8 Midwest State Parks That Make You Feel Like You're in a National Park
Picture our Midwest national parks. The alien formations of the Badlands, the rippling waters of Voyageurs, the sandy slopes of Indiana Dunes. Now imagine each one has a counterpart.
A sibling, of sorts, living in another state, with similar genes—jaw-dropping landscapes, roaming wildlife—but a distinct personality. While national parks have big-sibling swagger, state parks bring a scrappy, middle-child energy. They run on smaller budgets, but what they lack in federal backing they often make up for in ease— fewer people, abundant campsites and affordable (or no) entry fees . With that in mind, we thought about how state parks could be doppelgängers for national parks. If you like this national park, you should give this state park a try. And by doing so, you might just find a new favorite in the family tree.
If You Like Badlands National Park, Check Out Little Jerusalem
For generations, drivers zoomed unknowingly past a private, mile-long stretch of 100-foot-tall Niobrara chalk structures hidden in a western Kansas valley—arguably the state's largest geologic treasure. That changed in 2019, when this ranchland between Scott City and Oakley became Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park. Trails thread through remnants of the same ancient sea that once also flowed over South Dakota's Badlands National Park—keep an eye out for fossils. You'll also find big patches of Great Plains wild buckwheat, a plant with tiny yellow blooms that grows only in these chalk prairies. Look for rock wrens and Say's phoebes as you take in majestic panoramas of fragile, 85 million-year-old pillars and cliffs.
On select days, a park guide leads intermediate-level off-trail treks. (Bring good shoes!)
Pair Little Jerusalem with Historic Lake Scott State Park (10 miles south), where the prairie plummets into a sanctuary of deep canyons, rocky bluffs and spring-fed waters—plus the remains of El Cuartelejo, the northernmost pueblo in the U.S.
If You Like Wind Cave National Park, Check Out Maquoketa Caves
When the state park website says to grab your hiking boots and a flashlight, you know you're in for an otherworldly adventure. As one of Iowa's oldest state parks, Maquoketa Caves has been luring visitors to its depths since the 1860s. There are 13 caves to explore, ranging in size from, well, cavernous to hopefully-you're-not-claustrophobic. Unlike Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, where all explorations are guided tours, all caving at Maquoketa is self-guided. Know your limits so you don't—literally—get stuck between a rock and a hard place. Trails lead through the forest to caves, scenic overlooks and other rock formations, like a 50-foot-high natural bridge. Pro tip: Wear gear that you don't mind getting wet and dirty, especially if you'll be entering some of the smaller caves.
No need to duck when entering the 1,100-foot-long Dancehall cave. The largest and most popular of Maquoketa's caves has lighted and paved walkways.
Drive 30 minutes north to Dubuque, Iowa, on the Mississippi River. Wave to Illinois from the Julien Dubuque Monument in the Mines of Spain State Recreation Area, where you can also hike among towering river bluffs.
Related: Top Things to Do in Dubuque, Iowa
If You Like Voyageurs National Park, Check Out Table Rock
OK, we know this one is a bit of a stretch, but bear with us. Why do people go to Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota? Very big lakes with forested coves to explore. Houseboating. Fishing. Water recreation. In southern Missouri, Table Rock State Park flaunts much of the same—just with warmer water. The park flanks a tiny stretch of Table Rock Lake, a serpentine reservoir with more than 745 miles of shoreline. Prime bass fishing draws anglers. Families rent (or bring) boats. And picnickers, campers, birders and other outdoor enthusiasts appreciate the park's wooded trails. Voyageurs borders Canada, but Table Rock State Park has the Ozark Mountains as a backdrop—no passport required.
Accessible to hikers of all abilities as well as cyclists, the paved 2.2-mile Lakeshore Trail winds through lush forest canopy.
You may think you want to skip the crowds in nearby Branson, but one spot warrants a detour: The Pie Safe. This dessert-and-coffee cafe sells delectable pies in minis and whole, as well as other treats like cakes and cookies.
Related: Experts' State Park Recommendations
If You Like Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Check Out Fort Robinson
The Midwest slides into the saddle of the Wild West as the plains states stretch on. In the far reaches of Nebraska, at Fort Robinson State Park, visitors trot along on horseback. An antelope on a ridge teasingly stares before bounding off up the rocky hill. The park's Cheyenne Buttes echo the landscape found two states north in North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Sheer cliffs rise from sloping green hills dotted with evergreens. Wild antelope prance freely while bison lazily graze in pastures. Hikers can roam more than 60 miles of trails, but many people bring horses or book rides through the on-site stable. The views from the buttes are breathtaking in more ways than one, so it's easier with another set of (four) legs.
