Outdoor Adventure Bucket List – Five Hidden Gems in the Midwest
We may earn money or products from the companies mentioned in this post.
Greetings and salutations, fellow outdoor enthusiasts (or in my own way…Cheers, mateys). After a way-too-long hiatus from writing, I’m back in the saddle and at it once again. I kind of feel like I really need to make it up to you by providing a real whopper of a post, so get comfy, my buds and bud-ettes. There’s gonna be copious amounts of notable information in this one.
Lots of things have happened since I’ve last been here in this position. I’ve let my blog sit for years now, yet I still have readers visiting my site and reading my past articles. This is good news to me, as I feel like I have made an impact and a lasting impression on some, and continue to do so. It makes me feel good.
I have realized that the last post that I wrote myself was just after my pup passed, and I wrote a piece called A Hike to Heal A Broken Heart. After reading it recently, I could tell that I was in a different state of mind; heartbroken and mourning. I obviously needed some time to digest and recover. I spent more close time with my family, and not worrying about my writing. I completed multiple projects around my home that really needed my attention.
Then, Covid hit us like a ton of bricks. We were scared into staying inside our homes in fear of catching or spreading this stupid thing. We only left the house for need. I was lucky enough to have such an amazing employer that figured out how to efficiently and effectively allow all of us to work from home, almost without skipping a beat.
We learned quickly how to communicate with our loved ones that didn’t live in the same household using Zoom for Birthday celebrations, Holidays, and even just to catch up. I even found a way to play Euchre online with 3 other friends in the same game while we used Google Hangouts to video chat and still be able to laugh and joke with each other at the same time.
When we came home from the grocery store, we put on plastic gloves, emptied the purchases onto the pool table in the garage, sprayed everything down with sanitizer and wiped all of it down, then let it sit for 12 hours before daring to bring it in the house.
The only thing that I felt safe doing outside of the house was heading out hiking in wonderful nature. I’m grateful that the Outdoor Soul inside of me was still able to keep me sane during this upheaval in all of our lives. Now, I still didn’t get out as much as I would have liked, as the media still had its bouts of trying to ruin that as well when they stated that we should still wear a mask when out hiking. I still don’t know why I really believed that at the time. However, I still did some research of my own, brainstormed, and put together a bucket list that I could use, not only for myself but to be able to share with you as well.
Today, I would like to share with you some hidden gems in the Midwest that you may or may not have heard of yet. As someone who has spent countless hours exploring and researching the outdoors in this region, I can tell you that there is so much more to discover beyond the popular spots that everyone knows about. So grab your hiking boots, backpack, and your sense of adventure, and let’s hike out.
Located in the western Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, or the Porkies, as some may call it, is a stunning destination and a true gem of the Midwest, that is often overlooked by tourists. This park offers 60,000 acres of wilderness, including 20 miles of Lake Superior shoreline and several pristine, inland lakes, old-growth forests, over 90 majestic waterfalls, and rugged mountains. Hikers can explore nearly 90 miles of recreational trails, ranging from easy strolls to challenging multi-day backpacking trips. One of the most popular hikes is the Lake of the Clouds trail, which offers stunning views of a picturesque mountain lake. The park also offers camping, fishing, and kayaking opportunities. Whether you’re a seasoned hiker or just looking for a peaceful getaway, the Porcupine Mountains should be at the top of your list.
Here are just a few highlights:
– Summit Peak Observation Tower Trail: This short, 0.9-mile trail takes hikers to the top of Summit Peak, where they can climb the observation tower for breathtaking views of Lake Superior and the surrounding forests. The tower is the highest point in the park and offers all the breathtaking views that title purveys. It’s a must-do for anyone visiting the park.
– Lake of the Clouds Overlook: This iconic overlook is accessible via the Big Carp River Trail and the Escarpment Trail, and offers stunning views of the park’s namesake lake. It’s a popular spot for photography, so be sure to bring your camera. Lake of the Clouds is also well-known for its bass fishing. It’s catch-and-release only and there are no boat rentals available, so keep this in mind. You are more than welcome to carry in a light watercraft if you are willing to carry it for the ¾ mile hike and back. I’d probably just bring my waders, though.
