Last Updated on June 15, 2023
Since living in the Midwest USA, I’ve discovered the joy of state parks. Think of National Parks (such as the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone etc) only on a much smaller scale and several free to enter! Some may have a lakefront, a campground, walking trails or just simply be a woodland area that offers a means to escape and find some people. I’ve come across some state parks though that have had something a little extra about them, making them a little more unique compared to some of the others! So in this post I share the best state parks in the Midwest that are perfect for adventurous travellers!
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Best State Parks in the Midwest
The state DNR (Department of Natural Resources) are in charge of maintaining the state parks and their websites will have handy information about visiting and any current park closures etc.
ILLINOIS: Matthiessen State Park
INDIANA: Indiana Dunes State Park
IOWA: Maquoketa Caves State Park | McIntosh Woods State Park | George Wyth State Park | Pikes Peak State Park
MICHIGAN: Silver Lake State Park
WISCONSIN: Devil’s Lake State Park
Illinois State Parks
Matthiessen State Park
🗺2500 Illinois Route 178, Oglesby, IL 61348 (North/Central Illinois)
🚾Park facilities: Restrooms
🥾Adventure: Stepping stone hikes and walking behind waterfalls!
For ages I debated between Matthiessen State Park vs Starved Rock State Park and what one should I visit. I ended up opting for Matthiessen State Park because it looked more adventurous than Starved Rock, and although I didn’t have time to visit both, I’m definitely happy with the decision I made!
They are both located just off the I-80 so they are very accessible. There are 2 main Matthiessen State Park trails, the upper dells and the lower dells and for me, what made them fun, were the stepping stone type sections of the trails!
Some stepping stones were quite large, others were just tiny little rocks barely big enough to put your foot on! My Mum slipped off one and received a shoe full of water, I didn’t even bother with shoes and just walked through the stream barefoot (disclosure: do this at your own risk as rocks can be sharp etc etc, water shoes/sandals may be a better option).
Again, I trust you to make your own judgement, but I found it fun to walk behind ‘Cascade Falls’ in the lower dells canyon! Part of me was still annoyed that it was too icy to walk behind one of the waterfalls in Iceland so I was determined not to miss out again! There are also a couple of caves near the falls that are fun to wander in.
Indiana State Parks
Indiana Dunes State Park
🗺1600 N 25 E, Chesterton, IN 46304 (Northern Indiana)
🚾Park facilities: Restrooms, concessions, pavilion, visitor center, campground
🚶🏻♀️Adventure: ‘3 Dunes Challenge’
I don’t know about you, but I can’t resist anything with the word ‘challenge’ in! The 3 Dune Challenge is one of the hiking trails in Indiana Dunes National Park BUT it goes up and over the 3 tallest dunes in the park. If you’ve ever tried walking up a sand dune, you’ll know it’s very much 1 step forward, 2 steps back, the trail may be 1.5 miles long, but if you factor in the ‘sliding back’, you could end up walking twice as far!
Silver Lake State Park doesn’t have any set hiking trails, which makes Indiana Dunes a little different from the type of sand dunes you’ll find there. At the end of the hike, if you stop in the visitor centre, you can pick up a free sticker and postcard which says you completed the challenge!
Indiana Dunes State Park is part of the Indiana Dunes National Lakefront, which has now been given National Park status! (The State Park section is still run by the state of Indiana.) There’s a large beach and parking area. In peak season (April to October) there’s a $12 parking fee for ‘out of state’ vehicles visiting Indiana Dunes State Park.
Iowa State Parks
Maquoketa Caves State Park
🗺10970 98th St, Maquoketa, IA 52060 (East Iowa)
🚾Park Facilities: Restrooms, drinking water fountain, campground
Maquoketa Caves State Park has 6 miles of hiking trails with 16 caves! The caves were first discovered in the 1830s. There are some that you literally just crawl into and have a look in the open space, but then there are others that actually have walking trails right through them! Dance Hall cave is the largest and even goes under the main road.
The main trails are fairly ‘claustrophobia’ friendly (my Dad gets claustrophobic and he was fine). It’s also possible to skip them completely or just peak in and turn around. I’d recommend taking a torch/flashlight if you want to explore some of the smaller caves, the large ones do have some built in lighting!
The caves are free to visit and there is a parking lot and a small toilet block. RV electric pitches and tent pitches are available for a fee. While you’re in the area, Bluff Lake is a great restaurant with ‘all you can eat’ specials Friday to Sunday.
Related reading: 3 Awesome Caves In Iowa That You Should Explore!
McIntosh Woods State Park
🗺1200 E Lake St, Ventura, IA 50482 (North Iowa)
🚾Park facilities: Campground, glamping yurts, restrooms, picnic benches
⛺️Adventure: Glamping in a yurt!
