Big Bay State Park Beach

Take a Midwest Vacation!

Several times a week – I’ll have friends ask me where to Go, Stay & Play in the Midwest – ESPECIALLY when it comes to vacation time! No matter if it’s a holiday getaway, spring break, or summer vacation! There are endless options both for a family, couple, or single getaways! The heartland is overflowing with destinations that are jam-packed with activities, places to eat and stay, and plenty to see and do! In this post, I will highlight 5 Midwest Vacation spots! Some are well known, but some are absolute diamonds that you need to get on your radar!

  1. The Wisconsin North Shore

Want to getaway? How about skipping across the beautiful state of Wisconsin and discovering the shores of Lake Superior, better known as the Wisconsin North Shore. This area starts at the far northwest corner, near Superior Wisconson, and runs along highway 13 to Ashland – and if you want to take it further East – continues to Birch Wisconsin before crossing over to the state of Michigan.

Bayfield, Wisconsin – The Apostle Islands – Madeline Island

One spot you will want to explore is Bayfield, Wisconsin – from here you can take a ferry cruise around the Apostle Islands – and get plenty of opportunities to explore that adventurous side – whether it be taking kayaks out around the sea caves, fishing tours, boating tours, camping on allowed spots, but definitely taking a ferry to Madeline Island.

The Biggest Island – Madeline

Insider Tip: If you take a bike ride to the north side of the island give yourself enough time to get out and back – it could take part of a day (and check out popular destination – Big Bay State Park! – one of my top 10 state parks!). You can choose from a simple relaxing picnic- to enjoying the sand at Big Bay Beach – which offers plenty of options for swimming and water sport. Along the backside of the beach is a 1-mile long boardwalk, which offers a chance to take a short hike, and explore areas off the shore – including chances to see some of the natural wildlife and birds on the island.

Historic Light Houses “The Apostle Island Light Houses”

A few other great reasons to get to this area are the lighthouses! There are 6 lighthouses in the Apostle Islands and they are all on the National Register for Historic Places. The lighthouses listed are:

  • Michigan Island Lighthouse (1857) (Two lighthouses located at this site)
  • Raspberry Island Lighthouse (1862)
  • Outer Island Lighthouse (1874)
  • Sand Island Lighthouse (1881)
  • Devils Island Lighthouse (1891) – and pictured below.

Chase Waterfalls!

Insider Tip: If you love waterfalls – you will want to get to Northern Wisconsin – just a short drive off the shoreline – you can encounter waterfall after waterfall. Go check out these 3 Wisconsin State Parks with Waterfalls! There are awesome state parks in the area from Amnicon Falls State Park – to Pattison State Park (where you will encounter Wisconsin’s tallest waterfall – AND the 4th tallest waterfall east of the Rockies – “Big Manitou Falls” dropping 165 feet!). Copper Falls State Park sits close as well, and that’s just a drop in the bucket – thanks to the Douglas Fault line running through the region and creating a waterfall lover’s dream!

Make a stop in Ashland!

Another town we loved in Northern Wisconsin was Ashland! It sits at the southern tip of Chequamegon Bay (and the Southernmost part of Lake Superior). Here – you can make a few stops and eat some amazing food! Try the Deep Water Grille – on one of the sides is a place they call “The Alley” this is where the food gets serious! (In my humble opinion). If you are a Mac & Cheese Fanatic, their specialty Mac and Cheese skillets are a grand slam! Anything from “Meat Lovers” to “Chicken Bacon Ranch” and of course…my Jalapeno heart had to go with “The Popper” a fantastic variation of a Jalapeno Popper in the style of a Mac & Cheese Skillet!

Insider Tip – Go check out their Mural Walk – The entire downtown district of Ashland has made itself into a walking art museum – showing the history of the area through murals. A fantastic experience! You can check out the entire mural walk online at the “mural brick road”.

Downtown Ashland Mural – depicting the story of the lumber industry in the area.

