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.

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Indiana Dunes State Park (Paul McMahon)

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Custer State Park (Catherine Brooks)

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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



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



Ponca State Park, NE 8 miles (Moderate)

If you think Nebraska is totally flat, you haven’t been to Lookout Hill. With a vista over a sprawling oak forest and verdant Missouri River valley, and across Ponca’s high bluffs and prairie ridgetops, it’s hard to call this terrain horizontal. Hike a loop on the park’s Whitetail Trail to explore stands of black oak, basswood, and walnut, and wildflower meadows bursting with Canada violet, blue phlox, and white cicely in spring. Look for flashy scarlet tanagers, indigo buntings, and orioles along the way.

Season Spring for flowers and songbirds, fall for foliage and migrating waterfowl

Sylvan Runkel State Preserve, IA 12 miles (Moderate)

The planet looks wrinkled here, in a zone of peak-and-saddle hills and tall- and mixed-grass prairie. To explore this surprising sanctuary, start in the Loess Hills Wildlife Management Area (at the 205th Street trailhead, near Onawa), and hike round-trip (go north) on the preserve’s only trail, on a ridgeline above oak and hickory forests. Continue through the preserve, where in spring you’ll see wildflowers like prairie moonwort and pasqueflower; in fall you’ll walk through head-high bunchgrass.

Season May-October

Info (712) 423-2426

Sheyenne National Grasslands, ND 9 miles (Moderate)

Pristine tall-grass prairies offer a unique peek into America’s scenic past. This North Dakota gem offers that, plus a well-maintained section of the North Country Trail. As you hike through the towering grasses, look for the rare regal fritillary butterfly and threatened Western prairie fringed orchid. Start at Sheyenne’s eastern trailhead (near Lisbon), and follow the rolling path west to the Iron Spring Creek oasis–a perfect lunch stop with flowing water and shade from cottonwoods. Turn back here. Season May-October Info



Konza Prairie, KS

Hike through upland prairie of big bluestem, Indiangrass, and switchgrass, with views of the distant Flint Hills. Yes, a covered wagon would look right at home–as does the herd of bison that roams here. Info

Conkles Hollow, OH

This 200-foot-deep gorge conceals an unexpected wilderness of ferns, mosses, and 50 species of wildflowers like violets, trillium, and orchids. The 3.5-mile loop requires sure footing along the cliff tops. Info

Glacial Park Loop, IL

You’ll feel like you just missed the last glacier on this six-mile loop north of Richmond. Follow the Deerpath Trail to Camelback Kame, and drop to Nippersink Creek. Info

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Dunes Trail, MI

This strenuous, all-sand, 3.5-mile out-and-back meanders up and over wildflower-strewn hills at Sleeping Bear Dunes to the Lake Michigan shore. Info

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