Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (Flickr: Tim Wilson)
Living in the heart of America’s Heartland lends itself to wonderful exploratory road trips. From Great Plains to arid Badlands, Great Lakes to Ozark Mountains, the Midwest is far more than flat land filled with corn, beans, and hogs – it’s a traveler’s paradise!
Each of the five fabulous towns listed below offers family-friendly accommodations, activities, and incredible dining (even the kids menus are good!) Let me inspire you to fly in to ‘fly over country’ for your next family vacation!
Head Up North
Just an hour south of Lake Superior, Hayward, Wisconsin is a year-round getaway for hardy northerners. For the rest of us, a summer visit is simply divine. The cool Great Lakes breezes filter through the tall pine trees, banishing extreme heat and humidity. The best afternoons are spent tubing down the Namekagon River, a cooler of beverages lashed to its own tube. Consider an exploratory day trip to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, just an hour away, for a day of hiking, kayaking or just enjoying the small town of Bayfield. Back in Hayward you’ll want to spend a bit of time in the historic downtown, with its old-time candy shop, delicious homemade ice cream shop, and incredibly unique ‘Wildlife Muesum’ in the Moccasin Bar. Don’t miss a chance to climb into the mouth of a 2-storey Musky at the Freshwater Fishing Museum or watch the Lumberjack Show at the National Lumberjack Championships Arena.
Where to stay: To really enjoy the outdoors, rent a deluxe cabin at the Hayward KOA, and enjoy the pool, waterslide and organized kids activities. A great hotel option is the lodge-like Comfort Suites with its spacious rooms and free hot breakfast.
Great City Getaway
Nicholas Conservatory & Gardens in Rockford, IL (Photo: Jody Halstead)
After the Great Chicago Fire, many residents and businesses left the city and settled in Rockford, Illinois, about 90 miles to the west. The city boomed – and became the second largest city in Illinois (and is now the 3rd). A top stop for families is the Burpee Museum of Natural History where Jane, the most intact juvenile T-Rex ever found resides with a few of her closest skeletal friends. Located just next door is the Discovery Center Museum with more than 250 interactive exhibits. Midway Village offers hands-on history and great fun. Beyond the pioneer village, be sure to visit the museum for more about the Rockford Peaches (A League of Their Own) and the incredible story of the Sock Money and Rockford Red Heel Socks (and pick up a kit to create your own sock monkey!) If you’re visiting in the summer, try to catch a performance by the Rockford Ski Broncs, a competitive waterskiing team, or enjoy a small-town festival in one of the nearby villages. And show your kids that mom & dad have still ‘got it’ with an afternoon of competitive mini golf and go-karting at Volcano Falls Adventure Park.
Where to stay: Located next to Volcano Falls, the Holiday Inn Express & Suites in the village of Loves Park has large, family-friendly rooms and complimentary breakfast. Another kid-friendly option for budget-conscious families is Residence Inn Rockford.
Outdoor Adventure, City Comforts
Rose Gardens in Fort Wayne, IN (Courtesy Visit Fort Wayne)
With one of the top Genealogy Libraries in the country (at Allen County Public Library), Fort Wayne, Indiana, is a popular place for people exploring their roots. While your family historian digs for those seeds of the past, the rest of the family can enjoy Science Central, the Fort Wayne Museum of Art or play in riverside parks. While you’re downtown, be sure to grab a meal at Fort Wayne’s Famous Coney Island, the oldest operating restaurant in Fort Wayne. For an evening of family fun, join the Fort Wayne Tin Caps minor league baseball team at the incredible Parkview Field. Even non-baseball fans will enjoy this outing! Get outdoors and enjoy the fresh Midwestern air on land or water. Rent bicycles, kayaks or canoes from Fort Wayne Outfitters, and explore the city’s ‘Three Rivers’. Spend an afternoon at the wonderful Children’s Zoo. Or, if you like adventure with a bit of adrenaline, head out of town a bit to Zip Timber Lake for their Zipline and Ropes Course – which finishes with a seven-story lift to a 1000 foot zip over a lake!
Where to stay: The Hotel Fort Wayne at the edge of town offers comfortable rooms; the restaurant offers a wonderful breakfast buffet (additional charge). If your activities will find you in the city center, choose the Hilton Fort Wayne at Grand Wayne Convention Center.
A Quirky Escape
Eureka Springs, AR (Courtesy Eureka Springs Chamber of Commerce)
At the very southern edge of the Midwest (but still located in the Ozarks), Eureka Springs, Arkansas provides a unique family getaway. Built as a Victorian resort town, wealthy people would come here to ‘take the waters’ at the springs that filter through the town’s rocky base. Today the town, a protected historic district, is a funky mix of Victorian architecture, artisan shops, and fabulous restaurants. Hop aboard one of the town trolleys to get your bearings (or just carry you up the Ozark mountainside the town is built on). Explore interesting shops, or take a ghost tour at the Crescent Hotel. Outside town, Christ of the Ozarks rises above the trees at the grounds of the Great Passion Play. You’ll find portions of the Berlin Wall here, too. Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge and Promised Land Zoo both offer unique animal experiences. Plan a break for Mom to ‘Take the Waters’ in the original bathhouse of the Palace Hotel. If you’ve never ziplined before, Ozark Mountain Ziplines is a terrific first experience; beginning with low, short zips you progress until you’re flying over the trees of the Ozark Montains.
Where to stay: Enjoy the natural surroundings in a cabin at Eureka Springs KOA. For a historic stay overlooking the town, try the Crescent Hotel.
The Southern Gateway to the Black Hills
The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, South Dakota (Courtesy The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs)
The majority of visitors to Mount Rushmore enter through Rapid City. Escape the vacationing crowds and enjoy more of the Black Hills from Hot Springs, South Dakota. Watch mammoth skeletons emerge from a prehistoric sinkhole at The Mammoth Site, the only place in the world where both the Columbian and Wooly Mammoth have been found together. The entire family can ‘take the waters’ at Evan’s Plunge, a hot spring fed pool. Explore the Great Plains – above and below ground- at Wind Cave National Park (where kids can earn their Junior Ranger Badge). Visit Windcross Conservancy to learn about – and interact with – Spanish Mustangs, the ‘horse that built America’. Of course you’ll have easy access to all the Black Hills fun – Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, the Mickelson Trail, bison herds at Custer State Park, and Chuckwagon Dinner Shows.
Where to stay: Hills Inn is a locally owned, family run hotel with pool and mini golf for the kids.The Historic Log Cabins about a mile outside of town offer a basic and unique stay.
Begin with one of these great towns and your first Midwest vacation won’t be your last!
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