

Best local bar:

Cal’s Shade Western

DAY 13: Back to Texas

midwest road trips

2 hours

Right on the border with Mexico is the bustling city of El Paso, home to the largest bi-lingual workforce in the Western Hemisphere and frequently voted the safest city in the United States. It is home to a major university, numerous cultural activities and, as it’s along the flowing Rio Grande, many potential outdoors opportunities. Many locals say that no visit to El Paso is complete without first taking a ride on the Wyler Aerial Tramway to get a full panorama of the city below. If you decide to take a trip into Old Mexico, here are some things you need to know.

Crossing into Ciudad Juarez

Historic district:

El Centro

Shop local:

El Paso Downtown Artist and Farmer’s Market

Challenge yourself:

The Thousand Steps Trail

Take a stroll and maybe see a ghost:

Concordia Cemetery

Best Tex-Mex in El Paso:

L&J Cafe

Learn how to Line Dance:

Little Bit of Texas

DAY 14: Back to New Mexico

2.5 hours

The penultimate leg of this trip will take you north into New Mexico, passing through Las Cruces and Silver City on the way to Albuquerque. First, in Las Cruces, check out the fantastic Zuhl Museum and, if you happen to be there on a Saturday, check out the renowned Farmers & Craft Market. Next, head north to the town of Truth and Consequences and pay a visit Spaceport America, “the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport […] designed to make space travel as accessible to all as air travel is today”. It’s a wonderful glimpse into the possible future. Take a small detour west and plan on spending the night in Silver City, a small former mining town that is now home to a thriving arts scene.

Can’t miss it:

White Sands National Monument

Unique experience:

Chino Mine Overlook

Soak your cares away:

Jordan Hot Springs

Best shopping experience:

Silver City Trading Company

Best place to eat and drink:

Little Toad Creek

Get your morning coffee:

Javalina Coffee House

DAY 14: the duke city

midwest road trips

4 hours

Your weeks of road tripping down the center of the United States will end in Albuquerque, the largest city in New Mexico and one of the cultural and economic centers of the southwest. One could easily spend a couple of days in Albuquerque and the surrounding environs, so, as this is the end of your drive, it’s up to you how much time you’d like to devote there. The Sandia Mountains and Rio Grande provide outdoor adventures to those that want them and the large student population from University of New Mexico draws a good amount of culture into the city. If you happen to be in town in October, a must see event is the International Balloon Festival, the world’s largest gathering of hot-air balloons.

Can’t miss it:

Petroglyph National Monument

Best place to get some culture:

Indian Pueblo Cultural Center

Recommended Shopping:

Albuquerque Old Town

Best place for a stroll:

ABQ BioPark

Most unique museum:

The Rattlesnake Musuem

Best place for food and fun:

2 Fools Tavern



7 Incredible Landscapes You Didn’t Know Existed in America

America is home to some of the most recognizable landscapes in the world. It also holds countless gems that are less familiar, less crowded, and are some of the most beautiful places to visit in the US. Look outside the box to find incredible landscapes you’ve never heard of. Here are just a few examples:

Northeast: Smugglers’ Notch State Park, Vermont

American history fills this narrow, steep pass. What was smuggled across the Canadian border here? Cattle and goods slipping past trade embargoes, fugitive slaves reaching freedom on the Underground Railroad, liquor finding thirsty Americans during Prohibition. “Smuggle” a picnic and your sense of adventure into this gorgeous place in history.

Smuggs, Smuggs ice bash, Smugglers Notch, Smugglers Notch Skiing, Smugglers Notch Hiking, Vermont State Parks

The park office at Smugglers’ Notch State Park by Jesse Keck

Midwest: Isle Royale National Park, Michigan

This “Superior Wilderness” is surrounded by Lake Superior and is only accessible by boat or plane, but the views and the story are worth the effort. Step into a stunning landscape, complete with a lake lighthouse, an old copper mine, and a long list of potential wildlife sightings.

Isle Royale National Park, National Park Service, Lake Superior, Michigan, Mitten state

Photo courtesy of National Park Service

Southeast: Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Even if “largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States” and “astonishing biodiversity” don’t mean anything to you, taking a walk down this boardwalk and soak up the depth of beauty at Congaree National Park’s will stay in your heart forever.

Congaree National Park, boardwalk, trees, forest

Photo courtesy of National Parks Service/Tarpley

South: Big Bend National Park, Texas

The National Park Service promises “splendid isolation” in Big Bend, a massive park in the state where everything’s bigger. Locals recommend a long list of adventures: Kayak the Rio Grande through enormous canyons, explore the Chisos Mountains (the only mountain range entirely in a national park), rent a kiva house or yurt, soak in hot springs, gaze at the Mexican Chihuahua Desert from America, go birdwatching, and bask in incredible sunsets.

Big Bend National Park, photography national park, Big Bend Texas, Texas national park

Photo courtesy of National Park Service/Cookie Ballou

Wild West: Sinks Canyon State Park, Wyoming

“The Sinks” is a cave in which a river just dives underground…only to bubble back up a few hundred yards away in a pool called “The Rise.” While pondering this disappearing act, look upward at the dramatic cliff walls and wild spaces that stretch out of sight into the mountains.

Sinks Canyon State Park, national forest, popo agie river, fly fishing, fly fishing wyoming

Photo by David Rule

West Coast: Sun Lakes/Dry Falls State Park, Washington

Dry Falls is the American geological wonder you’ve never heard of. Once four times the size of Niagara Falls, the long-gone waterfall was formed by Ice Age floods. Today, you can see the 400-foot tall, 3.5-mile wide cliff where melting ice once cascaded while playing on the lake shores.