2. O’Brien County – Iowa

How about a curveball? Here is a diamond in the rough if you’ve ever discovered one! This county is in the middle of giving itself a major shine! If you are looking for a different rural experience – this county has it in more ways than none. Everything from one of Iowa’s State Scenic Byways – to one of the most unique museum experiences in the state of Iowa! It boasts a few spots that have earned national recognition with “best kept secret food spots” – wait until you hear about this one! Not to mention fantastic family fun – in rural Iowa!

Experience Bison!

Bison! It’s not every day that you can get up and close with a few Bison – and this is where you can do it. Plan on making a stop at the Prairie Heritage Center in O’Brien County. It sits right on the Glacial Trail Scenic Byway – and offers an excellent opportunity to stop on that scenic route and check out the museum indoors, or take time to play on the equipment outside (which includes replicas of a covered wagon and a viewing tower to take in the views and explore over a million years of history that the glaciers carved out along the Little Sioux River Valley).

Insider Tip: Take a trip down Highway 10 – and either hang a left (on M-12) to spend a night in a grain bin at Dog Creek (A family fun zone) – or hang a right and head to Sutherland, IA, and experience The Willowway! (Video in the works!! – I’ll post soon).

How about some camping and fishing!

Mill Creek State Park

Check out Paulina, Iowa – where Mill Creek State Park is one of the area’s best places for hiking, camping, and fishing sits on the eastern outskirts of the town. Take time and explore this park – if you can rent a kayak – take one out and enjoy a nice calm paddle around the small lake/pond. The fishing is pretty good – try going along the eastern side of the lake near a place called “Scout Island” (pictured above with the bridge) – there are some parts you can see the fish coming up close to take the bait.

Insider Tip: You have a couple of unique camping options at Mill Creek State Park – rent one of the camping cabins near the lake for a fun camping experience. They range from $40-$100 a night, depending on the size and time of rental. Also, If you’d like a unique in-town lodging experience, try the Bock Suite (above the antique store in downtown Paullina “Old Market Antiques”).

After a day exploring Paulina – try heading west on highway-10 a few miles, and off to the south, you will see a little township named “German Town” – pull together your down-home rural – because it’s about to get real rural – REAL FAST! Germantown has a few buildings – one is the Lutheran Church – and another important landmark – “The HideOut”.

Chicken – Chicken – Chicken!

One of the most unique eating experiences for sure! You will walk away full – and wanting more! Trust me! You order the roasted chicken by “whole chicken” – so if you are eating as a family (depending on the size) maybe 3-4 whole chickens! Next – Insider Tip – order some fries! They will come out in this heaping mountain of fried goodness – and I promise you won’t regret it! Especially if you are a fries lover! Move over franchise restaurant fries – here comes the real deal! Thank you German Town! Follow this up – and you get a shot of Schnapps to go (if you’re up for it -if not-it’s optional). Don’t be fooled – you’ll love it.


Last, but not least, is one of the most unique museum experiences in the country! (I might be biased on this one – but it’s original for sure!). Head on over to Sanborn, Iowa, and check out “Yesterdays Memories & Truck Museum” A cool collection of trucks, cars, older antique toys, and more – it’s a cool experience and might take a few of us back a few years to reminisce.

3. Medora, North Dakota

If you want to experience a family vacation at its best – that includes covering something to do for every age (from children, young adults, to seniors) then Medora, North Dakota is the place to go! It’s in the heart of the Dakota Badlands, surrounded by both beauty and history – a place rich in culture – and surrounded by the stories of Bison, Wild Horses, and President Theodore Roosevelt. overshadowed by its neighbor to the south (the BlackHills) the North Dakota Badlands is a true spectacle that needs to be experienced in your lifetime. Once you visit, I’d place my bet on multiple returns!

The Town of Medora

History shares a story of a French nobleman, the Marquis de Mores, who came to the area around 1883 with the idea to start a beef packing plant and named the town after his beloved wife – Medora van Hoffman. The Marquis developed the town with the idea to have freshly slaughtered meat directly at the source, rather than ship by rail to the major packing city of Chicago – adding the concept of quality (Fresh Meat). However, the idea was a failure, and the meatpacking plant was abandoned a few years later. You can see the remains of the slaughterhouse at a place along the Little Missouri River called “Chimney Park” and offers a bit of back story to Medora.

