You, average taxpayer, own some of the planet’s most awe-inspiring landscapes. Your title to vast stretches of forest, water and prairie rests on a once-radical idea. Before the United States tried it, no nation had set aside its exceptional places for every citizen to enjoy rather than locking the lands up in private estates. In 1872, Congress established the first national park at Yellowstone, and in 2016, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service itself. With eight official national parks and dozens more affiliated sites, our region is loaded with ways to experience what Iowa writer Wallace Stegner called “America’s best idea.” Go find out just how right he was.
Touring Lake Superior off Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula, home to the Keweenaw National Historic Park’s 21 sites and gateway to Isle Royale National Park.
For a rare glimpse of nature hitting the reset button, journey to a remote chain of Lake Superior islands that see fewer people every year than Yellowstone gets on a summer day.
The rush of low-grade trespassing tingles across the back of my neck as our small water taxi slices through Crystal Cove’s silence. This once was a private island, a coal baron’s wilderness kingdom. Even today, it’s startlingly remote. The nearest civilization (Isle Royale National Park’s Rock Harbor Lodge) is an hour away by boat. Three hours beyond that lies the Michigan mainland.
Before the Depression, one-percenters had retreats all over Isle Royale and its 450 surrounding islands. On Belle Isle, one resort assigned an employee to dress like a native princess and stand on a cliff, beckoning boaters to stay the night.
But by 1930, the push was on to set the entire Isle Royale archipelago aside for nature and public visitors. As the government bought up the land, the moneyed crowd drifted away, leaving their buildings to the whims of the boreal forest. As we glide to shore on Amygdaloid Island, ghostly dock pilings appear below our keel like ruined castle walls in Lake Superior’s disorientingly clear water. On land, I twist through the underbrush to a blurry window, gazing in at a scene turned sepia by the morning sun. Books and dishes remain in place on a table, as if the owners just stepped out to listen to the loons call.
In 1940, Isle Royale became a national park, then a designated wilderness in 1976 and an International Biosphere Preserve in 1980. It was a “rewilding,” in the words of University of Wisconsin environmental historian James Feldman. Isle Royale has the rare distinction of being wilder now than in Henry Ford’s day.
Serene scenes at Isle Royale.
As it travels back into the primeval, Isle Royale welcomes a wide array of visitors. When I arrived aboard the Isle Royale Queen, I walked beside a man leaning on a walker as he headed to Rock Harbor Lodge, where spotty Wi-Fi and a couple of restaurants waited. The next day, I heard of a retired Navy SEAL swimming around the park in the 50-degree water while towing camping gear on an inflatable mattress. If you’re willing, you can trade a bed at the lodge for a tent and the chance to spot a bull moose raising his dripping antlers from a lost lake in the middle of the 900-square-mile park.
No one has seen such things more intimately than Rolf and Candy Peterson, who have spent every summer since 1971 in a fishing cabin, studying wolves and moose isolated in this sanctuary. Rolf, a retired Michigan Tech professor, literally wrote the book on wolf-prey relationships, and when I stop into the cabin for brownies (anyone’s welcome to drop by), Rolf tells me that even he still can’t crack nature’s code on this single chain of isolated islands. “Humans are an impatient, inattentive species and want quick answers,” Rolf writes. “After decades of study on Isle Royale, it is safe to say that we are still low on the learning curve.”
The place tends to breed such humility. The day before my trip to the park, I met Don Kilpela, whose family owns the ferry. I quizzed him on how to pack the most kayaking and hiking into my short trip. Then Don gently shared the advice he’s given thousands of other explorers fidgeting on the dock. “Here’s what the island is like,” he said. “It’s not about how far you go, how high you go or how many things you see. It’s about seeing yourself.” Maybe, I realized, rewilding isn’t just for the land. nps.gov/isro
How to See Isle Royale
Ferry: Boats head to Isle Royale from three ports: Copper Harbor, MI (3-hour trip), Houghton, MI (6 hours) and Grand Portage, MN (2 hours).
Paddle: Isle Royale can be unforgiving, so go with a pro in the backcountry. Keweenaw Adventure Company in Copper Harbor offers a wide lineup of guided trips.
Stay Comfy: If camping’s not your style, get a room at Rock Harbor Lodge and see the park via ranger-led hikes and boat tours.
