National Parks of the Midwest: Adventure Awaits in Your Own Backyard

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Rugged, isolated islands. Southern boreal and northern hardwood forests. Four glorious seasons, complete with vibrant fall foliage. Wilds where apex predators not only survive but thrive. From exposed rock ridges to wetlands, fascinating, moss-covered formations and urban climes, national parks in the Midwestern United States offer more than meets the eye.  

Providing a surprising variety of environs — including open farmland, glaciated landscapes, mixed prairielands and clastic dikes in hues of tan, green and red — the Midwest is also home to lumbering buffalos, elusive grey wolves, bighorn sheep and bald eagles.  

Whether you favor lakes, deep forests, fossils or something in between, so much of the Midwestern U.S. is just waiting to be explored. And if you’re fortunate enough to live in the region, America’s breathtaking backyards — National Park Service-managed lands — are a hop, skip and a jump from home. Considering a move to the Midwestern United States? Already settled in?

United Van Lines can not only get you there, but also help you settle in, get familiar with your new neighborhood, and embrace the beauty and natural resources that surround you. 

Tips for Visiting National Parks 

Get a Lay of the Land  

Whether you prefer a quick weekend jaunt or a full-on vacation, it’s important to get the lay of the land before visiting the Midwest’s national parks, as these destinations are among the remotest areas on Earth. As such, you’ll lack access to certain necessities; cell service can be spotty; and weather and road conditions can change in the blink of an eye.  

Check the Park Website  

Check the parks’ official website for things like road and trail closures before you go — otherwise you could be met with a closed road, entrance or trail that can derail an otherwise well-planned adventure. This is the wilderness, after all, and you’re at the mercy of mother nature every single day.  

Plan Your Routes and Pack a Map  

It’s often an hours-long drive through challenging — not to mention exhilarating — driving conditions when traveling from one end of most national parks to the other. Plan your routes and map out everything in advance. It’s also a good idea to purchase hard-copy maps, like National Geographic’s waterproof trail map series. They not only include topography, but also roads and routes not detailed on regular maps — or, frankly, the ones you receive at the gate.  

Time it Right  

Because the parks are so vast, timing is everything. Acadia, for example, spans 49,075 acres. Group viewpoints and hikes by regions within the park; note the distance and time between destinations; and know how far it is to your must-sees in advance. No one wants to end up mid-mountain and crunched for time. Account for the fact that these drives can take longer than expected — mountain, unpaved and meandering roads are that way.  

Consider, too, what time of year is right for your visit. In some parts of the country, the summer heat is oppressive, while winter brings seasonal road closures that render parts of the parks off-limits for months at a time. By contrast, off-season visits — spring and fall — prove more peaceful and less populated, while providing a beauty of their own. However, these can also be times when certain regions receive the most rain. 

Here are some other important considerations and rules of thumb when planning national park trips: 


  • Get an annual national park pass 
  • Buy a park passport — and stamp it at each visitor’s center 
  • Book early — nearby accommodations fill up well in advance 


  • Bring proper gear — and prepare for weather changes 
  • Dress in layers and bring a daypack 
  • Drink water — and lots of it 
  • Slather on sunscreen, regardless of the weather 
  • Pack a picnic, as dining options are limited-to-non-existent 


  • Stop by the gift shop — they tend to be great 
  • Gas up the night before — hours vary and options are few and far between 
  • Combine camping with a stay in a historic lodge or Airbnb 
  • Befriend park rangers for insider information 
  • Download park, weather and GPS apps in advance 
  • Check the park website for time entry requirements 
  • Leave no trace 

Ready to get started? Let’s explore some of the national parks in the Midwest and delve into their biggest draws.

  1. Indiana Dunes National Park
  2. Isle Royale National Park  
  3. Voyageurs National Park
  4. Gateway Arch National Park
  5. Theodore Roosevelt National Park
  6. Cuyahoga Valley National Park
  7. Badlands National Park
  8. Wind Cave National Park

National Parks in Indiana 

Indiana Dunes National Park

Indiana Dunes National Park


Northwest Indiana 


February 15, 2019 


15,349 acres 

With more than 15,000 acres — including 15 miles of southern Lake Michigan shoreline — Indiana Dunes National Park features more than 50 miles of trails, which intersect rugged dunes, sun-drenched prairies, bird-populated wetlands, snaking rivers and serene forests.  

