BY ANDREW MORKES, FOUNDER OF NATURE IN CHICAGOLAND
Planning a spring or summer road trip? If so, here are 14 of my favorite National Park Service destinations to check out. Six are located in the Midwest.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park (New Mexico): More than 120 caves. The park features the largest colony (estimated at about 400,000) of Brazilian Free-tailed bats in the world. You’ll be awestruck as you watch them emerge en mass from the caves at sunset. I wrote a poem about watching the bats. You can read it here.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park (New Mexico): This UNESCO World Heritage site features approximately 4,000 prehistoric and historic archaeological sites. It’s best known for its massive ruins from the Anasazi culture, which thrived in the area from 850 to 1250 A.D. Great starwatching, camping, and hiking.
Effigy Mounds National Monument (220 miles from downtown Chicago in Iowa): More than 1,200 years ago, a culture known today as the Effigy Moundbuilders began building mounds of earth in the shapes of birds, bison, bear, lynx, turtle, deer, and other animals along the Upper Mississippi River and in other areas in what is now Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Some were burial mounds. Archaeologists speculate that others were used to mark celestial events or serve as boundaries between tribes. Effigy Mounds National Monument, which is located three miles north of Marquette, Iowa, features more than 200 mounds in what many consider to be one of the most beautiful areas of the Upper Mississippi River Valley. Click here to read my article about Effigy Mounds.
Indiana Dunes National Park (50 miles from downtown Chicago in Indiana): One of our nation’s newest national parks! Yes, there are towering dunes, sandy beaches, and crashing surf at this NPS treasure, but also wetlands, rivers, prairies, swamps, bogs, marshes, and quiet forests. The national park’s 15,000 acres feature 50 miles of trails, as well as more than 1,100 native plants, which places it fourth in plant diversity among all NPS sites. More than 350 bird species have been sighted at the lakeshore. Looking for itinerary advice? Click here for tips on what to do if you have 1–2 hours, a half day, or an entire weekend to spend at the lakeshore. Click here to read my article about Indiana Dunes National Park (IDNP). After your visit to IDNP, check out its equally fabulous neighbor, Indiana Dunes State Park. Click here for my article on this Indiana gem.
Isle Royale National Park (Michigan): This is the place to go if you want solitude. The park had only 28,329 visits in 2017, according to the NPS. You’ll need to take a ferry to get to the island, and accommodations are Spartan. But the payoff is well worth it: rugged, but stunning, scenery; moose and wolves; the Northern Lights; and as much as hiking, kayaking, canoeing, camping, and scuba diving that you can fit into your schedule.
Knife River Indian Villages Historic Site (North Dakota): Visit Knife River to see the location of a major trading center for Native Americans and European traders, where Lewis and Clark spent the winter of 1804-1805 among the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians. At this spot, the explorers Lewis and Clark hired French trapper Toussaint Charbonneau as an interpreter. He brought along his young Shoshone wife, Sacagawea, who played an integral role in their journey to the Pacific. Despite their significant role in Native American and American history, the Knife River Indian Villages are a quiet contemplative destination. The wind blows through the cottonwoods, and the river gently flows where earth lodges once stood, men traded, and children played. Other than the imprints of the Mandan earth lodges, which are still visible from the air, little remains of the villages. But a visitor center brings the story of the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians, Sacagawea, and European traders to life. There were only 10,750 visits to this NPS unit in 2014. A trip to the Knife River Indian Villages is a nice one-day stop as you head to or from Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I wrote a story about suddenly meeting a bison and other adventures at the park.
Lincoln Home National Historic Site (200 miles from downtown Chicago in Springfield, Illinois). Surveys of presidential historians and the general public typically rank Abraham Lincoln as the greatest president. So why not tour his Springfield, Illinois, 12-room, Greek Revival house, in which he lived for 17 years before becoming president? While in Springfield, also consider checking out The Lincoln Depot, where the president-elect gave a farewell speech before heading to Washington, D.C. in 1861; the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum; and the Lincoln Tomb State Historic Site. If you’re on a presidential site kick, also check out the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site in West Branch, Iowa (about 211 miles from Chicago), and the Ulysses S. Grant Home in Galena, Illinois (about 170 miles from Chicago). Note, the Grant home is not part of the National Park Service.
Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (Montana): This is a fascinating place to immerse yourself in Native American and U.S. history and the clash of civilizations that occurred on June 25 and 26, 1876. Reading The Last Stand, by Nathaniel Philbrick, or Lakota Noon, The Indian Narrative of Custer’s Defeat, by Gregory F. Michno, beforehand or as you walk the sprawling battlefield will make you feel as if you were actually there during the epic battle.
Mesa Verde National Park (Colorado): This breathtaking park features some of the best preserved cliff dwellings (more than 600) of the Ancestral Pueblo people who lived here from AD 600 to 1300.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (Arizona): This International Biosphere Reserve on the Mexican border offers stunning views, towering and diverse types of cacti, and excellent hiking. And with an average winter high of 72 degrees, it’s the perfect destination for winter-sick Midwesterners.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (Michigan): A beautiful natural spot on the shores of Lake Superior in the wild and wonderful Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Waterfalls, beautifully-colored cliffs, miles and miles of beach, camping, hiking, kayaking, and much more. Check out my article on this Midwestern gem by clicking here.
Pullman National Monument (far south side of Chicago): One of the National Park Service’s newest monuments is located on the far south side of Chicago. You won’t find nature in abundance, but rather a wealth of history about the first model, planned industrial community in the United States and the Pullman Company, the founder of the community. Another noteworthy site in the Pullman Historic District is the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum, which explores African-American labor history. A. Philip Randolph was a labor and civil rights leader, and the founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a union that represented African-American railroad porters during contentious battles with the Pullman Company over worker rights.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park (North Dakota): An absolute hidden gem. TRNP is wild and beautiful—buttes, badlands, buffalo, and grassland…elk, rattlesnake, wild horses, and the occasional mountain lion. It’s big sky country (sorry Montana, but North Dakota has you beat). Check out the Maah Daah Hey Trail for great hiking. I wrote a story about suddenly meeting a bison and other adventures at the park.
Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming, Montana, Idaho): The best of the best (with the acknowledgment that some people love Yosemite National Park just as much). A few highlights: 10,000 hydrothermal features, including more than 300 geysers such as the well-known Old Faithful; Grand Prismatic Spring, a massive and colorful hot spring; herds of buffalo and elk; grizzly bear; epic battles between wolves and their prey in the Lamar Valley; and solitude and adventure if you’re willing to venture off the beaten path.
Some parks charge a small admission fee, while others do not. The NPS also offers several free days in 2023, including:
January 16: Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.
April 22: First day of National Park Week
August 4: Anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act
September 23: National Public Lands Day
November 11: Veterans Day
Also, if you have a 4th grader, they can take advantage of the Every Kid Outdoors Program, “an interagency collaboration between the Department of the Interior, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and U.S. Forest Service that provides fourth graders with free access to explore, learn, and recreate in spectacular settings, including national parks, wildlife refuges, marine sanctuaries, and forests.” Click here to learn more.
Copyright (text) Andrew Morkes
2023 BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT
Looking for more great nature destinations in Chicagoland? If so, I’ve published Nature in Chicagoland: More Than 120 Fantastic Nature Destinations That You Must Visit. It features amazing destinations in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Click on the title to learn more.
Carlsbad Caverns: NPS Photo/Peter Jones
Effigy Mounds-Andrew Morkes
Indiana Dunes-Andrew Morkes
Isle Royale-Andrew Morkes (#1); NPS (#2)
Mesa Verde-NPS/Sandy Groves
Organ Pipe-Andrew Morkes
Pictured Rocks-Andrew Morkes
Theodore Roosevelt-Andrew Morkes