We asked, they answered. Park rangers and officials weigh in on their favorite hidden-gem state parks, as well as where they go to escape into nature.

State parks are places to be treasured. They serve as refreshing oases of green and community gathering spaces. They're often affordable or free, and they're home to a variety of activities. The best part: You're usually not too far from one. With so many incredible state parks to choose from in the Midwest, we decided to reach out to park rangers, enthusiasts, officials and experts to see what parks they're loving right now. They had a wealth of knowledge to share, whether about the park they work at, the coolest hidden gem in their state or the best parks to escape the crowds. Find recommendations—and a new park to explore—for each state below.

Cedar Rock State Park exterior
Cedar Rock State Park
| Credit: Courtesy of Cedar Rock State Park


Kathryn Hund, program planner and park manager, Cedar Rock State Park

What's unique about your home park?

Cedar Rock State Park is a 426-acre park in northeast Iowa centered around a Frank Lloyd Wright residence and estate. The house, created from brick, glass and concrete, has been open to the public since 1982. People from all over the world come to tour the house. The site sits on a limestone bluff up above the Wapsipinicon River. There's a boathouse (one of the only boathouses that Frank Lloyd Wright designed) that gives you a really beautiful view of the river.

Backbone State Park, Northeast Iowa RC&D
Backbone State Park
| Credit: Courtesy of Northeast Iowa RC&D

Which state parks do you visit when you want to hike or escape into nature?

Backbone State Park is not far from Cedar Rock. It is our flagship state park—there's something really magical about Backbone. You can melt into the creeks and spaces and lose yourself in the geography of the park. It also boasts an impressive collection of CCC-designed buildings and structures. Another local favorite is Pikes Peak State Park. This park has tons of forested trails, with cool sights like Bridal Veil Falls and a beautiful lookout high above the Mississippi River. The views from Pikes Peak are stunning any time of year.

Illinois Beach State Park
Illinois Beach State Park
| Credit: Vic Berardi


Damon Cederberg, site superintendent, Adeline Jay Geo-Karis Illinois Beach State Park

What makes your home park unique?

Illinois Beach State Park is the only existing [Illinois] state park on Lake Michigan. The natural history of this area has allowed certain plants that don't exist elsewhere in the state or region to thrive here. We have several threatened and endangered species, both flora and fauna. It's a very sensitive ecosystem. There are also several high-quality wetlands on the site, wetlands that are classified not only federally, but also worldwide. It's a very interesting mix of geology.

We are also the state's first nature preserve. The people that came before us held us to the highest level of protection in the state. This park, being one of the only state parks that is protected and lakefront, is unique.

Giant City State Park near Makanda.
Giant City State Park

Which state parks do you go to when you want to get out into nature?

One of my favorites is Giant City State Park near Makanda. It's something you can only do in Illinois—walking among "Giant City Streets," huge sandstone bluffs that were formed 12,000 years ago.

Indiana_O'Bannon State Park
O'Bannon State Park


Ginger Murphy, Deputy Director for Stewardship for Indiana State Parks

What are some great hidden gems in Indiana?

There are great parks all over the state, but I might suggest O'Bannon Woods State Park. It's a relatively new park, surrounded by Harrison-Crawford State Forest. One really unique feature at O'Bannon is an historical hay press that is operated by oxen. You can learn about it and meet the oxen at the small pioneer farmstead within the park.

Indiana Prophetstown State Park aerial view
Prophetstown State Park
| Credit: DNR Photographer Frank Oliver

Prophetstown State Park is another gem, near Lafayette and Battle Ground. It's a prairie park, located at the edge of the grand Midwestern prairies along the Wabash River. It's beautiful. We have a lot of restored prairie there, great hiking, lots of opportunities for birding. It was a significant site for multiple tribes in the early 1800s. Representatives from many tribes convened on that location in an effort to show strength, concerned that their Native way of life was being disturbed and taken away by the westward push of pioneers. There was a battle there that basically spelled the end of the resistance. It's a significant place for Native people and we're looking to tell that story at that site and make sure we're talking about the Indigenous peoples' story.

There's also a working 1920s farm in that park, where people can see live animals and a reproduction of a Sears farmhouse. You could actually buy a house from the Sears Roebuck catalog!

What's an experience you can only have at a state park in Indiana?

A visit to one of our state park inns is unique. They're highly popular. A lot of park systems do not have inns. They're an opportunity for lodging where you don't have to bring a tent or pull a camper behind you. We have 2-for-1 rates at the inns from November through February on Sunday through Thursday.  

Lake Scott State Park
Lake Scott State Park
| Credit: Doug Stremel


Linda S. Lanterman, Kansas State Parks director, Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks 

What is a state park in Kansas that visitors often miss? What's great about this hidden gem?

