With the Appalachians to the east and Rockies to the west, the relatively flat American Midwest doesn’t call to mind a hiking destination. But that’s dead wrong. Instead of coastlines there are lakeshores. Instead of continuous mountain ranges, there’s rolling loess higher than anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere. In the north, terrain varies from the Badlands of the Dakotas and the Pictured Rocks of Lake Superior; in the south are lush forests nestled between the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Rethink the flyover states and hit the trailheads of the American Midwest — these fifteen are your starting points.
Geographic center of the contiguous United States.
Elk City State Park
How Long: 12 miles
Found In: Montgomery County, Kansas
Which Is: 2 hours southeast of Wichita; 90 minutes north of Tulsa, OK
The Draw: The park offers some of the best hiking in Kansas while the lake and its rivers offer up bass, crappie, catfish and saugeye to fishermen.
Don’t Miss: The Green Thumb Nature Trail loop runs for one mile and empties out onto stunning views of Elk City Lake.
Their state beverage: milk.
Whitetail Trail to Lookout Hill
How Long: 8 miles
Found In: Ponca State Park, Ponca, NE
Which Is: 2 hours north of Omaha; 90 minutes south of Sioux Falls, SD
The Draw: The park features 20 miles of trails, and fishing, boating and hunting. The highest point in the park, Lookout Hill, offers views of the rolling hills of Ponca’s State Park in the Missouri River valley and across into South Dakota.
Don’t Miss: 400 miles across the state is Nebraska’s highest point, Panorama Point. Yea, it’s just a hill.
The birthplace of iced tea.
Lower Rock Creek to Cathedral Canyon
How Long: 5 miles
Found In: Mark Twain National Forest, Fredericktown, Missouri
Which Is: 1 hour 45 minutes south of St. Louis; 3 hours 30 minutes north of Memphis, TN
The Draw: Jagged cliffs, sheer drops and boulders littering the creekbed. Trout fill the canyon’s deep pools and there are plenty of cascading waterfalls and nooks and crannies to explore on the short but intense hike.
Don’t Miss: Your footing. Seriously.
The Hawkeye State.
Sylvan Runkel State Preserve
How Long: 12 miles
Found In: Loess Hills State Forest, Harrison County, Iowa
Which Is: 2 hours west of Des Moines; 60 minutes north of Omaha, NE
The Draw: The secluded ridgeline takes you above forests in a 12-mile loop around rolling grassy hills.
Don’t Miss: The “loess” is accumulated wind-blown silt piled up to 200 feet high. The only other places where loess reach these heights outside of the Iowa/Missouri region is along the Yellow River in China — a bit of a longer roundtrip.
Look carefully, and you might see Lebron James.
How Long: 2.5 miles
Found In: Hocking Hills State Park, Logan, OH
Which Is: 70 minutes southeast of Columbus; 2 hours northwest of Charleston, WV
The Draw: The trail is short but includes views of cascading waterfalls, circles a gorge and overlooks the rest of the park from some of the highest cliffs in the state.
Don’t Miss: Hocking Hills has five other major hiking areas that total over 25 miles in the park. Look for the hemlock-lined trails at Cedar Falls, massive rock formations in Old Man’s Cave and waterfalls at Ash Cave.
How Long: 9 miles
Found In: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Grand Marais, MI
Which Is: 6 hours 45 minutes north of Detroit; 3 hours 30 minutes northeast of Green Bay, WI
The Draw: A beautifully maintained trail takes you on a loop past miles of Lake Superior shoreline. You’ll be hiking atop cliffs, across beaches and next to waterfalls.
Don’t Miss: The Chapel Rock landmark, a tree stranded on a rock high above the shoreline with roots running through the air to the closest cliffs.
Land of 10,000 Lakes
Silver Bay to County Road 6, Superior Hiking Trail
How Long: 18 miles
Found In: Superior Hiking Trail, Silver Bay, MN
Which Is: 1 hour northeast of Duluth
The Draw: This is one of Andrew Skurka‘s favorite sections of the Superior Hiking Trail, which is a premiere 296-mile hiking trail in Minnesota. There are glacier-scoured lakes, overlooks of the largest freshwater lake in the world, a small mountain climb and a waterfall on the Baptism River.
