Originally published in July/August 2008
1. French Lick, Indiana Sunlight and gasps of surprise pour from a wide doorway into West Baden Springs Hotel's Victorian-opulent lobby--the first hints that you've arrived somewhere amazing. Guests stack up as newcomers wheeling suitcases step through the door and stop, awestruck, staring upward. A 600-foot glass dome—hailed as the eighth wonder of the world when this southern Indiana hotel opened in 190—arches six stories overhead. Tile mosaics cover the atrium floor, and a stone fireplace dominates one curved wall.
Through the 1930s, this hotel and neighboring French Lick Springs Hotel reigned as the fanciest of 40-some resorts built around the area's mineral springs. But 60 years later, West Baden was in ruins, and French Lick stood neglected. Indiana entrepreneur Bill Cook invested $500 million in a two-year restoration of both--and a 1917 course designed by golf legend Donald Ross. Finished in 2007, the renovation also added a spa; bigger, beautifully appointed rooms; restaurants; and a casino. frenchlick.com
2. Stout's Island Lodge, Wisconsin This inviting, century-old retreat occupies its own northern Wisconsin island near Rice Lake (60 miles north of Eau Claire). stoutsislandlodge.com
3. Honey Creek Resort, Iowa The state's first state park resort, with a golf course and indoor water park, is along southern Iowa's Rathbun Lake. honeycreekresort.com
4. Nelson's Crane Lake Lodge, Minnesota This classic, up-north cabin resort hides at the west entrance of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. nelsonsresort.com
5. KeyLime Cove, Gurnee, Illinois A water-park resort in Chicago's north suburbs near Six Flags Great America joins the same league as the biggies in Wisconsin Dells. keylimecove.com
6. Smoky Valley, Kansas A 60-mile scenic route winds through gentle, morning mist-veiled central Kansas hills. travelks.com
7. Historic Hills, Iowa Follow the Des Moines River through sleepy onetime riverboat stops known as the Villages of Van Buren in southeast Iowa. iowabyways.org
8. Land of the Cross-tipped Churches, Ohio See grand churches built by German and other settlers along a 38-mile western Ohio route. ohiobyways.com
9. Rustic Roads, Wisconsin Little-traveled byways are ideal for cycling, hiking or driving slowly. dot.wisconsin.gov
10. Matthiessen State Park, Utica, Illinois Next to the ravines and waterfalls of Starved Rock State Park, the smaller Matthiessen has some of the same terrain but is less crowded. dnr.state.il.us
11. Charles C. Deam Wilderness Area, Indiana Trails run through deep woods in Hoosier National Forest, 70 miles south of Indianapolis. fs.fed.us/r9/hoosier
12. Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area, Manistee, Michigan You could very easily have a Lake Michigan beach to yourself. fs.fed.us/r9/hmnf
13. Valentine, Nebraska You'll hear Smith Falls before you get a clear view through the foliage. If it's a summer day, you also might hear yelps as other adventurers step into the icy, 70-foot, spring-fed shower, a ritual of canoeing down north-central Nebraska's Niobrara River.
Overlooking the waterway nearly 300 miles northwest of Omaha, this ranch town (population: 3,000) serves as the base for an off-the-beaten-path nexus of outdoor activities and spectacular landscape--the unspoiled river, its forested valley and the surrounding pine-studded Sandhills.
A cruise on the reliably floatable Niobrara, a National Scenic River, is the centerpiece of most treks here. But lots of outdoorsy types come for fishing, cycling and camping, too. Hikers with binoculars stroll the trails of Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, a haven for some 260 bird species. Valentine also is a primary stop on the Cowboy Trail. When finished, the converted railbed/bike path will stretch more than 320 miles, the longest in the nation.
For now, cyclists can explore more than 160 miles of the broad level gravel path. Not far from Valentine, the trail crosses the Niobrara gorge on a century-old, 148-foot-high steel trestle bridge offering a panorama--unless you're concentrating on pedaling. No need to watch out for other riders, though; you can pedal for miles without encountering any. visitvalentine.org
14. George S. Mickelson Trail, South Dakota This 109-mile converted rail bed threads through Black Hills spires and over rail trestles with stops at onetime mining towns. mickelsontrail.com
15. Taum Sauk Mountain State Park, Missouri South of St. Louis, the state's highest point has a network of hiking trails leading to scenery as dramatic as the better-known southwestern Missouri Ozarks. mostateparks.com/taumsauk.htm
16. Gypsum Hills, Kansas Mountain biking along a scenic byway reveals beautiful red-rock buttes and canyons in the southwest part of the state. travelks.com
17. Yellow River State Forest, Iowa Trails through rugged northeast Iowa terrain contradict the state's farm country image. iowadnr.com