Before I had spent much time in the midwest, the area brought to mind rolling fields of wheat and corn, but not much more than that. I was surprised to see cliffs over Caribbean-colored water, trees as far as the eye can see, Great Lakes that appear as big as oceans, even covered bridges and lighthouses. Check out a few of these unexpected spots of beauty in the Midwest US.
Table of Contents
Shawnee National Forest, Illinois
by Kristin of That Travelling Family
Shawnee National Forest stretches across Southern Illinois with so many different areas to explore, from the Garden of the Gods to the Shawnee Wine Trails; there’s something for everyone.
If you love hiking, unique rock formations, and waterfalls, Shawnee National Forest is the perfect Midwestern getaway. Just a little over 2 hours Southeast of St. Louis, many of the day hikes in the area are actually part of the 160 mile River to River Trail connecting the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and winding through tall rock formations, natural arches, and caves.
Giant City State Park, just outside of Carbondale, is a great place to set up a home base for exploring all that there is to see in the western portion of the forest, like Little Grand Canyon, Ferne Clyffe State Park, or Tunnel Hill Bike Trail, while Herod is more centrally located to places like the Garden of the Gods, Cave-in Rock, and Jackson Falls.
There’s plenty to do for the non-hiker as well, most prominently the Shawnee Wine Trails. With 11 wineries and vineyards and countless cabins, Shawnee is becoming a popular destination for wine tours.
Pictured Rocks National Seashore, Michigan
By Karen at Outdoor Adventure Sampler
Pictured Rocks National Seashore is a gorgeous destination in the Midwest that the whole family will enjoy. Located in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan near Munising, the Pictured Rocks are colorful sandstone cliffs on Lake Superior’s wild shoreline.
Hikers will enjoy the North Country National Scenic Trail running along the top of the cliffs. Backcountry camping sites make it a spectacular overnight backpacking trip.
The best way to see Pictured Rocks is from the water. The park is one of the most highly visited national parks for sea kayaking in the country. Sea kayak paddlers get a close-up view of the mammoth cliffs, waterfalls, sea caves, and arches. Challenging storms often whip up on Lake Superior; therefore, kayakers should have the proper skills and paddling gear. Beginner paddlers can enjoy guided trips with a local tour company.
A tour boat cruise is the most popular way to see Pictured Rocks. The narrated tour stops at major landmarks on the route, including the iconic Miner’s Castle and the Grand Portal. The boat trip lasts 2.5-3 hours. Since there is only one tour boat company serving the National Seashore, make sure you get tickets early.
The Bridges of Madison County, Iowa
For more than a century, red covered bridges carried rural Iowans over the rivers that snake their way through southern Iowa. But it wasn’t until native son Robert James Waller photographed them that they were thrust into the national spotlight. As he rose at dawn to capture the beautiful bridges in the first golden light of the day, he spun a fictional tale of a well-traveled photographer who fell in love with a beautiful Italian war bride in real life Madison County.
It’s been nearly 30 years since The Bridges of Madison County was published (and about as long since a movie version starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep was filmed in Madison County), but the covered bridges remain a popular attraction in the Hawkeye State.
Although the passing years (and a destructive arsonist) have reduced the number of covered bridges in Madison County from 19, the six remaining structures near Winterset makes this one of the prettiest places to visit in the Midwest. While the bridges are beautiful to behold any time of year, I am especially partial to late spring when the surrounding area is filled with wildflowers and the fall when colorful leaves frame the crimson wooden bridges.
Mackinaw Island, Michigan
Surprisingly Lake Huron has the blue and turquoise hues of the Caribbean Sea. In the midst of these beautiful waters lies a 4-mile island full of horse-drawn carriages, Victorian houses, hiking trails, and a defunct fort. It is famous for fudge and has a large fancy hotel on its limestone cliffs. Mackinac Island is definitely worth a visit when you are in the midwest US.
Please read my article about how to spend a day on Mackinaw Island for more information.
Ice Caves at Apostles Island, Wisconsin
These caves sit in northern Wisconsin on Lake Superior. To reach them, you must walk a mile across the frozen lake. I am a bit obsessed with water in all its splendor, so seeing these caves are on my bucket list.
The Dells, Wisconsin
A lot of limestone can be found in the upper midwest. Along the water, the rocks make striking rock cliffs, caves, and arches (such as the one on Mackinac Island. A five-mile section of the Wisconsin River is full of striated columns of rock, called dells. The area is named after the formation. You will want to take to the water to see them, and there are many ways to do this. You can rent a kayak or many kinds of boats, or take a guided tour. You can read more about the area in my Wisconsin road trip post.
Cave Point State Park, Wisconsin
When visiting Door County, one of my absolute favorite spots in the midwest, be sure to explore Cave Point State Park. Once again, the limestone formations loom over the calm water of Lake Michigan, and there are even sea caves to enter and explore. You can hike to the caves and swim in the water. There are spots where you will see crowds jumping in from the top of cliffs. You can also reach the caves with a little over a half a mile kayak. This is how you want to explore if you want to enter the caves.
Cana Island Lighthouse, Wisconsin
Because the Great Lakes are so large, they have tides and have a history of shipwrecks. You can check some out on a kayak tour. Because of that, they also have lighthouses! While in Door County, be sure to check out Cana Lighthouse, which can only be reached by crossing water, by foot, or on a tractor.
Sleeping Bear Dunes, Michigan
On one side of Lake Michigan, you will find limestone formations. On the other side, humungous sand dunes are abutting the shore. The dunes stretch miles, at points towering 450 feet above the water. Sleeping Bear Dunes is a great place to camp or stop on a midwest road trip.
Has this post inspired you to explore the midwest? Where will you go first? Is there a beautiful midwest location that I missed? Please let me know in the comments.