While many travelers tend to think of the Far West region of the country for great national parks, the Midwest region, aka America’s Heartland, has no shortage of its own amazing national parks to celebrate. For families looking to road trip and explore great landmarks of cultural significance and dramatic landscapes, Midwest national parks do not disappoint.
From stunning geological features to critical historical sites, these Heartland treasures beckon travelers from all corners of the earth seeking wonder and inspiration. Some of these Midwest destinations speak to human ingenuity and national pride. Others revel in the glory of creation—focusing on stunning natural scenery, from looming peaks to swaths of unique flora. Educational, uplifting, and a delight for the senses, these travel spots become all the more alluring when families plan to take their trips together.
Young children will find rolling hills to climb and wildlife spotting exercises to thrill their curiosity and sense of discovery. Adult history buffs can take the opportunity to stand on hallowed ground and relive past events that shaped our culture and national destiny. Even folks who simply love to admire the beauty of nature will find that the great outdoors can be as compelling as the greatest art museums. Truly, the national parks of the American Midwest have something for every age, interest, and speed.
Are you ready to explore some of the Heartland’s greatest treasures? Here’s a look at the top Midwest national parks for a family road trip:
Missouri: Gateway Arch National Park
If there is one iconic structure in all of the Midwest, it would surely be the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri. On par with instantly recognizable signature sites like the Empire State Building in New York City and the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, this mid-nation construct literally ties a bow between East and West. Its construction site was first commemorated in 1935 to honor the launch point for the famous Lewis & Clark Expedition, which pioneered the exploration of the nascent Louisiana Purchase lands.
Beyond Lewis & Clark, the first civil government west of the Mississippi and the landmark Dred Scott Supreme Court case, which was originally tried at the preserved Old Court House on the site, is also focused here. History looms large under this stunning monument, finished in 1965, that is as wide as it is tall.
Standing 630 feet high, Gateway Arch remains the tallest monument in the United States. You can take an elevator inside it for a bird’s-eye view of the entire city. Just being there will thrill the whole family. Riverfront park space also allows for beautiful walks and views, while riverboats offer old-timey rides everyone will enjoy.
Wisconsin: Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
While historic national parks offer the chance to reflect upon the country’s legacy, plenty of natural wonders have been set aside for folks to marvel at. Here in the Midwest, one of the most astounding of those gems is the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin.
Situated at the state’s northernmost point along the shores of Lake Superior, the wild setting of 21 eponymous islands stuns visitors for its breathtaking vistas. For more outdoorsy family fun, consider overnight camping, kayaking, sailing, boat cruises, and fishing.
The islands themselves offer chances for colorful exploration. Shoreline cave systems that turn into icy castles during winter, historic lighthouses, and woodsy hikes are all landmark features in this sprawling 70,000-acre expanse. But the chief love here is meandering as the whole family soaks in the majesty of the place.
If you’re interested in more of the cultural offerings, the nearby town of Bayfield offers historic tours. You can even go apple picking in orchids. Truly, there’s something for everybody here.
South Dakota: Badlands National Park
When early American pioneers sang song lyrics like, “Give me a home where the buffalo roam,” they could easily have been thinking about a place like Badlands National Park in South Dakota. Sweeping winds seem to perpetually flow through this expanse of otherworldly rock formations and wild grasses.
Herds of bison meander throughout the park, dotting epic landscapes with their number in an awesome spectacle that the kids will not soon forget. With 224,000 acres of unspoiled wilderness, including striking geologic deposits with some of the world’s richest fossil beds, half of the land’s national park is under the management of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Native American tribe.
Start off your road trip adventure in this part of South Dakota by driving the 30-mile Badlands Loop Road. Setting the tone of this location, you can easily pull over at several points to pick and choose trailheads based on which postcard-perfect vista strikes your family’s fancy.
Scenic stops like the Pinnacles Overlook will wow you wide-eyed—as both child and adult gape in wonder at the spectacular formations. Many of the trails throughout this national park include self-guided boardwalk paths that allow you, and any younger children, to traverse and enjoy these rugged, layered rock formations safely.
Minnesota: Voyageurs National Park
The northern reaches of Minnesota along the Canadian border have a long, rich history paved largely by the first European settlers of the area, mainly French fur trappers. While much of this area is incredibly beautiful, Voyageurs National Park in International Falls, Minnesota, is something special in its own right.
Yes, the outdoorsy vibe lends itself well to everything—from hiking to fishing to boating of all kinds. But if you’re lucky enough to road trip here in autumn, the landscape becomes a kaleidoscope of fall colors that reflect off of pristine waters in an almost surreal way. And in the winter season, this national park is a great place to catch the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights.
As for specific spots to check out on your road trip, start with the Ellsworth Rock Garden, a stunning outdoor art installation that resulted from 20 years of work by one man. Then, check out nature’s own works of art over at the lofty Grassy Bay Cliffs. These granite towers spring 125 feet into the air from the lake, imposing their formidable grandeur.
Birdwatching opportunities abound on trails like the Golden Portage and Junction Bay Falls. This kind of mellow and lovely experience takes little effort to visit yet offers great rewards for the whole family.
Nebraska: Scotts Bluff National Monument
Throughout a huge portion of the United States, the famous Oregon Trail left behind many markers of its place in pioneering history. The Midwest is home to a number of these locations, but the Scotts Bluff National Monument in Gering, Nebraska, offers more than just a reminder of those who bravely explored before us.
This particular area of the Oregon Trail affords an iconic bit of geography, which brings more than just history buffs to visit. The eponymous bluffs themselves are stark geologic formations that will wow you with their beauty. Not only that, they served as an important landmark on the Oregon Trail, and you will be able to feel their importance for the travelers who found them on their way out west.
On your road trip, take the short but astounding Scotts Bluffs Summit Road for a little eye candy to set the mood. When you and the family need to stretch your legs, hiking will take you through the scenic surroundings and crisp air. You can even sign up for an audio tour as you venture into the reaches of the park. Feel like more of a human touch?
Ranger tours can also be organized, with kids getting the chance to become Junior Rangers! And the visitor center will provide even more historical context to share with the family.
Iowa: Effigy Mounds National Historic Site
When we think of history in the United States, it’s easy to think of Revolutionary battles or the westward expansion that fill our imaginations. But this is a far older land that already had many wondrous human cultures long before Europeans settled. One of the most remarkable remnants of these pre-Columbian societies can be found at Effigy Mounds National Historic Site in Harpers Ferry, Iowa.
These are 200 earthen mounds built over a thousand years ago—all fashioned in the shapes of birds, reptiles, and mammals. The largest of these, the Great Bear Mound, is about 150 feet long and stands over three feet tall!
Beyond exploring the mounds themselves, there’s plenty to do in this lovely piece of Iowa. While the well-maintained trails, oftentimes boardwalks, take you through these sacred grounds, you will still find many chances to spot native wildlife and enjoy the lush foliage.
While there is no camping at Effigy Mounds, there are campgrounds in the area if you and the family feel like communing with nature for more than just an afternoon stroll. And the rangers here are always eager to share their knowledge and lead kid-friendly discovery activities.