Some of the United States’ finest achievements are the country’s extensive national park system.
While the country’s first national park, Yellowstone, was established in 1872, it wasn’t until President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act in 1916 that the country officially had a National Park Service.
More than 100 years later, the NPS oversees 423 units, which includes 63 national parks, 10 national wild and scenic rivers and riverways, and three national lakeshores; plus more than 150 related areas (which are usually managed by other agencies), including national scenic trails.
While a maintenance backlog of more than $11.9 billion has been a black eye for the system over the past few years, the system is still the envy of other countries, and more popular than ever with its own citizens. The nation’s parks saw more than 327 million visitors in 2019 — the third highest ever since 1904 — and parks like Yellowstone are already setting attendance records this year.
While many jewels of the national park system are out West, the Midwest has its own gems, including the country’s only national lakeshores. Plus, Midwest parks are usually less busy than other national park sites, and you don’t need a plane ticket or a long drive to reach them.
In fact, 16 sites are reachable on a tank of gas from Milwaukee — 17 if you get good gas mileage.
For the purpose of this story, I’m defining a tank of gas as what I can comfortably get out of mine (a 2016 Subaru Crosstrek, about 400 miles), starting from what Google Maps defines as downtown Milwaukee — fittingly, N. Milwaukee St. and E. Wisconsin Ave. I’ve included both distances and general drive time, based on the quickest route on Google Maps. Your starting point, mileage, speed and time spent in Chicago traffic may differ, of course. And for those with massive tanks or great gas mileage, I’ve included one park that’s just out of that 400-mile radius.
What better way to celebrate Independence Day this summer than a good old-fashioned road trip to national park sites? Here are some spots to explore, in order of distance from Milwaukee.
Indiana Dunes National Park
Distance: 126 miles via I-90 through Chicago
Drive time: 2 hours to 2 hours, 40 minutes
Location: Northwest Indiana; Visitor Center at 1215 State Road 49, Porter, Indiana
Details: The closest national park to Milwaukee is also one of the newest. Indiana Dunes’ status was upgraded from national lakeshore to national park in 2019. The park is also one of the most accessible to a major urban area, with Chicago’s South Shore line making multiple stops in the park.
While that proximity to urban areas means the park isn’t as “wild” as others — you can see smokestacks from the beach — it’s still one of the most ecologically diverse places in America, with 15,000 acres of towering sand dunes, deciduous forest and rare black oak savannah along Lake Michigan.
Things to do: Hike up Mount Baldy, the park’s tallest living dune. Living, as in moving — up to four feet inland every year. Because of the dune’s delicate vegetation, and for safety reasons, access is restricted to ranger-led hikes, which are typically held on weekends in the summer. This year the hikes are limited to 10 people and reservations are required; call (219) 395-1882.
The 3.4-mile Paul H. Douglas Trail in Miller Woods provides a glimpse of many of the park’s landscapes, including oak savannah, dunes and a beach along the lake.
The park has 15 miles of beach along Lake Michigan. West Beach is one of the best, with lifeguards, a bathhouse with showers, a concession stand and trails leading to lookouts on dunes above the beach.
More information: West Beach is the only area of the park other than the campground that has a fee in the summer: $6 per vehicle for the day. For more, call (219) 395-1882 or see nps.gov/indu.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Distance: 225 miles via the Lake Express Ferry from Milwaukee to Muskegon, Michigan; 221 miles via the SS Badger Ferry from Manitowoc to Ludington, Michigan; or 394 miles through Chicago
Travel time: 5 hours, 15 minutes via Lake Express Ferry; 6.5 hours via Badger Ferry; 6.5-8 hours via Chicago
Location: Northwest Michigan; Visitor Center at 9922 W. Front St., Empire, Michigan
Details: This park, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2020, protects a series of dunes and bluffs that sometimes rise 500 feet above Lake Michigan.