– Union Mine Trail: This is a 1.1-mile loop trail that leads hikers through historic mining sites and offers a glimpse into the park’s rich mining history. It features 10 interpretive plaques that tell the story of the copper mining history of the mountains. It’s a great way to learn more about the area while enjoying a scenic hike. This is also an amazing short trail for waterfall lovers as well, especially when the water is up or during spring runoff. Know that the many cascades here are considerably less impressive during the low water periods of late summer and fall. Just please keep in mind that this hike descends 100 feet in the beginning, meaning you need to climb 100 feet out at the end.
– Little Carp River Trail: This lesser-known trail is a great option for those looking to get off the beaten path. It’s a bit longer but offers stunning views of the Carp River and the surrounding forests. You’ll need waterproof footwear for several river crossings. You’ll also encounter 4 beautiful waterfalls during this journey. According to the ever-amazing AllTrails app, it is an 11.5-mile out-and-back trail. It takes, on average, just over 4 hours to complete without stops. It’s unlikely that you’ll encounter many others while trekking this one. I would most likely backpack this trail by staying overnight at one of the 10 backcountry sites, or you can splurge a little and rent out one of the 4 available cabins, if available.
– Wilderness Camping: For those looking to truly immerse themselves in the wilderness, the park offers a variety of backcountry camping options. Permits are required, but the experience is well worth it – there’s nothing quite like falling asleep under the stars in the middle of the wilderness.
Overall, the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park is a must-visit destination for anyone looking to experience the beauty of the Midwest’s wilderness. Whether you’re looking for a short hike or a multi-day backpacking trip, there’s something for everyone here.
2. The Maumee Bay State Park – Ohio
If you’re looking for a beach vacation without leaving the Midwest, then Maumee Bay State Park in Ohio is the place for you. This 1,336-acre park boasts a two-mile-long sandy beach on Lake Erie, as well as hiking and biking trails through wetlands and meadows. For those who love water activities, the park also offers kayaking, paddleboarding, and fishing. The park’s lodge and cabins provide comfortable accommodations for those who want to stay overnight. And if you’re lucky, you may even spot some bald eagles flying overhead.
– Beach Activities: Maumee Bay State Park boasts a mile-long sandy beach along the shores of Lake Erie. Visitors can swim, sunbathe, build sandcastles, or take a stroll along the shoreline. There is also another beach that lines the park’s inland lake, Inland Lake (Yes, it’s really named Inland Lake). The park also offers kayak and paddleboard rentals, which are a great way to explore the lake.
– Golfing: The park is home to a championship 18-hole golf course, Maumee Bay Stat Park Golf Course, that is open to the public. The course offers stunning views of the surrounding wetlands and is a popular spot for golf enthusiasts.
– Nature Trails: Maumee Bay State Park has several nature trails that wind through the wetlands, meadows, and woods of the park. One of the most popular is the Boardwalk Trail, (according to AllTrails) a 2.3-mile loop trail that takes visitors through a marshy area and offers the chance to spot a variety of birds and other wildlife. However, you will need to leave your puppers at home as they do not allow dogs on this trail.
– Birdwatching: Speaking of birds, Maumee Bay State Park is a prime spot for birdwatching. The park is located along the Lake Erie migratory flyway, which means that a variety of bird species pass through the area each year. Visitors can spot everything from bald eagles to warblers to waterfowl.
– Fishing: Maumee Bay State Park offers excellent fishing opportunities for anglers of all skill levels. The park has a fishing pier that is accessible to everyone, as well as boat rentals for those looking to venture out onto the lake.
– Little-known trails or experiences: For those looking to get off the beaten path, the park offers several little-known trails and experiences. One option is the Interpretive Trail, which is a short loop that takes visitors through a wooded area and offers educational signage about the local flora and fauna. Another option is the beach trail, which takes visitors along the shoreline and offers stunning views of the lake.
Overall, Maumee Bay State Park is a great destination for anyone looking to enjoy the beauty of Lake Erie and the surrounding wilderness. Whether you’re looking to hike, swim, golf, or simply relax on the beach, you can find your happy place here.
