Often called the heartland of America, the Midwest is famous for its unpredictable and harsh weather conditions – with balmy breezes one moment and frigid blizzards the next. But the one thing visitors and locals can agree on is being enamoured with the region’s natural beauty; whether it be the rolling farmland fields or acres of state parks filled with wildlife. We’ve found some of the best destinations for your next adventure in the wild Midwest, according to global travellers.*
Ozark Mountains, Branson, Missouri
Gaze at the autumn forest foliage that turns a riot of colours
Branson is a small city in southwest Missouri that’s a favourite holiday destination for American families, attracting millions of visitors each year. The city has much to offer on the entertainment front – live country, bluegrass and roots music, theatre productions and more – but it’s the close proximity to the Ozark Mountains (also known as Ozark Plateau) that most people come to see. Take a 20-minute drive down winding roads lined with pine and oak trees to the mountain range, which is one of the oldest in the world. In the autumn, the forest foliage here turns a riot of vivid reds, burnt-oranges, golds and browns, which contrast against the grey, rocky cliffs that reach close to 600 metres-tall. You may even spot wild deer, elk, buffalo or bears drinking from the freshwater lakes that wind through the forest. Come home to Cliffs Resort Table Rock Lake and continue to enjoy the view of the Ozark Mountains from the resort’s infinity pool.
Headlands International Dark Sky Park, Mackinaw City, Michigan
With no lights in a 16km radius the Headlands International Dark Sky Park is perfect for stargazing
Mackinaw City is a village on the northern tip of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, just a 10-minute drive away from Headlands International Dark Sky Park. This park consists of woodland that runs along the shoreline of Lake Michigan and is home to wildlife such as bald eagles, osprey, white-tail deer, coyotes and black bears – but don’t worry, it’s very rare to encounter a bear here. Although it’s a beautiful place to hike by day, people mostly visit in the evenings for stargazing. As the moon sinks into the horizon, the real show begins; the darkness of night covers the forest, setting the stage for the shining stars. There are no city lights for a 16km radius and visitors are asked not to use white lights (you can use a red light flashlight) so as not to ruin the sky views. Nature photography enthusiasts should get there an hour before sunset to find the best position. Once you’ve got the perfect shot, head home to Baymont by Wyndham Mackinaw City.
Custer State Park, Custer, South Dakota
Custer State Park is known for its natural beauty and herds of bison
For those wanting to spend their days exploring South Dakota’s first and largest state park – and one of the world's top wildlife destinations – head to Custer State Park. Located in the small city of Custer, it attracts flocks of nature and history-lovers each year. The park is known for its undulating, verdant valley and herd of bison. You’ll also find other animals including bighorn sheep, pronghorn, mountain goats and elk. You can choose to follow the park’s trails on foot, horseback or by bike but keep an eye out for prairie rattlesnakes, ticks and poison ivy, which could really put a dampener on your adventure. After a long day in the wilderness, come home to the comforts of Chief Motel.
Starved Rock State Park, Chicago, Illinois
Explore the 14 canyons in the Starved Rock State Park
Chicago is an ideal location for a natural beauty adventure, being just a 30-minute drive away from the monumental canyons of Starved Rock State. The park is home to over 14 canyons where water cascades down its sandstone rocks during spring and summer. In winter, this rapid water flow freezes to become a series of spectacular ice sculptures. Spring is an ideal time to visit; the landscape is peppered with delicate wildflowers blooming under the warmth of the sun. And it’s also a great time to see a white-tailed fawn deer cautiously nibbling on fresh grass. Or black striped raccoons trotting through the meadows. Stay at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place before making your way out the state park.
Jay Cooke State Park, Duluth, Minnesota
Watch the St. Louis River gush through the gorge in Jay Cooke State Park
Located just a 20-minute drive southwest of the small port city of Duluth, the pristine Jay Cooke State Park’s terrain is varied but beautiful, with pretty log cabins built between rugged rocks. Hike along the clearly marked and well-maintained trails, peddle the Munger bike trail (which is paved and runs the entire length of the park) or walk across the park’s swinging bridge – with the forceful St. Louis River gushing through the gorge underneath. From afar, the gorge is framed by birch and pine trees and the silhouette of the bridge, and makes for a picture perfect sunset. You can camp at the park or stay at the Comfort Suites Canal Park.
* The data scientists at Booking.com looked at the highest-rated destinations in the Midwest states (each having a minimum of 100 endorsements) for ‘nature’.