Sandwiched between the Rockies to the west and the Appalachians to the east, America’s Heartland is known for friendly folk, lower paced lifestyle and an abundance of cornfields and lake towns. But that’s not all.
We rounded up some of the best vacation spots the Midwest has to offer, from historic towns to unlikely tourist destinations to national parks.
The Enchanted Highway, Regent, North Dakota
Along one stretch of road in western North Dakota, sits what you might call an outdoor folk-art gallery. The incredible roadside sculptures and works of art were created by just one man in order to help a dying community. Drawing inspiration from local wildlife and historical figures, this unnamed farm road has since turned into a tourist destination.
Gary Greff decided to build these structures, to give people something to see. This self-taught scrap metal sculpture wanted people to feel like they were driving into a picture frame. Seven larger than life works line the highway. Beginning with “Geese in Flight” at Exit 72, these large metal sculptures are placed along the county highway I94 near Gladstone.
In 1991, the first sculpture was erected along the aptly named Enchanted Highway. “Geese in Flight” is claimed to be the world’s largest outdoor sculpture. Greff turned the former high school into a 19 room, medieval themed hotel. Just last year, Greff was granted first-time state funding to help maintain his sculptures. A famous line in a Hollywood blockbuster film that starred Kevin Costner, once said, “If you build it, they will come.” And indeed, they have.
Stay: North Park RV Campground
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Bayfield, Wisconsin – Crown Jewels
Apostle Islands is a place to escape, explore and connect. With windswept beaches, eight historic lighthouses, nature-carved rock formations and intricate sea caves, this cluster of 21 islands dotting the waters of Lake Superior is perfect for hiking, boating and kayaking. You’ll see why it’s called the “Crown Jewels” of Wisconsin.
This year, the National Park System is recognizing 50 years designated as a national lakeshore. On September 26, 2020, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore will commemorate this special place on Lake Superior (Gichigami), and its significance.
The Apostle Islands’ protected bays, public docks and pristine beaches offer outstanding boating opportunities. Public boat launches and marinas are located in Ashland, Bayfield, Cornucopia, Little Sand Bay, Red Cliff, and Washburn. Interested in chartering a boat to get to the islands? Check out the commercial services page for a list of water taxis authorized to take you to and around the islands. Take a trip around the Bayfield Peninsula to view the spectacular “winter ice caves” just north of Meyers Beach, the Sand Island sea caves, Sand Island & Raspberry Island lighthouses. Madeline Island is the largest island of the Apostle Islands, where you’ll encounter towering pines, art galleries and great golf, biking and kayaking opportunities.
Clear water, underwater rock formations, and fascinating shipwrecks combine to provide outstanding scuba diving opportunities. Or, get a different perspective on the islands on a kayak and cruise adventure tour. Hop on the only powerboat supported sea kayaking tour in the islands with Apostle Islands Kayaking. To ensure a fun and safe kayaking trip, follow their COVID-19 rules listed on the website.
Before visiting a park, please check the park website to determine its operating status.
Pro Tip: If going out on your own boat, be mindful that wind shifts, fog, sudden squalls and storms can occur suddenly. Monitor current weather conditions. Carry a marine radio and monitor marine channel 16.
Stay: Hiawatha Trailer Resort – enjoy the eagles on Arrowhead Lake. Open until mid-October, enjoy fishing and swimming. The Minocqua/Woodruff area offers good shopping, dining and golf courses.
Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas
Have you ever visited the country’s only national park dedicated to the tallgrass prairie, privately owned by The Nature Conservancy? The Flint Hills region of eastern Kansas and north central Oklahoma features the largest remaining tallgrass prairie on the continent. Tallgrass prairie is an incredibly diverse ecosystem. And the preserve is home to over 500 species of plants. As one of the “Eight Wonders of Kansas,” the preserve is in good company with the Eisenhower Presidential Library. This is one of those places outdoor lovers go to hear nothing and feel the calm. The trails are a great way to maintain social distancing.
Postpone challenging hikes or trying new activities while first responders, parks, and communities continue to concentrate on responding to the pandemic.