I think most people miss Historic Lake Scott State Park. It has the El Cuartelejo remains of the only known Pueblo in Kansas built by Taos in 1664. No Native Americans occupied the pueblo after 1706, although Spanish and French forces lived there occasionally for the subsequent 20 years. There is also a Steele Homestead Museum donated by the Herbert Steele family in 1928. 

little jerusalem badlands state park
Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park
| Credit: Doug Stremel

Our hidden gem, though, is Little Jerusalem. It is a relatively new state park, so the word is not out as much as it should be. Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park was established by the legislature in 2018. Landowner Jim McGuire sold the property to the Nature Conservancy and we manage it. The Niobrara Chalk formations are quite the sight for Kansas. They were formed 80 million years ago when the sea covered much of the state. Hiking through this spectacular scenery you may see fossils, cliff swallows and many reptiles. The Great Plains wild buckwheat plant here is not found anywhere else in the world. 

Native trees in fall foliage at Cross Timbers State Park, at Toronto Reservoir.
Cross Timbers State Park
| Credit: Mike Pearce

Which state park do you go to when you want to beat the crowds? What do you do there?

Cross Timbers State Park in Toronto, Kansas. You can kayak, hike, fish, camp, rent a cabin, bird-watch. It has a large grove of big oak trees that many Kansas parks do not have—just a quiet respite-for-the-soul kind of place. 

Rifle River Recreation Area
Rifle River Recreation Area
| Credit: Darin Potter


Ron Olson, chief of Parks and Recreation

Which recreation area do you go to when you want to get away from the crowds?

One of my favorite places is Rifle River Recreation Area near Rose City. It's kind of in the middle-north part of the state on the Lake Huron side. It's like you've gone to the Upper Peninsula, but it's not that far away. It's very quiet. The river cuts through the area. You can canoe, kayak, ride your bike. There's good scenery, good wildlife, and it's over 4,000 acres so it's a pretty big space.

Silver Lake State Park
Silver Lake State Park
| Credit: Aubry Healy

What's a state park experience you can only have in Michigan?

In Silver Lake State Park on Lake Michigan, we have a dune area that's used for ORV riding in the summer. We also recently opened it up to fat tire biking in the winter. There are tremendous vistas from up there. Before the snow flies we've also done horseback riding on the beach, and that's a really spectacular experience.

Big Bog State Park Minnesota
Big Bog State Park


Sara Joy Berhow, integrated public relations supervisor, Parks and Trails Division

Which Minnesota state parks or recreation areas are hidden gems?

Blue Mounds, with a bison range, quartzite cliffs and beautiful prairies. Many people think of state parks in Minnesota as being in the North Woods, but the prairies in our state offer a different but interesting landscape. Big Bog, with the largest peat bog in the Lower 48 and an accessible mile-long bog walk, is also great. 

Connie Cox, lead interpretive naturalist for parks and trails, Itasca State Park

Mississippi headwaters Itasca State Park
Itasca State Park
| Credit: Courtesy of Kvidt Creative/Explore Minnesota

What's a state park experience you can only have in Minnesota?

Crossing the infant Mississippi River as it leaves Lake Itasca in Itasca State Park. So few major rivers in the world have such easy access to the beginnings of a major river system. People of all abilities can walk 900 feet from their car to the beginning of the river. It is fun to see visitors of all ages get excited, take pictures and enjoy wading in the river. It is truly like finding one's sense of youthfulness and awe that come with the young and young at heart. 

Colorful fall foliage in Mark Twain State Park, Missouri
Mark Twain State Park
| Credit: Courtesy of Missouri State Parks


Corporal Roger W. Moore, Missouri State park ranger, based in Thousand Hills State Park

What's a unique experience you can only have at a Missouri state park?

A state park that I often visit (or work at) is Mark Twain State Park, located in Florida, Missouri. One of my absolute favorite experiences at this park is the "Hero Hunt," an annual deer hunt set up for Missouri veterans with lodging, meals, guides, and processing provided for these valued veterans/hunters. Upon retirement, my hope is to participate in this event, not as a ranger, but as a hunter.

What do you love about your home park?

I've been a park ranger for the State of Missouri with Thousand Hills State Park for 20 years this year. I enjoy this park so much that I choose to spend my days off here either boating, fishing, or hiking the trails. My wife and I dine lakeside at the restaurant as often as possible during their on-season and we've stayed in the cabins many times over the years. 

Niobrara State Park
Niobrara State Park
| Credit: Courtesy of Nebraskaland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission


Cogan Thompson, Niobrara State Park superintendent

What's great about your home park?

I take high pride in that Niobrara State Park feels like you're out in the wilderness, but you're also in a state park. You get that vibe that you're in the middle of nowhere. It's definitely a peaceful nature escape. It's probably got one of the best views in Nebraska, where the Niobrara River comes into the Missouri River that borders the park. The sunsets and sunrises are incredible. Because the Missouri River is not channelized, there are no sandbars, so when the sunlight hits the water, it's incredible. The best spot to view that is from the lodge or one of the cabins on the north slope. There's a big bluff there.

Merritt Reservoir State Recreation Area
Merritt Reservoir State Recreation Area

What's a state park or recreation experience you can only have in Nebraska?

