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Best Midwest State Parks

We hiked. We swam. We even peeked in the bathrooms. All to bring you a state-by-state guide to 35 of the Midwest's greatest natural treasures.
Iowa Ledges State Park

Iowa: Ledges State Park

A web of steep trails loops over the sandstone cliffs along Pease Creek. The campground is pleasant (and a few walk-in sites are very cool), but most visitors are day-trippers from Des Moines (40 miles southeast) who come to picnic, hike and wade along the Canyon Road. Parents: Pack extra clothes. The splashy spots where the path crosses the creek are kid magnets. (Update: As of Spring 2014, Canyon Drive was closed to vehicle traffic due to flood damage, but it was still accessible to hikers.) (515) 432-1852

Ledges State Park

Michigan: Porcupine Mountains State Park

"The Porkies" (150 miles west of Marquette) embody Michigan's remote Upper Peninsula, with 59,000 wild acres, 90 miles of trails and, if you get away from the campsites, not too many visitors. Choose from beaches, bird-filled marshes and hemlock groves. If you only go once, be sure to stop and drop your jaw at the Lake of the Clouds vistas (pictured at left). (906) 885-5275

Porcupine Mountains State Park

Michigan: Wilderness State Park

One of the biggest parks on the Michigan "mitten" sprawls over a wooded Lake Michigan peninsula. Wilderness (100 miles northeast of Traverse City) offers a perfect mix: Swim and sunbathe, then head inland to hike. Most visitors stick to the shore, so the trails are quiet. And really, is there anything more lovely in life than waking up with a Great Lake outside your tent? (231) 436-5381

Wilderness State Park

Indiana: Brown County State Park

The peaceful vistas alone warrant a day trip to Indiana's largest state park (60 miles south of Indianapolis), but resort-style extras make this a full-fledged destination. The great on-site stable offers horseback trips and pony rides, and the restaurant-lodge includes a new indoor water park. (812) 988-6406

Brown County State Park

Indiana Department of Natural Resources

Indiana: Falls of the Ohio State Park

What's the draw to this utterly unwild park across the Ohio River from Louisville? Fossils. Tons and tons of them, preserved in a rockbed along the river. Visit the excellent museum first, so that when you're down on the rocks, you know your tubes from your tusks. (812) 280-9970

Falls of the Ohio State Park

Indiana: Indiana Dunes State Park

Yes, the surroundings are a bit industrial, but once you hit the sand, it's all sparkling Lake Michigan goodness. Most people come to swim or slide down the huge dunes, some up to 100 feet tall. Inland, though, you'll find great trails. Check out the brochure that breaks down hour-, day- or week-long visits to the park (40 miles southeast of Chicago). (219) 926-1952

Indiana Dunes State Park

Indiana: Turkey Run State Park

Indiana's best all-around park (65 miles west of Indianapolis) has a large lodge; hiking trails through deep, wooded ravines; horseback riding; and an impressive, year-round lineup of naturalist programming. Just one minor quibble: You have to go off-site for popular canoeing and tubing on Sugar Creek. (765) 597-2635

Turkey Run State Park

Ohio: Hocking Hills State Park

Seven park units cradle soaring shelf caves, fern-filled valleys and sweeping overlooks at Hocking Hills (55 miles southeast of Columbus). Expect company on the trails, especially in fall, when crowds snake past Ash Cave and Old Man's Cave. But on weekdays, you might have the stunning Conkle's Hollow Rim Trail all to yourself. (740) 385-6842

Hocking Hills State Park

Ohio Department of Natural Resources

Ohio: Hueston Woods State Park

This action-packed resort park on Acton Lake (35 miles northwest of Cincinnati) offers canoe, pontoon and mountain bike rentals; horseback riding; an 18-hole golf course; archery--even paintball! The amenities turn what might be a quite ordinary lake-and-woods vacation into an adventure. (513) 523-6347

