National Park Service Units of the Midwest: The Great Lakes States

It is no secret that I am kind of in love with U.S. National Parks. This city girl thinks the idea of setting aside wild lands and historic places for future generations is invaluable. I visited my first national park when I was twenty-two years old, when I headed west to work and live in Yellowstone. It was quite the introduction to the world of U.S. National Parks; I was spoiled right from the beginning. But all these years later, instead of choosing to visit only the “big ones” (Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, etc.), I’m making an effort to seek out National Park Service units right here in the Midwest. During this time of economic hardship, it is more cost effective to travel closer to home, so I’d like to do that while still supporting the National Park Service.

By now you might be thinking, “The Midwest? Really??” Yes, there is more than flat land and cornfields. In fact, there are enough historic places and enough natural beauty for the National Park Service to deem several Midwestern sites worthy of being added to its register. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Midwest includes the following states: Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin (the “Great Lakes States”); and, Iowa, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas (the “Great Plains States”).

This is the first of two posts in which I will highlight one National Park Service site in each of the Midwestern states, followed by a complete list of all National Park Service units in each state. This first installment features the Great Lakes States.

Michigan: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

If I didn’t tell you where I took this photo, would you guess Michigan? It’s at Pictured Rocks, to be exact. I took the photo on my first and only visit to Pictured Rocks fifteen years ago and I’m still in awe of its beauty. Established on October 6, 1972, Pictured Rocks is America’s first National Lakeshore, and it offers opportunities for outdoor adventure year round. My visit to Pictured Rocks was much too short – just one day – but should you choose to stay overnight, there are both backcountry and drive-in campsites available.

Ohio: Cuyahoga Valley National Park

This park definitely is on my list. I’ve yet to visit and it’s a shame since it’s really not that far from Chicago. The official purpose of the park is: “To preserve and protect for public use and enjoyment the historic, scenic, natural, and recreational values of the Cuyahoga River Valley and to maintain the open space necessary to the urban environment.” The phrase “urban environment” is key here; the park lies a mere twenty-two miles from Cleveland, and only eighteen miles from Akron. I like to hike and bike just as much as the next guy, but what I’d really like to do at Cuyahoga Valley National Park is take a ride on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad!

Blue Hen Falls – Cuyahoga Valley National Park by kcolwell

Indiana: Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore

My recent visit to “the Dunes” (as it’s called by many locals) is what gave me the idea to write this post. I took my daughter to the beach there and I couldn’t help but think how cool it is to have a National Park Service unit so close to home. The drive to the Dunes from my house in Chicago takes less than an hour. I visited more often a few years back when I was training to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro; I’d hike and climb the steep sand dunes to get my legs and lungs acclimated to going uphill. In all, there are forty-five miles of hiking trails that go over the dunes, through forests, and across wetlands and prairies. If hiking isn’t your thing, you can take advantage of the fifteen miles of beachfront on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Summer Stroll by Tom Gill (lapstrake)

Illinois: Lincoln Home National Historic Site

So my home state is a little sad when it comes to National Park Service units. The only one we have here that isn’t part of a multi-state National Historic Trail is Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield, which is the only home Abraham Lincoln ever owned. Visitors can tour the Lincoln Home with a free ticket for a specified tour time.

Photo by mhowry

Minnesota: Voyageurs National Park

Another park that is “on my list”, Voyageurs is the watersports enthusiast’s dream come true. The seemingly endless waterways provide outdoor opportunities year round, such as kayaking, canoeing, fishing, and ice fishing in the winter; and land-based activities like cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Camping is available within the park but – this is my favorite part – all the campsites are accessible by boat only. No car camping at all in Voyageurs. For those less adventurous, ranger-led boat tours through the park are available.

