Midwest is the best? Yeah? I created this bucket list for people who are looking for some local travel adventure in 2020. I am “stuck” in the suburbs of Chicago quarantining with my family, so what better time to explore my own backyard? I created this bucket list for myself, but figured there were probably other wanderers itching for some adventure as well! Enjoy!
Note: I am from Chicago, so this list is geared towards people traveling from Chicago BUT it can be used by anyone! xo
States in the Midwest: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin – let’s go!
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Midwest State Parks + Hiking in the Midwest
Black Hills National Forest – Custer, SD
Distance from Chicago: 14 hours
Why go? Highest Peak in SD + highest peak east of the Rocky Mountains. Good place for camping, fishing, hiking, and motorized travel.
Brown County State Park – Nashville, IN
Distance from Chicago: 3 hour, 40 minutes
Why go? Largest state park in Indiana. The beautiful scenery attracts photographers and artists (most popular in the fall). Close to the popular town of Nashville, ID. Known as “the Little Smokies” because of its similarities to the Smokey Mountains.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park – Brecksville, OH
Distance from Chicago: 5 hours, 53 minutes
Why go? There’s a scenic railroad that goes through the park. Home to 100 beautiful waterfalls. Good place for hiking, biking, and golf in the summer and skiing and sled-riding in the winter.
Devil’s Lake State Park – Baraboo, WI
Distance from Chicago: 2 hours, 50 minutes
Why go? Largest state park in Wisconsin. Nice day trip from Chicago. Close to Madison, WI (super cute city)! Popular spot for overnight camping and rock climbing.
Hawn State Park – Ste. Genevieve, MO
Distance from Chicago: 6 hours
Why go? Good place for fishing, picnicking, hiking, bird watching and camping. Home to diverse nature and wild life.
Huron-Manistee National Forests – Mesick, MI
Distance from Chicago:
Why go? Home of thousands of lakes and miles of rivers and streams. Popular place for fishing, camping, boating, snowmobiling, and cross-country skiing. The Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness is one of the few wilderness areas in the US with vast lake shore dunes ecosystem.
Ice Age National Scenic Trail – Eagle, WI
Distance from Chicago: 3 hours, 23 minutes
Why go? Thousand-mile footpath (great challenge? yeah?) Popular for hiking and snowshoeing. Diverse wildlife. Among the world’s finest examples of how continental glaciation shaped our planet. I’ve never been, but it sounds amazing!
Kanopolis State Park – Marquette, KS
Distance from Chicago: 11 hours
Why go? Situated in the rolling hills, bluffs and woods of the Smoky Hills region of Kanas. Full-service marina and beaches. Perfect for horseback riding, mountain biking and hiking.
Kettle Moraine State Forest – Eagle, WI
Distance from Chicago: 2 hours
Why go? Hilly terrain and glacial landforms. 250 miles of hiking trails. 750 campsites. Home of gorgeous waterfalls. (Waterfalls always pull me in. You too?)
Lebanon Hills Regional Park – Eagan, MN
Distance from Chicago: 6 hours
Why go? Close to Minneapolis (one of my favorite cities in the Midwest)! Contains forests, grasslands, marshes, and wetlands. Popular all year round (especially in the winter for showshoeing, ice skating, ice fishing, hiking, and winter mountain biking). In the summer, you can enjoy kayaking, canoeing, swimming, camping, horseback riding, hiking, and mountain biking.
Matthiessen State Park – Utica, IL
Distance from Chicago: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Why go? Right next door to Starved Rock State Park. I recommend this park as an alternative with less people! Large population of white-tail deer (animals are always a plus for me). Also home to frogs, toads, and salamanders. I’m sold. You?
Mohican State Park – Loudonville, OH
Distance from Chicago: 5 hours, 40 minutes
Why go? Good place for camping, hiking, boating, mountain biking, fishing, and picnicking. You can also go rafting or rent go-karts OR play mini-golf. Wow, lots to see and do.
Palisades State Park – Garretson, SD
Distance from Chicago: 8 hours, 30 minutes
Why go? Features cliffs and rock formations made out of pink Sioux Quartzite that are 1.2 billion years old. Great place for rock climbing and hiking. 37 campgrounds, 6 camper cabins, and a tenting area for overnight stays.
