5 Socially Distant Adventures to Embark on in the Midwest

Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park
Sylvan Lake in Custer State ParkDavid Garabato / Shutterstock

The Midwest gets a bad rap as a bunch of “flyover” states, but adventurers who overlook the region in favor of visiting mountains or oceans are doing themselves a disservice. And in the age of COVID-19, you’ve got to look close to home for socially distant adventures.

While the 12 states that make up America’s heartland—Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri—are mostly composed of flat or rolling farmland (and a lot of prairie grass), the area is surprisingly diverse.

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The crashing surf on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan can rival parts of the Atlantic. The craggy granite rock formations in the Black Hills of South Dakota practically dare you to climb them. And the serene wetlands separating the Ohio and Missouri Rivers in lower Illinois beg to be explored.

The best outdoor pursuits here tend to be the ones that take a little more effort to uncover. Whether you get your thrills from scaling unique geological formations or simply from claiming a quiet piece of the wilderness for yourself (if only for a night), you can likely find it a relatively short way from the Midwest’s major metropolitan areas.

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Disclaimer: Before planning a trip, be sure to review the CDC Travelers’ Health page for alerts and updates, as well as any travel advisories for the specific location you hope to visit. Wear a mask, socially distance, and bring food, drinks, and supplies if you can.

5 Socially Distant Adventures to Embark on if You Live in the Midwest

Sandstone shoreline of Lake Superior at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, autumn, Michigan's Upper Peninsula, USA
Sandstone shoreline of Lake Superior at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, autumn, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, USA Dean Pennala / Shutterstock

1. Surf Michigan’s Upper Peninsula – Marquette, MI

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a five-hour drive from Milwaukee or a seven-hour trek from Detroit, contains just three percent of the state’s population. Once you’ve made it through the forests to the shoreline of Lake Superior, you’ll find swells that can reach up to a record 28 feet—not what you’d expect in the Midwest, right? The biggest waves actually arrive in the winter (due to low pressure weather systems hovering over the lake), but late-summer storms can churn up choppy six- to eight-footers as well. There are dedicated locals that take to the water year-round, but you’ll never deal with congested lineups here.

Get up-to-date COVID-19 information on Michigan, here

Greer Spring is the second largest spring in the Ozarks and located in Mark Twain National Forest
Greer Spring is the second largest spring in the Ozarks and located in Mark Twain National Forest Heather Isquith / Shutterstock

2. Explore the Sunklands – Shannon County, MO

Three hours from St. Louis, Missouri’s Sunklands—which cover over 37,000 acres in the Ozarks—is one of the largest and most remote conservation areas in the state. It’s also home to Missouri’s longest sinkhole complex (fun fact: the Geological Survey Program has identified about 16,000 in MO), which is over a mile long, 600 feet wide, and 200 feet deep. Walk-in and float-in camping is permitted, but you have to BYO everything; there are no amenities in the park. It’s also unlikely that you’ll encounter anyone else while hiking (there are no designated trails, so you have full freedom to roam), hunting, or fishing.

Get up-to-date COVID-19 information on Missouri, here.

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Sylvan Lake in the Black Hills of South Dakota is a beautiful vacation destination for fishing and hiking
Sylvan Lake in the Black Hills of South Dakota is a beautiful vacation destination for fishing and hiking James Dalrymple / Shutterstock

3. Summit the Spires in Custer State Park – Custer County, SD

A mere 30-minute drive from Rapid City, Custer State Park covers 71,000 acres in the isolated Black Hills in western South Dakota. The Needles Highway will take you through 14 miles of pine and spruce forests, and past one of the park’s must-sees: the Needle or Cathedral Spires. These granite rock formations are a 30-minute hike from the road and boast over 100 trad climbing routes. (Trad, or traditional, climbing requires you to bring all your own gear and place it in rock cracks and nooks yourself, then remove it when you’re done.) Spire 4 is the highest and most popular, but there are eight others to choose from if other climbers have beat you to it.

Get up-to-date COVID-19 information on South Dakota, here

Shawnee National Forest
Shawnee National Forest YuziS / Shutterstock

4. Trek the River to River Trail – Harrisburg, IL

Midwesterners from four states can escape to the bottom tip of Illinois to roam parts of the 160-mile trail between the Ohio River to the Mississippi River. It’s two hours from St. Louis, MO; three hours from Louisville, KY; four hours from Indianapolis, IN; and five hours from Chicago.
The trail covers some of the most rugged and remote areas within the Shawnee National Forest, meandering through upland forests, wetlands, grasslands, and bluffs. To do it in its entirety can take two to three weeks, if you’re really looking to go off the grid.

Get up-to-date COVID-19 information on Illinois, here

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People in a Canoe Wave Goodbye to the Shore in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Minnesota, USA
People in a Canoe Wave Goodbye to the Shore in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Minnesota, USA Nikki Herbst / Shutterstock

5. Canoe Along the Border of Canada – Boundary Waters Canoe Area, MN

This one-million-acre wilderness area within the Superior National Forest is so isolated, it’s practically not even a part of this country (and, yet, it’s only two to three hours from Duluth). There are over 1,000 lakes and streams, many of which butt right up against 150 miles of the international boundary between the U.S. and Canada. You can explore those far-flung waters via 1,200+ miles of canoe routes, and set up camp at any of the 2,000 backcountry sites. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll come across any neighbors. Want to guarantee your seclusion? Head to the southern shore of Knife Lake, which is 12 miles from any roads.

Get up-to-date COVID-19 information on Minnesota, here. 

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