Beaver Pond by J. Stephen Conn

Wisconsin: Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

We really are blessed here in the Great Lakes with an abundance of natural beauty and rich culture, and I’m convinced that the crown jewel, my favorite of the five Great Lakes, is Lake Superior (please don’t tell Lake Michigan). Lake Superior is where we find Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, a National Park Service unit that consists of twenty-one islands and twelve miles of mainland in far northern Wisconsin. Getting to the islands can be a challenge, but I’m told it’s well worth it (you guessed it, Apostle Islands also is “on my list”). Visitors can choose to kayak on their own onto Lake Superior to get out to the islands. I do love Lake Superior but she can be a bit moody, so I’d probably opt for one of the tour or shuttle boats. Besides boating, Apostle Islands offers prime opportunities for fishing and camping, and even scuba diving!

Stay tuned for part 2, the Great Plains States!

Other National Park Service units in…






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27 Responses to National Park Service Units of the Midwest: The Great Lakes States

  1. the lazy travelers June 18, 2012 at 5:36 pm #

    great post! the hubs is dying to do a big american parks tour, and after being in colorado this past weekend, he’s talking about it more & more.

    • Francesca June 18, 2012 at 6:13 pm #

      DO IT! 🙂

  2. lola June 18, 2012 at 8:35 pm #

    GORGEOUS pics! i cannot get over how lovely the water is around those lakes. makes me rethink lakes vs. oceans. love it Francesca!

    • Francesca June 19, 2012 at 8:50 am #

      Thanks, Lola! The Great Lakes really are something special.

  3. travelrinserepeat June 18, 2012 at 9:35 pm #

    Love the water shots. The only one of those I’ve been to is the Lincoln House. It was an interesting complement to the nearby museum and state house.

    • Francesca June 19, 2012 at 8:51 am #

      Ok, now I’m really embarrassed. The Lincoln Home is in my own home state and I haven’t even been there!

  4. Jetting Around (@jettingaround) June 18, 2012 at 11:37 pm #

    What a great resource, Francesca! Lately I’ve been thinking about doing some hiking, maybe checking out some national parks, so this will come in handy, especially since I’m based in ChiTown. Beautiful pictures in the post too, especially the one from Pictured Rocks.

    • Francesca June 19, 2012 at 8:53 am #

      Thanks, Pola! I hope this post comes in handy as you plan your hiking adventures!

  5. craig zabransky (@StayAdventurous) June 18, 2012 at 11:58 pm #

    I am very passionate about the National Park System too. And this post reminds me how much more I need to see of my own country – even the midwest 🙂
    stay adventurous, Craig

    • Francesca June 19, 2012 at 8:53 am #

      Same here, Craig. I’ve been trying to focus my travels on the US lately. So much to see and do in our own country! And yes, come to the Midwest!!

  6. Traveling Ted June 19, 2012 at 5:50 am #

    One of my favorite places around Chicago is Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie just south of Joliet. It is really cool to see prairie overtaking the old Joliet Arsenal. These places you pointed out are very awesome. My next trip might be to Isle Royal in September.

    • Francesca June 19, 2012 at 8:55 am #

      Oooh, Isle Royale! It’s on my bucket list. I hope you get to go later this year. I’ve been meaning to check out Midewin… adding it to my list now 🙂

  7. D.J. - The World of Deej June 19, 2012 at 6:01 am #

    So many great parks in our country, and I have visited far too few of them! Great pics!

    • Francesca June 19, 2012 at 9:02 am #

      Thanks, Deej! There are some parks down in your neck of the woods worth a visit, including Dry Tortugas National Park, which is “on my list” 🙂

  8. Leah Travels (@L_e_a_h) June 19, 2012 at 6:15 pm #

    This is a really neat idea for a series. I hate to admit that I don’t utilize the National Parks in my area much less throughout the US. We really have a beautiful country, and your pictures confirm that.