Stargazing at Merritt Reservoir State Recreation Area. We have very dark skies at Niobrara and Merritt has them as well. Just bring a telescope. We get some amazing stars, the Milky Way, anything you want to see.

Lake Metigoshe
Lake Metigoshe
| Credit: Courtesy of North Dakota Tourism

North Dakota

Amy Schimetz, interpreter/OLC coordinator, Lake Metigoshe State Park

What are your favorite parts of your home park?

I started working for the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department in 2005 at Cross Ranch State Park. Several months later I moved to Lake Metigoshe State Park where I currently live, work and play!

I have been to all of the North Dakota state parks and while they all have things in common, each has their own uniqueness. My favorite aspect of Lake Metigoshe State Park is that it truly is a four-seasons playground, offering more winter services, equipment/overnight facility rentals and activities both in the park and surrounding community in comparison to other North Dakota state parks.

We have full-service cabins that are open and available year-round and an extensive multi-use trail system offering over 12 miles of trails. Our area usually gets more snow, making winter a great time to visit. Spring brings an abundance of migratory birds and bursting buds on the trees. The area's lakes and wetlands are amazing to paddle in a canoe or kayak throughout our mild summers. In the fall, Lake Metigoshe State Park is one of the best locations in North Dakota to view fall foliage.

What's a state park experience you can only have in North Dakota?

Geocaching is big in North Dakota. The first caches were placed in state parks along the Missouri River in 2002 and had Lewis and Clark journal entries pertaining to each area. Since then, geocaching has provided our park visitors a unique way to experience and explore the North Dakota state parks.  


Jenna Winters, naturalist program manager

Nelson Kennedy Ledges State Park
Nelson Kennedy Ledges State Park
| Credit: Courtesy of Ohio Department of Natural Resources

What are your favorite lesser-known state parks?

Nelson-Kennedy Ledges State Park in the northeast part of the state is sometimes referred to as the Hocking Hills of the North. It's not nearly as big, but it has the same cliffs and it has waterfalls. It's a little slice of Hocking. It's day-use only, so there's no camping there. But it's a great place to hike.

What's an experience unique to Ohio state parks?

We recently acquired our 76th state park. Called Great Council, it's in the building stages right now and should be opening in October 2023. This is going to be a very unique experience in that it is centered on Native American history and Native American culture. It will be run and staffed by tribal member Talon Silverhorn (Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma). One of the things that we're really focused on is the Native Americans that are still here. It's going to share their history in Ohio, but also talk about their culture today.

Roy Lake State Park
Roy Lake State Park
| Credit: Courtesy of Roy Lake State Park

South Dakota

Lori Skadsen, district park supervisor, Roy Lake State Park

What is a state park in South Dakota that visitors often miss? What's great about this park? 

Sica Hollow State Park in northeast South Dakota is a true hidden gem park. The park is in a coulee (ravine) formed by the glaciers over 20,000 years ago, which makes it an anomaly in the eastern part of the state. Several species of plants are found at Sica Hollow that are not found anywhere else in South Dakota east of the Missouri River, which include aspen trees and several species of orchids. There are also several different varieties of maple trees. In the fall, Sica Hollow is ablaze with reds and yellows—it is beautiful. There is a small primitive campground and eight miles of hiking and horse trails at the park.

What are your favorite parts of your home park? 

My home park is Roy Lake State Park, also in northeast South Dakota. The park is on a 2,000-acre lake where there are several bays that you can get "lost" in and feel like you are the only person on the lake. It has a very active fishery, with northern pike, walleye, and panfish being the predominant species caught. Canoes, kayaks, and a pontoon boat can be rented in the summer. My favorite part of the park is going on the lake in a kayak and paddling through the bays, ignoring any worries or problems I have for the day.

Wisconsin_Straight Lake State Park
Straight Lake State Park
| Credit: Courtesy of Wisconsin DNR


Hannah Cross, park ranger, Interstate State Park

Which state park do visitors often miss? What's great about it?   

One of our newest state parks—Straight Lake in Luck, Wisconsin—is often overlooked. This property offers quiet beauty and solitude with a rural rustic charm.  With three state natural areas and two lakes within the property boundary, Straight Lake has the potential for many activities, including canoeing, kayaking, fishing, quiet walks in the woods, hike-in-only camping, berry picking and so much more.

Interstate State Park Wisconsin
Interstate State Park
| Credit: Courtesy of Wisconsin DNR

What are your favorite parts of your own home park?  

Interstate is Wisconsin's oldest state park, established in 1900. Interstate has a rich history having been the site of one of the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) camps in the 1930s. 

The CCC was largely responsible for much of the development of Interstate. The glacial features at Interstate, including the world-famous potholes formed so long ago by the retreating glaciers, are a really unique feature. Interstate is also home to the Western Terminus of the Ice Age Trail, which traverses nearly 1,200 miles throughout the state following the extent of the latest glacier.