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30 Things Every Midwesterner Should Experience

Peaceful lakes, sweeping vistas, state fair food—here is our list of 30 essential Midwest experiences. Consider this a checklist for this year's travel, in case it's time to renew the senses.
Mackinac Bridge, Annual Bridge Walk

Feel the movement

Feel the oh-so-subtle swaying of five-mile-long Mackinac Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the Western Hemisphere, as you drive between Michigan's Upper and Lower Peninsulas on a windy day. Below the Mighty Mac, Lakes Michigan and Huron meet in the Straits of Mackinac. The swaying seems decidedly less subtle on foot, a crossing style allowed during the Annual Bridge Walk, held each Labor Day. mackinacbridge.org

Feel your footing shift beneath you as you huff your way up Mount Baldy sand dune's 123 feet. If that doesn't sound like much of a climb, trust us: The highest point in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore makes you work for the stunning view waiting at the top. nps.gov/indu

Feel the water

Feel the crystalline spring-fed waters of Jacks Fork River in southeast Missouri coat your fingertips as they lazily dangle from your inner tube. Don't forget to face eyes-up once in a while. Breathtaking Ozark Mountain bluffs tower on either bank of this stretch of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. nps.gov/ozar

Feel, with your bare feet, the smooth, slippery rocks that mark the beginning of the Mississippi River. After Lake Itasca's waters flow over this strip of stones, they officially become the great river, wade-able and a mere 12 feet wide here. dnr.state.mn.us

Feel the rumbles

Feel the ground rumble and shake as more than 1,500 bison thunder into a Custer State Park prairie valley in South Dakota. Each fall, cowboys and cowgirls round up one of America's largest publicly owned bison herds in a few magnificent, dust-filled minutes. gfp.sd.gov

Feel the grass-covered, packed-dirt ruts pounded down by the hundreds of thousands of wagon wheels and animal hooves on the Santa Fe Trail. During the mid-1800s, travelers headed south with goods to trade and north with gold and silver. They trampled these 900 miles between Missouri and New Mexico (still Mexico then). Today, one of the longest continuous and most clearly defined stretches is the nearly two-mile section of the trail nine miles west of Dodge City, Kansas. ksheritage.org

Feel the movement

Feel the oh-so-subtle swaying of five-mile-long Mackinac Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the Western Hemisphere, as you drive between Michigan's Upper and Lower Peninsulas on a windy day. Below the Mighty Mac, Lakes Michigan and Huron meet in the Straits of Mackinac. The swaying seems decidedly less subtle on foot, a crossing style allowed during the Annual Bridge Walk, held each Labor Day. mackinacbridge.org

Feel your footing shift beneath you as you huff your way up Mount Baldy sand dune's 123 feet. If that doesn't sound like much of a climb, trust us: The highest point in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore makes you work for the stunning view waiting at the top. nps.gov/indu

Hear warbles and creaks

Hear the haunting warble of a loon drift across a quiet, tree-lined Minnesota lake at sunset. exploreminnesota.com

Hear the creak-groan of 100-year-old boards adjusting to the weight of your car as you drive through a covered bridge in Parke County, Indiana. Thirty-one are preserved on the county's beautiful wooded farmland. That's the largest concentration of covered bridges in western Indiana, which holds the largest concentration of covered bridges in the world. coveredbridges.com

Hear rustles and honks

Hear the gentle rustling of late-summer corn shifting in a breeze from within the Field of Dreams near Dyersville, Iowa. Walk into the very field the movie's ghost players emerged from deep enough to get the full effect (left), but not so far you get lost. By August and September, it's taller than you are. fodmoviesite.com

Hear the powerful, jarring honk of an immense ship's horn as it makes its way through the Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, the world's largest single-step lock system, located in America's third-oldest continuous settlement. The ships don't need to honk anymore. They have radios. They do it for you, the watchers of the hardworking cargo ships entering and exiting tremendous Lake Superior. lre.usace.army.mil

Hear roars and music

Hear the tremendous, thundering roar of 33,650-horsepower engines and 300,000 fans as the green flag finally signifies the start of the Indy 500 in Indianapolis. The monthlong celebratory buildup to the oldest car race in the world means that by the time the flag flies and the cars shoot from their pace lap into speeds around 225 mph, the pre-race tension turns to an all-out adrenaline rush for drivers and fans alike. indianapolismotorspeedway.com

Hear the elegant classical strains of the Cleveland Orchestra fill the July air from your blanket spread out on Blossom's lawn. These 800 acres adjacent to Cuyahoga Valley National Park have been the renowned orchestra's summer home since 1968, so naturally, they have the outdoor-music-at-sunset thing down pat. Come early, and bring a picnic. clevelandorchestra.com