On the Waterfront
Water meets the horizon at these sites along our inland seas.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Empire, Michigan Follow the sandy trails through the woods and expect a payoff in the form of Lake Michigan views from atop mountainous dunes. Fight the temptation to run down to the lake. It’s against the rules, harms the dunes and will probably result in you calling 911. nps.gov/slbe
Getting sand between the toes at Sleeping Bear Dunes.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Munising, Michigan A kayak or tour boat offers the best view of the multicolor rocks towering over Lake Superior. But you should round out a visit with a lakeside hike to classic photo ops like the Miners Castle formation. nps.gov/piro
Touring the cliffs at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Bayfield, Wisconsin Twenty-one islands scatter across Lake Superior like tossed stones. They draw adventurers ready to paddle sea kayaks into shoreline caves and camp at remote sites. nps.gov/apis
Lake Superior on its best behavior at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.
In three of the region’s biggest metros, you’ll discover backyards that can turn any weekend into an adventure.
Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, Minneapolis- Saint Paul Google Maps drops the pin for this one in the heart of Minnesota’s Twin Cities. Seventy-two protected miles offer plenty of boating and hiking space, as well as a gateway to historic sites like the Mill City Museum at Saint Anthony Falls. nps.gov/miss
Indiana Dunes National Park, Northwest Indiana With the Chicago skyline peeking over the horizon, visitors explore miles of sandy shoreline and inland trails passing through prairie, forest and bogs. nps.gov/indu
Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Cleveland Thirty minutes from downtown Cleveland, escape to green oases filled with waterfalls, bike trails, a scenic railroad and the Cleveland Orchestra’s summer home. nps.gov/cuva
Livin' easy at Ritchie Ledges in Cuyahoga National Park.
The journey’s the thing on these rivers and trails with endless stories between here and there.
Ozark National Scenic Riverways, Missouri The first national parks area to protect a river system encompasses the spring-fed Current and Jacks Fork rivers in the Ozark Mountains. There aren’t many better ways to spend a hazy summer day than floating along these clear, cold rivers looking for wildlife and historical farmsteads. nps.gov/ozar
Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway, Wisconsin and Minnesota A large portion of this 255-mile run of tannin-colored water forms the Minnesota-Wisconsin line, offering a tour of quiet forests and state parks, plus views of a scenic byway full of motorists wishing they were seeing things from your seat. nps.gov/sacn
North Country National Scenic Trail, multiple states The Northland’s answer to the Appalachian Trail, this 4,600-mile backcountry opus stretches from upstate New York to central North Dakota, taking in famed locations like Ohio’s Hocking Hills and Michigan’s Porcupine Mountains. nps.gov/noco
Ice Age National Scenic Trail, Wisconsin Winding for more than 1,000 miles through the state, this trail passes through a variety of spectacular forests. Through-hikers can rough it, but trailheads around the state make the trail perfect for day hikes followed by a comfortable bed and great meal. nps.gov/iatr
Niobrara National Scenic River, Nebraska In the famed Sandhills, one of America’s great canoe trips also carries tubers past turkeys and other wildlife, sandstone bluffs and 200 waterfalls. Most of the falls are modest, but 63-foot Smith Falls is definitely worth a stop. nps.gov/niob
Most visitors choose inner tubes for their float through northern Nebraska on the Niobrara River.
The Sound of Silence
Singular escapes harbor vast reservoirs of a scarce American resource: a quiet spot to reflect.
Voyageurs National Park, International Falls, Minnesota A maze of waterways carries boaters into boreal forest where the namesake fur trappers once reigned. The landscape closely resembles the nearby Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, but Voyageurs allows motorized boats, making rented houseboats a popular choice for multiday trips. nps.gov/voya
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Medora, North Dakota Compared to the take on badlands topography in South Dakota, this version features a different look in rock colors and vegetation, plus a bigger shot of bully presidential history. Visitors walk the land where Teddy Roosevelt forged his frontiersman persona and commitment to conservation. nps.gov/thro
Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas We know: You’re wondering how compelling a grassland can be. But in this sweeping remnant of Great Plains tallgrass, you’ll be mesmerized by the wind stirring waves on the hillside and the living museum of wildflowers at your feet. nps.gov/tapr
Wind Cave National Park, Hot Springs, South Dakota Tours here explore the first cave in the world preserved as a national park. The must-have experience is the candlelight tour that replicates how visitors saw one of the world’s longest caverns in the late 1800s. You’ll even glimpse white string early explorers left behind when mapping the labyrinth. nps.gov/wica
Badlands National Park, Interior, South Dakota If you couldn’t quit thinking about The Martian, this is your destination. Barren, eroded hills create an otherworldly departure from the surrounding prairie and provide one of America’s all-time-great places to watch the stars come out. nps.gov/badl
The crinkled landscape of South Dakota’s Badlands provides endless places to explore.