Don’t Miss: The rest of the Superior Hiking Trail is perfect for day hikes. There are trailhead parking lots every 5-10 miles and 92 backcountry campsites for extended trips.
Land of Lincoln.
Garden of the Gods
How Long: approx. 0.5 miles
Found In: Shawnee National Forest, Simpson, IL
Which Is: 2 hours and 30 minutes southeast of St. Louis, MO; 3 hours northwest of Nashville, TN
The Draw: Hundreds of millions of years have turned the sandstone in Southern Illinois into spectacular rock formations that sit high above Shawnee National Forest to the west and the Ohio River to the east.
Don’t Miss: Sunset.
One at the northern tip, one at the southern.
West Beach Trail
How Long: 3.4 miles
Found In: Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, IN
Which Is: 1 hour east of Chicago, IL; 2 hours 30 minutes north of Indianapolis
The Draw: It’s a beautiful hike among forest and the beaches of the southernmost point of Lake Michigan. Elevation changes are challenging and also give you a tremendous view of the water. Plus, it’s on the beach.
Don’t Miss: Bringing a picnic for cooling down with your feet in the water.
Adventure Hiking Trail
How Long: 25 miles
Found In: Harrison-Crawford State Forest, Corydon, IN
Which Is: 1 hour west of Louisville, KY; 2 hours 30 minutes south of Indianapolis
The Draw: This cleverly named trail is one of the longest continuous trails in the state. The loop takes hikers past four shelter houses, old pioneer houses, cliff faces and sinkholes.
Don’t Miss: Views of the Ohio River from the high bluffs along the trail.
Cheeseheads and beautiful shorelines.
Point Beach State Forest
How Long: 9 miles
Found In: Two Rivers, WI
Which Is: 50 minutes southeast of Green Bay; 90 minutes north of Milwaukee
The Draw: Long stretches of secluded Lake Michigan shoreline and pockets of oak and white pine. Start at the Point Beach entrance station and follow Ridges Trail to Silver Creek and then north to Molash Creek. End at the 113-foot-high Rawley Point Lighthouse.
Don’t Miss: The driftwood beaches of Lake Michigan and natural formations along the nearby Ice Age trail.
North Country Trail near Weber Lake
How Long: 11 miles
Found In: Penokee Range, Upson, WI
Which Is: 2 hours east of Duluth, MN; 4 hours 30 minutes northeast of Minneapolis, MN
The Draw: A glacial monadnock (an isolated rock ridge) near skiing on the White Cap Mountains offers stunning views in a remote section of the longest natural scenic trail in America. From the Weber Lake trailhead, hit the ridge via the Uller Ski Trail for views of the Gogebic Range and Bayfield Peninsula. From there you’ll descend to Scribner Meadow and Smiths Meadow.
Don’t Miss: The other 4,600 miles of North Country Trail.
Just below North Dakota.
French Creek Trail
How Long: 12 miles
Found In: Custer State Park, East Custer, SD
Which Is: 30 minutes south of Rapid City
The Draw: There is no marked trail through the French Creek Natural Area; instead, hikers follow the creek between high, sheer canyon walls past forests of pine and hardwood. Bringing shoes that can get wet, as you’ll be crossing the creek constantly.
Don’t Miss: There is a swimming opportunity at The Narrows around mile five along with tons of wildlife including bighorn sheep, elk, and pronghorn antelope.
Sylvan Lake Trailheads to Harney Peak, Trail 9
How Long: 7 miles
Found In: Black Hills National Forest, Custer, SD
Which Is: 60 minutes south of Rapid City
The Draw: Harney Peak is the highest natural peak in South Dakota and offers stunning views of The Needles and Little Devils Tower, while the trail to the top starts at the stunning Sylvan Lake.
Don’t Miss: Mount Rushmore is right around the corner.
Played a supporting role in Fargo.
Petrified Forest Loop
How Long: 10.3 miles
Found In: Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Billings County, North Dakota
Which Is: 4.5 hours west of Fargo; 3.5 hours north of Rapid City, SD; 4 hours east of Billings, MT
The Draw: The petrified forest is part of the Badlands, which creep across the border into Montana and South Dakota and, because of arid erosion, look like a martian landscape.
Don’t Miss: The roaming bison, elk and prairie dogs.