12 Midwest Backroad Scenic Drives | Midwest Living

12 Midwest Backroad Scenic Drives

On these great drives through the countryside, the journey is just as important as the destination.

Straits of Mackinac, Michigan

The drive: You won't find a more memorable 5-mile drive than the Mackinac Bridge (left), which connects the state's Upper and Lower peninsulas (240 miles north of Grand Rapids). On sunny days, the view from the "Mighty Mac" looks as though a child had painted the scene--green, green foliage; blue, blue lakes; whitewashed steeples.

Worth a stop: St. Ignace and Mackinaw City bookend the bridge, each with a tempting lineup of activities. Visitors can tour Revolutionary War Era forts, ride a zipline, poke around shops or take a ferry to Mackinac Island, where fudge shops, carriages and more spectacular lake views await.

For information: Contact Travel Michigan. (888) 784-7328; michigan.org

Midwest Living: Escape to Mackinac

Berea, Kentucky

The drive: The foothills around Kentucky's Folk Arts and Crafts Capital (35 miles south of Lexington) seem to breed creativity. Driving outside Berea, it feels as if you can't pass a faded tobacco barn or gravel turnoff without seeing a sign pointing to a country studio or gallery. Narrow State-89 Scenic Byway winds through the hills past Kentucky's iconic black tobacco barns, but the countryside is beautiful throughout the region, with sleek Kentucky horses grazing beneath the Appalachian hills.

Worth a stop: Campus tours are available at Berea College, where students learn traditional skills such as broom-making and wrought-iron work to help pay tuition. You'll also find fabulous arts and crafts in shops in Berea's College Square or Old Town Artisan Village, as well as at the Kentucky Artisan Center and at locations near Berea such as Tater Knob Pottery (left). But it's not all about shopping. The Appalachian hills also inspire quiet contemplation.

For information: Contact the Berea Tourism Center. (800) 598-5263; berea.com

Villages of Van Buren County, Iowa

The drive: On Iowa's 85-mile Historic Hills Scenic Byway (80 miles south of Iowa City), drivers slow down for little things: A misty river at sunrise. A potter's fingers on clay. The deliberate style of a local band playing "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain." To drive the entire byway, start on road T61 in Blakesburg and wander south and east over county and state highways to reach Donnellson. 

Worth a stop: Hikers enjoy the quiet woods of Lacey-Keosauqua State Park (left) along route J40 and Shimek State Forest, which is bisected by Highway 2. Some venture to Fort Madison's restaurants in nearby Lee County. During the Scenic Drive Festival in the fall, towns like Keosauqua, Bentonsport, and Bonaparte (all along Route J40) swell comfortably with crafters and fur-trade reenactors. But even during high season, this pretty corner of Iowa works up all the bustle of a church picnic.

For information: Contact the Villages of Van Buren County. (800) 868-7822; villagesofvanburen.com

Historic Hills Scenic Byway

Leelanau County, Michigan

The drive: All along the Leelanau Peninsula (the triangle of land that juts into Lake Michigan northeast of Traverse City), vineyards and orchards ripple across the hills.

Worth a stop: One of the most special places to drink in the scenery is Omena Cut Flowers (left), 7 miles north of Suttons Bay (which is a cute town in its own right). At this 1-acre family farm, which sits right on the Lake Michigan shore, visitors can wander among 23 gardens to pick their own buckets of flowers. Open May to October. (231) 271-6432; omenacutflowers.com

For information: Contact the Traverse City Convention and Visitors Bureau. (800) 940-1120; traversecity.com

Midwest Living: Enjoy a Cutting Garden

Fort Scott, Kansas

The drive: Trace Civil War history (and admire migrating birds) as US-69 (Frontier Military Scenic Byway) winds south from Kansas City along the Kansas-Missouri border, through small towns for nearly 170 miles to Oklahoma.

Worth a stop: Wetlands and forests fill the Marais des Cygnes Wildlife Area. The town of Fort Scott, founded more than 150 years ago, is home to the Fort Scott National Historic Site (left). Make time for ghost tours if you're there in October.

For information: Contact Kansas Scenic Byways. (800) 684-6966; ksbyways.org

Parke County, Indiana

The drive: You'll find the nation's highest concentration of covered bridges (31, including the Billie Creek Bridge, left) in the Wabash River Valley (55 miles west of Indianapolis). Maps from the Rockville visitors center show color-coded routes to the historical spans, many of which still are open to traffic.

Worth a stop: Nearby Turkey Run State Park offers horseback riding and hiking (plus a family-friendly resort), and the Covered Bridge Art Gallery in Rockville shows work from 30 area artists. Another highlight: the annual Covered Bridge Festival in the fall.