While there are black bears in Sleeping Bear Dunes, the park’s name actually comes from a dune named Mother Bear that at one time resembled a sleeping bear. The Anishinaabe used the dune as a landmark and tell two versions of a story of how she came to be there, according to the park service. Both versions involve a mother bear and her cubs fleeing Wisconsin by swimming across the lake. The mother made it, and sat on the dune waiting for her cubs, who drowned just offshore. The Great Spirit Manitou then created two islands — North and South Manitou — to commemorate the spots where they died, and covered the mother in sand, creating the dune.
Things to do: The Dune Climb offers visitors a chance to climb a 300-foot dune, then walk, run, roll or slide back down. For a view of Lake M
ichigan, though, you’ll have to continue along the 3.5-mile round-trip Dunes Trail that travels through more sand to the lake. The hike can be strenuous — especially in the summer, since there is no shade.
For an even higher view of the lake via a less strenuous, more forested route, try the 1.5-mile round-trip Empire Bluff Trail south of Empire.
The 8-mile Bay View trail system includes an accessible section and passes through the Port Oneida Rural Historic District, which includes farmsteads that were typical in the Midwest at the turn of the century.
More information: Entrance fees are $25 per vehicle per day or $15 per person arriving on foot or by bike. Call (231) 326-4700 or see nps.gov/slbe.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Distance: 290 miles
Drive time: 4 hours, 45 minutes
Location: Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; Visitor Center at 1505 Sand Point Road, Munising, Michigan (closed for renovations in 2021)
Details: Pictured Rocks gets its name from its 200-foot sandstone cliffs, stained shades of black, blue, green, red, brown and white by minerals left behind when groundwater seeps through the porous rock.
The rocks below the water give it a turquoise hue in the right conditions, creating a tropical experience in the country’s northernmost reaches.
The park stretches for 42 miles along Lake Superior, but only about 15 of those feature the famous cliffs. The rest of the park offers a variety of landscapes from white-sand beaches and dunes to waterfalls and dense forest.
Things to do: The 3-mile trek to Chapel Rock is a popular day hike, leading to a beach and a rock formation that is only connected to the mainland via the roots of a 250-year-old white pine that stands on top of it.
The cliffs begin just west of Chapel Rock and continue more than 9 miles to Miners Castle, another formation that had two castle-like turrets until 2006, when one collapsed. Along the way, you’ll pass Grand Portal Point, a partially collapsed archway. All the formations and cliffs are viewable from the North Country Trail, but Miners Castle is also accessible via a short, paved trail from a parking lot.
One of the best views of the park’s cliffs is from the water. Pictured Rocks Cruises offers 2.5-hour boat tours out of Munising daily, weather permitting, from mid-May through mid-October.
Kayaking is another way to see the cliffs, but only experienced kayakers should venture out on their own, since Lake Superior is cold and dangerous. For less experienced paddlers, three authorized outfitters offer tours in the park: Paddling Michigan, Pictured Rocks Adventure and Pictured Rocks Kayaking.
Backpacking also is a popular way to see the park’s sites. Fourteen backcountry campgrounds (reservations required) are spread along the North Country Trail, which travels the length of the park.
More information: There is no entrance fee for Pictured Rocks, but the campgrounds require a permit for a fee. Call (906) 387-3700 or see nps.gov/piro.
St. Croix National Scenic Riverway
Distance: 336 miles
Drive time: 5 hours
Location: Northwestern Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota; Visitor Center at 401 N. Hamilton St., St. Croix Falls
Details: The St. Croix and Namekagon rivers together make up this 250-mile park, part of which forms the border between Wisconsin and Minnesota. The two rivers are popular for canoeing, kayaking, birdwatching and camping.
In its southern stretch, the St. Croix River passes between Wisconsin and Minnesota’s Interstate state parks. The parks protect the Dalles of the St. Croix, a beautiful gorge with steep basalt rock cliffs.
Interstate was Wisconsin’s first state park and is also home to the western terminus for the Ice Age Trail.