Brimming with four seasons of picturesque to-dos, each rewarding in its own way, visitors can not only hike, but also build sandcastles, camp, fish, birdwatch and go horseback riding amid spectacular foliage. And when the weather turns cold? There’s always snowshoeing, sledding and cross-country skiing.  


Situated within several ecological transition zones, “The Dunes” pack a punch, ranking fourth in biological diversity among the country’s national parks. Here, some species of which flourish on account of past climatic changes. All told, there are 46 species of mammals, 18 species of amphibians, 23 species of reptiles, 71 species of fish, 60 butterfly species (including the endangered Karner blue butterfly), 350 species of birds — many migratory — and 60 species of damselflies and dragonflies.  

From coyotes to white-tail deer and a great blue heron rookery, opportunities for wildlife-spotting are at every turn.  

Shaped by glacial effects and changing weather patterns, the park is a haven for 1,130 native vascular plants, too, among them the federally threatened Pitcher’s thistle. Home to 30% of Indiana’s listed rare, threatened, endangered and of-special-concern plant species, the dunes landscape contains flora common to eastern deciduous forests, remnants of boreal forests, wetlands, tallgrass prairies and species typically seen along the Atlantic coast.  


With weather that’s significantly affected by Lake Michigan, the conditions at Indiana Dunes can quickly change. Typical, though, are sunny, hot, humid summers that usually cap around the mid-80s F. Pleasant, dry weather arrives on account of fronts that descend from Canada.  

On the other hand, winters tend to be cloudy and in the mid 30s F, dipping into the low 20s F — even below 0 F — an average of 15 days each year. During periods of extreme cold, skies tend to be clear.  

Be sure to check the park’s website for weather and water conditions. 



Featuring a staggering array of plant diversity, the 4.3-mile, lollipop-shaped Cowles Bog Trail journeys along a moderately challenging route through wetlands, savanna and dunes, as well as along the shores of Lake Michigan. A chance to marvel at several distinct habitats — ponds, marshes, swamps, black oak savannas and beaches — you can expect plenty of steep, sandy climbs.  


Explore four stages of dune development on the 1.1-mile West Beach – Dune Succession Trail, starting at the beach and ending at the boardwalk, which takes you through a forest rising from the sand.  


Those seeking a difficult hike head to nearby Indiana Dunes State Park, where the 3 Dune Challenge offers a 1.5-mile workout. Beginning at the nature center, it features 552 vertical feet to climb. The reward? Breathtaking views from the summit. 


The 3.9-mile Little Calumet River and Monke Prairie Trail offers a lovely introduction to the park’s biodiversity, traveling through many habitats and affording opportunities to relax at the beach. Connecting Bailly Homestead, Chellberg Farm and the Dunes Learning Center, it passes through the tranquil Mnoke Prairie, skirts the Little Calumet River valley, and follows a boardwalk through wet bottomlands before ascending into a hardwood forest and pine plantation.  


Short with a steep trip down the largest living dune in the national park, the somewhat strenuous, .9-mile Mount Baldy Beach Trail brings you to the shimmering waterfront.  


Interchangeably called the East Dunes Highway and the Lake Michigan Shoreline Scenic Drive this journey takes you through picturesque landscapes, industrial areas and a breathtaking beach vista within the national park. From Gary traveling east, you’ll eventually reach Indiana Dunes National Park on a route that continues well beyond, as the entirety of U.S. Route 12 is 2,484 miles long. 

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National Parks in Michigan 

Isle Royale National Park  

Isle Royale National Park


Lake Superior, near the Canadian border 


April 3, 1940 


132,018 acres 

Stay Prepared in Isle Royale National Park 

When setting out for hikes on the island, it’s extremely important to have the following, as rescue support is limited:  

  • Plenty of drinking water  
  • Snacks  
  • Rain gear  
  • First aid essentials 
  • A map 
  • A compass 

A remote, untouched treasure, seasonally accessible Isle Royale National Park is a rugged, isolated wilderness of forests, lakes and waterways where moose and wolves roam. Journey by private boat, ferry or seaplane, arriving at park’s southwest end (Windigo, Michigan) or northeast end (Rock Harbor, Minnesota), where the park’s only non-tented lodging is found.  

The town of Minong and the waters immediately surrounding the archipelago are an important part of the North Shore Ojibwe’s traditional cultural history. They were also part of the Ojibwe’s (Chippewa’s) ancestral land, used for hunting and trapping, as well as fishing, maple sugaring, gathering plants and practicing spiritual traditions.  

