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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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…
- Isle Royale National Park
- Keweenaw National Historical Park
- River Raisin National Battlefield Park
- Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
- Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park
- First Ladies National Historic Site
- Hopewell Culture National Historical Park
- James A. Garfield National Historic Site
- Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial
- William Howard Taft National Historic Site
- Grand Portage National Monument
- Mississippi National River and Recreation Area
- Pipestone National Monument