Things to do: Rent a canoe or kayak to paddle a stretch of the river. While the northern parts of the St. Croix and Namekagon offer more solitude, they also have rapids and are prone to low water levels that could leave you dragging your boat. Instead, opt for the southern stretches around Grantsburg. Wild River Outfitters offers trips ranging from a couple hours to a full week; primitive campsites line the banks of both rivers.
Hike the .4-mile Pothole Trail at Wisconsin’s Interstate State Park for views of the Dalles of the St. Croix plus a look at the trail’s namesake, holes in the rock created by swirling eddies in glacial meltwaters.
See the Dalles from the water on a tour with Taylors Falls Scenic Boat Tours out of Taylors Falls, Minn. The company offers 45- or 80-minute boat tours daily.
More information: Campsites and landings on federal land are free to use, but access to state lands, including Interstate State Park, requires a state parks admission sticker ($28/year, $8/day). For more on the riverway, call (715) 483-2274 or see nps.gov/sacn.
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
Distance: 366 miles
Drive time: 6 hours
Location: Northwest Wisconsin; Visitor Center at 415 Washington Ave., Bayfield
Details: The Apostle Islands are the closest thing Wisconsin has to a true national park, with 21 islands off the Bayfield peninsula in Lake Superior offering opportunities for boating, hiking and camping on sandy beaches and in remnant old-growth forests.
The islands are famous for their red-orange
sea caves, which turn into ice-covered caverns in the winter. In the summer, kayakers paddle through the maze of caves, tunnels and cracks in the porous sandstone.
The islands are also home to nine lighthouses and other historical sites, including the remnants of an old fishing village and a farming community.
Things to do: The islands are only accessible by boat, and Apostle Islands Cruises offers a good tour that takes visitors around many of them, including past the sea caves and lighthouse on Devils Island — one of the farthest islands from the mainland — and the Raspberry Island lighthouse, known as the “Showplace of the Apostles.” The 3-hour Grand Tour departs multiple times daily from the docks in Bayfield. Two of the cruise line’s boats are accessible on the lower decks.
For a more intimate look at the sea caves, book a kayak tour. Some of the best and most accessible caves are on the mainland. Most tours to see them depart from Meyers Beach on the west side of the peninsula for the one-mile paddle to the caves. The NPS has a list of authorized outfitters on its website.
Some of the outfitters offer overnight kayaking trips that include a night (or more) of camping on the islands. Popular trips include overnights on Sand and Oak islands.
You can also see those caves from above on the 6-mile (one way) Lakeshore Trail that departs from the Meyers Beach parking lot. It’s 1.8 miles to the first overlook of the sea caves, and the trail can be challenging at times as it dips and climbs out of ravines.
Details: Meyers Beach has a $5 per car day use fee. Call (715) 779-3397 or see nps.gov/apis.
Isle Royale National Park
Distance: 326 miles to Houghton, Michigan, then 73 miles via the Ranger III ferry or sea plane; or 372 miles to Copper Harbor, Michigan, then 55 miles via the Queen IV ferry
Travel time: 11 hours, 15 minutes via Houghton (includes 6-hour ferry); 10 hours via Copper Harbor (includes 3.5-hour ferry)
Location: Lake Superior, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
Details: One of America’s least visited national parks offers a rugged, solitary experience in the middle of Lake Superior.
The park features a 42-mile-long island surrounded by 450 smaller islands. It’s popular with backpackers and kayakers, but travelers looking for a less rustic stay can find comfort at the Rock Harbor Lodge, which has private rooms and cottages, plus two restaurants and a camp store.
While wolves have dominated headlines about Isle Royale over the past few years, thanks to NPS efforts to reintroduce them there, visitors are more likely to see the island’s other major fauna: moose. Since 1980, island’s moose population has fluctuated from 500 to 2,400, according to the NPS.
Things to do: The 3.2-mile round-trip hike from Rock Harbor to Scoville Point along the Stoll Memorial Trail provides a good taste of the park, with rocky Lake Superior views on the south side of the loop and a forested hike on the Tobin Harbor side.