Stay: Crossroads RV Park
Known as America’s “maple leaf city” because of the large number of maple trees, Carthage is a delightful slice of small-town USA. It’s unique crossroads of architecture, history, art and inspiration where art galleries, museums and Victorian architecture thrive. Established in 1842, then burned to the ground during the American Civil War, the town was reconstructed during the Victorian era.
The Historic Carthage Square is the second most photographed building in Missouri. With a history that includes stories about ragtime musicians, women’s activists and wild west outlaws, Carthage is a beautiful city dating back to the 1870s.
Carthage is also home to one of the few surviving drive-in theaters left in America. The 66 Drive In is named after the famous Mother Road, located just 2.5 miles west of Carthage. For dining, check out the local favorite, Lucky J Steakhouse, where you can also watch traditional rodeo event while you wait for your food.
When you’re ready to explore the stretch of Route 66 in the “Show Me State,” Pulaski County is a great place to soak up the historic highway’s culture. The Elbow Inn Bar & BBQ Pit in Devils Elbow has been a staple since its 1929 opening. And Devils Elbow scenic bridge overlooks Big Piney River.
Stay: Big Red Barn RV Park
Toadstool Geologic Park, Harrison, Nebraska – Off the Beaten Path Gem
Located in the Oglala National Grassland in far northwestern Nebraska lies striking and unusual geological formations, some in the shape of toadstools. Not everything worth seeing can be reached by paved highway. So prepare for a gravel road and check for weather and road conditions before you go. The trailhead at the campground provides access to three hiking trails to choose from. Hike among real rock toadstools, escarpments and caverns – it’s otherworldly and beautiful.
Pro Tip: Pick up a self-guided tour brochure on your way to help with some of the unique geology in the area. Bring food, water and good hiking shoes, best to try early in the day while it’s cool. Great place to meditate!
Stay: Robidoux RV Park – Quiet park with great views of Scottsbluff National Monument.
Grotto of the Redemption, West Bend, Iowa – Inspiration Through Beauty
The Grotto is frequently considered the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” And The Iowan magazine has described it as a “Miracle in Stone.” This functioning Catholic church created out of minerals, fossils, stones, gems and shells started in 1912. West Bend is located in the center of a vast, lush, level expanse of Iowa farmland. The Grotto of the Redemption is the inspiration and life work of Fr. Paul Dobberstein (1872-1954), a Catholic priest. Forty two years in the making, he labored by hand with exquisite detail.
A conglomeration of nine grottos depicting scenes in the life of Jesus, the Grotto contains a large collection of minerals and petrifications. This is a family-friendly destination where kids (and adults!) can learn about architecture and geology at the same time. You’ll find pink quartz from South Dakota, amethyst from Brazil, petrified wood from the Petrified Forest National Park, seashells and much more.
Stay: R Campground – Includes 18 acres along the Cedar River and contains an additional 3 acre pond.
Dorothy’s House and the Land of Oz, Liberal, Kansas – Fantasy Fun with Americana Charm
This fun bit of pop culture is located in a 1918 home built to look like Dorothy’s farmhouse in the original Wizard of Oz movie. Volunteers moved a house that resembled Dorothy’s to the Coronado Museum grounds in 1981. Then, it was transformed into a replica of the house shown in the movie and recognized by then-governor John Carlin as the official home of Dorothy Gale.
In addition to the life-sized house, visitors can take a tour of the Land of Oz, a 5,000 square foot exhibit and animated journey through the movie. The Land of Oz starts the tour with the Tornado Simulation Room, in order to put visitors in the proper frame of mind. “Dorothy,” wearing a gingham dress and ruby slippers, conducts the tours. And The Land of Oz building also houses Oz memorabilia, including personal effects from the Munchkins. You can even pick up a super-sweet “Kansas Storm chasers” shirt. Head here in your home on wheels, because there’s no place like home.
Stay: Gunsmoke RV Park – Visit infamous Boot Hill Museums/Cemetery & experience reenactments of historical shootouts or try your hand at the nearby Boot Hill Casino.