According to the Ojibwe, the waters off Minong are home to the Mishipeshu, a mythological underwater lynx, both an important and potentially dangerous spirit being. Adding to the park’s allure, dive sites in Lake Superior feature several shipwrecks. 

Isle Royale is open annually, from April 16 through October 31. The island is closed November 1 through April 15 due to unsafe, extreme winter conditions, which extend 4.5 miles out from the island into Lake Superior. To preserve its wilderness integrity, vehicles and wheeled devices, with the exception of wheelchairs, are not allowed on Isle Royale. Hiking, boating, canoeing and kayaking are the best — and only — ways to experience its expanse. 


Having once crossed an ice bridge between Isle Royale and the Canadian mainland, park residents include red foxes, otters, beavers and massive moose. Gray wolves have also populated the park since the late 1940s. 

Integral to the ecosystem, wolves help stabilize the moose herd, as they prey on the old, young, ill and injured among them. Moose provide stable winter hunting for the wolves, leading the species’ dramatic comeback. Joining them are a wide array of amphibians, mollusks, birds and insects, some rare and others found only in the park’s inland lakes or streams.  

Isle Royale is also home to over 600 flowering plants, including a number of rare species. Mosses form lush carpets, while nearly 30 species of ferns flourish and 600 different species of lichen cling to bedrock and balsam firs.  


Featuring a moist continental climate, Isle Royale sees comfortable summers and frigid, snowy winters. Generally, it’s partly cloudy year-round, with temperatures that fluctuate between -1 F and 76 F. Wondering about the best time of year to visit? It depends on what experience you seek, though warm-weather activities are best enjoyed from early July through late August. 

On and around Isle Royale, consider all surface lake and stream water contaminated and non-potable. You’ll find helpful information about safely treating water in the backcountry here. Additionally, always check both land and water conditions on the park’s website, and a reliable weather service, as conditions are temperamental and quickly change 


Isle Royale is 45 miles long and nine miles wide, with an area of nearly 207, making it the fourth largest lake-island in the world.  


For spectacular views, the 4.7-mile Scoville Point via the Stoll Memorial Trail is a moderately challenging but rewarding hike that winds to the northeast from Rock Harbor, Michigan, area between the forest and Lake Superior shoreline.  


Rigorous and lengthy, the point-to-point, 39.5-mile Greenstone Ridge Trail from Windigo to Tobin Harbor is the park’s longest and most varied. It typically takes between four and five days to hike in its entirety. Taking you through dense boreal forest and damp, thigh-high ferns, it travels up and down basalt ridges to the 1,394-foot pinnacle of Mount Desor, with beautiful viewpoints and wildflowers enroute. 


A 6.7-mile out-and-back option, the Rock Harbor to Daisy Farm Trail offers scenic views along the Rock Harbor Channel and Mott Island. 

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National Parks in Minnesota 

Voyageurs National Park

Voyageurs National Park


Northern Minnesota, near the Canadian border 


April 8, 1975 


218,000 acres 

Set at the Canadian border in International Falls, Minnesota, 218,055-acre Voyageurs National Park offers year-round enchantment, from its rock ridges and cliffs to its wetlands, southern boreal and northern hardwood forests, streams, and lakes.  

Featuring both land and aquatic ecosystems, it’s a place where the Northern Lights make a sporadic appearance, eagles soar overhead while wolves roam below. The Ellsworth Rock Gardens on the shores of Lake Kabetogama and the Kabetogama Peninsula feature 200 sculptural delights.  

The park’s name is a nod to the French Canadian fur traders who began journeying along the area’s interconnected waterways more than 250 years ago. But it was during the Paleo-Indian Period that people first entered this area, when the waters from glacial Lake Agassiz receded.  


With interconnected waterways that flow west and, eventually, north as part of the Hudson Bay’s arctic watershed, Voyageurs is part wild, part developed. Located at the southern end of the Canadian Shield, it reveals some of the world’s oldest rocks.  

Home to iconic Northwoods species — among them moose, several wolf packs, black bears, bald eagles and owls — its wetlands are also a haven for beavers and amphibians. Roughly 40% of the park is water — it’s also populated with walleye, northern pike, lake trout and sturgeon.  

Boreal tree species from the north — spruce, fir, aspen and paper birch — mingle with maples, oaks, pines and basswood from the south and east. Time it right and strawberries, blueberries and raspberries abound.  