Ambitious day hikers can try the 10-mile round-trip from Rock Harbor up to 938-foot Mount Franklin, along the park’s Greenstone Ridge, which offers views of the north side of the island, Lake Superior and Canada in the distance.
A popular backpacking trip is hiking the length of the island via the 41.7-mile Greenstone Ridge Trail. There are 36 campgrounds spread across the park, with nine along the Greenstone. Free permits are required.
In normal years, Rock Harbor Lodge offers sightseeing tours aboard the Sandy from Monday through Saturday, and canoe, kayak and small motor boat rentals. The Sandy is not operating this year, but the lodge is still offering water taxis and fishing charters.
More information: Entrance fees are $7 per person (age 16 and older) per day, or $60 for an annual pass that covers the pass holder and three additional adults. Federal recreation passes are also accepted. Pets are not permitted on the island. Call (906) 482-0984 or see nps.gov/isro.
Gateway Arch National Park
Distance: 372 miles
Drive time: 6 hours
Location: 11 North 4th St., St. Louis, Missouri
Details: This 91-acre park in the heart of St. Louis doesn’t have much in the way of natural features aside from some green space along the Mississippi River, but it does tell a few stories about America’s history.
Originally designated as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in 1935, the park officially became Gateway Arch National Park in 2018. It protects a trademark of the St. Louis skyline: the 630-foot stainless steel Gateway Arch that was completed along the river in 1965 as a memorial to the city’s role in the westward expansion of the U.S. in the 1800s.
The park also includes the Old Courthouse, one of the oldest standing buildings in the city, where Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet, sued for their freedom in 1847. The Scotts ultimately lost when the Supreme Court decided in 1857 that African Americans were not entitled to citizenship and struck down the Missouri Compromise.
The landmark decision would further divide the country over the issue of slavery and push it closer to the Civil War.
The Courthouse was the site of another monumental trial in the 1870s, when Virginia Minor (through her husband) unsuccessfully sued the St. Louis registrar for his refusal to allow her to register to vote.
Things to do: Ride the four-minute tram to the observation deck at the top of the Arch for views of St. Louis and the Mississippi River.
Park rangers host daily walking tours of the Arch grounds and provide information on everything from pawpaw trees and the Mississippi River to Lewis and Clark’s preparations for their 1804 Corps of Discovery Expedition.
Rangers also narrate tours aboard riverboat cruises that depart at noon and 1:30 p.m. daily in the summer from the riverfront below the Arch.
Under the Arch, the accessible Museum of the Gateway Arch has exhibits that detail America’s westward expansion from the perspective of six cultures, including the Osage and Creole, who called the area home before the Louisiana Purchase.
The Old Courthouse is currently closed for renovations.
More information: Entrance to the park grounds, visitor center and museum is free. The tram ride starts at $12 for adults and $8 for kids (ages 3-15). Reservations are recommended. Call (314) 655-1600 or see nps.gov/jeff.
Just out of range: Cuyahoga Valley National Park
This national park between Cleveland and Akron in northern Ohio is 440 miles from Milwaukee, about a seven-hour drive if you get lucky with Chicago traffic. The park jumped into the top 10 most popular national parks in 2020, as more popular parks like Yosemite closed for part of the year and people stayed closer to home for getaways.
The park protects part of the Cuyahoga River, with more than 125 miles of trails winding through forest, wetlands and old fields. Brandywine Falls is one of the park’s most popular spots, with a partially accessible overlook near the 60-foot waterfall. Also popular is the Ledges, where trails wind around and up massive sandstone cliffs to an overlook of the valley.
Find a visitor center at 6947 Riverview Road, Peninsula, Ohio. For more information, call (440) 717-3890 or see nps.gov/cuva.
Historic sites and monuments
Of the 423 units the NPS oversees, just 63 are national parks. The rest of the units protect a range of sites, including historical sites. Here are some of those sites within gas-tank distance of Milwaukee.