Smell the flowers

Smell the wild blend of lilies, sage and dusty earth from atop a horse clambering through the gullies and buttes of primitive 4,600-acre Little Missouri State Park in North Dakota (left). The remote river valley's cactus, coyotes and rough-and-tumble prairie grasses reveal the Wild West as it was, and still is. parkrec.nd.gov

Smell spring, sweet and pure, amid five acres of lilacs in bloom during two prime May weeks at the Meadowlark Hill Lilac Collection, 15 miles southeast of Ogallala, Nebraska. With 830 varieties, it's the world's largest private lilac collection. ogallala-ne.gov

Smell storms and steel

Smell the lush, stinging wetness of a storm rumbling across a wide-open sky from amid undulating green-golden grasses in the Kansas Flint Hills. This is North America's largest expanse of native tallgrass prairie, and it has an unforgettable sense of place that blends powerful sky, dramatic land and stirring moment. nps.gov/tapr

Smell smoky molten steel during a behind-the-scenes look at one of the world's largest auto manufacturers on a Ford Rouge factory tour in metro Detroit. The industry's hot-sweet signature aroma permeates a 360-degree multisensory theater, which reveals the Midwest's—and therefore the country's—auto-making past, present and future. thehenryford.org

See eagles and stars

See a bald eagle swoop to the Mississippi River, then soar back up downriver of the lock and dam in Keokuk, Iowa. It's among the best places in the contiguous 48 to eagle-watch. Visit during Keokuk's annual Bald Eagle Appreciation Days, the third weekend of each January, and spotters will help you home in on a few of the 400-plus that usually show up. keokukiowatourism.org

See a star-loaded sky in as dark a place as you can get: north central Nebraska. Merritt Reservoir, 27 miles south of Valentine, to be exact. Here, factors including geography and lack of light pollution let you see three galaxies, even without the help of a telescope. Visit anytime on your own, or hook up with other stargazers during the Nebraska Star Party. nebraskastarparty.org

See the lakes

See the stunning blue on blue of sky topping off water on Lake Superior (left), the largest freshwater lake in the world. At 32,000 square miles, this biggest of the Great Ones seems more like a small freshwater ocean than a large lake. We'd tell you where to get the best view, but every one along the shoreline seems better than the next. Might as well collect a bunch of them. great-lakes.net

See the shimmering, swirling northern lights reflected in the still waters of Lake of the Woods in Minnesota's Northwest Angle (that little blip of the state cut out of Canada). If you're in a boat on the water, it's a stellar 360-degree view that feels like floating in the sky. lakeofthewoodsmn.com

See the lights

See the waiting white beacon of the Cana Island Lighthouse (left), a Door County, Wisconsin, icon. Walk the rock causeway leading to the tiny chunk of land on which it stands. dcmm.org

See the Chicago skyline twinkle at night from atop the sparkling 150-foot Ferris wheel on Navy Pier. Six bucks gets you one panoramic, seven-minute rotation. navypier.com

See the streetlights glint off the chrome of a perfectly restored classic street rod during the Route 66 Festival's City Nights Cruise (held in late September) in Springfield, Illinois. route66fest.com

Taste state fair and baseball specials

Taste food-on-a-stick at the Iowa State Fair (left), America's quintessential annual statewide celebration. We're pretty sure calories don't count on state fairgrounds, so go ahead and enjoy that deep-fried candy-bar-on-a-stick, pork-chop-on-a-stick or just some good ol' cotton candy while admiring the award-winning vegetables, the Big Boar or the Butter Cow. iowastatefair.org

Taste a Chicago dog overflowing with extras during a Cubs game at Wrigley Field. Mustard, onion, relish, tomato, pickle and peppers, all are encouraged. (Be warned: Adding ketchup is sacrilege here.) Sure, the 1914 stadium itself is awesome, with its ivy and manually operated scoreboard. But the dog completes the experience. chicago.cubs.mlb.com

Taste fresh ice cream and smoky ribs

Taste ice cream, thick and fresh, straight from the Babcock Hall Dairy, a University of Wisconsin-Madison operation said to make the Dairy State's best. Buy a cone or cup at the Daily Scoop Deli on the UW Memorial Union terrace. It tastes best from a seat on one of the terrace's trademark sunburst chairs with a Lake Mendota view (left)union.wisc.edu

Taste the tangy, smoky, sauce-slathered ribs at Arthur Bryant's, a 75-year Kansas City, Missouri, barbecue institution. For the most authentic experience, go to the 18th and Brooklyn location in the heart of the city's jazz district. It's the original. arthurbryantsbbq.com

Taste our roots

Taste that amazing salty-sweet combo of a chocolate-dipped potato chip (left) from Carol Widman's Candy Company in Fargo, North Dakota (701) 281-8664. The chip began as a potato nurtured in the surrounding Red River Valley's black soil, which yields one of the country's largest potato crops. Pick up a bag, then cruise the dirt roads along the fertile Midwest farmland, a reminder of how close we are to our roots. carolwidmanscandy.com

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