Though the striking amber waves of grain and gently rolling hills of the Midwest might not immediately seem like a hiker’s paradise, the heartland actually offers tons of epic trails for any skill level. Think: stunning national park vistas, scenic river valleys, craggy coastlines, and so much more. Hiking is the prime way to uncover the surprisingly versatile natural landscapes found in this often overlooked region, whose sparsely populated states are made even more attractive for those looking to trade the bustle of everyday life in for a dose of natural serenity. Whether you grew up annually visiting the pristine glacial lakes of Minnesota, attended the College World Series in Omaha just once, or have never set foot in middle America, here are the eight trails that showcase the best hiking in the Midwest.
Rock Bluff Run Trail, Indian Cave State Park, Nebraska
Covering over 3,000 acres of Nebraska, Indian Cave State Park provides optimal hiking opportunities. Twenty-two miles of hiking trails intersect across the park, but the Rock Bluff Run Trail is a steep and challenging six-mile loop that showcases the best of this protected area. Indian Cave State Park is especially ideal for an October visit, as its northern reaches contain the remains of St. Derion, a well-known ghost town that was abandoned when the Missouri River changed course. Plus, the hardwood forest shows off in the fall, especially on the beautiful bluffs offering sweeping views of the river. Camping sites are also available, and explorers shouldn't miss the namesake large sandstone cave, complete with wooden boardwalks for easy access.
Ice Age National Scenic Trail, Monches Segment, Wisconsin
One of only 11 U.S. National Scenic Trails, the Ice Age Trail winds through Wisconsin for roughly 1,200 miles, offering a view of the unique landscape forged from glacial movements. The eastern terminus of the trail is in pretty Potawatomi State Park in Door County, while the western terminus is in Interstate Park in St. Croix Falls, which offers views of the stunning St. Croix River, itself a National Scenic Riverway. At this time, roughly 500 miles of the trail are complete, with an additional 600 or so in the works.
For an easy way to experience the majesty of the Ice Age Trail, especially in the fall while foliage flourishes, check out the Monches Segment near Hartland, a suburb of Milwaukee. This 3.1-mile, one-way hike hugs the course of the Oconomowoc River as it slices through sprawling hardwood forest. Enjoy all the Northwoods has to offer, with mighty oaks, dancing aspens, and clear, bubbling brooks. In this section, a great mix of hills and flats, part of the trail is a wooden boardwalk and some is a traditional dirt mix. Additionally, parking is offered at both ends of the Monches Segment for hikers’ convenience.
The Superior Hiking Trail, Superior National Forest, Minnesota
Considered the crown jewel of Minnesota’s impressive trail collection, this 310-mile footpath offers an epic way to explore the state’s North Shore as it overlooks sprawling Lake Superior. Ensconced within the Arrowhead region in the northeast portion of Minnesota, the trail boasts nearly 100 free backpacking campsites, roughly every five to eight miles, for those who want an overnight adventure in the wilds of northern Minnesota. The Superior Hiking Trail also provides access to Tettegouche State Park; stop there, at the memorable Shovel Point overlook, to visit the highest waterfall completely in Minnesota and marvel at the state’s own mountain range, the Sawtooth Mountains. There are numerous other protected state park areas worth exploring along this route as well, such as Gooseberry Falls State Park, considered the gateway to the region, and the iconic beacon of the North Shore, Split Rock Lighthouse State Park.
Chapel Loop Trail, Pictured Rocks National Seashore, Michigan
With 100 miles of hiking trails, the Upper Peninsula’s Pictured Rocks National Seashore on Lake Superior is a must-visit Midwest destination. Known for its colorful sandstone cliffs, which are stunningly streaked from mineral staining, the best views can be captured from the 10-mile Chapel Loop. Chapel Falls, the famed Chapel Rock formation, Mosquito Falls, and Grand Portal Point are all on this segment. Don’t miss the lone white pine on Chapel Rock, which is an estimated 250 years old. Visitors should also pay specific attention to the section of the loop between Chapel Beach and Mosquito Beach, as it’s the only trail that provides views of the cliffs from land.
North Country Trail, Chippewa National Forest, Minnesota
The North Country Trail is the longest in the National Trails system, stretching across 4,600 miles and through eight states, from North Dakota to Vermont. The Minnesota segment is roughly 800 miles long, and threads its way around the state’s famous 10,000+ lakes and protected forests. Channel your inner Paul Bunyan and tackle this middle portion of the route, which is just less than 200 miles and can offer scenic views and wildlife encounters in all four seasons. Hikers can expect to see loons, black bears, bald eagles, whitetail deer, and moose. This section also offers urban hiking, as it traverses cities such as Walker, Park Rapids, and Cohasset. If time allows, be sure to stop in Itasca State Park to see the headwaters of the Mighty Mississippi.
The Cathedral Spires Trail, Custer State Park, South Dakota
Widely considered as the most beautiful part of the already insanely scenic Black Hills, Custer State Park is a perfect Midwest hiking destination. Specifically, the short-but-sweet Cathedral Spires Trail leads to, well, the Cathedral Spires, which locals call “The Needles.” (You may have heard of the famous winding highway of the same name). The Needles themselves are massive rock formations that are strikingly juxtaposed against the bright blue sky and prairie beyond. The 1.5 miles of trailway offers views into the town of Custer and ends at the base of the spires themselves. The route is a particularly popular access point for rock climbers. Though it’s a short hike that starts off simply, changing rocky terrain can complicate the journey. For those who want to push on further, the trail intersects with the route to Black Elk Peak, the highest point in South Dakota.
Kettles Trail and Empire Bluff Trail, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan
The Kettles Trail, which enjoyed its ribbon cutting in 2018, is the newest trail in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which celebrated its 50th season in 2020. The three-mile trail is in a lesser-known area of the park that offers unique glacial topography, including kettle bogs and lakes. The first section leading to an observation deck is ADA-accessible. And visitors can also enjoy the trail on cross-country skis during the winter. Pro tip: if you’re in a rush but want a quick way to enjoy stunning seashore and sandy dune views, hike the 1.5-mile round-trip Empire Bluff Trail; the trailhead is just past Empire, Michigan and features towering dunes that hug Lake Michigan’s azure waters.
Paint Creek Unit Loop, Yellow River State Forest, Iowa
The Yellow River State Forest, nestled on the east side of the Hawkeye State, is a treat for Midwest hikers, especially with the unexpected 1,654-foot elevation gain of the Paint Creek Unit Loop. The 13.5-mile trail is lodged in the bluffy gem of Yellow River State Forest, complete with beautifully changing leaves in the fall and abundant wildflowers in the spring, which is perfect as best conditions are generally between April and October. Seven trailheads offer ample ways to access the moderate-level hike, which also boasts a handful of free campgrounds. Additionally, this trail is just north of Effigy Mounds National Monument, a worthwhile detour on the shores of the Mississippi River.