Hueston Woods State Park

Ohio: Lake Hope State Park

Wooded hills surround Lake Hope (70 miles southeast of Columbus), where kayakers can paddle through fields of pink water lilies. The atmosphere at this pretty little park is decidedly kid-friendly (Disney movies in the campground), but there are grown-up touches, too, like a rent-a-tent program for newbie campers. If you stay in a cabin, try to snag one of the historic Forest Cottages, named for trees. (740) 596-4938

Lake Hope State Park

Wisconsin: Amnicon Falls State Park

Even locals sometimes forget about this little gem of a park (20 miles southeast of Duluth), where water tumbles over rocks into a swimming hole, and a historic covered bridge spans the falls. The short (though pretty) trails at Amnicon Falls will disappoint hard-core hikers, but if you just want to get your Zen on listening to water splash over stones, this is a lovely spot to do it. (715) 398-3000

Amnicon Falls State Park

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Wisconsin: Door County state parks

Five state parks--Newport, Peninsula, Potawatomi, Rock Island (pictured) and Whitefish Dunes--preserve the pebbled beaches, rocky bluffs and pine forests along the 80-mile-long Door Peninsula. Each park has its own landscape, but isolated on a peninsula, the Door County parks feel interrelated, too, like chapters in a book. So if you come all the way out here, you ought to visit more than one. (888) 936-7463

Door County State Parks

Wisconsin: Interstate State Park

Choosing between Minnesota and Wisconsin's Interstate state parks feels a little like asking a mother which child she prefers. A mom can't play favorites, but we can. The parks face off across the St. Croix River. Both offer cool hikes by rocky glacial potholes, but the larger Wisconsin park (50 miles northeast of Saint Paul) also has a large swimming lake, a heron rookery, a wildlife trail and naturalist-led hikes in the summer. If you want to visit both, the US-8 bridge links the parks. (715) 483-3747

Interstate State Park

Illinois: Cache River State Natural Area

A blue heron screeches overhead, and the floating boardwalk groans in the eerie, strangely beautiful swamplands of Cache River State Natural Area (150 miles southeast of St. Louis). This 14,000-acre preserve protects one of just six spots in the country where four ecological regions overlap, making for an incredible diversity of landscapes and wildlife. (618) 634-9678

Cache River State Natural Area

Illinois Department of Natural Resources

Illinois: Starved Rock State Park

You could come here and never leave the lodge, kicking back with a burger, watching a fiery sunset over the trees. But then you'd never know the beauty of this pocket of Illinois (90 miles southwest of Chicago). So tear yourself away from your Wi-Fi-equipped room and head out on the well-marked trails, which climb past waterfalls, rock formations and gorgeous Illinois River views. A shuttle goes to nearby Matthiessen State Park, Starved Rock's pretty (but much less crowded) little sibling. (815) 667-4726

Starved Rock State Park

Minnesota: Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park

Around 1900, a forward-thinking farmer bought up the dying town of Forestville and patiently waited for the state to recognize what he had saved. Today, interpreters chat with visitors in this beautifully resurrected pioneer town (120 miles south of Saint Paul). The village shares a park with Minnesota's longest cave, open for tours in the summer. (507) 352-5111

Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Minnesota: North Shore state parks

North of Duluth on State-61, the turnoffs for fabulous state parks come one after another, like Burma Shave signs flashing past your window: Gooseberry Falls (left), Split Rock Lighthouse, Tettegouche. All told, eight parks sit along the North Shore, loaded with waterfalls, forest trails and achingly beautiful Lake Superior views (40 miles northeast of Duluth). (218) 834-5350

North Shore state parks

Minnesota: Blue Mounds State Park

Blue Mounds offers a change in landscape from most Minnesota parks: wide-open spaces. Visitors come for simple prairie pleasures, like prickly pears blooming in June and July, bison grazing on wild grasses and quiet hikes along windswept trails (35 miles northeast of Sioux Falls, South Dakota). (507) 283-1307