For anyone that doesn’t have a camper or doesn’t quite want to rough it in a tent, a stay in one of the yurts in McIntosh Woods State Park is an absolute BARGAIN. They are only $60 a night and can sleep up to 4 people (1 bunk bed and 1 fold out double sofa bed – take your own bedding and pillows). For those that may not know what a yurt is, it’s a circular ‘solid’ tent like structure that’s used as a transportable home by nomadic people in countries such as Mongolia.
Don’t worry though, they have electricity (2 power outlets, a ceiling fan and a light) and the toilet and shower block is just a short walk away. If you plan on cooking, there is a grill outside, but bear in mind there is no fridge to keep food cold, or cooking utensils. Otherwise the town of Clear Lake, is just a short drive away though and they have plenty of restaurants to choose from (this is what I did).
There are only 2 yurts in McIntosh Woods State Park and they are separate from the rest of the campground, making it a very peaceful area. My favourite part was the deck/jetty area that led down to the lakefront. These do book up quite far in advance, especially at the weekends, so make sure you make a reservation early to avoid disappointment!
George Wyth State Park
🗺3659 Wyth Rd, Waterloo, IA 50703 (East Iowa)
🚾Park facilities: Restrooms, beach, picnic benches, concessions, lake rentals
🧘🏻♀️Adventure: Stand Up Paddle Board Yoga
If regular yoga isn’t adventurous enough for you, how about trying it on a stand up paddle board?! Sandwiched between Cedar Falls and Waterloo is George Wyth State Park. After paddling to a quiet section of George Wyth Lake, you then take part in an hour long yoga session on the boards. Surprisingly it’s not as hard as I expected it to be!
Each board has its own anchor, there is a little bit of movement but not to the point where you’re going to be floating away uncontrollably! I thought my balance was bad but the only time I fell in was when I purposely ‘rolled’ into the water from a pose I was perfectly stable in! Of course there were a few wobbles but nothing that I was unable to correct.
Maxx Rentals also have kayaks, peddle boats, float mats and tubes available, as well as snacks and drinks. There’s also a small beach and swimming area.
Pikes Peak State Park
🗺32264 Pikes Peak Rd, McGregor, IA 52157, United States (East Iowa)
🚾Park facilities: Restrooms, campground, picnic benches
🚶🏻♀️Adventure: Hiking and viewpoints!
I love heights, so I tend to be drawn to things that offer viewpoints from high up! Pikes Peak State Park does not disappoint! Close to the car park is an observation platform 500ft up on top of a bluff, overlooking the point where the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers meet. You can see for miles!
There are several trails in the park, the Bridal Veil Falls is a nice short hike, however it does include mainly stairs. Pikes Peak State Park has a campground with both electric and non electric pitches, alternatively Spooks Cave & Campground is nearby, which is a fun stop!
Michigan State Parks
Silver Lake State Park
🗺8890 W Shore Dr, Mears, MI 49436 (West Michigan)
🚾Park facilities: restrooms
🏂Adventure: Off-Roading and Sand Boarding
Silver Lake State Park is definitely one of the most adventurous state parks in the Midwest! The park consists of sand dunes…lots and lots of sand. As you’ll see from my next suggestion, there are often 2 type of dunes, pure sand or dunes that are more like sandy soil which will have grass and trees growing through the sand. Silver Lake State Park falls into the pure sand category!
You can either choose to go into the pedestrian area, where you can sand board and hike or there’s a whole separate area dedicated to off road vehicles (buggies, quads/atvs, jeeps, motorbikes)! It definitely gets the adrenaline pumping! When you floor it up the side of the dune, you have no idea if the dune is going to ‘flatten’ out or if there’s a huge drop waiting for you on the other side!
The nearby town of Silver Lake is just seconds away from the park, with accommodation options, restaurants and other attractions to keep you entertained! There are also several businesses that rent sand boards and ORV vehicles.
*Note – Many of the Michigan State Parks require a Recreation Passport to park in the car parks. Daily nonresident passes are $9 and are available from the State Park entrances. If you are staying in Silver Lake, the State Park is around a 20 minute walk from the town.
Wisconsin State Parks
Devil’s Lake State Park
🗺S5975 Park Rd, Baraboo, WI 53913, United States (Central Wisconsin)
🚾Park facilities: Restrooms, campground, rentals
🥾Adventure: Hiking to viewpoints!
Devil’s Lake State Park has been on my bucket list after driving by it every time I visited the Wisconsin Dells! Everyone that I’ve spoken to says it’s an amazing State Park! It also lays on part of Wisconsin Ice Age National Scenic Trail. Within the park there are 29 miles of hiking trails including several that go up 500ft bluffs that overlook the lake from above. I really like the look of the Balanced Rock Trail, the Devil’s Doorway Trail (featured in the photo above) and the Potholes Trail.
Out of state vehicle daily visitor stickers for Devil’s Lake State Park are $16. There are also several campgrounds in the park, including one that is open year round.
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What are your favourite state parks in the Midwest? Let me know in the comments!