Pikes Peak State Park – Mcgregor, IA
Distance from Chicago: 4 hours, 10 minutes
Why go? One of the most photographed places in Iowa. Known for its beautiful views of the Mississippi River. There are multiple hiking trails, campgrounds, and RV facilities.
Ponca State Park – Ponca, NE
Distance from Chicago: 8 hours, 5 minutes
Why go? Located off the Mississippi River (GORG). 22 miles of hiking and bike trails. Also, swimming, archery range, boating, camping (nice staff), shooting range, cabins, canoeing.
Shawnee State Forest – Herod, IL
Distance from Chicago: 5 hours, 5 minutes
Why go? Only national forest in IL. Home to hardwood trees and a diverse group of plants and wildlife (bears, bald eagle, and venomous SNAKES). Perfect for hiking, trail running, rock climbing, camping, and swimming.
Sheyenne River State Forest – Lisbon, ND
Distance from Chicago: 10 hours, 30 minutes
Why go? Hosts the ONLY waterfall in North Dakota. Known for awesome views and diverse wildlife. Good for hiking, camping, and picnicking.
Starved Rock – Oglesby, IL
Distance from Chicago: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Why go? A great escape from the city. It’s one of the most popular hikes near Chicago. I recommend going during the week if possible (weekends get a little crazy). Filled with waterfalls and beautiful views. Perfect family outing, date, or solo hike (for beginner hikers).
Superior Hiking Trail – Silver Bay, MN
Distance from Chicago: 7 hours, 35 minutes
Why go? 310-mile long hiking trail ideal for backpacking or day trips. If you’re feeling ambitious, it takes 2-4 weeks to hike the trail. Fee-free camping. Backpacker Magazine named Super Hiking Trail the “Best Trail/Camp/Shelter conditions” and “Best Signage.”
Tahquamenon Falls State Park – Paradise, MI
Distance from Chicago: 7 hours, 25 minutes
Why go? Borders Lake Superior. The center of the park is the Tahquamenon waterfall. You can rent waterboats and canoes for the day!
Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve – Strong City, KS
Distance from Chicago: 9 hours, 50 minutes
Why go? Home to Tallgrass Prairie bison herd. 40-miles of hiking trails. Named one of the 8 Wonders of Kanas (it’s okay to laugh lol).
Tecumseh Trail – Martinsville, ID
Distance from Chicago: 3 hours, 35 minutes
Why go? 42-mile trail. 2-3 day hike. Near Indianapolis, a nice city to check out.
For more information on these hikes, click here.
Best Hikes Near Chicago (Less than 2 hours Away)
- Deer Grove
- Des Plaines River Trail
- The Lakefront Trail (Chicago, IL)
- Starved Rock State Park (listed above)
- Kankakee River State Park Trail System
- Matthiessen State Park (listed above)
- Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie
- Morton Arboretum
- Ned Brown Forest Preserve
- North Branch Trail
- Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore
- Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve Trail System
Cute Small Towns to Visit in the Midwest
My two favorite cute towns in the Midwest are Iowa City, IA and Galena, IL. Personally, I look for artsy fartsy shops, delicious local food, friendly people, and green parks. Iowa City and Galena are both absolute treasures in my book. If you stay in Galena, I recommend booking a bed and breakfast.
- Ephraim, WI
- Lanesboro, MN
- Door County, WI
- Galena, IL
- Grand Marais, MN
- Iowa City, IA
- Nashville, IN
- New Buffalo, MI
- Spring Green, WI
- Springfield, IL
- Stockholm, WI
Best Cities in the Midwest
Chicago is my favorite city in the world. Yes, I may be biased. Chicago is my home and will always have a special place in my heart. What I love most about Chicago is the diversity. Each neighborhood feels like stepping into a new city (or country). You can eat food from around the world. Food is everything (obviously) and Chicago has THE BEST FOOD.
My favorite neighborhood is Andersonville (LGBTQ+) and Pilsen (Mexican Art Museum + street art). I also recommend renting divvy bikes and riding around the Lake Front Trail.
My grandparents say Indianapolis is like Chicago, but better. I highly doubt that, but worth the visit! (lol) Indianapolis is known for the world-renowned Indy 500 race. Indianapolis also has the SECOND most memorials and monuments after Washington DC.
