Add These Places to Backpack in the Midwest to Your List
Midwest America is not usually the first place most people think of when planning their next backpacking trip, preferring steep mountain peaks and deep river valleys to the stereotypical miles upon miles of corn fields and gently rolling grasslands. But when we overlook our heartland, we actually miss out on some of the most diverse and captivating landscapes our country has to offer for camping and backpacking. When you’re ready to explore something new, check out these 5 places worth backpacking in the Midwest.
Brave the North Dakota Badlands on the 144-mile Maah Daah Hey Trail
Named by the Mandan Hidatsa Indians, Maah Daah Hey means, “an area that has been or will be around for a long time.” Or, more affectionately, “Grandfather.” Pioneers came to know this area in Western North Dakota as the Badlands because of how drastically the terrain went from easy travel across smooth grasslands to torturous difficulty maneuvering through the soft sandstone and rugged landscape of these “bad lands.”
The beginning of the Maah Daah Hey Trail is marked at the Burning Coal Vein Campground, 34 miles north of Bowman, ND on East River Road. From there, the trail traverses up through Theodore Roosevelt National Park and across the heart of the North Dakota Badlands. Its northern terminus is at the CCC Campground, just 20 miles south of Watford City, ND, near where Highway 85 crosses the Little Missouri River.
There are eleven developed campgrounds and 8 water boxes on the Maah Daah Hey Trail, but you will still want to plan your hike carefully and bring a good water filter. While there are some creek and river crossings, the trail does not follow a water source consistently.
You don’t have to tackle all 144 miles of the Maah Daah Hey Trail to enjoy the North Dakota Badlands, though. Theodore Roosevelt National Park offers two campgrounds with a total of 120 campsites and access to numerous hiking trails ranging in length from half a mile to 18 miles or more. The Badlands are a backpacking destination you won’t soon forget.
Become an End-2-Ender on the Superior Hiking Trail in Minnesota
A total thru-hike of the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) begins just south of Duluth at the Wild Valley Road Trailhead, which is near Jay Cooke State Park and the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin. From there, the trail traces the rocky ridges overlooking Lake Superior for 310 miles to Otter Lake Road just shy of Canada. If hotels are off-limits for your thru-hike, or urban hiking isn’t your style, then you may want to stick with the traditional thru-hike of the SHT which begins north of Duluth at the Martin Road Trailhead, cutting out about 50 miles of the trail.
The Superior Hiking Trail Association maintains 94 free campsites along the trail north of Duluth, conveniently spaced out every 5-8 miles. Waterfalls, secluded forests, wildlife, and stunning views of Lake Superior are just some of the treats this trail offers.
If 310 miles just isn’t enough, then when you reach the northern terminus of the SHT at Otter Lake Road, head east for about 500 feet to the southern terminus of the Border Route Trail. This 65-mile hike will take you through the well-loved Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, over 1 million acres of forests and rivers famous for canoeing, camping, and hiking. There’s no end to the adventures you can have in this Midwest wonderland.
Take a Waterfall Tour of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan
From Munising to Grand Marais, Michigan, the North Country National Scenic Trail follows 42 miles of the eastern Lake Superior shoreline right through the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. This small stretch of the greater 4,600-mile North Country Trail will take you past ten waterfalls, several white-sand beaches, and 50 to 200-foot tall cliff faces stained by minerals from groundwater seeping into Lake Superior.
Your first five waterfalls are near Munising, Michigan, your western gateway to the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. You can use this interactive map to plan your trip (just note that the marker for Horseshoe Falls is on the wrong side of Highway 28).
The next four waterfalls are grouped midway along your route between Miners Castle and Chapel Rock, two of the more prominent rock formations this Midwest park is known for. Finally, Sable Falls will be found just past the Grand Sable Banks about a mile outside of Grand Marais, Michigan.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore has three drive-in campgrounds that require reservations and fourteen backcountry campgrounds that require a permit. Some sites are not equipped with water sources and some do not allow fires, so plan accordingly. Visit the National Park Service site to make reservations, but don’t let the details keep you from this magnificent stretch of Lake Superior shoreline.
Lose Yourself Among the Ozarks at Council Bluff Recreation Area in Missouri
The 1.5 million-acre Mark Twain National Forest in Southeast Missouri is home to the Council Bluff Recreation Area. What makes this particular lake and campground the hidden gem of the forest is its location at the crossroads of the Ozark Trail, placing it at the doorstep of some the best backpacking to be found in Missouri.
The main Ozark Trail is a 230-mile route that begins at the Onondaga State Park near Leasburg, MO off Interstate 44 and travels south to the Eleven Point Western trailhead near Thomasville, MO on Highway 94. Another 170 miles of branches and disconnected trails are part of the Ozark Trail Association’s dream to create a 700-mile thru-trail from St. Louis, MO to the Arkansas border.
Council Bluff Lake sits just north of a major fork in the Ozark Trail, a mere 20 miles west of Belleview, MO, giving recreationists easy access to several multi-day backpacking adventures. From the Council Bluffs Campground, you can circumnavigate the lake on an 11-mile loop trail or explore three main branches of the Ozark Trail. Whichever route you choose, you won’t be disappointed with a backpacking adventure in the fabled Ozarks.
Explore the Shawnee State Forest Backpack Trail in Ohio’s Largest State Forest
Nestled in the southern tip of the state of Ohio, Shawnee State Forest comprises over 63,000 acres of hilly woodlands, 72 miles of trails, and the 1,095-acre Shawnee State Park. With over 100 campsites situated between its two main lakes, Turkey Creek Lake and Roosevelt Lake, the Park is the perfect basecamp from which to enjoy all that the State Forest has to offer.
Shawnee State Park is an easy 13 miles west of Portsmouth, a small town on the banks of the Ohio River. Simply take Highway 52 westward out of town, and then turn right onto State Route 125.
The Shawnee State Forest Backpacking Trail is a 40-mile loop with a 2-mile cutoff trail that passes through the State Park, right next to the campground. So you can tackle the loop in two parts if you’re camping at the Park, or you can take advantage of the many backcountry campsites if you want to do the loop in one pass. Numerous side trails and connections are also available for the avid hiker.
Grand vistas and challenging landscapes are powerful draws for backpackers, but the Midwest teaches us that we don’t need towering mountain slopes or snowcapped peaks to discover these things. Exploring backpacking trails in the Midwest can open us up to whole new discoveries in widely new terrain.