Dry Falls in Sun Lakes, Dry Falls State Park, beautiful landscapes in America, state parks, national parks

Photo courtesy Washington State Parks

What beautiful places to visit in the US are on your list this summer? Be sure to check out our road trip itineraries to plan your next adventure!

 




The 6 Least Visited National Parks in the Lower 48

National Park Elbow Room

From the Atlantic to the Pacific, the United States has 61 national parks that feature every kind of geographic location imaginable. From deserts to oceans, grasslands to mountains and everything in between. The most visited national parks boast millions of visitors every year, and I bet you can guess the names. 

Summer trips to these well-visited parks are on the bucket list of many people, which is great, but more people means more cars, more noise, more traffic, high fees and all the trappings of a big city, existing in these wilderness settings.

Looking for a less crowded experience? We don’t blame you. Try out these six least visited US national parks in the lower 48. We guarantee you’ll find beauty with a little bit of elbow room thrown in for good measure!

Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas

Annual Visitors: 172,347

With three distinct ecosystems, miles of hiking trails and the highest peak in Texas within its borders, Guadalupe Mountains National Park (GMNP) is a well-worth it road trip destination that sits just off the beaten path. One of the great things about GMNP is the sheer number of trailheads that take can take you on any amount of day hikes, including the exquisite McKittrick Canyon. The steep, towering walls of McKittrick Canyon protect a rich riparian oasis in the midst of the Chihuahuan Desert. GMNP is also considered a geology buff’s dream. The park protects the world’s most extensive Permian fossil reef. And if you know what that means, then you are probably pretty excited right now!

Great Basin National Park, Nevada

Annual Visitors: 153,094

Have you ever seen a 5,000 year-old tree? Would you like to? It won’t be a problem if you visit Great Basin National Park. Based around Nevada’s second tallest mountain, Wheeler Peak, Great Basin National Park is a vast expanse of desert ecology which does not exist in this capacity anywhere else in the world. Found in isolated groves just below the tree-line on Wheeler peak, these ancient trees grow in twisted defiance to the onward progression of time. And speaking of the infinite, due to its extremely isolated and remote location, the park has some of the country’s darkest night skies.  This makes it the perfect park for stargazers.

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Annual Visitors: 145,929

Since being declared a National Park in 2003, Congaree National Park has seen a limited number of visitors each year, which is a shame considering it has the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States.

In addition to being a designated wilderness area, a UNESCO biosphere reserve, an important bird area and a national natural landmark, Congaree National Park features primitive campsites and offers hikingcanoeing, kayaking and bird watching.

One of the greatest things about Congaree is the Cedar Creek Canoe Trail. The canoe trail is a one-of-a-kind marked trail that winds its way through one of the largest concentrations of champion trees in the world.  These tallest known examples of 15 different species are accessible only by paddle, a shallow draft and an adventurer’s spirit.

Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

Annual Visitors: 56,810

Looking for a little beach getaway with a whole lot of American History? Dry Tortugas National Park (DTNP) has what you are looking for. I don’t think we would be really going out on a limb here when we say that DTNP is one of the most unique of the national parks. Located 70 miles west of Key West Florida, DTNP is only accessible by plane or a daily ferry. Or I guess you could swim there . The point is, DTNP is completely surrounded by the crystalline blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico. This park is perfect for visitors who love snorkeling in one of the greatest undisturbed marine environments in the lower 48.

Camping is available on Garden Key within the park, and is well worth the time and effort. The stargazing is incredible, and you get to do it while camped on a tropical beach. For you history buffs out there, welcome to Fort Jefferson. A massive but unfinished coastal fortress, Fort Jefferson is the largest brick masonry structure in the Americas. Composed of over 16 million bricks, the fort was constructed in 1861 to control shipping in the Gulf. The building covers 16 acres. Among United States forts, only Fort Monroe in Virginia and Fort Adams in Rhode Island are larger.

North Cascades National Park, Washington

Annual Visitors: 30,085

There is no real good reason that the North Cascades National Park (NCNP) should be on the list of least visited national parks. Located just three hours from the bestirred metropolis of Seattle, NCNP is close enough to a major population center to be busy, but the North Cascades just don’t want to be busy, the North Cascades prefer to be by itself. Nearly the entire 500,000 acres of the park are designated wilderness. You cannot drive to any campsite in the NCNP; you have to walk there. Meaning if you like your solitude, this is the park for you.

What makes NCNP unique is that it is the only national park that doesn’t have some kind of visitor center or other amenities. Most of the access to the park is through the surrounding national forests or the Ross Lake National Recreation Area. Once inside the park, the sense of wilderness is truly wondrous. With over 300 glaciers covering jagged lofty summits, alpine lakes, ponds, streams, rivers and forested valley floors, NCNP is the seeming definition of untrammeled. The park is also very popular with mountaineers who thrive on the un-obtained heights and technical granite that the park has to offer.

Isle Royale National Park, Michigan

Annual Visitors: 25,798

Poor old Isle Royale National Park (IRNP). The loneliest of the lonely. The least-visited national park in the lower 48 is also, surprisingly, one of the largest. At 571,790 acres, IRNP is an island, but also includes over 400 smaller islands within 4.5 miles of its shores. 

Surrounded by the cold waters of Lake Superior, Isle Royale is rugged and pristine. The park boasts 165 miles of trails, including the 40 mile long Greenstone Ridge Trail, which runs from one end of the island to the other. A virtual isolated wilderness, IRNP has two small villages at each end of the park where a visitor can get supplies, take a shower and sleep off the ground for the night. Other than that, Isle Royale has 36 campgrounds located across the island. These campsites are accessible only by foot or watercraft and add to the solitude, isolation and sense of wonder that can only come with a wilderness experience.

Have you been to any of these least visited national parks? If so, let us know what you loved about them!

Note: Visitor statistics for this post were obtained from the National Park Service.