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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)




Best Safari Hike
Custer State Park, SD 12 miles (Difficult)
This canyon-prairie-wildlife-river adventure has it all. The one-way route through French Creek Gorge includes 30-plus stream crossings and even a short swim (or steep-climb detour) at The Narrows, at mile five. Along the way you're likely to see bighorn sheep, elk, and pronghorn antelope. Start at the eastern trailhead on the park's Wildlife Loop Road, where the creek vanishes temporarily as the water sinks into the karst topography before reappearing downstream.
Season March-October Info

Hawk Ridge, MN 8 miles (Moderate)
Keep your eyes skyward on this four-mile stretch of the Superior Hiking Trail: The out-and-back route passes the Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve, one of the best places in the country to spot migrating raptors as they fly from as far as the Arctic to South America. Start at Hartley Nature Center in Duluth and hike to Martin Road, passing through quiet forests to the Reserve's overlook on Skyline Parkway. Here, you'll have eye-level views of ospreys, eagles, peregrine falcons, gyrfalcons, and more than a dozen other raptor species as they float on updrafts along the 600-foot-high bluffs above Lake Superior. As many as 100,000 raptors congregate here each season as they make their way around Lake Superior (raptors avoid flying over large bodies of water). Peak migration starts mid-September and continues through October.
Season April-October

Craig Lake State Park, MI 8 miles (Moderate)
Get the best of everything at one of the most remote state parks in the Upper Midwest: solitude, wildlife, and a slice of the North Country Trail. Hike this loop clockwise around two-mile-long Craig Lake on a rough trail that meanders through woods and hidden marshes and across streams. The NCT skirts the eastern shore, and the whole route offers a good chance to see moose, black bear, herons, loons, and beaver. Bonus: Besides the usual camping options, there's a rustic lodge with cabins located just steps from the trail (call 800-44-PARKS for reservations). The park is a mile west of Michigamme. Season May-October; summer is hot

Zaleski State Forest, OH 10 miles (Difficult)
No time for the entire Zaleski Backpacking Trails network? No worries, this 10-mile sampler on the South Loop tours the best scenery: dense oak-hickory forest, sheer cliffs, overhang caves, and deep ravines. Meander up and down hills shaded by silver maple and white oak, and look for beaver, grouse, and wild turkey along the way. The South Loop turnaround is well-marked (or add the Middle Loop for an 18-mile epic).
Season Year-round; best colors and weather occur late August through October
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Petrified Forest Loop, ND 14.5 miles (Moderate)
Explore a remote area of Theodore Roosevelt National Park on this loop, with a good chance of seeing bison, pronghorn, and elk. From the Peaceful Valley trailhead, take the Big Plateau Trail and ford the Little Missouri River. Cruise past badlands to join the Maah Daah Hey Trail, then continue to an ancient fossil wood forest. Head east along Petrified Forest Plateau to close the loop, passing a prairie dog town.
Season May-October

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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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