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Driving along Route 66, up and down the Pacific Coast Highway, or on the Road to Hana may be some of the most popular road trip itineraries in the USA, but they aren’t the only great road trip ideas. Here are some of our favorite destinations for an epic Midwest road trip.
Our State-by-State Guide to Rock Your Midwest Road Trip
Having lived in the Midwest my entire life, it’s sometimes entertaining to hear what other people think about the region. Heck, I get it. I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, and thought for much of my young life that the rest of the state was made up of teeny towns with unpaved dirt roads.
A Midwest road trip can offer things you won’t find anywhere else — from friendly big cities to unique natural wonders you can only find in the middle of America.
Here are some of our favorite places to travel in the heartland of America, from Ohio to South Dakota with lots of great family friendly attractions in between.
Read More: Awesome Road Trip Ideas Across the USA
Midwest Road Trip: Illinois Destinations
Any Midwest road trip would be incomplete without a trip to the Windy City, with its countless ways to spend your time. Here three are of our favorites:
Visit the Bean. The shining star of Chicago’s Millennium Park, snapping a selfie in the reflective surface of the giant sculpture is a Chicago must-do.
Go shopping. The big draw is the world famous “Magnificent Mile,” Michigan Avenue’s shopping strip. Don’t forget to stop at the American Girl Store. Even if you don’t have a daughter, the huge, luxurious store is an experience.
Enjoy the lake. Spend some time strolling along Oak Street Beach, with the magnificent Lake Michigan on one side and some of Chicago’s priciest real estate on the other. Or take a boat ride that leaves from the family-friendly Navy Pier. For a deep understanding of Chicago’s place as an architectural mecca, take the Chicago Architecture Foundation boat tour on the Chicago River. Kids love seeing the city from the river — and seeing the underside of the bridges over the river.
LEGOLAND Discovery Center, Schaumburg, Illinois
In Schaumburg, Illinois, a northwest suburb of Chicago, find one of the country’s LEGOLAND Discovery Centers. It’s not a full-fledged theme park like the LEGOLAND parks in Florida or California, but it is a super fun way to spend the day. We had fun building, racing LEGO cars, seeing how LEGO bricks are made, and even riding a handful of great indoor attractions. Schaumburg also is home to Illinois’ largest shopping mall.
Oak Park, Illinois
Best known as the home of Frank Lloyd Wright, Oak Park is the first suburb west of Chicago and easy to get to via the Green Line on Chicago’s famous elevated train system. (It seems like just about every movie filmed in Chicago has at least one scene that takes place beneath the L tracks!) Stop at the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, then take the walking tour of the Wright-designed homes in the surrounding neighborhood.
Great River Road Scenic Byway
More than 2,000 miles long, the Great River Road Scenic Byway runs along the Mississippi River past 10 states and hundreds of historic river towns. That includes 33 miles from Hartford to Grafton, Illinois, where the road is known as the Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway. This drive is particularly beautiful in the fall when the trees turn vibrant shades of red, orange and yellow.
Starved Rock State Park
This lovely state park is about 90 minutes west of Chicago. It’s a mecca for hikers and nature lovers. Trails wind along the gorgeous steep sandstone cliffs that line the Illinois River. During the spring and early summer, it’s easy to find waterfalls along the hiking trails. You can camp there or spring for a stay at the Starved Rock Lodge.
Midwest Road Trip: Indiana Destinations
Indiana Dunes National Park
The stunning sand dunes that line the southern tip of Lake Michigan were designated the USA’s 61st national park in February 2019. Indiana Dunes has 15 miles of stunning beaches and huge dunes to climb. The sand dunes and beautiful blue water look like something you’d see on the east coast – not in the middle of the Midwest. When you’re done playing on the beach, swimming, and going horseback riding, there are lots of craft breweries and local restaurants nearby.
This Midwest town is one of our favorites. It’s small enough to feel manageable, even to people who aren’t used to urban hustle and bustle, but big enough to offer plenty of fun. Start at Indianapolis’ White River State Park. Located right in the center of the city, it’s home to the Indianapolis Zoo, a minor league baseball stadium, the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, the Indiana State Museum and the NCAA Headquarters and Hall of Champions, with lots of fun hands-on play for tweens and teens. Indianapolis is also home our fave kids’ museum, the Indianapolis Children’s Museum, one of the world’s biggest and best. The city neighborhoods are connected via biking trails that wind through its cultural districts.
TravelingMom Tip: If you have a membership to a local museum or zoo, check to see whether it is a member of a reciprocity group before you head off on your family vacation. It could mean free entrance to museums and zoos during your trip as well! There are groups for science museums, zoos and cultural institutions.
Santa Claus, Indiana / Holiday World
It’s Christmastime year-round in Santa Claus, Indiana. Write a letter to Santa at the post office, or spend the day at the super family friendly theme park, Holiday World. Who doesn’t love an entire theme park themed to Christmas?