3. The Ozark National Scenic Riverways – Missouri
The Ozark National Scenic Riverways in southern Missouri is a hidden gem that offers some of the best canoeing and kayaking in the Midwest. The park encompasses over 80,000 acres of forests, springs, and rivers, including the Current and Jacks Fork Rivers. Visitors can paddle through stunning limestone bluffs and crystal-clear waters, and enjoy fishing, hiking, and camping along the way. The park also has several historic sites, including the Alley Spring Grist Mill, which dates back to the 19th century. If you’re looking for a peaceful and scenic adventure, the Ozark National Scenic Riverways is a must-visit destination.
Discover some of the best activities and lesser-known paths or adventures to explore:
– Floating the Rivers: This park is known for its beautiful crystal clear rivers, which are perfect for floating, canoeing, or kayaking, as it is the first national park area to protect a river system. Visitors can rent a canoe or kayak or bring their own, and float down the spring-fed Current or Jacks Fork Rivers while enjoying the beautiful scenery.
– Hiking Trails: Ozark National Scenic Riverways has plenty of hiking trails that offer breathtaking views of the river and the surrounding wilderness. One of the most popular is the Round Spring Trail, which is a short 0.3-mile hike, takes visitors through a wooded area and offers stunning views of the river and Round Spring.
– Caving: The park is home to over 300 caves, ranging from not much more than a rock overhang to one cave with almost seven miles of identified passages. However, at this time, all caves in the Ozark Riverways are closed to visitation (except for guided tours of Round Spring Cave). This is due to the discovery of White Nose Syndrome, a disease that kills bats, in Shannon County. Visitors can take guided tours of the cave to learn about their geological history and see beautiful rock formations.
– Fishing: Ozark National Scenic Riverways offers excellent fishing opportunities for anglers of all skill levels. The park’s rivers are home to a variety of fish species, including Smallmouth Bass, Rainbow and Brown Trout.
– Little-known trails or experiences: For those looking to get off the beaten path, the park offers several little-known trails and experiences. One option is the Greer Spring Trail, which is a 1.4-mile out-and-back trail that takes visitors to the largest spring in Missouri. Another option is the Alley Spring Overlook Trail, which is a 1.7-mile loop that takes visitors through a beautiful wooded area and past the historic Alley Mill. Remember to get the AllTrails Plus app and download your trail maps for use offline.
– Wildlife Viewing: Ozark National Scenic Riverways is home to a variety of wildlife species, including black bears, river otters, and bald eagles. Visitors can spot wildlife while hiking or floating down the river, or by visiting the park’s wildlife viewing areas.
The Ozark National Scenic Riverways is a great destination for anyone looking to enjoy the beauty of Missouri’s wilderness. Whether you’re looking to hike, float, fish, or explore caves, there’s an adventure awaiting you here.
4. The Black Hills National Forest – South Dakota
While the Black Hills National Forest may not be a hidden gem, it still deserves a spot on this list. This sprawling forest covers over 1.2 million acres in western South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming, and offers some of the most breathtaking scenery in the Midwest. Hikers will find rugged rock formations, canyons, grasslands, over 1,300 miles of streams, lakes, and unique caves, and can explore over 450 miles of trails. Visitors can also enjoy camping, fishing, and horseback riding in the forest. And of course, no trip to the Black Hills is complete without a visit to Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
– Hiking: The Black Hills National Forest offers over 450 miles of hiking trails, ranging from easy strolls to challenging hikes. One of the most popular trails is the Black Elk Peak Trail (per our good friends on the AllTrails app, a 7.1-mile loop trail), which takes hikers to the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains. The trail offers stunning views of the surrounding Black Hills and the surrounding wilderness. It will take you about 3 ½ hours to complete without any stops, so make sure you are prepared.
– Wildlife Viewing: The Black Hills National Forest is home to a variety of wildlife species, including bison, elk, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and black bears. Visitors can spot wildlife while hiking or driving through the forest, or by visiting the park’s wildlife viewing areas.
– Scenic Drives: The Black Hills National Forest offers several scenic drives that offer breathtaking views of the surrounding area. One of the most popular is the Needles Highway, which winds through the forest and offers stunning views of the granite rock formations.
