Experience America’s Heartland: Take a Midwest Road Trip from Chicago to Kansas

Midwestern Road Trip Route

Experience everything the USA has to offer, including the true heartland of the United States, in the area known as the midwest. A midwestern road trip will lead you across nine states, major cities like Chicago, Kansas City, Milwaukee, and Indianapolis, stunning scenery in National Parks like Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Voyageurs National Park, and Cuyahoga Valley National Park, as well as the famous culture of the midwest. Styles of food in the midwest range from the Chicago style pizza to the famous Kansas City BBQ’s. Sports are just as prominent in the heartland, with big teams like the Cubs, Cardinals, and Cavaliers dominating the scene. In the middle of it all, the Mississippi River carves through the midwest, serving as a focal point for the entire road trip. Cities and parks further north also make the ideal stop on your northern U.S. road trip.

Chicago

The cultural epicenter of the midwestern states of the USA

Chicago is the hub of the midwestern states. With nearly 3 million people calling Chicago home, this major city has many nicknames, like Chi-Town, The Windy City, and Second City. Whatever you want to call Chicago, you can’t miss the city’s cultural influence all over the world. Being an alpha world city, Chicago is in a league of importance to the business world, cultural, and human capital that is alongside Paris, London, New York City, Washington DC, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Berlin.

Insider Guide to Chicago

When visiting Chicago, it’s important to know what you’d like to see in this gigantic city. While bus tours are a good sightseeing option, much of the town is difficult to see via car. The best ways to see the city can be by cab or good old fashioned walking. Stroll alongside the waterfront on Lake Michigan, or take a swing by the “Magnificent Mile” of shopping offered in town. Chicago is renowned for its improv theatre, towering steel architecture, and unique blend of foods from around the world. No matter what mood you’re in, you can find food to satisfy you in neighborhoods like Little Italy, Little Seoul, and the multitude of Pakistani, Indian, Thai, and Chinese restaurants. Of course, you can’t leave the city without trying some of the best pizza in the world, the deep dish Chicago style pizza, or take in a Cubs game at Wrigley Field.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Visit Ohio’s only National Park

Ohio’s only National Park, Cuyahoga National Park, preserves the land along the Cuyahoga River, between Akron and Cleveland. This reclaimed land has made some big achievements in preservation. The biggest one perhaps is the Richfield Coliseum being knocked down and returned to the woodland area. The area is now a large birdwatching meadow. The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad also affords beautiful views of the valley area. The largest trail in Cuyahoga Valley National Park is the Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath Trail, which connects major historic sites along the canals. The area is also home to some popular bird residents, like the red-tailed hawk,

St. Louis

Missouri’s gateway city to the Mississippi

The most well-known landmark in the city of St. Louis, Missouri is the Gateway Arch. The Gateway Arch commemorates the achievement of acquiring the land west of the Mississippi River. St. Louis has undergone major changes since 1904 when St. Louis was once the 4th largest city in the USA. World-class museums and attractions can still be found in the city, like the Missouri Botanical Garden and the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts.

St. Louis Family Fun Activities

Kansas City

Perfect stop on your midwestern road trip: America’s heartland city on the Missouri River

Kansas City actually refers to two different cities. One Kansas City is in Kansas itself, and the larger is in Missouri across the river. The two cities form one giant metropolitan area, with over two million people living in the metro area. Kansas City is also home to the most fountains outside of Rome, nicknamed the City of Fountains. The city has many beautiful sculptures and is experiencing a growth spurt over the past decade. The city even has the most boulevards outside of Paris, and is sometimes nicknamed the “BBQ Capital of the World.” That’s just one of the reasons to visit this city! Kansas City is also well known for its towering Liberty Memorial, Kauffman Stadium (where the Kansas City Royals play), and is home to a big jazz and blues music scene.

Badlands National Park

South Dakota’s beautiful prairie wilderness

The Badlands of South Dakota is an expanse of dry prairies, buttes, and spires. Badlands National Park contains 244,000 acres, and also the most endangered land mammal in North America, the black-footed ferret. The area also has a large population of prairie dogs. Badlands has a rich Native American history, with the Lakota tribe using the area as a hunting ground for over 11,000 years.

Flint Hills

Bluestem Pastures – aka Blue Stem Hills Kansas

The Flint Hills of Kansas aren’t just fields of grass, and it isn’t very flat like you’d expect Kansas to be. The Flint Hills have some amazing shapes and spectacular wildflowers, but the area is also steeped in history and has the nation’s largest expanse of tallgrass.

Scotts Bluff National Monument

Western Nebraska Oregon Trail landmark

You might be thinking that Nebraska is flat, all prairie, and all boring. Well, most of the state is fairly repetitive, but the western part of the state has some unique scenery. When you approach Idaho heading west, the scenery changes and becomes more rugged. Scotts Bluff National Monument is part of that rugged scenery of western Nebraska. Located on the North Platte River, Scotts Bluff National Monument is an important part of the Oregon Trail. The monument, which is large rock buttes, marks the beginning of an uphill journey heading towards the Rocky Mountains, and a virtual descent if headed east towards the prairie land.