Chimney at Chimney Park – ruins of the Slaughterhouse

Theodore Roosevelt National Park – The Most Underrated National Park

What really sets Medora apart from other places – is being the gateway city to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. This has been referred to by travel writer Sara Broers (Travel with Sara) as the #1 Park For Families To Visit. It’s perfect for children, teens, and adults alike – offers different hiking adventures and close-up encounters with wildlife (especially Bison and Wild Horses). Disclaimer: Do not feed or try to get too close as they are wild animals and should be respected. You can drive a short way into the park and immediately experience the wildlife. It’s as close to the wild west as a person can feel – and still be grounded in the present.

What I love most about the park and what Medora provides – is less traffic. Yes, there are certainly more busy times of the year, but (compared to some other destinations and National Parks) you are dealing with considerably fewer people and it fits right into the perfect place to visit. If you want a popular spot to experience the great outdoors, learn about national and state history, all while experiencing one of the best national parks – you’ll discover a true gem with Medora, North Dakota.

The Medora Musical

If hiking around and experiencing wild horses and bison isn’t enough to entertain you – consider going to one of the most popular live shows of its kind – west of the Mississippi! The popular and long-running Medora Musical! It’s a professionally done musical that rivals some of the bigger shows in Branson, Missouri – but not to be undone – it’s an original scored show each season, bringing in new musicals acts, and offering a one-of-a-kind experience for the entire family!

Steak On A Fork!

Insider Tip: Make sure you take time BEFORE the musical and eat at the “Pitchfork Fondue” – it proved the western feel of a chuckwagon BBQ all done from the advanced tool of a pitchfork! They load up steak after steak – and deep fat fry the steak until cooked for a one-of-a-kind tasty meal, all with the North Dakota Badlands as the backdrop. Enjoy good food and good music as it gives a perfect prelude to the Medora Musical!

4. The Shawnee National Forest

If you take a look at the bottom portion of the great state of Illinois – and look closely at a map, you’ll notice a massive green area making up what is known as “The Shawnee National Forest” – If you want a fantastic surprise, go reserve a camping and hiking adventure in the Shawnee area. The area was carved out millions of years ago by glaciers, giving it a rugged terrain that one would typically find closer to mountain areas. The glaciers pushed south in the central regions – giving it the flat stereotype associated with most plains and grassland areas. However, it also pushed the rivers (once flowing east and west) straight south as well – and along the edges of these glacier areas, you can find some of the best geological and rock structures left behind by the glaciers! Including the formations within the Shawnee Forest!

The Garden of the Gods

Garden of the Gods – pic by Dan Cline

Not to be confused with the Colorado Springs version – The Garden of the Gods in Shawnee National Forest is a mild surprise, offering fun hiking and light climbing adventure! Some trails are paved (if you are light on your feet) making an easier hike. However, be careful as the ground is uneven, and cracks and crevices can sneak up on your footing – all experience levels can hike these trails, just be careful!

Shawnee covers approximately 289,000 acres and sits between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers – in southern Illinois. The oak-hickory forests, along with gorgeous canyons and other rock features, make it feel like it was strangely lifted out of the BlackHills and set down in Illinois. One area in particular on the eastern side of the forest has a cave-like structure along the Ohio River – and sets a different visual image of what one might think a midwest area should look like.

Cave in Rock State Park

Just a short drive away from the Garden of the Gods, one can discover a cave structure, Cave in Rock, (a giant 55-ft wide cave along the Ohio River) which headlines the park that bears its name “Cave in Rock State Park”. Folklore and legend tell a story of river pirates who lived in the area in the late 1700s and used the cave as a hideout – and ambushed ships traveling up and down the river. Some of the famous names associated with the cave are the Harpe Brothers and the Ford Ferry Gang. The cave was later used in several different movie sets. If a person were to just look at the massive opening, it can be imagined why the cave would be such an awesome movie backdrop. Insider Tip – Take a little hike back into the cave, it can be slippery in spots due to moisture and wet rock, but it offers a fun adventure to explore the cave.