Experiencing four distinct seasons, the weather is most temperate June through August. The park remains frost-free an average of 120 days from June to mid-September. 

Fairly rainy and snowy, annual precipitation — including rain and snow — averages 25 to 28 inches. The snowfall varies but is usually between 55 and 70 inches. 

Keep an eye on trail and weather conditions on the park’s website. 



Narrow, winding and rocky, the 3-mile Blind Ash Bay Trail cuts through the boreal forest, with ample opportunities to spot wildlife, such as deer and a variety of birds.  


The 1.7-mile out-and-back Oberholtzer Trail travels through deciduous and conifer forest before twisting through a cattail-dotted wetland and past rocks that were left by ancient glaciers.  


Fringed by pine trees, the .4-mile Kabetogama Lake Trail is an easy option with excellent lake vistas.  


Another non-strenuous choice is the .3-mile, out-and-back Beaver Pond Overlook Trail, a short, uphill hike that culminates in a view of its namesake.  


Opt to take Minnesota’s northernmost scenic drive — Waters of the Dancing Sky Scenic Byway — which travels from Voyageurs National Park along the Canadian border. Motor from Rainy River in International Falls to Baudette, pass through fields of lady’s slippers from Baudette to Warroad, and follow the Pine to Prairie Birding Trail west of Warroad. 

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National Parks in Missouri

Gateway Arch National Park

Gateway Arch


St. Louis, on the Mississippi River’s west bank 


February 22, 2018 


91 acres 


Built in the form of a weighted, catenary arch and clad in stainless steel, Gateway Arch is the tallest such structure in the world.  


Each leg of Gateway arch is 54 feet wide at ground level, tapering to 17 feet up top. 


Designed by architect Eero Saarinen, Gateway Arch soars 630 feet into the sky and is 630 feet wide at its base. 

H x W 

Its two legs were built separately. Had their measurements been off by as little as 1/64th of an inch, they would not have joined at the top.  

Diplomatic Details 

The Secret Service forbids all presidents from ascending the arch due to safety concerns about the right, enclosed space. The only exception? Dwight D. Eisenhower, who signed the order for its construction in 1954. 

Set in the city of St. Louis, Gateway Arch National Park serves as a memorial to Thomas Jefferson’s role in opening the west, leading to the westward expansion of the United States in the 19th century; the explorers, pioneers and rebels who helped shape American history; and Dred Scott — and his wife, Harriet — who sued for their freedom from slavery.  

Formerly the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, the national park now consists of the Gateway Arch; an underground visitor’s center beneath it; the Museum of Westward Expansion; and St. Louis’ Old Courthouse, which is two blocks west of the arch. 


Set on 91 picturesque acres, Gateway Arch is the smallest national park in the United States. An urban oasis of ornamental turf grass, bald cypress trees, shrubs and flowers, it includes Zen gardens and even a native grass meadow.  

Situated between the prolific habitat of the Mississippi River and downtown St. Louis, the park welcomes urban-adapted species, like raccoons, white-tailed deer and Canada geese. Meanwhile, resident birds include mourning doves, northern cardinals, robins, house finches and blue jays. Not to be overlooked are the insects — like Monarch butterflies and buzzing bees — which are crucial to its ecology.  


St. Louis summers are hot and muggy, while its winters are cold and snowy. On average, the park sees 42 inches of annual rain, most of it falling between May and August, its busiest months. Crowds are much smaller in January and February, though spring ushers in an increase in visitors. Fall is a pleasant time to visit, though crowds can peak, as they do in November and December, when kids are out of school.  

Keep an eye on current conditions on the park’s website.  


A unique conveyance system takes visitors from the lower-level lobby to the top of the arch. Featuring eight five-passenger trains per leg, the capsules run at a rate of 340 feet per minute, a 10-minute ride round trip. From the observation platform at the top, plate-glass windows offer expansive views to the east and west.  

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National Parks in North Dakota

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park


Western North Dakota, where the Great Plains meet the Badlands 


November 10, 1978 


70,446 acres 

Located in western North Dakota, where the Great Plains meet the rugged badlands, sprawling Theodore Roosevelt National Park memorializes the 26th U.S. president, who began ranching operations in the Dakota Territory after the death of his wife and mother in the late 1800s. However, the park’s cultural history extends back thousands of years.  