Scotts Bluff National Monument

Isle Royale National Park

Wolves vs. moose in Isle Royale National Park

To experience true pristine wilderness in the northern USA, try Isle Royale National Park of Michigan. The park can be accessed from Michigan, Minnesota, or Canada. The nearest city is Thunder Bay in Ontario, Canada. The isolation of the park isn’t the only reason to visit, however. There’s a large native population of moose and wolves on the island. During the cold winter months, the lake freezes over, allowing the wolves and moose to move freely between the mainland of Canada and the islands, giving a fluctuating number to the populations between the two. The park contains over 400 islands, the biggest being Isle Royale (the biggest island in Lake Superior). The inaccessibility of the park makes it the least visited National Park in the USA, with just around 20,000 visitors per year. The park can be reached via floatplane of by ferry, however, to experience more of the island, plan on camping overnight since ferries do not run often (and are quite sluggish).

Isle Royale National Park

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Beautifully colored rocks and lakeshore of the Upper Penninsula of Lake Superior and Michigan state

Perhaps the most beautiful part of the Great Lakes is Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, a preserved stretch of coastline between Munising, Michigan, and Grand Marais, Michigan. The area contains waterfalls, cliffs, archways, caves, lighthouses and rocky shores to explore and enjoy. While some photos may make the area look exotic, it’s average temperature stays cool year-round for the most part. Roads do lead into the park, but only partway. To see the majority of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, you must hike to the areas. It’s well worth the hike! Another preferred method to see the lakeshore is by kayaking, which you should have the proper equipment to handle the cold waters of Lake Superior. The park is located on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, easily accessed by taking I-75 North from points within Michigan to 28 West.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Minneapolis – St. Paul Area

The Twin Cities region of Minnesota

Minneapolis is a city surrounded by water. With the banks of the Mississippi on both sides of the city, the Minnesota River, and also contains many other rivers, creeks, and lakes. Combined, Minneapolis and St. Paul have the 13th largest metropolitan area in the USA, with 3.5 million residents shared between the region. The city is renowned for its beautiful, well-maintained parks, which cover over 16% of the city.

Sleeping Bear Dunes

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Don’t be fooled by the term “lake” when it comes to the Great Lakes. The largest freshwater bodies of water in the world are extremely active, acting as their own self-contained oceans. Over time, the lake has sculpted out some spectacular scenery, in this case, reminiscent of the rolling dunes of the Atlantic coast, but with high bluffs and vantage points like the Pacific Coast of California. This is Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, a beautiful stop on your midwestern road trip, unexpectedly ocean-like in appearance. Giant dunes, forests, farms, and 35 miles of shorefront stretch along Lake Michigan’s eastern coastal edge, or Lower Michigan’s west coast. The area features some prime road trip asphalt in the form of the 7.5 mile Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, which boasts some of the Lakeshore’s most unique scenery.

Sleeping Bear Dunes
Sleeping Bear Dunes

Effigy Mounds National Monument

North America’s largest intact collection of ancient Native American Effigy Mounds

On the Iowa side of the Wisconsin border lies the biggest collection of ancient mounds created by the Native American Indians that once roamed the area. The mounds are constructed in the form of birds, reptiles, mammals, and other creatures. The exact reason that the mounds were constructed in the first place is still unknown to this day. The Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa contains the largest number of intact effigy mounds in North America. When European settlers arrived, many of the mounds were turned into farmland, however, these ones in Iowa were spared. To preserve the integrity of the park, no paved roads lead-in. Instead, you can find ranger-led hikes to explore the park.

Effigy Mounds National Monument

Agate Fossil Beds National Monument

Ancient preserved Miocene fossil beds and Indian artifacts in Northern Nebraska

On the flat grasslands of Nebraska rises a peculiar area that ordinarily wouldn’t stand out to the untrained eye. At the Agate Fossil Beds National Monument of Nebraska, while sunflowers, spiderwort, and little bluestem make the Agate Fossil Beds an attractive area to visit, the true attraction of the area. Fossils discovered are now on display, as well as Indian artifacts from the area at the Monument. The Agate Fossil Beds National Monument can be reached from the I-80, changing over at 70 North, then heading west on I-26 briefly before heading north again on 29.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

North Dakota’s beautifully desolate scenery featuring wild bison and horse herds

Named after U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, the park is located in the badlands area of North Dakota. Much like the Badlands of South Dakota, the area is desolate, with small multi-colored striped rock formations covering the landscape. Upon closer inspection, you’ll notice big changes from season to season. The landscape is harsh, with extremely hot summers, and extremely cold winters. There are hundreds of miles of hiking paths, and one of the more unique aspects of the park is its natural herds of free-roaming wild horses and wild bison. These animals are allowed to roam free except for the occasional roundup and is definitely a good reason to see Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Voyageurs National Park

Northern Minnesota’s natural water park

Voyageurs National Park is one of the USA’s most unique parks. Located northwest of Isle Royale National Park, Voyageurs is on the Canada-Minnesota border. The park is only accessible by boat and consists of many islands. Most people that come to visit Voyageurs either camp on a boat or tent camp. Voyageurs has incredible rock scenery all over the islands, which can be seen from the water afar or close up on the islands. In the winter months, the park is accessible via ski, snowmobile, or snowshoe.

Wind Cave National Park

The world’s 4th longest cave in South Dakota

Wind Cave National Monument was named just like it sounds – because the area has windy caves. Wind Cave National Park is located in the Black Hills region of South Dakota, close to Mount Rushmore and not too far from the Badlands. The mighty cave is made of calcite formations called boxwork, and is the 4th longest cave in the world.

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Have You Enjoyed Your Trip Across America’s Midwestern States?

Tell us about your own midwestern road trip here!

Hopefully, you’ve gained some insight on some of the incredible National Parks, big cities, and fun places to visit across America’s midwest. Do you have someplace that you suggest others check out along their midwestern road trip? Give some recommendations here!

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