Don’t Forget Sassy The Shawnee Sasquatch!

Seriously – this is a lot of fun and cool to find as well! Don’t forget to find Sassy the Sasquatch! You can find Sassy (so famous that she has her own Facebook group and following) – You can find her at Garden of the Gods Rd, Herod Illinois 62947 – kitty-corner from the Outpost! Insider Tip: Stop inside the Garden of the Gods Outpost and enjoy a delicious ice cream cone! It’s a fun little stop for the whole family, with a great photo opportunity!

5. The North Shore of Minnesota

You can’t write a post on ONE north shore (Wisconsin) and ignore the other! Minnesota’s North Shore is NOT to be missed. It follows some of the same waterfall patterns that we find in Wisconsin – with the Douglas Fault running through the area. Some of the country’s BEST state parks are in both Wisconsin and Minnesota! The midwest is lucky to have the Great Lakes as part of their beautiful setting, and for some – these lakes are considered their home – with mining and shipping, fishing, and other industry providing an anchor to their identity as Minnesotans. The North Shore is a huge part of this story.

Check out Duluth!

There is no better starting point to the North Shore than Duluth Minnesota. This is where you will start the 154-mile journey northward along Highway 61! – a road immortalized by singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan. But, there is MUCH to do in Duluth, don’t leave town too fast! Make sure you take in Duluth Harbor and the lift bridge – if you are lucky, maybe you will see one of the large barges (known as 100 footers) going in or out of the harbor. It’s a spectacle to witness! Insider Tip: Take time to walk the pier and check out the lighthouse! (pictured above). When you’ve had a chance to check out the bridge and harbor, go back and reserve a table at one of Duluth’s most iconic and originals – Grandma’s Saloon and Grill! You can’t go wrong with this choice, both for the experience and for the location, location, location! Right at the base of the bridge! You can check out Duluth below in my short video – check out Grandma’s AND watch a 100-footer coming in!

Goosebury Falls State Park

Split Rock Lighthouse State Park

What I love about the Minnesota North shore is the multiple stops along the route. You don’t have to stray off Highway 61 to find endless beauty. It’s easy to find with Lake Superior on one side, and the Superior National Forest on the other. Making stops at both Gooseberry Falls and Split Rock Lighthouse (both pictured above) will be some of the highlights on your drive. The next few stops along the route will bring a string of Lake Superior towns (Beaver Bay, Silver Bay, Little Marais, Schroeder, Tofte, and Lutsen) – all of these towns offer a unique flavor of shops and restaurants – take time to stop at each one!


When I get a chance to head back in that direction there will be more information and posts about the other state parks, but if you are a public lands lover! Make a point to stop and visit these beautiful state parks, including Tettegouche, George H. Crosby Manitou, Temperance River, Cascade River, Judge C.R. Magney, and Grand Portage State Park. These state parks offer waterfalls, so if you are a waterfall chaser, this is the trip for you! You can catch the tallest falls up along the border of Canada at Grand Portage State Park – where the park is split between Canada and the U.S. displaying beautiful High Falls, and offering a drop of 120 ft. Tettegouche Falls (which is ENTIRELY in Minnesota) sends water falling 70 feet. Make sure to stop at the parks -these are all amazing stops!

5 Midwest vacation stops under the radar!

Part of my mission is to share the Midwest as MORE than simply a “fly over” destination. In the heart of the heartland lies a vacation just right for you! They’re probably under the radar, but they shouldn’t be – and I can write with the conviction that there are several more Midwest vacation spots that were missed in this post. So – you know what that means? I’ll have to share a few more gems and communities in the Midwest! I can’t wait! Until that time – go check out the 5 destinations above for your next vacation and let me know how it goes! I’d love to hear about it!

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