10 Midwest Vacation Destinations for Adventure Lovers
Set your sights on the Midwest for thrilling adventures of all kinds. Here's where to go to make the most of your vacay days.
Photo By: Cliff Ritchey
Photo By: Visit Indy
Photo By: Travel Wisconsin
Photo By: Destination Cleveland
Photo By: Erin Gifford
Photo By: Explore Minnesota / Hansi Johnson
Photo By: Door County Visitor Bureau
Photo By: Aaron Peterson
Photo By: Visit Quad Cities
Photo By: Explore Branson
Photo By: Southernmost Illinois Tourism Bureau
There Are Adventures Aplenty in the Midwest
The Midwest does not garner as much love as it deserves, particularly given the region has so much to offer adventure-seekers in every season. In Wisconsin, go sea kayaking around the breathtaking Apostle Islands in summer, then come back in winter to explore dramatic ice caves. Meanwhile, Michigan's Upper Peninsula is full of outdoor activities in summer, like hiking, kayaking, mountain biking and geocaching. In winter, the area reigns for ski jumping, fat biking and cross-country skiing. Here are our picks for the best Midwest destinations for adventure-seeking travelers.
It's hard to get more adventurous than circling the track at world-famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway at breakneck speeds of 185+ miles per hour. As part of the Indy Racing Experience, you'll gear up in an IndyCar suit for the ride of a lifetime with a real-life race car driver. Racing may be big in Indianapolis, but so is cycling, especially along the 26-mile Monon Trail. This popular trail cuts north to south through the city. It's also one of only 37 rail-trails that have been inducted into the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame (and only one of two HOF trails in Indiana).
BOOK NOW: TripAdvisor, Starting at $107 per night
Lake Superior's famed Apostle Islands are the crown jewel of Bayfield, Wisconsin. Situated off the coast of Wisconsin's northernmost point, this group of nearly two dozen islands is best explored from the sparkling clear blue waters by sea kayak. Get ready to paddle around red sandstone cliffs, through rocky arches and into intricately etched coastal sea caves. To explore on foot, take a short ferry ride to Madeline Island for scenic hiking trails and breathtaking vistas of Lake Superior. For a unique winter thrill, there's nothing like crossing the frozen lake in search of magical ice caves.
Cleveland may be better known as an urban destination, but more than 23,000 acres of green space encircle the city as part of the picturesque Cleveland Metroparks system. Meanwhile, Lake Erie provides the ideal venue for kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding and swimming. Just south of town, Cuyahoga Valley National Park boasts more than 100 miles of hiking trails for adventure-seekers to explore rain or shine. In winter, visitors and locals alike flock to Mill Stream Run Reservation to sled down Ohio's tallest (as in, 700 feet tall) and fastest ice chutes, reaching thrilling speeds of 50 miles per hour.
BOOK NOW: TripAdvisor, Starting at $112 per night
Indiana Dunes Country, Indiana
Set on the shores of Lake Michigan, just an hour's drive from Chicago, Indiana Dunes Country is well-known for sandy beaches made for splashing, paddling and swimming. It's ideal for dune climbs too, like the adventurous 3 Dune Challenge at Indiana Dunes State Park, which requires that you summit Mt. Jackson, Mt. Holden and Mt. Tom. The area is also home to the newest national park in the U.S., Indiana Dunes National Park. Here, adventure-seekers can stay busy year-round. Hike and bike in summer months, then plan to don snowshoes and cross-country skis in winter months.
For outdoor adventure lovers, it's hard to beat Duluth, Minnesota. The area is home to eight spectacular state parks, a handful of awe-inspiring waterfalls, including Big Manitou Falls, the highest waterfall in Minnesota, and the 310-mile Superior Hiking Trail. For mountain bikers, the area is widely considered one of the top mountain bike destinations in the Midwest thanks to miles of undulating single-track and double-track trails. When the snow begins to fall, get on a fat bike to criss-cross Duluth's wintry landscape. In late January, the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon wows as world-class mushers compete in this nearly 400-mile event.
BOOK NOW: TripAdvisor, Starting at $64 per night
Door County, Wisconsin
Charming lake towns dot the coastline of Door County, Wisconsin, each with its own set of adventures to share with visitors. At Whitefish Dunes State Park in Sturgeon Bay, hike to the top of "Old Baldy," the tallest sand dune in Wisconsin. Climbing Door County's fire lookout towers — like Mountain Park Lookout Tower on Washington Island — are another popular way to garner bird's-eye views of the peninsula. Newport State Park in Ellison Bay is a summer crowd-pleaser for camping, kayaking and hiking. As one of 13 parks in the United States to earn the dark sky designation, it's also a sought-after spot for aurora borealis seekers.
Michigan's Upper Peninsula is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts with many flocking to Marquette, which was named the Best Small Town for Adventure in a reader's choice poll in 2018. Set on the shores of Lake Superior, Presque Isle Park is uber-popular with those keen to explore the area by kayaking, canoeing, geocaching and hiking. Marquette also reigns supreme in winter sports, serving as home to top ski jumping and point-to-point cross-country ski events. In February, Marquette hosts the Polar Roll, the largest fat bike event in Michigan.
BOOK NOW: TripAdvisor, Starting at $97 per night
Quad Cities, Iowa/Illinois
The vibrant Quad Cities region, which includes parts of southeastern Iowa and northwestern Illinois, has a lot to offer cycling enthusiasts. Here you'll find miles of rugged trails cut through forests, city parks and wooded areas. QC Friends of Off-Road Cycling has been instrumental in building eight twisting and turning single-track trail systems for mountain bikers. In winter, fat biking rules at Sunderbruch Park and Credit Island Park, both in Davenport, Iowa. At Snowstar Winter Sports Park, a new year-round zipline tour thrills with speeds of 35 miles per hour as riders fly 100 feet above the ski slopes.
There are a multitude of thrilling adventures all across Branson, Missouri, starting with the Time Traveler at Silver Dollar City, the city's 1880s-themed amusement park. It's the fastest, steepest and tallest coaster in the country. Next, get ready to take on the highest zipline in Missouri at Shepherd of the Hills outdoor adventure park. The Vigilante Extreme ZipRider launches riders across the Ozark Mountains from 170 feet in the air before reaching speeds of up to 50 miles per hour. See Branson from a new vantage point from atop the Branson Ferris Wheel, which stands 150 feet tall and has 40 gondolas.
BOOK NOW: TripAdvisor, Starting at $99 per night
Shawnee Forest Country, Illinois
Outdoor enthusiasts will find adventures aplenty in Southern Illinois's Shawnee Forest Country. The area is home to the Shawnee National Forest as well as numerous state trails, scenic byways and sparkling lakes. The Garden of the Gods and Rim Rock Recreational Area wow with inspiring views and unique rock formations, like Camel Rock and Devil's Smokestack. Rock climbing is big across Shawnee Forest Country, too. For novices, Vertical Heartland Rock Climbing School offers guided climbs and climbing skills training on the south face of Draper's Bluff.