Blue Mounds State Park

Iowa: Backbone State Park

Elevation-starved Iowans love Backbone Trail, a rocky ridge high above Backbone Lake with a string of knee-knocking overlooks. The trail alone is worth a visit, but Backbone is actually a nice all-around park (55 miles west of Dubuque), with canoe rentals, a popular trout stream and a handful of pleasant cabins. (563) 924-2000

Backbone State Park

Iowa Department of Natural Resources

Iowa: Maquoketa Caves State Park

Cornfields and combines feel eons away from the lush and strangely exotic landscape at Maquoketa Caves State Park (30 miles south of Dubuque), where a long wood staircase descends from a concrete picnic area into an almost prehistoric world. Towering stone walls, moss-covered rocks and an emerald canopy unfold around the Maquoketa Caves' 16 caves and crawl spaces. Ducking under low-hanging rocks and clambering along a roller coaster of steps, visitors feel like real explorers. Bring a flashlight -- and a towel to wipe mud off your shoes. (563) 652-5833

Update: Check the park website before you go for cave accessibility; Iowa's Department of Natural Resources requires attendance at a short program before entering the park's caves to help prevent the spread of White Nose Syndrome by humans.

Maquoketa Caves State Park

Iowa Department of Natural Resources

Iowa: Ledges State Park

A web of steep trails loops over the sandstone cliffs along Pease Creek. The campground is pleasant (and a few walk-in sites are very cool), but most visitors are day-trippers from Des Moines (40 miles southeast) who come to picnic, hike and wade along the Canyon Road. Parents: Pack extra clothes. The splashy spots where the path crosses the creek are kid magnets. (Update: As of Spring 2014, Canyon Drive was closed to vehicle traffic due to flood damage, but it was still accessible to hikers.) (515) 432-1852

Ledges State Park

Missouri: Ha Ha Tonka State Park

Most visitors head straight for the stone ruins that overlook Lake of the Ozarks. And with good reason--no other state park has skeletal remains of a blufftop mansion. But Ha Ha Tonka (80 miles northeast of Springfield) also has wonderfully varied nature trails, which snake along a hilltop, by a spring-fed river and under a natural bridge. (573) 346-2986

Ha Ha Tonka State Park

Missouri Department of Natural Resources

Missouri: Katy Trail State Park

The nation's longest rails-to-trails bike path starts northwest of St. Louis in St. Charles and loosely follows the Missouri River west for 225 miles, through small towns, farmland, prairie and wine country. Ultimately, the 20-year-old trail will link to city and county bike paths to Kansas City, making it possible to pedal across all of Missouri. (573) 449-7402

Katy Trail State Park

Missouri: Meramec State Park

Every summer, thousands of people canoe near Mark Twain National Forest on the Meramec River (left), but most never realize they've entered one of the Midwest's most diverse river ecosystems. (There are 45 varieties of fresh-water mussels alone!) Besides canoe rentals, the park (70 miles southwest of St. Louis) has a good nature center, nicely spaced cabins and guided cave tours. (573) 468-6072

Meramec State Park

Missouri: Sam A. Baker State Park

This park in the St. Francois Mountains (125 miles southwest of St. Louis) stands out as much for its homey atmosphere as its verdant landscape. Friendly staff and great amenities (free sports equipment, nicely spaced cabins and campsites, a well-stocked store and a noticeably pleasant laundry room) make Sam A. Baker a camper's dream. Most people rent canoes for leisurely float trips along the St. Francois River. (573) 856-4411

Sam A. Baker State Park

North Dakota: Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park

Touring Fort Abe Lincoln (10 miles southwest of Bismarck) feels a little like time-traveling to your last elementary field trip--not least because, on many weekdays, you'll see busloads of schoolkids wandering around the grounds. But the history preserved here is compelling, no matter your age. Highlights include interpreters in Civil War-style uniforms, rows and rows of beds in the barracks, a re-created Native American village and George Custer's actual "Mansion on the Prairie." A great museum ties all the historical pieces together. (701) 667-6340

Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park

North Dakota Parks and Recreation

North Dakota: Lake Metigoshe State Park

Right on the Canadian border, 200 miles north of Bismarck, Lake Metigoshe offers a well-rounded, classic lake vacation--walleye fishing, a tidy beach, clean cabins, a friendly Fourth of July fireworks show and canoeing--with way less noise and crowds than you'll find at big, better-known Lake Sakakawea. (701) 263-4651

Lake Metigoshe State Park

South Dakota: Custer State Park

At 71,000 acres, Custer (30 miles south of Rapid City) is one of the nation's largest state parks, known for granite spires called Needles and the 1,500 head of bison that wander freely throughout the park. Seeing them shuffle through a campsite or along the 18-mile Wildlife Loop road never loses its thrill. Iron Mountain Road into the park from Keystone takes lots of switchbacks, offering absolutely stunning views. The 1922 State Game Lodge is one of four on-site resorts. (605) 255-4515

Custer State Park

South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks

South Dakota: Lewis and Clark Recreation Area

One of the Midwest's largest state recreation areas--with some 600 campsites, a small motel and cabins--hugs the north shore of Lewis and Clark Lake along the Missouri River (90 miles southwest of Sioux Falls). Amenities include a fun restaurant, pools, a well-run marina and picnic areas with Nebraska bluff views. Just one tip: Pack bug spray. (605) 668-2985

Lewis and Clark Recreation Area

South Dakota: Palisades State Park

Gorgeous red cliffs flank Split Rock Creek, some climbing 50 feet above the water at Palisades State Park (20 miles northeast of Sioux Falls). Swimming isn't allowed, but picturesque picnic spots--perfect for relaxing with a book--are abundant. In fact, one summer ranger program is "Photography at the Palisades." (605) 594-3824

Palisades State Park

Nebraska: Eugene T. Mahoney State Park

Mahoney is all about amenities: trail rides, miniature golf, a driving range, a water park, pedal boats, theater performances, a hotel-restaurant and an ice rink in winter. The grounds are as manicured as a golf course, and the cabin clusters look like suburban subdivisions. Rugged, it's not, but you can't beat the price for a family-friendly resort vacation (30 miles southwest of Omaha). (402) 944-2523

Eugene T. Mahoney State Park

Nebraska Game and Parks Commission

Nebraska: Fort Robinson State Park

Fort Rob fuses history and nature. Pine-topped bluffs frame the site where Indian wars were fought, Crazy Horse died and soldiers trained for World War I. Jeep and horseback tours head into the hills, a theater shows live musicals, and lodging includes motel-style rooms in the former cavalry quarters (125 miles south of Rapid City, South Dakota). (308) 665-2900

Fort Robinson State Park

Nebraska: Ponca State Park

For such a little-known park, Ponca (125 miles north of Omaha) offers a surprisingly well-rounded experience. Choose from a nine-hole golf course, 20 miles of varied hiking trails, a rich lineup of naturalist programs, horseback trail rides and a first-class park museum. Slick new cabins sleep eight--perfect for family reunions. (402) 755-2284

Ponca State Park

Kansas: Cheney State Park and Crawford State Park

Cheney State Park: Cheney Reservoir (35 miles west of Wichita) serves up three summertime essentials--water, sand and sunshine. Hidden swimming coves punctuate the shoreline, and strong winds make for one of Kansas' most striking (and surprising) sights: sailboats zipping across bright blue water under the bright blue dome of the prairie sky (pictured). (316) 542-3664

Crawford State Park: Shade trees soften the edges of Crawford Lake (110 miles south of Kansas City, Missouri), so it looks more natural than some man-made lakes. The leafy landscape--unusual in Kansas--might explain the fierce local pride for the park. (Volunteers plant flowers and tidy the grounds.) Most visitors come to camp or fish, but it's worth walking to a moving memorial to the Civilian Conservation Corps, whose workers built the stone-and-log buildings that are hallmarks of state parks. (620) 362-3671

(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® May/June 2010.)

Cheney State Park

Crawford State Park

Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism

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