    • Francesca June 20, 2012 at 7:38 am #

      Thanks, Leah! I wish I could take credit for all of the photos, but the only one that’s mine is the one from Pictured Rocks. There’s a National Park down in your part of the world, Big Bend, that I really want to visit. Road trip? 😉

  9. Aaron June 19, 2012 at 6:40 pm #

    Great pics Francesca! Love the Indiana Dunes one especially. I’ve passed them so many times, can’t believe haven’t stopped. Yeah to Lake Michigan! All the Michigan parks you mentioned are must sees. 🙂

    • Francesca June 20, 2012 at 7:41 am #

      Thanks, Aaron! One of these days when you’re on your way to Chicago, allow yourself some time to stop at Indiana Dunes. Even if it’s for an hour to just sit on the beach. It’s a beautiful spot.

  10. Joe Todd June 22, 2012 at 11:38 am #

    Great post. I was at Picture Rocks last summer..What a great place. Isle Royale National Park on Lake Superior. is on my bucket list

    • Francesca June 23, 2012 at 11:10 pm #

      Isle Royale is also on my bucket list! I would love to get back to Pictured Rocks, too. All (ok, most) of Michigan really is beautiful. Thanks for the visit & your comment, Joe!

  11. blogbooktest June 25, 2012 at 2:57 am #

    There really are some beautiful places right here in the Midwest! Some day i’d love to explore more of them, but for now we have to stick close to home because we work (and live) in a campground.

    But….my husband did surprise me by planning a trip to Voyagaeurs National Park as an anniversary gift. You see, we met there 14 yrs ago when we were both rangers there. Now we are going to take our three children back to a park that is near and dear to our hearts.

    There is a state forest campground next to Lake Kabatogama for car camping and lots if resorts that rent boats if you want to venture into the park on your own.

    Thanks for sharing your list!

    • Francesca June 27, 2012 at 6:41 pm #

      What a wonderful story about you and your husband meeting in Voyageurs! And now you’re going to take your children there… so special. I cannot wait to take my husband and my daughter to Yellowstone, a place that is very near and dear to my heart. Thanks for stopping by & commenting!

  12. Jacquie@KCEdventures July 12, 2012 at 4:30 pm #

    Very nice post! Was at Indiana Dunes last year and this year we’re heading to Rocky Mtn. Park {can’t wait}! I too am in love with the Nat’l parks – did a post on the Jr. Ranger programs for kids because I find that so many parents aren’t aware they exist. Can’t wait for the Midwest States (being from KS) – who do I petition to get a Nat’l Park in KS??! 🙂

    • Francesca July 12, 2012 at 9:08 pm #

      Oooh, Rocky Mountain National Park – one of my favorites! You will love it. I’m a big fan of the Junior Rangers program, too. I hope to get my daughter involved with it when she’s a bit older. My second installment of National Park Service units of the Midwest will be coming soon and Kansas will be featured. There are a few NPS units in Kansas but no “parks”. Have you been to Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve? It’s always looked interesting to me.

      Thanks for stopping by & for your kind comments. It’s always nice to make the acquaintance of a fellow National Parks lover!

      • Jacquie@KCEdventures July 12, 2012 at 9:30 pm #

        Yes Francesca, Tall Grass Prairie is beautiful, peaceful – one of those places you just stare in awe at nature. I wish there was a National Park here so that the bison herds were more protected years ago. So glad we’ve connected!

  13. Kirsten May 25, 2015 at 7:16 pm #

    Thank you Francesca for putting this together. We live in the Chicago area and my husband always wants to take our kids camping. After 10 years, I still feel like I don’t know my way around. This is a great starting point. Now we have some places to check out this summer!
    Kirsten recently posted…10 Best Things to do with Kids in Puerto RicoMy Profile


  1. National Park Service Units of the Midwest: The Great Plains States | The Working Mom's Travels - May 17, 2013

    […] the nearby places we’ve yet to visit, I figured it was the perfect time for me to complete the feature I started last year and give you National Park Service Units of the Midwest: The Great Plains […]

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