A Road Trip Through America's Heartland

A trip planner for the perfect road trip from South Dakota to Texas.
By: John Briley

A heartland is more than just a physical middle place. A heartland has a beat, a sense of identity and a welcome mat big enough to accommodate all comers.

A road trip down America's heartland means driving through wide-open spaces and discovering uncrowded roads that are made for driving. I’ve come to know the heartland as a place of surprisingly diverse landscapes, warm and hardy people, and history-rich attractions – from old railroad towns all grown up and thriving ethnic neighborhoods to some of the more unexpected national parks.

Where exactly is the heartland? Out there, somewhere, between the mountain ranges. You'll know it when you hit it. Here's a primer.

Sand Hills, Nebraska
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Photo by: Stephen Saks / Getty Images

Stephen Saks / Getty Images

The first place that comes to mind when you hear '300-foot sand dunes' probably isn't Nebraska, but a road trip through the Sand Hills region could change that. The region covers roughly one-quarter of Nebraska in the north and west and is a mix of grassy and sandy hills, dotted with thousands of shallow ponds and lakes that feed the massive Ogallala aquifer. In places, the aquifer is close enough to the surface to nourish verdant meadows. Driving the Sand Hills gives you a chance to drop in on the beautiful rock formations of Toadstool Geologic Park (Highway 2); Arthur Bowring Sandhills Ranch State Historical Park a preserved circa 1900 cattle ranch (Highway 61); and– Carhenge, an exact replica of Stonehenge built entirely from cars (Highway 87).

Badlands National Park, South Dakota
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Photo by: Andrew Nay / EyeEm / Getty Images

Andrew Nay / EyeEm / Getty Images

It is getting increasingly hard to find places in America where you can sense the ghosts of dinosaurs, unless you happen to be in a Cineplex or (my vote) Badlands National Park, SD. Here the spires, buttes and pinnacles are fossilized soil left to weather in a place where weather likes to takes charge. Badlands also harbors the largest area of protected mixed-grass prairie in the US, along with hiking trails, campsites, a prairie dog park and a visitor center staffed by members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. 

For more Native American history and stirring scenery, drive west to Custer State Park and Black Hills National Forest.

Follow the Mississippi River from Lacrosse, Wisconsin to St. Paul, Minnesota
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Photo by: jferrer / Getty Images

jferrer / Getty Images

Call it the Nathan Myrick route: The fur trader founded the city of LaCrosse as a trading post in 1841, recognizing the commercial value of the confluence of the Mississippi, Black and La Crosse rivers. Myrick moved to St. Paul to set up more posts 8 years later. Today you can see the Julia Belle Swain, an authentic Mississippi River steamship, and catch a festival almost every summer weekend – from crafts to motorcycles to Irish culture. Then follow Route 61 upriver 130 miles to St. Paul, the self-proclaimed art and culture capital of the Midwest, with 52,000 theater seats at combined venues to compliment tight-knit neighborhoods, lively taverns, restaurants (Italian!) and parks.

Memphis, St. Louis and Kansas City
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Photo by: Marvin E. Newman / Getty Images

Marvin E. Newman / Getty Images

The city lovers' itinerary. We could pick any number of themes to tie this together. A barbecue tour of great Midwest cities. A blues bar tour. A pro baseball tour (Memphis is home to the Redbirds, the minor league team of the St. Louis Cardinals). Each city has a rollicking, licentious past, a firm place in the history of America's westward march and a shimmering riverfront skyline. If you run out of things to do on this trip, you may be beyond help.

Hill Country, Texas
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Photo by: E_Cotner / Getty Images

E_Cotner / Getty Images

Travelers in the Texas Hill Country are often heard to remark that the central Texas region is “like its own country.” Fredericksburg burnishes its German heritage with intimate shops and cafes. New Braunfels boasts the McKenna Children’s Museum and Texas Ski Ranch, a 70-acre adventure sports park. Bandera calls itself the Cowboy Capital of the World, with rodeos and a ranch-like ambience to back it up. Gruene offers well-preserved, turn-of-the-century architecture and Gruene Hall, one of the most famous music and dance rooms in the state. Then there’s rafting on the Guadeloupe River, the Blanco lavender festival, fishing, shopping and more.

The byway and highways of America’s heartland was designed for road trips. Take your time and savor the open spaces; they’re a vanishing species.

Travel writer John Briley feels lucky to have explored Kansas City after breaking down there on a 1990 road trip.

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