For information: Contact the Parke County Visitors Bureau. (765) 569-5226; coveredbridges.com

Midwest Living: The Magic of Midwest Covered Bridges

Richmond, Indiana

The drive: The towns along old US-40 east of Indianapolis harbor nearly 1,000 antiques dealers, earning the 60-mile stretch the nickname "Antique Alley." The highway, known as the National Road, dates to the early 1800s, and some of the merchandise you'll find here is even older.

Worth a stop: Richmond, Centerville and Cambridge City are home to the lion's share of shops, but Knightstown, Lewisville and other hamlets have plenty to offer, too. Businesses cater to girlfriends on antiquing road trips, with splurge-worthy pastries and comfy lodging.

For information:Contact the Richmond/Wayne County Convention and Tourism Bureau. (800) 828-8414; visitrichmond.org

Midwest Living: Antique Treasures in Indiana

Southern Wisconsin

The drive: Southern Wisconsin's backroads between Milwaukee and Madison are perfect for Sunday drives or biking. The lush panorama outside your car looks like an ad for a dairy board. Holsteins graze in verdant fields; wildflowers bloom beside red barns.

Worth a stop: Tons of fabulous nurseries hide in these hills, chock-full of plant varieties unavailable at average supermarket greenhouses. (The Flower Factory in Stoughton, Monches Farm in Colgate and Schonheit Gardens in Sun Prairie are just a few of our favorites.) With winding paths, friendly dogs and cottage-style gardens, these destination nurseries make a lovely spring drive, no matter the color of your thumb.

For information: Click on our link to "Garden Center Road Trip in Wisconsin" for route suggestions and details on nurseries. For general information, contact the Wisconsin Department of Tourism. (800) 432-8747; travelwisconsin.com

Midwest Living: Garden Center Road Trip in Wisconsin

Southern Hills, Illinois

The drive: State-127 from Murphysboro to Jonesboro in southern Illinois (155 miles southeast of St. Louis) covers less than 25 miles, but it can take all day to explore the region.

Worth a stop: Stretch your legs in Shawnee National Forest, where an easy, quarter-mile observation trail in the Garden of the Gods offers a look at sandstone rock formations (left). Explore the area's wineries and orchards. In Alto Pass, halfway through the drive, stop at the Root Beer Saloon, a kitschy, taxidermy-filled cafe serving many varieties of the drink in frosty mugs.

For information: Contact Southernmost Illinois Tourism Bureau. (800) 248-4373; southernmostillinois.com

Adams County, Ohio

The drive: For years, travelers zipped through Adams County on the Ohio River Scenic Byway (US-52), admiring the redbud-splashed hills as they raced to Shawnee State Park in Scioto County. Recently though, visitors have started exploring this pocket of Appalachia, where squiggly roads have names like Plum Run and Hackleshin.

Worth a stop: Most travelers come to Adams County (60 miles southeast of Cincinnati) to visit Amish businesses or Serpent Mound, a snake-shape Native American earthwork. But Adams County's real treasure is its scenery. Of a dozen-plus parks and preserves, Edge of Appalachia (left) is the largest, with 1,200 plant species growing on 14,000 acres.

For information: Contact the Adams County Travel and Visitors Bureau. (877) 232-6764; adamscountytravel.org

Midwest Living: Ohio's Edge of Appalachia

Minnesota River Valley Scenic Byway

The drive: This 287-mile route, which roughly parallels US-169 on its east end, starts near Belle Plaine (45 miles southwest of Minneapolis) in a broad valley, then heads south before veering northwest at Mankato.

Worth a stop: Apple stands and an old-fashioned soda fountain await in Henderson, while New Ulm has handsome German brick architecture (including the 1885 August Schell mansion at left) and a working glockenspiel. Morgan Creek Vineyards just east of town, opens for tours and wine tastings on weekends.

For information: Contact Minnesota River Valley Scenic Byway/New Ulm Convention & Visitors Bureau. (888) 463-9856; mnrivervalley.com

Zane's Trace

The drive: In southeast Ohio, you'll find the state's first pioneer trail. (The old trail ran for 220 miles.) Drive a portion of it starting in Zanesville (pictured at left; 55 miles east of Columbus) by crossing the confluence of the Licking and Muskingum rivers at the world's only bridge shaped like a capital Y. Travel southwest on US-22 and view the covered bridges near Lancaster before turning north on State-37.

Worth a stop: The 64-mile trip ends in Granville, a Victorian village (now a college town) with a tree-lined promenade, antiques shops and charming dining.

For information: Contact Discover Ohio. (800) 282-5393; discoverohio.com

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