Itasca State Park, MN 9 miles (Moderate)
Minnesota harbors the most loons in the Lower 48, and you’re guaranteed to see (and hear) the iconic birds on this loop route. Start at the century-old Douglas Lodge, on the shores of wishbone-shaped Lake Itasca–headwaters of the Mississippi River–and follow the up-and-down Deer Park Trail south past a constellation of swim-worthy lakes (you’ll eventually pass 18 North Country gems). Linger here at sunset, when loons are most active. Loop back to the trailhead on the Ozawindib Trail.
Season April-October; weather and colors are best in fall
Clark Lake, MI 13 miles (Moderate)
Head to the 18,000-acre Sylvania Wilderness for this long-but-gentle loop, and hike through one of the upper Midwest’s largest remaining old-growth forests–with 400-year-old white and red pine, as well as hardwoods like yellow birch and sugar maple. The Clark Lake Trail traces the shoreline of its namesake pond counterclockwise, passing tiny Golden Silence Lake (listen for the wucka-wucka-wucka of pileated woodpeckers). Save your swim for the perfect beach at Clark Lake’s northern edge. Paddlers: Sylvania has 34 lakes and a well-maintained network of portage trails.
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Point Beach State Forest, WI 9 miles (Moderate)
This beachcomber’s paradise follows long stretches of secluded Lake Michigan shoreline, bouncing between sandy dunes, a necklace of string bogs, and a quiet forest of oak and white pine. From the Point Beach entrance station (five miles north of Two Rivers), the Ridges Trail starts flat, then rolls across a low, skinny dune before hooking to the beach. After hitting Silver Creek, you’ll backtrack north to Molash Creek, then curve to the lake and slalom between frothy waves and sculpturelike driftwood. End at the 113-foot-high Rawley Point Lighthouse.
Penokee Range, WI 11 miles (Moderate)
The North Country Trail will feel like your own private path on this remote, near-secret section in northern Wisconsin. Here, the NCT traverses a glacial monadnock, or isolated ridge, with both great views and a dense forest of maple, hemlock, and oak. From the trailhead on Weber Lake, you reach the ridge via the Uller Ski Trail, which climbs past rocky knobs to the Sullivan Creek drainage. At mile two, take a short spur trail to a commanding overlook of the Gogebic Range and Bayfield Peninsula. Descend to boglike Scribner Meadow and Smiths Meadow, then retrace your steps to the trailhead.
Season June-October Info northcountrytrail.org
Indiana Dunes State Park 7 miles (Moderate)
This Lake Michigan loop hike sounds as good as it looks. The sand dunes here carry a tune with the help of shear stress–a rare phenomenon caused by friction from wind or footsteps. It’s like a piano tuner pinging in your boots. Head to Trail 10 from the Beach House and follow a dune ridge where you can see a mix of boreal and desert foliage. Return along the shore, past wind-scoured "blowout" sections of the beach. Finish the hike by bagging the three tallest dunes in the area–nearly 200 feet above the lake–with great views of the Chicago skyline 50 miles away.
Season Summer for swimming, autumn for solitude
Best Gorge Hike
Cathedral Canyon, MO 5 miles (Moderate)
Don’t be fooled by the short mileage: A hike through this wild canyon in the St. Francois Mountains is a true adventure. You’ll feel like you’re descending into Middle Earth as you follow an intermittent trail along Lower Rock Creek and beneath 400-foot granite walls. Kingfishers and herons hunt for brook trout in the canyon’s deep pools, and refreshing cascades pour through the narrow canyon (mostly in the spring and after rains). Allow plenty of time to explore numerous hidden grottos on this round-trip. The trailhead is near Frederickstown. Season March-November
Info (573) 438-5427