Best Road Trips in the Midwest

 Best Road Trips in the Midwest

The Midwest portion of the U.S. is often called Flyover Country, but make no mistake, this region is gorgeous from the ground — and that means a lot of great RVing opportunities..

Miles of sun-kissed farmland and crystal clear lakes frame the view out your windshield while some of the slower scenic routes — from the rolling Flint Hills of Kansas and Ozark mountains in Missouri to the tranquil covered hedges of Indiana and thundering waterfalls in Minnesota — can be seen just off the exit ramp.

No matter if it’s a week-long journey around the rocky shores of Lake Superior or a quick day trip to a local state park, the United States’ middle corridor has plenty to offer outdoors enthusiasts and backyard explorers alike. Here, some of the best Midwest road trips to get your wheels turning, thanks, in part, to the folks at BestLife.com.

Duluth to Grand Portage State Park, Minnesota

Start: Duluth, Minnesota

End: Grand Portage State Park, Minnesota

Distance: 145 miles

From Duluth, drive Highway 61 alongside the rocky beach of America’s largest Great Lake, Lake Superior. The trip up Minnesota’s North Shore is short — just under 150 miles — but there’s plenty to see. If it’s summer, explore the beaches with black sands (Black Beach) and pink pebbles (Iona’s Beach), or pull over at Gooseberry Falls State Park to take a dip in the pool at the base of a spectacular waterfall or hike the 18 miles of trails. There are several other panoramas along the way, including your last stop at Grand Portage State Park by Canada’s border — as well as gorgeous views via a two-mile gondola ride in Lutsen. 

Gooseberry Falls State Park

Badlands to Black Hills, South Dakota

Start: Badlands, South Dakota

End: Black Hills, South Dakota

Distance: 130 miles

The Badlands has an otherworldly feel to it thanks to its multicolored peaks and vast volcanic rock landscape. Go slow and take your time meandering down the 40-mile scenic byway (SD 240), especially during dusk when the national park turns molten gold and dusty pink. From here, continue on to Rapid City for an overnight before exploring the Black Hills National Forest the next day. This 1.2 million-acre region is home to some of America’s must-see sites, such as Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial. Further north beyond Sturgis, Bear Butte State Park is a beautiful place for a hike, and a sacred spot for Native Americans.

Route 66, Illinois

Start: Chicago, Illinois

End: Collinsville, Illinois

Distance: 300 miles

Route 66 is one of the quintessential American road trips, and no chapter of it is so charming — and underrated — as its path through Illinois, where there’s enough retro kitsch to give you Instagram content for days. The Mother Road begins at the Route 66 sign on E. Jackson Boulevard in Chicago. You’ll meander 300 miles south to St. Louis, passing 1940s diners, antique stores, gas stations, and drive-in movie theaters straight out of a vintage advertisement. Pro tip: Keep an eye out for the almost 30-foot-tall Gemini Giant in Wilmington, Illinois.

Milwaukee to the Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin

Start: Milwaukee, Wisconsin

End: Wisconsin Dells

Distance: 121 miles

Kick off the journey in Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s brewing capital, where you can tour the MillerCoors Brewery and Pabst Mansion, the former 19th-century home of Pabst Brewing founder Captain Frederick Pabst. Then, three hours northwest, the Waterpark Capital of the World is the perfect family-friendly getaway. A few of the Wisconsin Dells parks merit superlatives: America’s largest outdoor water park (Noah’s Ark), America’s largest resort water park (Wilderness Waterpark Resort), and America’s largest wave pool (also at Wilderness Waterpark Resort) lie along your route. However, the outdoors activities in the area make it an autumn and spring destination, too: Be sure to stop by the Wisconsin Deer Park, where kids can feed Wasa crackers to free-roaming deer. Be sure to check out this previous Off the Beaten Path report on the Dells from RV Lifestyle. 

Wisconsin Dells

Flint Hills, Kansas

Start: Flint Hills, Kansas

End: Wichita, Kansas

Distance: 190 miles

The 190-mile trip through the endless undulations of the Flint Hills is a spectacular sight almost any time of year, though spring and fall show the area’s colors at their best. Soak up the scenery at the 11,000-acre Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve outside of Strong City, or take a detour on Rte. 901 to visit the 8,600-acre Konza Prairie research preserve. Head another two hours south to arrive in Wichita, Kansas’ largest city that features craft breweries, a Frank Lloyd Wright house museum, and striking street art in the Douglas Design District.