Kanas City, KS
Kanas City is famous for barbecue, jazz and foundations according to Wikipedia. Kanas City is also home to the Kanas City Chiefs. Kanas City seems to have it all.
I love Milwaukee. It’s super close to Chicago and it has a similar vibe. The food scene is amazing and the people are friendly. I also love the street art and the lake front. 10/10
Related article: Best Vegan Restaurants in Milwaukee
Minneapolis is one of those cities where I immediately felt at home. I know I keep repeating myself, but Minneapolis is another city where the food is amazing and the people are even better. It’s known for parks, lakes, and their art scene.
Note: 2020 is maybe not the greatest time to take a trip to Minneapolis. The police brutality and corruption within their police department is inexcusable. I am not promoting travel there at this time. But, it’s on the list for the future.
Madison is a trendy college town surrounded by beautiful parks and lakes. Madison is named the greenest city in Wisconsin. It’s loaded with shops, delicious restaurants, and nature spots. I highly recommend taking a day trip or weekend trip to Madison.
Quad Cities (IA + IL)
I was born and (partly) raised in Davenport, Iowa. People LAUGH when I say I’m from Iowa thinking Iowa is just cornfields. Jokes on you, Iowa is lit. *It’s no Chicago, but there are some gems.*
The Quad Cities is made up of five cities: Davenport, IA, Bettendorf, IA, Rock Island, IL, Moline, IL and East Moline, IL.
- Downtown Davenport (walk along the Mississippi River)
- Davenport Skybridge
- Iowa 80 Truck Stop (the largest truck stop in the world *yes it’s worth the visit*)
- The show American Pickers is located in LeClaire (nearby)
- Museums (Figge Art Museum + Putnam Museum)
St. Louis, MS
I have to be honest and say St. Louis is not my favorite city in the Midwest. But, I included it because I think it’s worth the visit. If anything, you must see the Gateway Arch (and take a picture) and check that off your bucket list. I also recommend checking out the Missouri Botanical Garden and Forest Park for some nature lovin’.
Suburbs of Chicago Worth The Visit
Go ahead and ignore this list if you live outside of Illinois. This is for my Chicago/Chicagoland area friends who are feeling the itch to travel, but don’t want to go too far. Note: an adventure can be in your own backyard. I can’t promise Naperville, IL will be like Bali BUT it’s always fun to explore new areas. (lol)
My personal favorite is Evanston. I love the downtown area. It’s super artsy, walkable, good food, and nice people. Blind Faith Cafe is my favorite restaurant in Evanston. They have the best vegan chocolate cake EVER.
- Aurora, IL
- Arlington Heights, IL
- Crystal Lake, IL
- Downer’s Grove, IL
- Evanston, IL
- Highland Park, IL
- Geneva, IL
- Joliet, IL
- Naperville, IL
- Oak Park, IL
- Schaumburg, IL
- St. Charles, IL
- Wilmette, IL
- Woodstock, IL
Pictured below is the Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette, IL. It’s close to the city and worth the visit! Go on a nice day and read a novel on the grass outside!
Midwest Hidden Treasures
Personally, I love Amish towns. It feels like you’re escaping to a different planet. And most importantly, there’s usually good pie and great people watching. What more could you ask for…?
Two Amish towns:
- Amana Colonies, IA (near Iowa City, IA)
- Arcola/Arthur, IL (1 hour, 30 minutes from Springfield, IL)
Noteworthy Midwest Hidden treasures:
- World’s Largest Catsup Bottle – Collinsville, IL
- World’s Largest Ball of Twine – Cawker City, KS
- National Mustard Museum – Middleton, WI
- The Home Alone House – Winnetka, IL (the best movie ever created)
- BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Sanstha Mandir (Hindu temple) – Bartlett, IL
- Rootbeer Saloon – Alto Pass, IL
- World Records – Casey, IL (World’s largest collection of largest objects HA)
- Olney, IL (home of albino squirrels that are treated like sacred cows….)
For more weird treasures (in IL), check out this list.
Bonus: Midwest favorites recommended by you guys:
- Cedar Point – Sandusky, OH (“the roller coaster capital of the world”)
- Stillwater, MN (One of Minnesota’s oldest towns)
- Hudson, WI (Home of Willow River State Park)
- Red Wing, MN (Historic small town)
Do you have any other recommendations or reviews? Comment below to share with others!
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