Pullman National Monument, Chicago, Illinois: Also known as the Pullman Historic District, this Chicago neighborhood in 2015 was designated a national monument — the first NPS unit in the city. The area was one of the first planned industrial communities in the country, built for employees of the Pullman Car Company, which made and operated sleeping cars for trains. While most of the buildings are privately owned today, you can join a ranger-led walking tour of the neighborhood, plus explore the National A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum to learn about the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the country’s first all-Black labor union recognized by the American Federation of Labor. (773) 468-9310, nps.gov/pull
Effigy Mounds National Monument, Harpers Ferry, Iowa: This park-like monument across the Mississippi River from Prairie du Chien protects more than 200 American Indian mounds that are sacred to more than 20 tribes, including Wisconsin’s Ho-Chunk Nation. The 2-mile round-trip hike from the Visitor Center to Fire Point passes 20 mounds, including conical, linear, compound and effigy mounds. (563) 873-3491, nps.gov/efmo
Herbert Hoover National Historic Site, West Branch, Iowa: This historic site in east-central Iowa protects the birthplace of the nation’s 31st president, who was born there in 1874 — the first president born west of the Mississippi. In addition to the small two-room cottage where President Hoover was born, the site includes a re-creation of his father’s blacksmith shop, his and his wife’s gravesites, and his presidential library. (319) 643-2541, nps.gov/heho
Lincoln Home National Historic Site, Springfield, Illinois: Not to be confused with Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace (Kentucky), or where he spent much of his childhood (Indiana, see below), this site protects the “the first and only home Abraham Lincoln owned.” Lincoln bought the home for his family in 1844 and lived there until they moved to Washington after he was elected president. Tours of the house, which has most of its original structure, are free. (217) 492-4241, nps.gov/liho
George Rogers Clark National Historical Park, Vincennes, Indiana: In 1779, George Rogers Clark led the Kentucky militia and French allies to capture Fort Sackville from the British, a crucial victory that, along with some of Clark’s other victories, would lead to the British ceding a large swath of land west of the Appalachians to the U.S. — including present-day Wisconsin. While the exact site of the fort is unknown, it is believed to have stood where this historical park is on the banks of the Wabash River in southern Indiana, which today has a memorial building dedicated to Clark. (812) 882-1776, nps.gov/gero
Keweenaw National Historical Park, Keweenaw Peninsula, Michigan: Copper has played a big role in the history of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, from American Indians first mining it to 7,000 years ago to large-scale mines in the 19th and e
arly 20th centuries. This park tells the story of Copper Country, with 22 sites managed by a partner agency that include everything from an old mine that is open for tours to an army fort built in 1844 to keep peace in the area. (906) 337-3168, nps.gov/kewe
River Raisin National Battlefield Park, Monroe, Michigan: This site between Detroit and Toledo, Ohio, commemorates the Battle of Frenchtown in the War of 1812 in which the Americans suffered a horrible defeat at the hands of the British, Canadian and American Indian forces. The park, which opened in 2011, is the only national battlefield park that protects a site from the War of 1812. The paved 8-mile River Raisin Heritage Trail runs through the park and connects it to other historical sites and parks in the area. (734) 243-7136, nps.gov/rira
Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, St. Louis, Missouri: This historical site honors another president, the country’s 18th, who first led the Union Army to victory in the Civil War. He met his wife, Julia Dent, at this site, her family’s home that is also known as White Haven. From 1854 to 1859, he lived here with her, her family and dozens of African-American slaves who he occasionally worked side by side with — an experience that would affect his views of slavery and civil rights. After the Civil War, Grant bought White Haven from his father-in-law and visited the estate a handful of times as president. (314) 842-1867, nps.gov/ulsg
Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial, Lincoln City, Indiana: President Abraham Lincoln spent most of his childhood — from age 7 to 21 — at this farmstead in southern Indiana. The site today includes a living historical farm created to resemble one typical to Indiana in the 1820s, with rangers dressed in period clothing performing some of the activities Lincoln’s family would have in that time. (812) 937-4541, nps.gov/libo
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Best national parks in Midwest features Indiana Dunes and Isle Royale