Parke County, Indiana

Start: Tangier, Indiana

End: Bridgeton, Indiana

Distance: 55 miles

Indiana’s Parke County winds through 31 covered bridges, making it a spectacularly scenic drive — especially in October, when the Covered Bridge Festival draws local artisans, craftspeople, and farmers to showcase their produce and goods during peak fall foliage. Make sure to look out for the horse-drawn carriages frequently spotted in the countryside as well as the 19th-century general stores, mills, and log cabins in small towns like Mansfield and Bridgeton. 

Historic Hills Scenic Byway, Iowa

Start: Moravia, Iowa

End: Donnellson, Iowa

Distance: 110 miles

This route is full of historic sites, including Iowa’s oldest courthouse and the state’s only Civil War battlefield. But this area of Iowa also boasts three state parks, including a resort state park. It’s worth taking a couple days to drive the 110 miles of the highway, since there’s so much to do, from fishing on the River Water trail and canoeing in the Lacey-Keosauqua State Park to checking out the 100-plus Amish and Mennonite businesses around Drakesville and Bloomsfield.

U.S. 12 Heritage Trail, Michigan

Start: New Buffalo, Michigan

End: Detroit, Michigan

Distance: 180 miles

For one of the Midwest’s quirkier road trips, consider the US 12 Heritage Trail, a.k.a. “Michigan’s Largest Garage Sale.” Admittedly, this one takes some timing — the sale happens over a long weekend in August each year — but it’s worth clearing your calendar for. Over three days, vendors line a 180-mile stretch of highway from New Buffalo to Detroit selling everything from antiques to homegrown vegetables. And no, the “heritage trail” distinction has nothing to do with Americans’ love of a good bargain: It refers to the ancient Native American trail the highway now covers (even further back, it was a part of a mastodon corridor, which drew the indigenous people who hunted them).

The Ozarks, Missouri

Start: Sullivan, Missouri

End: Lake Ozark, Missouri

Distance: 310 miles

With about 310 miles of routes and eye-popping side trips, Missouri’s beautiful Ozark mountains, forests, and lakes offer up a bounty of natural attractions. Explore the Onondaga Caves, the remnants of a sea that once covered the region, camp in the 1.5-million acre Mark Twain National Forest, or bear witness to history at the Indian Trail Conservation Area, which includes a stretch of the Trail of Tears. Be sure to check out this previous RV Lifestyle Off the Beaten Path report on Missiouri’s caves. 

Onondaga Cave in Missouri

Minnesota River Valley Scenic Byway

Start: Blakely, Minnesota

End: Ortonville, Minnesota

Distance: 287 miles

This 287-mile trip is a highlight reel of Minnesota’s rivers and waterfronts. You can see it from behind the steering wheel, or make a pitstop and hike the trails in the six state parks that intercept the byway. The area has a rich history as homeland to the Dakota people, whose name for the area is “Mni Sóta Maḳoce” (“the land where the water reflects the sky”); learn about their traditions and history at the Lower Sioux Agency. There are also farm museums, historical homes, and Minnesota’s oldest brewery, August Schell Brewing Company.

Antique Alley, Indiana

Start: Richmond, Indiana

End: Knightstown or Portland, Indiana

Distance: 80 miles

The so-called “Antique Alley” of eastern Indiana is an 80-mile loop where more than 1,200 antique dealers have set up shop. The Historic Richmond Depot District, a thriving neighborhood in Richmond with some great restaurants, is worth an afternoon lunch stop before setting out to shop. Choose from two different trails: Trail one takes you from Richmond west to Knightstown via the Historic National Road U.S. 40, then back to your starting point on SR 38. The star attraction: Cambridge City, with two blocks of shops including 13 antique stores. The other trail takes you north from Richmond to Portland on US 27, with 25 antiques shops dotting the roadside.

Lake Superior Circle Tour

Start: Duluth, Minnesota

End: Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan

Distance: 1,300 miles

If you have some time, take the long way around Lake Superior on the Circle Tour, a 1,300-mile stretch of stunning shoreline in Wisconsin, Ontario, Minnesota, and Michigan. Mid-June is a great time to catch festivals before summer’s peak tourist season begins, but if don’t mind cooler temps, late September is ideal for seeing the leaves change. If you can’t make the entire tour, any of the individual state segments merit a vacation of their own, as you can see in the video we did below for Superior’s Wisconsin and Minnesota north shore. 

Mike Wendland

Mike Wendland is a veteran journalist who, with his wife, Jennifer, travels North America in a small motorhome, blogging about the people, places, joys and adventure of RV life on the road at RVLifestyle.com. He and Jennifer also host the weekly RV Podcast and do twice-weekly videos on the YouTube RV Lifestyle Channel. They have written 10 books on RV travel.

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