Midwest Road Trip: Iowa Destinations
The Quad Cities include Bettendorf and Davenport in Iowa and Moline and Rock Island in Illinois. Rent a bike and ride the path along the Mississippi River. Tractor-loving kids will require a visit to the free John Deer Pavilion in Moline. The Putnam Science Museum in Davenport is also a must-do. The whole family will demand home-made ice cream from Lagomarcino’s. Choose to stop at the downtown location, open since 1908.
The Corn Palace
This kitschy stop is in Mitchell and it’s a must-do if you’re traveling I-90 across Iowa. It’s been operating since 1892 and is exactly what it sounds like: a reason to get people to pull off the highway and visit Mitchell. Every year, artists decorate the outside of the building with 325,000 ears of corn. A visit is free, but bring your wallet. The kids will want to buy some of the corn-y souvenirs and treats.
Midwest Road Trip: Kansas Destinations
Kansas City, Kansas
The College Basketball Experience in Kansas City is a slam dunk for families. But our favorite thing to do in KC is the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures where it’s virtually guaranteed you’ll hear someone say, “Oh, I used to have that toy!”
Midwest Road Trip: Michigan Destinations
Whether you’re visiting gorgeous beach towns on Lake Huron or spending the winter with sled dogs in Traverse City, there are so many delightful towns to visit in both the lower and upper peninsulas. The state also offers a few unique destinations for your Midwest road trip.
If you haven’t been to Detroit lately, you haven’t been to Detroit. It is a city on the rise. Plan to spend a day at the beautiful Belle Isle Park, home to one of the oldest aquariums in North America. It’s small and free and well worth a look to show the kids how aquariums have changed over the years. The Detroit Historical Society, a small but exceedingly well done museum, showcases the history of the town the automakers built. The Detroit Art Institute across the street is a world-class museum with impressive special events. And don’t miss a chance to eat a burger and fries at Hop Cat!
Holland, Michigan may be the closest thing you can get to the Netherlands, without traveling to Europe. A large, authentic Dutch windmill is perhaps the highlight of a visit to Holland; there are also Dutch restaurants, architecture tours, and even wooden shoe carving shows. If you visit in May, you’ll be treated to the Tulip Time Festival, too!
Mackinac Island, Michigan
This no-cars-allowed island between Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas might be the epitome of relaxation. Mackinac Island is also home to the United States’ second-ever National Park. Mackinac Island National Park is 70 acres of forests, incredible rock formations, wildlife, and beautiful water features, as well as historical and cultural landmarks. Before you go, practice saying the name. It’s pronounced Mack-i-naw even though it’s spelled Mackinac.
Midwest Road Trip: Minnesota Destinations
Duluth, like many of the Great Lakes towns on this list, offers lots of outdoor activities for families. It is also home to Great Lakes Aquarium, the only freshwater aquarium in the US. And, yes, it’s even fun to visit Duluth in winter.
Home to the Mall of America (which may be reason enough to visit), Minneapolis and its sister city, St. Paul, have so much to offer visitors. Explore the largest mall in the US, or enjoy a number of theater performances. Hike to Minnehaha Falls or explore miles of nature trails along the Mississippi River. Check out some of the fun free things to do in the Twin Cities!
Midwest Road Trip: Ohio Destinations
Like the other large cities on this list, Cincinnati offers far too many attractions to really cover here. World-class museums, one of the best zoos in the country (you can even camp with the giraffes!), several professional sports teams, and a vast history are only a handful of the reasons to visit the Queen City.
The most famous attraction in Cleveland, Ohio is probably the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Even my kids, who didn’t know half of the artists, found plenty of interesting things to see and do. Don’t miss a stop at the fun hands-on Great Lakes Science Center next door. Save a few bucks by buying the combo ticket admission to both the hall of fame and science center. While you’re in Cleveland, you should also check out the beautifully revitalized Little Italy neighborhood or catch a Cavaliers game.
Hocking Hills, Ohio
Travel less than an hour from Columbus, Ohio’s capital city, and you’ll find yourself at the beginning of Appalachia. Hocking Hills State Park has some of the area’s best hiking for families. For adventure seekers, there’s zip lining and rafting. We’ve taken young kids there on paved trails and spent time on more difficult hikes with older kids and adults. The area is also home to caverns, waterfalls, lakes for boating and water sports, and cultural and historic attractions.
Sandusky/Lake Erie Shore, Ohio
Sandusky, Ohio, is home to Cedar Point, which bills itself at the Roller Coaster Capital of the World. We agree. It’s where we took our kids to teach them to love roller coasters! Start with the smaller, tamer coasters and work your way up the Top Thrill Dragster — a steel coaster that reaches speeds of 120 mph as it shoots you straight up, then crawls over the top to wind straight back down, all in 17 seconds.
There are also four indoor waterpark resorts and beautiful beaches along Lake Erie. From Sandusky, take a ferry to Kelleys Island or South Bass Island’s Put-in-Bay. On these Lake Erie islands, take a cave tour, go fishing, or climb the Marblehead Lighthouse for spectacular views.
Warren County, Ohio
You can also take a scenic train ride to Lebanon, the county seat of Warren County – “Ohio’s Largest Playground.” Here you’ll find a charming downtown area with some of the country’s best antiques shopping. You can even dine – or stay overnight – at the Historic Golden Lamb Inn & Restaurant. Opened in 1803, the Golden Lamb has hosted 12 US presidents and dozens of other US and world dignitaries.