Whether directly or indirectly, the park is greatly impacted by environmental factors, be it glaciation, ancient swamps and river deltas, or constant winds and sporadic, torrential rainstorms. From its flood plains to its forests, prairies, rivers and streams, it’s a land of stark contrasts filled with fascinating geologic formations, glacial features and fossils.  

The region’s historic inhabitants include the Mandan and Hidatsa, whose traditional bison hunting grounds included the Little Missouri River basin.  

The Crow used the eastern edge of the badlands, while hunting and trading drew other tribes — such as the Blackfeet, Gros Ventre, Chippewa, Cree, Sioux and Rocky Boy — in the early 19th century.  


A wide variety of animal species call Theodore Roosevelt National Park home, thanks in no small part to its native grasses, which supply sustenance for large and small grazing animals. Its varied habitats attract a diversity of birds, while its intriguing terrain results in fascinating microclimates — from warm, dry slopes to cooler, wetter juniper woodland and river bottoms that teem with life. 

Visitors may see bison, wild horses and elk, as well as pronghorn, prairie dogs, and white-tail and mule deer. Plenty of reptiles — like bull snakes, prairie rattlesnakes, western painted turtles and short-horned lizards — are residents, too, as are more than 186 types of birds and amphibians, such as boreal chorus frogs and tiger salamanders.  

As for plant life, more than 400 species have been identified in the park’s prairies, grasslands, forested and cooler slopes, and dry, south-facing buttes. Boasting an impressive display of wildflowers, the pasqueflower is the first to bloom, followed later by sunflowers, asters and rabbitbrush. 


Warm, sunny weather prevails in summer, when temperatures typically are in the 70s F and 80s F. Conversely, winters are cold — in the single digits — from December through February. The park receives an average of 15 inches of precipitation per year, which includes an average of 30 inches of snow during the winter.  

Violent thunderstorms in summer and blizzards in winter can occur. Watch for current conditions on the park’s website. 



The 4.4-mile Caprock Coulee Loop travels through dry washes, with vistas of the Little Missouri River and vibrant badlands landscape. Wildlife sightings are common along this route, which ascends 730 feet.  


Short and sweet, the family-friendly, .5-mile Wind Canyon Trail begins at Scenic Loop Road, taking hikers past wind-eroded cliffs above the Little Missouri River, culminating at a dramatic lookout point over the breathtaking, barren landscape.  


A short hike just off of I-94, the 1.1-mile Painted Canyon Nature Trail drops down into the canyon, revealing vivid layers of eroded rock and a proliferation of wildflowers and junipers.  


The .8-mile out-and-back Boicourt Overlook Trail is a stunner offering vast panoramas of the rugged, rolling landscape and distant buttes from above.  


A remote, unpaved backcountry route, the 4.4-mile Petrified Forest Trail lends insight into the park’s geologic past, when it was dominated by shallow swamps and soaring trees. After traveling up out of the badlands into a wide prairie, the trail splits, each side taking hikers through a valley filled with petrified stumps.  


From the South Unit Visitor Center, putter along 36-mile Scenic Loop Drive through the colorful badlands and prairie dog towns, with many opportunities to spot wildlife. In the North Unit, hook up with the 14-mile scenic drive, which follows the north rim of the Little Missouri River Valley for magnificent views and more chances to see wildlife. 

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National Parks in Ohio

Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Cuyahoga Valley


Along the Cuyahoga River, between Cleveland and Akron 


December 27, 1974 


33,000 acres 

Set along the winding Cuyahoga River, between the urban Ohio cities of Cleveland and Akron, Cuyahoga Valley National Park offers over 125 miles of hiking trails, not to mention a chance to ride on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, a unique way to experience its natural beauty.  

With over 12,000 years of human occupation, Native Americans were the first inhabitants, building villages before Europeans established trading posts and New England settlers decided to stay. While the Native American villages, pioneer settlements and canal worker communities no longer exist, remnants throughout the park offer insights into the past.  

The 22-mile stretch of river — a riparian habitat — is but one element of the park, joined by deciduous mixed mesophytic forests and wetland habitats. 


The park has 900 resident plant species, in addition to well over 200 bird species, 32 mammal species, 91 species of aquatic macroinvertebrates, 43 varieties of fish, 22 types of amphibians, and 20 reptile species. Featuring two distinct geographic regions — the Appalachian Plateau and the Central Lowlands — 33,000-acre Cuyahoga Valley welcomes coyotes, red and gray foxes, bats, chipmunks and squirrels, along with deer, beavers and muskrats.  

