Midwest America, which often referred to as ‘America’s Heartland’, features vast expanses of softly rolling hills as well as the famous Great Plains. While this might not seem particularly inspiring for hikers at first glance, don’t be fooled – there are actually some awesome hiking routes dotted around the area.
Sure, you might not get thousands of miles of ocean views or towering mountain ranges like the Rockies in the Midwest, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t beauty in the slightly more subtle features you’ll find in the landscape. Small mountains, sparkling waterfalls, cute canyons, enchanted wooded areas, and, of course, the Great Lakes, make hiking around the Midwest a very tranquil experience.
Plus, the smaller mountains and generally flatter terrain allround make long-distance hikes more manageable in the Midwest than in other areas. On top of that, you don’t have to think about how altitude will affect your energy levels, which means you can keep going for longer. As well as being great for long distances hikes, there are also tonnes of magical spots tucked away not far from some major cities, which means that you can pop out in the morning for a blast of nature and be back home in time for lunch.
So, let’s take a look at some of the finest hikes the Midwest has to offer – from river trails to mountain summits to woodland strolls, there really is something for everyone.
We’re starting off our list of the best hikes in the Midwest with our favorite trail in Kansas, the Elk River Trail. This point-to-point trail covers just under 25 km in total and involves a few steep climbs, so it’s definitely not one for the fainthearted. If you’re up to the challenge, however, you’ll certainly be rewarded.
The hike begins on the northwestern side of Elk City Lake, and the winding route will lead you through luscious forest featuring densely packed twisted trees, including oaks, sycamores, and hickories. If you treat quietly, you might be lucky enough to encounter deer as you make your way through the tightly packed foliage.
As you zigzag along for the first two-thirds of the walk you’ll be alongside the Elk River itself. You’ll cross various streams and ravines, and you’ll pass heaps of unique rock structures along the way and have to squeeze through some canyons too – we definitely recommend allowing sometimes to have a peek into some of the caves! This route is by no means flat, but you’ll be rewarded with stunning views after you’ve ascended the many limestones mounds that line the way.
Eventually, you’ll come out at the idyllic Elk City Lake, and from here, it’s a fairly chilled stroll to the finish line. Technically, you can walk the route either way, and both are clearly signposted, but we definitely recommend doing it as described here for a more casual finish.
If the Elk River Trail sounds a bit too much like hard work for you, then don’t worry, the Old Man’s Cave Trail is one super easy yet incredibly rewarding hike that won’t take you more than an hour.
Located in the Hocking Hills State Park, which is famed for its unique sandstone structures, babbling brooks and waterfalls, and luscious foliage, this trail is every bit as magical as you might expect.
Although there are extensions if you want a longer hike, the main trail (known as the Grandma Gatewood Trail initially, but featuring various exits) is just 1 km long and begins conveniently at the Welcome Center. This lovely little route begins at the Upper Falls and leads you on a journey along a well-maintained path that crosses huge sandstone overhands, towering trees, and sparkling waterfalls.
Although the route is short, there are staircases to deal with as you enter and leave the gorge (some made of rock) and a wooden footbridge that can get slippery when wet – so just make sure you have some steady footwear with you!
Don’t forget that this short hike offers just a taste of what the Hocking Hills State Park has to offer – there are tonnes of other sights to check out too, including the might Cedar Falls and Ash Cave. If you fancy exploring the park a little more, there are cabins you can rent and campgrounds too, both of which make excellent bases for exploring. And if you want things up a little, it’s not just hiking that goes on here – there are ziplines, canoe trips, and even yoga classes held in some incredible outdoor locations.
Next up is one for all you animal lovers out there, the Kearney Canal Trail, located in Nebraska. This out-and-back-again route covers just over 15 km in total, but isn’t particularly strenuous thanks to the flat terrain (with just a 137-ft elevation gain in total), so most people will be able to manage it.
You’ll amble across wooden bridges surrounded by welcoming trees and open expanses of grassland that are home to an array of colorful wildflowers. These flowers attract a range of insects, which in turn attract heaps of birds to the area, so make sure you take your binoculars with you if you’re into that kind of thing. One particularly impressive show of wildlife occurs between February and April, as a mass migration of sandhill cranes occurs in the sky above the canal – so make you keep your eyes on the sky as well as the pretty riverside views.
