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These 5 Midwest Backpacking Trips Reveal Mountains, Forests, and Solitude (and Maybe a Corn Field)

From lakeshore rambles to mountain peaks, these trails showcase the very best of the midwest.

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The Midwest has an advantage the country’s more dramatic and mountainous regions struggle with: easily attained solitude.. Not only is this region home to some of the most overlooked, under-visited trails in the country, but they’re also some of the best trails in the country, period, winding through cascading waterfalls, deep forests, and gently-sloping mountains. 

While the Midwest houses thousands of miles of trail, these five trips stand out as some of the best backpacking the region has to offer. Here’s all the beta you need to start dreaming and planning.

Weekend trip: Porcupine Mountains Wilderness Loop, Michigan (21.2 miles)

There’s a lot to love about hiking the Porkies: the views of Lake Superior, the picturesque inland lakes and streams, and one of the finest old-growth hardwood forests in the country. The Porcupine Mountains are some of the oldest in the world at 2 billion years old, cored with reddish-brown sandstone and volcanic rock that gently slopes for miles parallel to the Lake Superior shoreline. 

This 21.2-mile hike starts and ends at Lake of the Clouds in Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. From there, you’ll weave your way to Mirror Lake, Greenstone Falls, Lake Superior, and Big Carp River before finishing at Lake of the Clouds. You can look forward to roaring rivers, untouched old-growth forests, and rocky shorelines. Be sure to snag your backcountry camping permit ahead of time (available from 6 months to 72 hours before your trip), and remember to be aware of black bears—either bring a bear canister or hang your food between two trees 12 feet up and 100 feet from camp.

Trailhead: Lake of the Clouds trailhead 

Permit: Required ($15/night), reservations May 15 – October 14 strongly recommended 

Week-long trip: North Dakotan section of North Country Trail (135 miles)

While it takes  8-10 months to complete the entire North Country Trail from New York to North Dakota, a week on its western terminus is the perfect place to dip your thru-hiking toes. This section treks through a disappearing prairie pothole ecosystem comprised of native wetlands and open, grassy plains.

Start at Lake Sakakawea State Park, home to the third-biggest man-made reservoir in the U.S. after Lake Mead and Lake Powell. As you hike east, you’ll head through the Audubon National Wildlife Refuge — home to 246 bird species, including piping plovers and bobolinks — and end at the prairies of Lonetree Wildlife Management Area before the trail heads toward the Sheyenne. About 113 miles of the trail will be off-road and 22 miles will be on-road, mainly on gravel country roads with a few miles on a lightly-traveled paved highway.

Trailhead: Visitor’s Center, Lake Sakakawea State Park

Permit: Small camping fees in established campgrounds 

Photo: “Black Hills from Lookout Tower, Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota” by Ken Lund is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Short Thru-Hike: Centennial Trail, South Dakota (123 miles)

Experience the Black Hills from end-to-end on this 7-day hike. South Dakota’s Centennial Trail traverses Wind Cave National Park, Custer State Park, Black Elk Wilderness, Sheridan Lake, and even skirts Mount Rushmore. Hikers can expect rolling hills of prairie grasses, ponderosa pine forests, low mountains, several creek crossings, and plenty of solitude. And hey, you might even see a bison herd or a jackalope, too.

You can hike in either direction: SOBO from Bear Butte State Park or NOBO from Wind Cave National Park. The trail is relatively well-marked and not too rugged, but there are no shelters along the way. Backpackers should plan to carry at least a day’s worth of water during drier years; streams may dry up in early summer depending on conditions. Check the Black Hills National Forest website for what water sources are in season. 

Trailhead: Wind Cave National Park or Bear Butte State Park

Permit: Required for backcountry camping in Wind Cave National Park, small entrance fee for Custer State Park, camping fee in U.S. Forest Service campgrounds and Bear Butte State Park campgrounds. Hikers must self-register to enter Black Elk Wilderness

 

Photo: Photo by Lucas Ludwig on Unsplash

Long Thru-Hike: Superior Hiking Trail, Minnesota (310 miles)

The 310-mile Superior Hiking Trail is perfect for new and seasoned thru-hikers and covers the entire Minnesota North Shore from the Minnesota-Wisconsin border to Canada. The trail mostly follows the rocky shoreline of Lake Superior but also curves inward toward swift-moving rivers, waterfalls, and open vistas along the spine of the Sawtooth Mountains. These mountains, named for the way steady slopes suddenly drop off on their northern sides in regularly-spaced intervals like the teeth of a saw blade, rise to a high point of 1, 814 feet. You’ll even trek through 8 Minnesota State Parks — and take it from a Minnesotan: these are the best parks in the state.

To nab the whole thru-hike, start at the southern terminus just outside Jay Cooke State Park along the Minnesota/Wisconsin border. The first 52.8 miles of the hike to Duluth is only open to day hikers, unfortunately, so this will need to be section-hiked in order to complete the entire trail. You can start north of Duluth instead to hike 269 miles of trails full of spurs and free camping opportunities. Relatively short compared to many thru-hikes and with lots of re-supply options, this trail makes a great first thru-hike. Beware the mosquitoes and humidity in late summer, though.

Trailhead: Wild Valley Road trailhead southeast of Jay Cooke State Park

Permit: No permits, fees, or reservations required for the 93 SHT campsites spaced every 5-10 miles; reservations and fees needed to stay in the 8 state parks.

 

Photo: “Ice-Age Trail” by aarongunnar is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Longer Thru-Hike: Ice Age Trail, Wisconsin (1,200 miles)

When most people think of remote thru-hikes full of solitary wilderness, they don’t think Wisconsin. But that’s exactly what you’ll find on the Ice Age Trail. This rough landscape was carved out by glaciers more than 10,000 years ago, and the path winds through glacial moraines and eskers, deciduous forests, prairies, and wetlands. Even better, the trail draws very few thru-hikers (the Ice Age Trail Alliance lists fewer than 300 individuals that have hiked the entire trail), which makes for a secluded journey.

The trail crosses the width — and quite nearly the length as well — of the state of Wisconsin. Thru-hikers are split on which direction to complete the hike, with some opting to start on the mellower eastern side and others on the tougher (but more scenic) western side. The trail is fairly well marked but only half completed, with the gaps filled by quiet country roads and multi-use trails. While there are plenty of resupply points in towns and cities near the trail, sleeping conditions vary widely from primitive camping in dispersed backcountry sites to shelters and state park campgrounds. The biggest natural hazards along the trail are bears, ticks and mosquitoes, so carry bear spray and a bear canister for your food and get tips for tick prevention

Trailhead: Potawatomie State Park for the eastern terminus, Interstate State Park for the western terminus.

Permit: There is no permit required to hike the trail or camping in primitive or dispersed campsites, but developed shelters and campgrounds in state forests, state and county parks, and recreation areas require a reservation and fee. Check the Ice Age National Scenic Trail Hiker Resource Map to plan and reserve accordingly.