The northern copperhead, endangered spotted turtle and 28 bird species designated “of concern” populate the landscape, too. Look overhead to spot bald eagles or peregrine falcons. Additionally, there are three heronries within.  

A stroll through the forests and fields reveals many of the park’s 943 plant species, be it bloodroot and spring beauty on the forest floor or late summer stands of goldenrod and wingstem that line roadways. 


Warming springs and humid summers, ranging from 49 F to 95 F, make layering one’s attire a must. Fall temperatures can vary significantly, too, ranging from the low 70s F during the day to freezing at night. Winter weather has the potential to change rapidly on account of lake effect snow from Lake Erie, when temperatures hover between the mid-30s F to below zero.  

Check the park’s website for current conditions and closures. 



Offering the best panoramas of the park — including of its sandstone layered rock “ledges” — the 2.3-mile Ledges Trail takes you through mossy passageways and to an overlook with views for miles.  


A 1.4-mile loop near the town of Hudson, the Brandywine Gorge Trail, when taken clockwise, takes you down into the gorge, back up the other side, over the falls and to a viewing boardwalk to see it plummet and hear its roar.  


Consider taking the 3.9-mile Stanford Trail, one of the most popular in the park, to see the historic 1843 Stanford House, a raised, three-bay barn.  


Mostly made of dirt, the 2.4-mile Blue Hen Falls Trail — via the Buckeye Trail from Boston Mill — begins with a 200-foot climb and zigzags through the forest before descending to the picturesque waterfall. Expect a steep, 580-foot change in elevation.  


Combine the Pine Grove and Forest Point Trails for a family-friendly, 2.7-mile trek through wooded deciduous greenery, hemlocks and a stippling of wildflowers swaying amid switchgrass.  


Looking for a pretty drive? Riverview Road Scenic Drive — or County Road 9 — extends nearly 20 miles through this park, revealing some of its greatest vistas. Picnic areas, waterfalls and visitor’s centers are accessible just off the route. You can also park and take a ride on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad; its tracks are visible from the road. 

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National Parks in South Dakota

Badlands National Park  

Badlands National Park


Near the Black Hills, east of Rapid City 


November 10, 1978 


242,756 acres  

A wilderness of layered rock formations, soaring spires and steep canyons, wild and wonderful Badlands National Park spans 242,756 acres in southwestern South Dakota.  

Archaeological finds show people have been in and around the badlands for as long as 12,000 years. The park’s South Unit is located entirely on tribal trust land, held in trust by the federal government for the use and benefit of Oglala Sioux tribe members. However, a great number of associated tribes have histories throughout the park’s natural and cultural landscape. Later, homesteaders moved to the Midwest in search of a new life, some ultimately settling in the scenic surrounds.  

Situated in a mixed-grass prairie ecosystem, the ever-changing, deeply eroded expanse of buttes, pinnacles and spires — deposited as early as 75 million years ago — reveal fossilized remains buried in the rock beneath. 


A place at once striking and stark, ancient horses and rhinos once roamed here. Today, the badlands welcome bighorn sheep, pronghorn, bison, black-footed ferrets (one of North America’s most endangered animals) and comical, curious — not to mention vocal — prairie dogs, who pop up from holes in the ground. Meanwhile, birds of prey coast overhead in search of their next meal, perhaps venomous, thermosensitive prairie rattlesnakes. Roughly 206 bird species and 69 documented species of butterflies and amphibians — from frogs to toads — have also been found in Badlands National Park. 


Weather is known to change quickly in the badlands, with highly variable, extreme temperatures that range from 116 F to -40 F. June is the wettest month and violent thunderstorms can occur during hot, dry summers. Meanwhile, the badlands are no stranger to hailstorms; the occasional tornado can occur; and winter typically brings 12 to 24 inches of snow.  

Because changes in weather can be both sudden and dramatic, it’s important to dress in layers, wear protective sunblock and carry adequate water for hiking.  

Always check weather conditions on the park’s website to help prepare for visits. 



Wind through a canyon and climb a log ladder, following a ledge to vistas of the White River Valley on the 1.5-mile, out-and-back Notch Trail, the park’s most popular hike. Note, however, that it’s treacherous during or after heavy rains or snow.  


Set out on a .9-mile hike along The Door Trail, where a boardwalk leads to an opening in Badlands Wall, revealing a rugged, otherworldly landscape.  


