The 13 Most Beautiful Places in the Midwest
Before we dive into things, it’s important to identify the Midwest. If you want to get technical (why not?), it’s one of four census-designated regions of the United States and covers the northern central part of the country. Specifically, the federal government defines it as the states of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin—in other words, it spans a lot of gorgeous ground.
OK, now that we got that out of the way, let’s talk about this beautiful and bountiful area. The Midwest has everything from stunning seashores and towering mountains to prairies, glimmering lakes and lush forests. While it’s hard to pick the prettiest spots (because there are just so many options), we love a good challenge. So here it is…the 13 most beautiful places in the Midwest.
1. BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK (SOUTH DAKOTA)
Ancient horses and rhinos once roamed the protected land that we know as Badlands National Park in South Dakota. Today, this sprawling 244,000-acre expanse—which is home to bison, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets—draws millions of visitors who come from near and far for the chance to see the wild, untamed beauty of grasslands, striking layered rock formations and deep canyons. Don’t leave without checking out some of the fascinating fossils discovered in the park.
2. SLEEPING BEAR DUNES NATIONAL LAKESHORE (MICHIGAN)
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, is one of the most scenic spots in the entire Wolverine State. Sandy beaches, dense forests and crystal-clear lakes make it ideal for all sorts of outdoor recreation, from hiking and cycling to kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding. It’s also super relaxing. We certainly wouldn’t fault you for posting up near the sky-high, windswept dunes and just soaking in the serenity-inducing glory of it all.
3. VOYAGEURS NATIONAL PARK (MINNESOTA)
Any Midwesterner worth his or her salt has fond memories of visiting Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota. If you haven’t been to this sprawling 218,055-acre, year-round playground of outdoor adventure, it’s high time you rectify that. Advertised as “a park of water, island and horizons,” Voyageurs National Park fully lives up to its promises with a seemingly endless array of rocky outcrops, dramatic cliffs, wetlands, hardwood forests, streams and lakes.
4. CUYAHOGA VALLEY NATIONAL PARK (OHIO)
Nestled between Cleveland and Akron, Cuyahoga Valley National Park is quite literally a sight for sore eyes. Or, should we say that it will take your breath away? Either way, both overused expressions fully apply to this absolutely stunning place that’s packed with native plants and animals. The maze-like forests, rolling hills and waterfalls are best explored on foot or by bicycle. Our advice? Follow the Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath Trail. If you have time, definitely hop aboard the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad.
5. SHAWNEE NATIONAL FOREST (ILLINOIS)
When you envision Illinois, Chicago probably pops up first. Way beyond the urban enticements of the Windy City, in the southern part of the state, between the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, sits an abundance of scenic beauty as far as the eye can see. Yes, clearly, we’re talking about Shawnee National Forest, where Jackson Falls, Garden of the Gods, and the 403-mile multi-use Rim Rock Recreational Trail are just three of the many magnificent sights.
6. THE DELLS (WISCONSIN)
Fun fact: Wisconsin Dells boasts more family-friendly water parks per capita than anywhere else in the country. (That's not why we picked it for our roundup, just something interesting to note.) It’s the limestone cliffs, caves, arches and columns that really do it for us—one glance at the striated rock formations and you’ll surely agree. The best way to peep all this geological gorgeousness? Rent a kayak or book a boat tour.
7. SCOTTS BLUFF NATIONAL MONUMENT (NEBRASKA)
Nebraska doesn't always get the tourism credit it deserves with, perhaps, the exception of Scotts Bluff National Monument. Comprising 3,000 acres of ancient land formations and vast prairie lands, this living legend is widely beloved for its rugged beauty. Scotts Bluff, its namesake crown jewel, which towers 800 feet above the North Platte River, was an important landmark for travelers moving westward during the 19th century. Even if you don’t care a lick about history, it’s just super cool to see IRL.
8. THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY (IOWA)
Did you know that Madison County has the largest collection of covered bridges anywhere in the western half of the Mississippi Valley? The sheer architectural stunningness just never seems to end. Every few minutes, there’s another gem that's somehow more impressive than the last. Wondering where to start? The historic 107-foot-long Roseman Covered Bridge, which you might recognize from the 1995 romantic drama flick The Bridges of Madison County, based on the best-selling novel of the same name.
9. PENINSULA STATE PARK (WISCONSIN)
Peninsula State Park in Door County is teeming with natural beauty—towering bluffs, sandy stretches, cedar forests, scenic overlooks and more. Like it’s borderline unfair that one place could possibly pack that many spectacular sights into a 3,776-acre area. Thankfully, it’s set up in such a brilliantly visitor-friendly way that you can really enjoy it all with ease. We’d be remiss not to mention the plentiful opportunities for outdoor recreation. There are a slew of bike trails, plus trout streams, campsites and even an 18-hole golf course.
10. LAKE OF THE OZARKS STATE PARK (MISSOURI)
Please forget everything you’ve seen on Jason Bateman’s dark drama television series. OK, great, now envision a picturesque place that’s all about swimming, boating and just all-around waterfront fun. What we’re describing is Lake of the Ozarks State Park. An outdoor paradise in Missouri that’s among the best and most beautiful vacation destinations in the Midwest, it welcomes 2.5 million people each year.
11. PICTURED ROCKS NATIONAL SEASHORE (MICHIGAN)
Perched on the shore of Lake Superior, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore overflows with fantastical scenery. If the sandstone cliffs, sheltered beaches, sky-grazing dunes, waterfalls, shimmering lakes and abundant forests aren’t enough to convince you that Pictured Rocks National Seashore deserves at least a few of your hard-earned vacation days, we’d be willing to bed that the hiking, camping, kayaking and wildlife-peeping most certainly will.
12. HOCKING HILLS STATE PARK (OHIO)
The natural wonders of Hocking Hills State Park never cease to amaze. Located 57 miles from Columbus (though it feels like a world away), this beguiling area brims with forests, cascading falls, caves and gorges. Whether you prefer taking it easy and just going for a leisurely stroll surrounded by breathtaking beauty or tackling more strenuous trails, Hocking Hills State Park is a destination that should be included on any self-respecting Midwest bucket list.
13. MONUMENT ROCKS NATIONAL LANDMARK (KANSAS)
Kansas has a diversity of intriguing attractions (way more than most people realize). We legit can’t get enough of Monument Rocks National Landmark in Gove County. Selected as the first landmark in the state by the Department of Interior on October 31, 1968, for reasons that will soon become glaringly obvious, this treasure features a series of chalk pyramids, pinnacles, buttes and spires that attracts photographers and tourists from all over.