Fort Robinson was a 19th-century army outpost (and site of Crazy Horse's death in 1877) and remained active through World War II. Surviving buildings include barracks for white soldiers and buffalo soldiers, officers' homes, and a veterinary office.
See some of the most unique fossils ever found—called Devil's Corkscrews—30 miles southwest of Fort Robinson at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument.
If You Like Isle Royale National Park, Check Out Rock Island
Isle Royale is notoriously hard to get to, but some people like the challenge. If that's you, you'll also like Rock Island State Park, a tiny island off another island off Wisconsin's Door Peninsula. Following? First, you'll have to drive to Northport, at the tip of Door County, to take the 30-minute ferry to Washington Island. From there you'll drive to the other side of the island to catch the Rock Island Ferry, a 10-minute ride. (Hey, it beats the hours-long ferry to Isle Royale.) The reward for your effort: a car-free haven of wilderness in Lake Michigan, laced with 10 miles of hiking trails. Take the Thordarson Loop Trail from the ferry port to Pottawatomie Lighthouse, the state's oldest lighthouse.
Stop in the C.H. Thordarson Boathouse, next to the ferry dock, built by millionaire Chicago inventor Chester Thordarson. It was the first—and only—completed piece of a 100-room hotel he envisioned. Unfortunately, his wife did not share his love for Rock Island, and the project never came to fruition.
Make a pit stop at Charlie's Smokehouse in Gills Rock (a five-minute drive from the Washington Island Ferry) to pick up some smoked fish for a picnic on the island.
If You Like Indiana Dunes National Park, Check Out Warren Dunes
Climbing a Lake Michigan sand dune takes grit. With each sinking, slippery step, gravity pulls you and the very ground you walk on backward. But persist, and you'll be rewarded with a view of the lake's shimmering blue. Like Indiana Dunes (the Midwest's youngest national park), Warren Dunes State Park in southwest Michigan offers the chance to see Chicago on the horizon, glimmering like a mirage. Hikers can traverse looming sand dunes on 6 miles of trails. The tallest point of the dunes—260 feet—provides the best view. A dip in the lake or a lounge on the beach is the perfect refresher for achy calves.
Warren Dunes is home to Michigan's second largest population of the endangered prairie warbler—a snazzy (but tiny!) black-and-yellow bird. Several other migratory species also make their stopovers here throughout the year.
You're just a 15-minute drive from Southwest Michigan's wine country. Build in time for a self-guided tour of a few wineries: Lemon Creek, Dablon, Free Run Cellars, Round Barn or Tabor Hill. (The latter two connect via a walking trail through the vineyards.)
If You Like Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Check Out Interstate
Some parks sell themselves on solitude. The more off the grid the better. But Cuyahoga Valley preserves a pocket of wilderness just beyond the sprawl of Cleveland and Akron. Likewise, from the Twin Cities, you can drive an hour and find yourself at Interstate State Park, which is actually two parks, straddling a St. Croix River gorge between Minnesota and Wisconsin. The Minnesota side claims one of the world's largest explored glacial potholes, carved by tornadic sand and meltwater. Wisconsin's side is more serene and wooded, home to a large lake, a heron rookery and a wildlife trail. Both areas offer ample cliff-top vistas of the river, short scenic trails and plenty of natural potholes ranging from a few inches to multiple feet deep. (And there's another fun parallel with the national park: the chance to kick back on a scenic tour. Just trade the trains of the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad for the paddle wheel of Taylors Falls Scenic Boat Tours.)
Most visitors hit up the potholes, take a pic at a cliff and leave. Instead, venture deeper into the Minnesota woods along the Walter F. Mondale River Trail, spotting bald eagles or great blue herons along the way.
Grab an Angus beefburger and house-made root beer (with a side of minigolf) at The Drive In Restaurant in Taylors Falls, Minnesota.
If You Like Gateway Arch National Park, Check Out White River
St. Louis' signature attraction isn't your traditional national park: Forget bison or bears, and if you start hiking at Gateway Arch, you'll find yourself among skyscrapers. The same is true of White River State Park in Indianapolis. It lacks an architectural icon like the Arch, but its 250 urban acres encompass a wealth of cultural attractions, including public art displays, museums, gardens and the Indianapolis Zoo (where you may peep a bear after all). Running through the heart of the park is the Central Canal, built in the 1830s to ship goods through the state (though only the Indianapolis portion was completed). In the 1970s, a push to revitalize the area around it resulted in White River State Park, named for a nearby river. Explore by foot, or cruise down the water in a swan boat or a Venetian-style gondola.
Browse an impressive collection of artifacts and contemporary art at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, the largest museum of its kind this side of the Mississippi.
Grab breakfast—brûléed Trillium cheese on a croissant or a truffle-egg sandwich—from nearby Gallery Pastry Bar.
Related: Top Things to Do in Indianapolis