Requiring caution and a climb of 900 feet, 5.5-mile The Window Trail drops into Oak Creek Canyon to the pour-off, with its spectacular desert vistas. Depending on conditions, Oak Creek may be flowing and therefore must be crossed several times. Note that the top of the pour-off is slickrock, without railings.  


Climb up the Badlands Wall for views over White River Valley on the .7- mile Saddle Pass Trail, where it’s possible to connect with the Castle and Medicine Root Loop Trails. While among the park’s shorter trails, it’s also one of the steepest, with a 300-foot change in elevation.  


Don’t skip the surreal, 39-mile loop drive on South Dakota Highway 240, between the towns of Cactus Flat and Wall. It’s so dramatic — and so thrilling — it has been featured in driving video games. With 16 overlooks, view everything from the Pinnacles to the Burns and Conata Basins, as well as the Yellow Mounds, bands of yellow, orange and beige rock from a drained, ancient sea. 

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Wind Cave National Park

Wind Cave National Park


Southwestern corner of South Dakota 


January 9, 1903 


33,847 acres 

Tucked into the southwestern corner of South Dakota, Wind Cave National Park is best known for containing one of the longest, most complex cave systems in the world. In the subterranean passages, watch for boxwork, a unique, rarely seen formation. Made of thin blades of calcite that project from cave walls and ceilings, it forms a honeycomb pattern. 

Above, an intact prairie and ponderosa forest is intersected by hiking trails. Incredible Black Hills scenery creates a home for some of North America’s most iconic wildlife. Meanwhile, prairie dog towns — or colonies — offer sightings of these entertaining, social creatures.  

A place of mystery and abundant oral history, native people called the Black Hills home since time immemorial. 


A tale of two vastly different worlds within the park’s boundaries, its cave is a seldom-seen mix of needle-like frostwork; knobby cave popcorn; rare boxwork; stalactites; stalagmites; dogtooth spar crystals; and flowstone. 

Above ground, bison, elk and pronghorn live among American bison, endangered black-footed ferrets, elk, mule deer, coyotes and secretive bobcats. Challenging as the environment may be, several species of reptiles and amphibians — from trilling frogs to poisonous prairie rattlesnakes — are residents.  

Vanilla-scented ponderosa pines give way to prairie grasses and delicate wildflowers. Punctuated by white sego lilies, purple coneflowers and cheery sunflowers, the flora is an unexpected feast for the eyes.  


Generally semi-arid, with mild winters and warm summers, Wind Cave’s weather is greatly influenced by the Rocky Mountains to the west, as well as the high peaks of the northern Black Hills. It’s significantly warmer and drier than the northern hills, even when arctic air masses move south from Canada.  

The winter snowfall averages 30 inches. Spring and fall days alternate between warm and sunny, cool and windy, and rainy. Summer ushers in warm daytime temperatures and cool evenings, with oft-occurring, severe thunderstorms, hail and lightning in June and July.  

Be cautious of flash-flooding and do keep an eye on weather conditions on the park’s website.  



No visit to the park is complete without taking a guided tour of the cave. Options include the hour-long Garden of Eden tour; the slightly longer North Entrance tour; or the strenuous Fairgrounds tour, a lengthier chance to view boxwork; frostwork and cave popcorn, with steep stair climbs. 


The 1-mile Raskin Ridge Interpretive Trail is a short, stunning hike to the highest point in the park, with expansive views of Badlands National Park and Buffalo Gap on clear days.  


Combine the Lookout Point and Centennial Loop Trails for a 5.2-mile taste of the 113-mile Centennial Trail, which runs from Bear Butte to Wind Cave National Park. A narrow trek mostly upon slickrock, it features a lookout from the park’s pinnacle and vast views across mixed-grass prairie and ponderosa forest.  


A 2.8-mile out-and-back trail near Custer, the 2.8-mile Cold Brook Canyon Trail winds through its namesake, with opportunities to glimpse raptors and prairie dog colonies.  


The 3.8-mile out-and-back Wind Cave Canyon Trail takes hikers along an old road to the park’s boundary, seeing limestone cliffs, which are nesting habitats for cliff swallows, canyon wrens and great horned owls.  


Both U.S. Highway 385 and South Dakota Highway 87 — the two main roads through the park — afford scenic drives with pull-outs for appreciating the landscape and spotting wildlife.  

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Heading to another part of the country, whether to move, for business or for pleasure? Be sure to check out our other national park guides: 

West Coast 

Interior West 

Interior Southwest 



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