Flyover States, Flyover Country, Flyoverland: when we think of the Midwest, we tend to think of it as the place where people used to be, that no one wants to be anymore. Crumbling factories, cold overcast afternoons and nothing to do. As The Wonder Years song goes, “The Midwest feels like a hollow place that we will filled love and industry, and we’re staring at the frozen ground in Goodwill suits, silent as the pastor reads the eulogy.” While this a common perception among outsiders, and not wholly incorrect at times, the Midwest has so much more to offer than that. In fact, I truly believe some of the most beautiful places in the United States exist in these Flyover States. All we need to do is take the time to stop and see them.
To help you out a little, I’ve created a list of some of my favorite places to camp in the Midwest. Now, I must say that all of these places are located in what we might call the “upper” Midwest, and so excludes the more appropriate Midwestern states like Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. But since no clear geographical region exists for states like the Dakota’s, Minnesota and Wisconsin, without adding the annoying “upper”, we’ll stick to calling it the Midwest. While I’d like to call these states simply “The North”, as distinct from “Midwest”, the Feds dictate that I should not. So! In no particular order, here are my favorite places to camp in the (upper) Midwest.
Black Hills – Custer State Park, SD
The Mount Rushmore State boasts more than just big presidential noggins and wandering herds of bison. From above, the Black Hills look like a rolling sea of green pine, speared by large granite monoliths that jut through the canopy like razor-sharp teeth. Cradled within the rocky crags are crystal clear lakes and ponds that trickle out in shimmering brooks and streams. Driving through the Black Hills is a meandering journey replete with stunning views and active wildlife, that make you want to stop right where you are and camp at the nearest look-out.
Within the 1.2 million acres of the Black Hills National Forest is the Custer State Park. Custer State Park is roughly 70,000 acres of the Black Hills’ best. There are several gorgeous sites for camping, tent or RV, as well as plenty of space for hiking, fishing, horseback riding and more. West of the park is the town of Custer, where you can catch the 109 mile George S. Mickelson Trail and go for the bike ride of a lifetime. Seriously, it’s incredible.
Read more about Custer State Park and the Black Hills here.
Paul Bunyan State Forest, MN
Paul Bunyan is famously known for carving out the Midwest landscape with Babe the Blue Ox, and the state forest named after him certainly appears to be consistent with the folklore. Paul Bunyan State Forest is 105,113 acres of sprawling pine forest dotted with bright blue lakes and deep green bogs with little or no development around them. In the autumn months, the state forest becomes a brilliant amalgam of oranges, reds, and yellows. Combined with a crisp gentle breeze and a dim campfire, it’s a sensational place to camp in the fall and catch a stunning night sky.
There is miles and miles of trails to bike or hike, as well as snowmobiling and ATVing. Considering the number of lakes that are spread across the forest, this fishing here is great as well. One thing I loved, in particular, is the seemingly endless labyrinth of paths the weave in and out of the forest along the trails. The forest paths are narrow and wild, giving you the feeling that you’re deep in the wilderness alone. If you’re into winter camping, the Paul Bunyan State Forest trails are excellent for cross-country skiing as well.
Read more about Paul Bunyan State Forest here.
Judge CR Magney State Park, MN
Way up in the north of Minnesota is the lovely Judge CR Magney State Park. Nestled between Grand Marais and Grand Portage is the shimmering Brule river that runs like a silver vein through high walls of spruce, elm, and tamarack. Beyond the hum of the river is a cathedral quiet that makes everything feel slower, reminding one of the immense magnitudes of the north country. Along the river, the famed Devil’s Kettle Falls spring forth either back into the river, or into the deep empty dark of the adjacent abyss, puzzling hikers and geologists alike (recent research suggests the water simply finds it’s way back to the river, but one can dream). Beyond that lies the mouth of the river and mighty Lake Superior.
Judge CR Magney State Park is a hikers dream, as the 310 mile Superior Hiking Trail runs right through the park along the river and past the falls, later turning southwards alongside the famed North Shore. There are plenty of other trails to choose from as well, and each of them is great for snowshoeing or cross-country skiing in the winter. One thing I love about this park is that you are so far north, it makes you feel like you’re above the entire country, and for the most part, you are.
Read more about Judge CR Magney State Park here.
Badlands National Park, SD
The typical response to your first visit to the Badlands is, “Where on earth am I?” More akin to something you’d see in the American Southwest, the Badlands are a desolate windswept landscape of sandy mountains striped orange, red and white. The mountains rise suddenly from an otherwise flat plain, making their sharp peaks visible from miles away. Driving through the Badlands feels like you’ve left the Midwest, and that’s what makes it so special. It’s like getting a taste of a different part of the world without having to travel a thousand miles to get there.
Camping in the Badlands is a truly unique experience. You have these towering hills in front of you, and behind them is one of the clearest night skies you’ll ever see. Wandering the plains are large bison, curious Bighorn rams and more prairie dogs than you can count. There is more than enough space to hike, and climbing under and over the crazy rock formations is an experience like no other. Be careful though, the slopes tend to be crumbly, and you can slip easily. I may or may not have almost died doing that…
Read more about the Badlands here.
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, WI
Back in the mighty Lake Superior is the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. They consist of 22 islands off the Bayfield Peninsula in northern Wisconsin and offer gorgeous forests and windswept beaches. Along the shores run smoothly carved cliffs riddled with a network of sea-caves bearing high and low arches that create a pantheon of sorts that’s as magical as it is natural. In the winter, icicles decorate the ceilings and walls, adding an ornate touch to an already mystical experience.
For those with a thirst for kayaking, the Apostle Islands are a must-visit Midwest location. There are so many places to kayak in and around the islands, and one of the coolest things about kayaking here is that you can paddle into the caves themselves. The interiors of the islands are beautiful as well and offer great hiking experiences. These islands also have tons of sandy beaches and are perfect for relaxing or going for a dip. Be warned though, Lake Superior waters are chilly!
Read more on the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore here.
There are plenty of other great places to camp in the upper Midwest, and these five are only scratching the surface. But what makes each one of them so special is that they offer something unique to the Midwest as a whole. We don’t normally think of rustic canyons and smooth sea-caves when we imagine the Midwest. And yet, here they are. These camping spots are a testament to the variety of environments in the Midwest, and the overwhelming beauty they offer to anyone who will pay them a visit. And I highly encourage that you do.