– Rock Climbing: The Black Hills National Forest is a popular destination for rock climbers of all skill levels. The park offers several climbing areas, including the Cathedral Spires and Sylvan Lake.
– Little-known trails or experiences: For those looking to get off the beaten path, the Black Hills National Forest offers several little-known trails and experiences. One option is the Iron Creek Trail, which is a 2.5-mile out-and-back trail that takes visitors through a beautiful wooded area and past several scenic waterfalls. Another option is the Crow Peak Trail, which is a challenging 6.8-mile out-and-back hike that offers stunning views of the surrounding Black Hills (about 3 ½ hours to complete).
– Camping: The Black Hills National Forest offers several campgrounds for visitors looking to spend a night or two in the wilderness. The campgrounds range from primitive to full-service, and offer a variety of amenities for visitors.
The Black Hills National Forest is a great destination for anyone looking to enjoy the beauty of South Dakota’s wilderness. Whether you’re looking to hike, drive, or climb, there’s bound to be something for everyone.
5. The Shawnee National Forest – Illinois
The Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois is a hidden gem that offers a wide range of outdoor activities. Hikers can explore over 300 miles of trails. The forest is also home to several lakes and rivers, providing ample opportunities for fishing, kayaking, and swimming. And for those who love history, the forest has several historic sites, including the Cave-in-Rock State Park, which was once a hideout for notorious pirates (if you know me, this is the reason this one made my bucket list). Whether you’re looking for a day trip or a weekend getaway, the Shawnee National Forest is a spectacular destination for outdoor adventurers.
Explore a variety of must-sees and hidden gems by check out these top things to do and off-the-beaten path trails or experiences:
– Hiking: Once again, the Shawnee National Forest offers over 300 miles of hiking trails, ranging from easy strolls to extremely challenging hikes. One of the most popular trails is the Garden of the Gods Trail, a simple 0.5-mile loop trail which takes hikers through a beautiful area of rock formations and offers stunning views of the surrounding wilderness. On the other-hand, experienced trekkers may be intrigued with the River to River Trail, a 151.8-mile point-to-point trail. A moderately challenging ramble that takes just over 59 hours of walking-time to fulfill, it spans from the Ohio River to the Mississippi River. You will journey through some of the most scenic areas of southern Illinois, including grasslands, upland forest, wetlands and bluffs.
– Wildlife Viewing: The Shawnee National Forest is home to a variety of wildlife species, including deer, coyotes, bobcats, armadillo, red fox, red-tailed hawks and bald eagles. Visitors can spot wildlife while hiking or driving through the forest, or by visiting the park’s wildlife viewing areas.
– Scenic Drives: The Shawnee National Forest offers several scenic drives that offer breathtaking views of the surrounding area. One of the most popular is the Ohio River Scenic Byway, which winds along the Ohio River and offers stunning views of the river and the surrounding countryside.
– Little-known trails or experiences: For those looking to get off the beaten path, the Shawnee National Forest offers several little-known trails and experiences. One option is the Cedar Lake Trail, (AllTrails app does it once again) a 2.9-mile out-and-back trail that takes visitors through a beautiful wooded area and past a scenic lake of the same name (Cedar Lake). Another option is the LaRue-Pine Hills Trail, which is a not-too-challenging 5.6-mile out-and-back hike that offers stunning views of the surrounding Shawnee Hills.
– Camping: The Shawnee National Forest offers several campgrounds for visitors looking to spend a night or two in the wilderness. The campgrounds range from primitive to full-service, and offer a variety of amenities for visitors.
– Horseback Riding: The Shawnee National Forest is a popular destination for horseback riders of all skill levels. The park offers several horseback riding trails, including the River-to-River Trail, which, as stated before, stretches from the Ohio River to the Mississippi River and offers stunning views of the surrounding wilderness.
– Overall, the Shawnee National Forest is a great destination for anyone looking to enjoy the beauty of Illinois’ wilderness. Whether you’re looking to hike, drive, or ride, nature is your playground here.
So there you have it, my friends – five hidden gems in the Midwest that are just waiting to be explored. With a little bit of planning and preparation and a healthy dose of optimism and humor, you can make the most of your time in the great outdoors.
Take your soul outdoors. It’ll thank you!