12 of the Midwest's Most Intriguing Wild Landscapes
Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park, Oakley, Kansas
Tread lightly amid this fragile stretch of Niobrara chalk formations in western Kansas. Two trails skim a ridgetop—home to ferruginous hawks and rock wrens—for overviews of the 100-foot-tall spires and cliffs left behind by an inland sea.
Pembina Gorge State Recreation Area, Walhalla, North Dakota
Near the Canada border, the Pembina River Gorge cradles North Dakota's largest uninterrupted stretch of oak woods, a blend of forest and lush wetland thickets. In fall, sumacs blaze scarlet along 25 miles of nonmotorized, equestrian and off-road vehicle trails.
Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area, Crosby, Minnesota
Nature has reclaimed and reforested these lakes left behind from old iron ore mines. Now you'll find premier mountain biking trails and abundant birdlife. Book a mod cabin resembling a mine shaft at True North Basecamp to stay in the heart of it all.
Indiana Dunes National Park, Michigan City, Indiana
The 3 Dune Challenge, a 1 1/2-mile trail meandering up and down sandy mounts, rises 200 feet above the Lake Michigan shore. Witness incredible plant diversity and lounge on the beach at one of the nation's newest national parks.
Related: Top Things to Do in Indiana Dunes
Kelleys Island State Park, Kelleys Island, Ohio
Gouges in the limestone on this Lake Erie island testify to the glaciers that covered this area 18,000 years ago. See marine fossils and other ancient treasures at the Glacial Grooves State Memorial, and hike the 1-mile North Shore Loop that winds through wooded areas and past the rocky shoreline.
Wind Cave National Park, Hot Springs, South Dakota
Park rangers lead tours of this cave named for the winds blowing through its natural entrance. See the cave's signature boxwork (calcite-formed honeycomb patterns) on the Natural Entrance and Fairgrounds expeditions. The 1/3-mile Garden of Eden tour provides a shorter highlight reel of cool formations.
Maquoketa Caves State Park, Maquoketa, Iowa
As you descend a long staircase from a picnic area into an almost prehistoric world, nearby cornfields suddenly feel eons away. Towering stone walls, moss-covered rocks and an emerald canopy unfold around more than a dozen caves and crawl spaces.
Related: 20 Top Things to Do in Iowa
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Bayfield, Wisconsin
Red, gold and black sandstone bluffs along the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore take on an otherworldly majesty from the vantage point of a kayak. At the base of these bluffs, 12 miles of sea cave-studded shoreline turn a Lake Superior paddle into a game of "Can we get through this one without touching the sides?" Come back in winter to see the bluffs transform into a winter wonderland.
Elephant Rocks State Park, Belleview, Missouri
The name says it all: Clamber on massive pink granite boulders that rise from the Ozark hills. (They were formed a whopping 1.5 billion years ago.) The 1-mile Braille Trail, snaking among the rocks and leading to an old red granite quarry, features interpretive signage.
Starved Rock State Park, Oglesby, Illinois
In the middle of farmland 90 miles southwest of Chicago, discover a surprising change of scenery: 18 sandstone canyons formed by glacial melt. Seasonal waterfalls and tree-covered bluffs reveal themselves along 13 miles of hiking trails.
Chimney Rock National Historic Site, Bayard, Nebraska
Pioneers noted this ancient formation in their diaries as they crossed the Plains headed for new beginnings. At 300 feet tall, it's one of the most striking photo ops in the region. A visitors center reveals how the stone pinnacle was formed.
Kitch-Iti-Kipi, Manistique, Michigan
Located within Palms Book State Park in the Upper Peninsula, this gorgeous natural spring provides an oasis of clear turquoise water amid a pine grove. Ride an observation raft across the spring, spotting trout and ancient tree trunks.