From vast forests to clear blue lakes, the Midwest boasts its own personal brand of natural beauty. Whether your group is looking to climb a rocky cliff face, camp under the stars, or raft down a raging river, the region’s myriad state and national parks offer experiences both thrilling and relaxing.

In a world constantly evolving with urbanity, these parks represent the dwindling remains of truly untouched natural wonders. So, help your group commune with nature at one of many enchanting state or national parks in the Midwest.

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Situated along the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, Devil’s Lake State Park in Baraboo, Wisconsin, is a marvel with 500-foot quartzite bluffs overlooking a 360-acre lake. Groups visiting this serene park have access to almost 30 miles of hiking trails, 4 miles of bike trails, lakeshore picnic areas, swimming beaches, boating rentals, and year-round naturalist programs. One of the busiest state parks in the country, Devil’s Lake attracts about 2.5 million visitors annually.

Devil’s Lake boasts three campgrounds with a total of 423 sites—nine of which can accommodate up to 240 campers. Visitors to the park may choose to spend their time swimming, kayaking, fishing, picnicking, or even rock climbing.

Wildside Action Sports, also in Baraboo, caters to the cycling and climbing needs of visitors to Devil’s Lake. Stop by to rent high-end road bikes and climbing equipment. Within the Devil’s Lake, Baraboo, and Sauk County regions, Wildside owner Peter Schmitz says the business hosts more than 2,500 different climbing routes, catering to over 65,000 climbers.

“Wildside Action Sports also works as an adviser,” explains Schmitz. “Our employees are active stewards of the DLSP [Devil’s Lake State Park] area. We know the trails of DLSP better than anyone. We also know the available roads for cycling. We are ambassadors for guidance to the local State Natural Areas, county parks, state parks, and the State Recreational Areas. Ask us where to go, and we will offer plenty of solutions to get outside!”

Is your group looking to really rough it? Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota is a 218,055-acre spread of exposed rock ridges, cliffs, forests, streams, and crystal-clear lakes perfect for stargazing and camping. “This is a place of transition between land and aquatic ecosystems, between southern boreal and northern hardwood forests, and between wild and developed areas,” according to the National Park Service. “Whether you are exploring by land, water, or ice, there is something for everyone.”

For small, guided boat tours of the park, equipment rentals, or other resources, Voyageurs Outfitters in International Falls is an essential stop for any group. Most campsites at the park are accessible only by boat and therefore require groups to rent canoes and acquire permits. Boats are not needed to reach the park’s primitive campsites, but these are only reachable via miles-long hike.

The adrenaline junkies of your group might consider whitewater rafting with a company like Vermillion River Rafting in Illinois. Whether the group is looking to take a leisurely jaunt down the river or experience the (beginner level) thrills of 14 sets of rapids, Vermillion River Rafting offers runs for groups of all preferences. The Big Vermillion River starts its 50-mile course on the border of Ford and Livingston counties, deepens as it moves through Pontiac, and picks up speed as it winds through Matthiessen State Park, the lesser-known (but just as beautiful) neighbor of Starved Rock State Park.

Vermillion River Rafting supplies four- or six-person rafts, paddles, life vests, and rafting instructions, but tours down the river are self-guided. Nearby campgrounds include LaSalle-Peru Koa Kampground, Starved Rock Campground, Cozy Corners Campground, Pleasant Creek Campground, and Camp Aramoni.

Isle Royale National Park, Michigan;
Credit: Adobe/sschremp
More to Explore

In Dundee, Iowa, Backbone State Park was established in 1920 as the Hawkeye State’s first state park. Today, the 2,001-acre, heavily wooded park is a recreational paradise, offering opportunities for hiking, rock climbing, snowmobiling, bicycling, fishing, camping, picnicking, bird watching, and more. On the grounds are four-season cabins, boat rental facilities, concessions, a playground, and a museum.

Michigan’s Isle Royale National Park, on a Lake Superior island just south of Canada, is a uniquely remote destination for a group getaway. Accessible by ferry, seaplane, or private boat, Isle Royale is a gorgeous spot to stay in a tent, on a boat, or in a lodge. One such resort, Rock Harbor Lodge, also has two restaurants for visitors to enjoy after a long day out on the water or exploring the wilderness. Groups of seven or more need to make advanced reservations to camp at Isle Royale National Park.

“Explore a rugged, isolated island far from our connected communities,” says the National Park Service. “Isle Royale offers adventures for backpackers, hikers, boaters, paddlers, and divers. Cross Lake Superior and make a commitment: Become a part of this island, and let it become a part of you. Find peace and refuge in island wilderness—because Isle Royale, in turn, finds refuge in us.”

With the nearby inn, 23 rental cabins, and 213 campsites, Turkey Run State Park in Marshall, Indiana, welcomes more than 1 million visitors each year. Along with exciting park activities like camping, hiking, swimming, fishing, and more, Turkey Run boasts several historic sites that just might pique the interest of your group. Lieber Cabin is the oldest structure in the state composed of virgin timber. The park’s Log Church was built in 1871 and still holds nondenominational services every Sunday during the warmer months. The historical Lusk house and mill site sits as a reminder of the region’s early pioneers and settlers.

In College Corner, Ohio, Hueston Woods State Park is shaped by limestone and shale bedrock, reminiscent of a time when an ancient shallow sea once covered the state. Here, fossilized remnants of ancient marine animals are abundant and often draw collectors year-round. The park’s prehistoric draw aside, Hueston Woods also serves as an idyllic location for golfing, archery, playing disc golf, boating, hiking, horseback riding, and picnicking. On-site are lodge rooms, cabins, and scenic campsites.

While the Midwest may be best known for its agricultural industry and all-around friendliness, the region has so much more to offer groups. Lush woodlands dominate the north. Rocky bluffs shape the famous Driftless Area. Tens of thousands of lakes, rivers, and streams carve through the land and serve as recreational gathering spots. State and national parks in the Midwest are more than just fun places to visit—they are destinations where memories are made, traditions are formed, and a world is explored.

By Madeline Fuerstenberg

Main Image: Devil’s Lake State Park, Baraboo, Wisconsin; Credit: Adobe/dvande