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Backpacker Magazine – May 2009

America's Best Day Hikes: Midwest

Beaches, wildlife, and prairies in Minnesota, Mississippi, Wisconsin, Missouri, Iowa, Ohio, North Dakota, Kansas, and Illinois make the Midwest a hiker's paradise.

by: Steve Johnson

Indiana Dunes State Park (Paul McMahon)
Indiana Dunes State Park (Paul McMahon)
Custer State Park (Catherine Brooks)
Custer State Park (Catherine Brooks)
Sheyenne Natl. Grasslands (Tom Bean)
Sheyenne Natl. Grasslands (Tom Bean)




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.
Season July-October
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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.
Season June-October

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

Best Beaches
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

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Reader Rating: Star Star Star


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Star Star Star
Jul 08, 2013

Hiked part of Cathedral Canyon over the Fourth Holiday. Creek area was beautiful. Previous hikers left cairns in some areas...but the trail completely disappeared after about 3 miles. Would love to see the rest, but bushwacking became too difficult with my beagle along side. Very nice hike...but not sure how it became rated as one of "America's best dayhikes."

Star Star Star Star Star
Apr 18, 2013

Conkle's Hollow is part of Hocking Hills State Park. You might have trouble finding it without that info.

Mike Hubert
Jan 07, 2012

Just got back from Yellow River State Forest near Harpers Ferry, Iowa on a winter hike. Amazing time. Hills are much steeper than I had anticipated but it was worth it. We had the whole park to ourselves and the campsites were pretty nice. Saw a few deer and bald eagles and fell asleep to the sound of coyote howling. Highly recommend a trip to YRSF, only 3 hours from the Quad cities and far less crowded then other trails I've been on

Nov 07, 2011

A few more nice spots for shorter hikes would be Turkey Run/Shades SPs in IN and Whitewater SP in MN. Eagle Mountain trail in MN. One I really want to do in WI is Devil's Lake SP.

Feb 17, 2011

Please change your link for the Konza Prairie to one that works:

Jan 29, 2011

I hiked the French Creek Trail and it was very much bushwacking. My girlfriend didn't tell me she only had tennis shoes and flip flops till we already started the hike. Very amazing place. Check out all the details at

Ryan Romanowski
Jun 06, 2010

Just hiked the 9 mile loop at Itasca this weekend. The number of lakes in a small area is amazing! We broke for lunch along Lake Mary and saw some loons on the lake. I would recommend a LOT of mosquito repellent. The hike is great for beginners as well, with very little elevation change and well-maintained trails.

Dec 12, 2009

The Hawk Ridge trail is listed in the section of the article that's wildlife-focused, genius, not just for great hikes on the North Shore. And you see the raptors from the ridge, not along the trail. But if you know the area so well, you already know this. I've seen more raptors from here than anywhere else in the country.

Dec 10, 2009

Wow, no mention of the Ice Age Trail, NCT; and, of the great forests in northern MN, WI & MI, etc. There are so many great places to hike in the Midwest and none are mentioned here.

Andrew Slade
Oct 22, 2009

The listing for the Hawk Ridge trail in Duluth is very misleading and a poor choice. There is so much great hiking on the Minnesota North Shore of Lake Superior. This trail is two miles of trail and two miles of road. There are no spots on the trail where you'd see congregations of hawks. Next time, ask someone who actually knows the area for their recommendation.

Sep 04, 2009

I hiked part of the canyon today. There were several trees blown down over the road leading to the gate where you park to begin the hike. Also, several trees were blown down onto the trail that you will need to hike around. Ran into two water moccasins today (9-3-09). Beautiful place.


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