You’ll wind your way along the canal soaking up the sights without even breaking a sweat. Plus, if you end up wishing you were on the water instead of next to it, then why not rent a kayak from one of the local vendors and soak up the sights from a different angle. This really is one laidback way to up your daily step count as you stroll along watching the wildlife.
Who says a hike around the midwest can’t take you up some awesome mountains? Granted, Eagle Mountain might not be as spectacular as the Rockies, but it certainly has its own charm and, with a peak of 2,301 ft, it’s the tallest spot in Minnesota.
It’s roughly 5 km up the mountain and another 5 km t come back down the same way. The ascent is fairly steep in places, but overall, it’s a slow steady climb that isn’t particularly challenging. However, the ground is fairly uneven in places, with stones and wooden debris underfoot, so make sure that you’re wearing decent footwear for this hike.
It’s certainly worth all that careful climbing when you get to the top though, as you’ll be greeted with seemingly endless views of hills, lakes, and forests, making for one incredibly varied landscape.
And don’t forget, once you’re done, you’re in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, so why not rent a canoe to get a completely different perspective on the area?
If you’re heading on over to Illinois, make sure you don’t leave without heading over to the Starved Rock State Park for some awesome riverside hiking.
In total, the pathways make up 13 miles of trail, and the great thing is that you can pick and chose which ones you follow, as most of them are connected. In this way, you can customize your route so that it suits you perfectly.
Whichever route you do decide to go for, you’re going to be awestruck by the enchanting scenery. With a network of streams, rivers, and waterfalls, you’ll soon get used to hearing the flow of water in the back of your mind. The rocks protruding from the forestry give the place a unique appearance, and you’ll even find some fairly large canyons dotted around the place. Finally, any eagle-eyed hikers heading this way in winter will likely spot some eagles as they make their way around the park (on intended…sorry), as the skies above the park form part of a key migratory route.
If you’re unsure what route you’d like to take, why not head over to the park’s visitor center, where the staff will be more than happy to give you a helping hand (it’s open 9 am-12 pm Monday to Friday). If you’re finding it hard to leave this magical place (we wouldn’t blame you if you were), then you might be interested to know that there are several campsites within the park, and they make a great base for exploring not only the river trails but the rest of the park too.
We’re heading over to Michigan now to bring you an excellent woodland day hike, the Potawatomi Trail. This hike will take you around the Pinckney Recreation Area, which is located in southeast Michigan, just an hour’s drive from Detroit.
The Pinckney Recreation Area itself covers a whopping 11,000 acres in total and is an extremely popular spot among not only hikers but also bikers, fisherman, and water general water enthusiasts. Highlights of the area include features glacial tilts, kettle lacks, and boggy patches of marshland.
The Potawatomi Trail is a lovely extended loop that covers just under 30 km in total. The route will take you right around the wetlands and marshes that the park is famed for, and, of course, majestic rivers will be within your sights for most of the trip.
To begin the hike, park up in the lot on the east side of Silver Lake, which is right by the start of the trail. As it’s a loop, feel free to head around whichever way you choose, although most people take the northerly direction.
The watery route flanks a forest filled with maple and oak trees, and it crosses various streams, most of which are covered by wooden bridges. You’ll pass not only Silver Lake but also Crooked Lake, Gosling Lake, Halfmoon Lake, Blind Lake, and more on your way. As entrancing as the idyllic lakes are, make sure you cast your eyes further afield too so you don’t miss getting a glimpse of the glacier moraines the area is known for.
Although there are some small dips along the way, there’s nothing too steep for you to deal with, and this is one fairly laidback route overall. One thing to bear in mind, however, is that this route is also loved by mountain bikers, so you’ll most likely have a few whiz by you at some point!
The route is clearly signposted so you don’t need to worry about getting lost – but if you want to shave off some of the distance then you can explore some of the side tracks.
Image courtesy of Peter Moreville