For Midwesterners, the hardest part about taking a summer road trip is narrowing down where to go. With an abundance of national and state forests, lakeside beach resorts and historical cities and towns that take you to another time and place, the Midwest truly offers something for everyone. So don’t let summer pass you by without going on at least one more adventure. Hop in your car, on the train or on a ferry before it’s too late! If you can, get your community in on the fun – many of these locations are as good for group trips as they are romantic getaways.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan
In 2011, Good Morning America named Sleeping Bear Dunes as “The Most Beautiful Place in America.” Six years later, National Geographic recognized one of its many beaches, Sleeping Bear Point, among the 21 best beaches in the world. And from Chicago, you can road trip there in under 5 ½ hours.
The 35-mile stretch of beach along Lake Michigan – as well as the shoreline along rivers and inland lakes – offers swimming, boating, fishing and any other type of water fun you can imagine. For the nature lover, shifting sand dunes, hiking trails and campgrounds provide a range of activities. If you want to enjoy the beauty without giving up your creature comforts, choose from a variety of lodging at The Homestead. It boasts a par 3 golf course, tennis courts, restaurants and shopping.
In just a little over 3 hours from Chicago or Minneapolis and less than 8 hours from Kansas City, you can road trip to the self-proclaimed water park capital. Indoor waterparks abound, but there are also plenty of outdoor attractions – yes, including waterparks. From go-karts, ropes courses and zip lining to horseback riding, golfing and fishing, Wisconsin Dells won’t leave any time for boredom.
Enjoy fine dining, nightlife and live entertainment, as well as the local wineries and breweries Looking for some evening entertainment with the kids? How about an outdoor movie at the Big Sky Twin Drive-In Theater? You’ll find all kinds of lodging, including campsites, cabins, motels, hotels, bed and breakfasts, resorts and short-term home rentals.
Quad Cities, Iowa and Illinois
A bit of a misnomer, the Quad Cities are actually a set of 5, not 4, cities along the Mississippi River: Rock Island, Moline and East Moline in Illinois, and Davenport, Le Claire and the later addition of Bettendorf in Iowa. The Quad Cities region is a relatively easy drive from many Midwestern locations. You can get there in under 6 hours from Minneapolis and Kansas City and only 3 hours from Chicago, a short road trip if ever there was one!
Not surprisingly, river activities are plentiful here, including dining and overnight riverboat excursions, and hiking and biking along the many riverfront trails. One of the most popular paths is the Great River Trail, which starts in Rock Island’s Sunset Park and meanders north for 66 miles ending in Savanna, Illinois. Or take a water taxi to travel across the Mississippi to several landings throughout the Quad Cities region. And what’s a trip here without a stop at one of the John Deere attractions? Check out the Deere and Company World Headquarters or the John Deere Pavilion in Moline, the John Deere Tractor and Engine Museum in Waterloo or the John Deere Historic Site in Grand Detour.
Summer festivals abound in the area as well. Don’t miss the Great Mississippi Valley Fair and the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival, both held in Davenport during the first week of August. For something completely different, how about attending the annual Tug Fest, a tug of war between rivals from Le Claire, Iowa, and Port Byron, Illinois, across the Mississippi River? The weekend includes fireworks and a variety of entertainment. August is also the time for Rock Island’s Caribbean celebration, Ya Maka My Weekend, and Floatzilla, where river rafters in canoes and kayaks attempt to break the world record of largest flotilla.
Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri
Only a 2 ½-hour drive from Kansas City (7 hours from Chicago and 8 hours from Minneapolis – totally road trip doable!), Lake of the Ozarks is a renown lake resort located in the heart of Missouri. Another award winner, it’s been named “Best Recreational Lake in the Nation” by readers of USA Today. Incredibly, the lake itself has more than 1,150 miles of shoreline, so you can find virtually any kind of lake activity you could want. Charter a fishing boat, ride the water taxi, go parasailing or test your skills on a paddleboard.
One of the lake’s claim-to-fame events is the Lake of the Ozarks Shootout, an unsanctioned boat race (the largest in the U.S.). Powerboat Magazine named this event a must see. Proceeds from the Shootout go to numerous charities, including 8 local rescue teams.
Off the water, head underground to get up close to stalactites and stalagmites at Stark Caverns in Eldon or Bridal Cave in Camdenton. Learn the area’s history at one of the local museums or take the kids to one of the two waterparks. The Jetz Trampoline Park in Osage Beach is the only one of its kind at the lake, with a slew of fun activities besides the obvious. If golfing is your passion, you’ll be happy to know that Lake of the Ozarks has 16 courses and is known as the premier golfing destination in the Midwest.
Mackinac Island, Michigan
Located about 7 hours from Chicago (including the 30-minute ferry ride), Mackinac Island has earned its reputation as one of the top 10 islands in the world (Conde Nast Traveler). A vehicle-free oasis, horses and bicycles are the norm here. Get to know your surroundings by taking a horse-drawn carriage tour when you arrive. Then enjoy the peacefulness by taking in the vistas, or get out your dancing shoes for some nighttime excitement.
Although the island offers a choice of restaurants, when it comes to food, fudge rules here. Mackinac even makes a celebration of its love for fudge by hosting its annual Mackinac Fudge Festival in late August. Events include “Dining Under the Influence of Fudge” and “Fudge on the Rocks” – you get the idea. August is also the time to enjoy the Mackinac Island Horse Show, the National Hickory Stick Classic Golf Tournament and the Mac to Mac Sailboat Regatta. Labor Day weekend, there’s more sailing (of course!), a jazz series featuring well-known artists and the Annual Bridge Walk.
There’s no reason to stay home with all that the Midwest has to offer. So get off your couch, out of your air conditioning and head out on an end of summer road trip!