The American Journey
Relive the stories of the people and events that shaped who we are.
Gateway Arch National Park, St. Louis, Missouri In 2018, a renovated museum with interactive exhibits opens on the Arch grounds to commemorate pioneers like Lewis and Clark, who launched their expedition in earnest from this Mississippi River town. nps.gov/jeff
Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, Topeka, Kansas An old school may not sound like a national park, but few sites have affected America more. African-American students from this school (now a stirring museum) launched the Supreme Court case that ended school segregation. nps.gov/brvb
Effigy Mounds National Monument, Harper’s Ferry, Iowa Revealing a history few of us ever consider, trails wind among earthen mounds shaped like animals and other natural objects. The site along the Mississippi River provides a glimpse into the traditions of the continent’s earliest residents. nps.gov/efmo
Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, Philip, South Dakota Go “nose-to-nose with Armageddon,” as the Park Service puts it, at a silo housing one of the missiles (now unarmed) that could’ve obliterated a city if cooler heads hadn’t prevailed. Tours take you inside areas once guarded by scowling guys with machine guns. nps.gov/mimi
Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Keystone, South Dakota The granddaddy of family road-trip destinations. Walk the easy Presidential Trail for a close-up view below George’s chin, and plan to catch the moving lighting ceremony at sundown. nps.gov/moru
The real fab four: Mount Rushmore celebrates the 75th anniversary of its completion this year.
Tower in Time
Despite 140 years separating us, it turns out that an adventurous priest shared one of my third-grade fears back in 1840. Father Pierre-Jean de Smet battled dysentery and prairie storms while I faced long division. But we both fretted over this one: Chimney Rock was doomed.
Every Nebraskan—regardless of era—lives in the figurative shadow of this ash-and-clay, 300-foot-tall inverted funnel guarding the Oregon Trail on the state’s western edge. As a kid in Lincoln, I pictured our capitol and far-off Chimney Rock as twin towers anchoring the state like nails holding a 400-mile-wide painting. The rock (a National Historic Site on the Oregon National Historic Trail) was everywhere, branded on the subconscious via history books, murals and blurry museum photos. In time, it showed up on our license plates and, in the ultimate regional iconography, our state quarter.
And every time someone mentioned the rock, a Debbie Downer piped up with, “You’d better go see it quick. It’s half the size it was when I was a kid.” These rock-half-empty characters are nothing new. In 1849, Niles Searls noted while passing the rock, “Our guide informs me that when first visited by him, its height was much greater.” In 1840, De Smet wrote during a missionary expedition, “A few years more, and this great natural curiosity will crumble away and make only a little heap on the plain.”
Pinnacle on the plains: Prairie surroundings enhance Chimney Rock’s drama.
By 1980, I figured one stiff breeze could topple the rock—a devastating loss considering how it towered in the mind. Oregon Trail historian Merrill Mattes, after studying hundreds of immigrant journals, declared that Chimney Rock was the route’s single most-noted landmark. Oregon school kids, I’m told, still learn about it.
The rock constantly squeezes into pioneer memories like some geological photobomb. In 1848, Jasper Twitchell lost his wife, Sarah, to disease on the trek from Illinois’ McDonough County to California. As an old man, he told his family that Sarah was buried at Chimney Rock. Roughly a century later, Chimney Rock Site Supervisor Loren Pospisil discovered an oddity while looking into Jasper’s history. Three other diaries mentioned Sarah’s death, but they all placed the burial at Ancient Bluff Ruins, miles from Chimney Rock. “I am left to assume,” Loren wrote, “that as Jasper was recollecting some 30–40 years later, Chimney Rock stuck in the grey matter better than Ancient Bluff Ruins.”
Families often come in asking Loren about an ancestor buried at the rock, only for his research to reveal that the grave was, at best, in sight of it. And to a scenery-starved prairie traveler, that could be a very long way.
My first close encounter with the rock came in my 30s, when I took my 7-year-old daughter on a covered wagon trek that camped at the tower’s base. In my best Richard Dreyfuss impression, I stared at the pinnacle in the fading light. Eventually, I would take Alli to see the geysers and other icons of our national parks. But this was the right place to start: a threatened symbol with personal history, preserved for my family to see.
In the morning, we climbed up the wide funnel to the neck of the tower. We resisted the pioneers’ habit of carving our initials, but we took photos. And when I lay those prints down next to grainy photos from just after De Smet’s day, Chimney Rock doesn’t look like it’s lost all that much. nps.gov