Ecotourism in America: Treasures of the Midwest

The Midwest is sometimes referred to as ‘flyover country’: boring and flat, with nothing to do. However, nothing could be further from the truth. The Midwest is full of abundant natural resources and expansive public lands, and each Midwestern state attracts enthusiastic nature-lovers year after year. For your next outdoor trip, consider exploring this region. The treasures you discover may surprise you!

Source:  Enjoy Illinois

This unique collection of sandstone canyons and waterfalls is the most popular nature site in Illinois, drawing more than two million visitors every year. Formed by an ancient flood, the exposed sandstone is uniquely soft, requiring careful management to minimize erosion.

Starved Rock is home to many plant species which are usually only found further north: white cedar, white pine, Canada yew, mountain holly, reindeer lichen, and liverwort. Guests can camp, hike, fish, and boat here, and in the winter can also enjoy spotting the park’s numerous bald eagles, sledding, cross-country skiing, observing frozen waterfalls, and even ice skating and ice climbing in select areas.

Brown County State Park

Nashville, Indiana

The incredible hills, forests, and ravines of Brown County, Indiana often reminds visitors of the Great Smoky Mountains; in fact, the region has been nicknamed the “Little Smokies.” Not surprisingly, Brown County is a popular fall destination with its over 16,000 acres of colorful forest.

Hiking, horseback riding, canoeing, camping, and nationally-recognized mountain biking opportunities await you at Brown County State Park. A bonus is the collection of completely charming shops and eateries in downtown Nashville.

Loess Hills

Pisgah, Iowa

Source: Kenneth G. West, Jr. -  Sweet Light Gallery  /  Travel Iowa

Source: Kenneth G. West, Jr. - Sweet Light Gallery / Travel Iowa

A unique feature formed by glacial activity, intense winds, and erosion, the Loess Hills of southwest Iowa stand 200 feet above the surrounding plains and form a ‘spine’ running north and south along the Missouri river for over 200 miles.

Visitors can spend time exploring the scenic byway, getting lost in Loess Hills State Forest, or learning about the flora and fauna at several nature preserves. Though bison, wolves, and elk no longer live in the region, the prairie landscape is still home to many smaller species that have endured since before European settlement. Loess Hills is also a top location for raptor viewing in North America.

Cheyenne Bottoms

Great Bend, Kansas

While the largest marsh in the interior United States may not be what you’d expect to find in Kansas, the wetlands at Cheyenne Bottoms are indeed that, as well as the most important site for shorebird migration in the entire western hemisphere! Around 45% of the North American shorebird population stops here each spring, including threatened and endangered species like the whooping crane, least tern, bald eagle, peregrine falcon, and piping plover.

Guided driving tours and nature center exhibits provide visitors with the opportunity to learn about the complexities of managing a marsh with a limited water supply, as well as the significance of the marsh for wildlife. Camping is also an option for guests wanting a more primitive experience.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Glen Arbor, Michigan

Source:  Pure Michigan

Considered ‘the third coast’ in need of protection much like the coastal national seashores, Sleeping Bear Dunes became a National Lakeshore in 1970. Formed largely by glacial and wind activity, Sleeping Bear Dunes includes 35 miles of Lake Michigan’s shoreline, lakes, streams, and of course, the dunes.

Porcupines, snowshoe hares, otters and beaver are some of the species that can be spotted around the park. Visitors can enjoy climbing the dunes, searching for Petoskey stones (fossilized coral), and a whole host of snow and ice-inspired activities in the winter. It is worth spending a few days exploring the whole region, as historical Port Oneida, the charming port village of Glen Haven, and the beautiful Manitou Islands are all fantastic destinations within their own rights.

Voyegeurs National Park

International Falls, Minnesota

Source: Josh Henderson /  Voyageurs National Park Association

Source: Josh Henderson / Voyageurs National Park Association

Named after French-Canadian fur traders who were the first European settlers to travel through the region, Voyegeurs National Park remains in a very natural state, likely similar to the way it was when those settlers ventured through it so long ago. The park is known for the amazing waterways that wind their way through it, and in fact, 40% of the property is water.

The Kabetogama Peninsula, which makes up the majority of the park’s on-land property, can only be reached by boat (or in the winter, by ice). Hiking, paddling, and boating are popular, as well as many winter activities such as snowshoeing and snowmobiling. Black bears, moose, timber wolves, beavers, river otters, cormorants, loons, and owls are just some of the wildlife that live in the Park.

Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park

Reynolds, Missouri  

Source:  Missouri State Parks  (Info/Brochure)

Source: Missouri State Parks (Info/Brochure)

Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park, made up of nearly 9,000 acres in the St. Francois Mountain region, is named for the unique rock features that shape the path of the East Fork Black River. Erosion-resistant rock formations squeeze the river through paths of varying width and shape, resulting in portions of the river being virtually ‘shut-in’. When water levels are not too high, visitors enjoy wading and swimming in the natural ‘waterpark’’.  

The massive region contains several diverse habitats for a variety of flora and fauna, ranging from seep forests and wetlands called fens, to barren, desert-like glades to rocky, dolomite clearings. Wildlife ranges from salamanders, waterfowl, and crayfish to lizards, songbirds, and even scorpions.

Oglala National Grassland

Crawford, Nebraska

Source: Derrald Farnsworth-Livingston ( Journey of Light Photography )

Source: Derrald Farnsworth-Livingston (Journey of Light Photography)

Covering nearly 95,000 acres of federal prairie grasslands in the Nebraska panhandle, this destination remains relatively ‘undiscovered’ by the general public, making it an ideal attraction for visitors who enjoy the serenity of the wilderness. The region is a combination of badlands, grasslands, and woodlands.

One key place to see within Oglala is Toadstool Geological Park. As the name would suggest, this park contains massive rocks that look just like toadstools! Another important stop is the Hudson-Meng Buffalo Kill, an archaeological dig containing the skeletons of 600 bison. For those who love nature, the site is a sobering reminder of man’s power to destroy it.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Medora, North Dakota

Sitting today on the very land that first inspired the president’s passion for conservation, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is an incredible testament to his legacy. In fact, his Elkhorn Ranch is preserved in one area of the park. The park is broken up by different badlands areas, but is primarily a prairie landscape.

Visitors can enjoy backcountry hiking, camping, wildlife viewing, an an occasional chance to see the northern lights. An incredible range of wildlife lives within the park, including bison, coyotes, mountain lions, wild horses, elk, bighorn sheep, deer, prairie dogs, and badgers, as well as nearly 200 species of birds.

Oak Openings Preserve

Swanton, Ohio

Part of a larger ecosystem which is globally rare and certainly unique in Ohio, this 5,000 acre property is a fascinating destination. The park is primarily an oak savanna ecosystem, the environments of which are known for alternating wetland regions and vegetated dune areas. It was named by the Nature Conservancy as one of the 200 ‘Last Great Places on Earth’.

Plants you may not expect to thrive in the Midwest, such as prickly pear cactus in the dunes region and orchids in the wetlands region, make the site a fascinating stop for nature-lovers. Along with 50 miles of trails, the park also allows camping. Birding is another popular attraction, as the park is home to whippoorwills, larks, bluebirds, and is a stop migrating songbirds in the springtime.

Badlands National Park

Interior, South Dakota

The Badlands’ ominous name is appropriate for the sinister spires, jagged buttes, and craggy gorges that fill the park. It is, all at once, both bleak and majestic. The park is also home to the largest undisturbed mixed grass prairie in the country.

Wildlife such as rattlesnakes, bighorn sheep, bison, magpies, pronghorn, rare black-footed ferrets, and others make the Badlands home. Hiking, climbing through the rocks and gorges, camping, and incredible night sky viewing are popular activities here.

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

Bayfield, Wisconsin

This impressive collection of 21 islands is scattered across Lake Superior, along the northern shore of Wisconsin. The islands range in size from nearly 10,000 acres to only 3 acres.

The isolated islands and vast shoreline provide an ideal habitat for species like black bear, white-tailed deer, coyote, otter, beaver, fox, gulls, cormorants, herons, and swallows. Guests can paddle around the sandstone cliffs, or stop on various islands to hike through old growth forests, tour lighthouses, and explore the delicate natural ‘architecture’ of the sea caves.

As this article has demonstrated, the Midwestern states are far from boring. In many ways, the Midwest serves as the transitional link from north to south, and east to west. The incredibly diverse wildlife, surprisingly varied geography, and changing landscapes reflect this fact all the more clearly. Far from ‘fly-over country,’ the Midwest’s many distinct features will provide lasting memories. You just might end up discovering that the Midwest is one of your favorite destinations yet!

Meghan Miller