Midwest Road Trip: Missouri Destinations
Branson, Missouri, is a fun and affordable vacation destination with beautiful lakes and mountains as well as fun shows and theme parks. Silver Dollar City is a family-friendly park themed to an old mining town. Choose from more than 40 rides and live entertainment.
Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri
“The Strip” at Lake of the Ozarks offers your typical tourist fare: gift shops, arts and crafts, fudge and candy factories, and the like. But it’s the beautiful lake (with more than 50 marinas), a collection of golf courses, horseback trails, boat tours through caverns, and tours of mansions (both current and historic) that will keep you busy for as long as you want to stay.
St. Louis, Missouri
St. Louis is one of our favorite getaway spots. Less than 6 hours from Cincinnati, Chicago, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Des Moines, Milwaukee, Louisville, Nashville, Tulsa, and Memphis, it may be the most centrally located destination on this list. You’ll want to visit the Gateway Arch, of course, but plan to spend some time at Forest Park. It’s larger than New York’s Central Park and home to a free zoo and a number of free museums. There’s also the Anheuser-Busch Brewery and Grant’s Farm, and the eclectic, one-of-a-kind City Museum. There’s a really fun and trendy waterfront area (Laclede’s Landing), plus a brand new aquarium and lots of stuff for sports lovers, including taking in a Cardinals game at Busch Stadium.
Midwest Road Trip: Nebraska Destinations
Omaha as a must-do for foodies. It is one of the nicest, cleanest, and most hospitable places – especially in the spring when the weather is perfect.
Midwest Road Trip: South Dakota Destinations
Driving through South Dakota is THE iconic Midwest road trip. Start with a stop in Wall, South Dakota, to gawk at the incredibly touristy Wall Drug, wind through the breathtaking Badlands National Park, see Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills, pay your respects to Crazy Horse, then watch the buffalo roam at Custer State Park. Consider staying in Rapid City. It’s centrally located to all of the South Dakota attractions.
Badlands National Park
Take the Badlands Loop Road (Highway 240) and stop often to ogle the Instagrammable rock formations, steep canyons and towering spires of Badlands National Park. Watch for bison, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs and other protected wildlife.
Look up President Washington’s nose (really!) as you hike around Mount Rushmore. That’s the national park where the busts of four presidents — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln — are carved into the side of the Black Hills Mountains. It draws more than 3 million visitors every year.
Custer State Park
You can hike, fish and be wowed by Needles Highway here. But the biggest reason to visit Custer State Park is the chance to stop the car and watch the herd of 1,300 grazing buffalo on the Wildlife Loop.
Crazy Horse Monument
Unlike the other South Dakota attractions, Crazy Horse is a private endeavor run by a nonprofit. The project was started by Korczak Ziolkowski in 1948. It’s still far from finished.
Midwest Road Trip: Wisconsin Destinations
Madison is the capital of Wisconsin and it’s a rockin’ college town. Take the free tour of the beautiful capital building, then walk across the street to browse through the (also free) Wisconsin Veterans Museum. On Saturdays from April to November, the capital is circled with a huge farmers’ market selling everything from veggies to the must-try Wisconsin cheese curds. (You know they’re fresh if they squeak when you bite in to them.)
Milwaukee, Wisconsin combines a beautiful beach on Lake Michigan with the hustle and bustle of an urban center. Visit the world-class Milwaukee Art Museum and take the little ones across the street to the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum. Motorcycle fans can visit the Harley-Davidson Museum, and visitors can take part in several festivals throughout the year – including Summerfest, one of the world’s largest music festivals.
Elhart Lake, Wisconsin
About an hour north of Milwaukee, Elkhart Lake is a lovely, serene spot. Several hotels nestle along the shores of the lake, where the calm water tends to be much warmer than Lake Michigan. We love the beautiful Osthoff Resort. Race fans will want to plan a visit to Race America to watch a race or take a track driving course.
Green Bay, Wisconsin
Green Bay is best known as the home of the powerhouse Green Bay Packers football team, which is celebrated at the new Titletown complex. But Green Bay also is the gateway to Door County. Known as the Cape Cod of the Midwest, Door County is famous for its small towns along the bay and its fish boils.
Wisconsin Dells calls itself the “water park capital of the world.” While we love the giant indoor Kalahari Waterpark any time and the giant outdoor Noah’s Ark waterpark in the summertime, there’s much more to do there than just water slides. Much like a visit to Branson, Missouri, or Gatlinburg, Tennessee, you’ll find a plethora of go-kart tracks, live dinner shows and boat tours. Don’t miss a ride on the famous Duck Boats! Away from the hustle and bustle of those tourist destinations though, you’ll also find plenty of water sports and hiking in the Dells’ three nearby state parks.
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So whether you live in the Midwest and are looking for quick and easy (and perhaps off-the-beaten-path) destinations, or are traveling to come and visit us here, be sure to check out these TravelingMom approved destinations as you plan your Midwest road trip.