Crane migration in Grand Island, Nebraska

The Sandhill Crane migration in Grand Island, Nebraska. (©Grand Island Convention and Visitors Bureau)

The Best Midwest Destinations for Summer Family Vacation

By Jennifer McKee on 04/07/17
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Midwesterners are known for their down-to-earth attitudes, strong work ethic and fun-loving spirit making the country's heartland the perfect destination for a family vacation. From the Great Lakes to the rolling prairie to a presidential homeland, the Midwest attractions every member of the family will adore.


Dubuque, Iowa

Dubuque, Iowa

With a location that sits on the banks of Mississippi River, Dubuque is an explorer's paradise. Named for a Canadian fur trader, it came of age in the golden era of steamboats; today, a journey down the river on a replica sternwheeler vessel is one of the most popular ways for visitors to cruise through the town.

Take a stroll through Dubuque's days of yore at the Mississippi Riverwalk; in addition to a beautifully landscaped tour along the river, you can connect up to a 53-mile network of trails, including the Heritage Trail that leads to the Field of Dreams baseball diamond in Dyersville, Iowa. For further exploration on the waterfront, don't miss the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium that showcases the aquatic life of the Mississippi.

Travel back into history on horse-drawn carriage that offers narrated tours of Dubuque's five historic districts and shows the buildings on the National Historic Register. When you're ready to put your feet up, check into Hotel Julien, named for Dubuque's founding father but famous for its ties to Al Capone, Abraham Lincoln, "Buffalo Bill" Cody and Mark Twain. 


Sandhill Crane migration in Grand Island, Nebraska

Grand Island, Nebraska

"Nebraska is special to me. I've traveled far and wide, and coming to Nebraska, and seeing and hearing the cranes always restores my soul," Jane Goodall, noted anthropologist and UN Messenger of Peace, has famously said. 

During this annual migration event named by National Geographic as one of North America's two greatest natural wildlife phenomena more than 80 percent of the world's Sandhill Crane population migrates from Grand Island every spring. But for those visiting in summer, The Crane Trust is still a worthy stop as wildlife and flowers abound on its prairie lands. The butterfly garden is full of colorful inhabitants, a herd of bison grazes the land and rare birds can be found on the birding trails.

Fun activities for the whole family are plentiful in Grand Island. The Stuhr Museum was named by the Washington Post as one of America's top 12 living history museums; in addition to displays on the pioneer spirit, the museum houses an arboretum, inspiring architecture and an interactive children's area. Explore a chalk mine and float down the river in a stock tank at Loup River Scenic Byway and on the Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway, roll through 20,000 square miles of grass-stabilized sand dunes, an area abundant with wildlife.


Two children dance a traditional Dutch step

Holland, Michigan

This city on the shores of Lake Michigan dons its clogs and welcomes visitors with Dutch flavor and hospitality: Holland's claims to fame are the DeZwaan, the only authentic Dutch windmill in the United States and an internationally recognized Tulip Time Festival that takes place every year in May. From spring through fall, delight in perennials at the Veldheer tulip garden; see the plants or purchase some for yourself. 

Bone up on Dutch history and architecture when you visit Nelis' Dutch Village: you can also learn how to Klompen dance and watch wooden shoe carving demonstrations. When you get hungry, a stop into the Da Kasswinkel cheese shop is in order and—as no trip to Michigan is complete without fudge—check out De Zoete Haan for homemade Dutch fudge and peanut brittle.

Although an exploration of Holland's Dutch experience is a must, it shouldn't take up your whole trip to this lakeside destination. Tunnel Park is so named for its beach entrance through a sand dune; the 22-acre park also has a children's play area with a dune to climb. When you feel the need to get out onto the water, there are plenty of sailing and water sports to enjoy.


Ziplining in Warren County, Ohio

Mason, Ohio

The largest city in Warren County—known as "Ohio's largest playground"—is Mason, Ohio, that anchors 30 miles of fun for kids of all ages. Not only is it home to King's Island, the largest theme and water park in the Midwest but two additional water parks, including Great Wolf Lodge—a famous water park within a hotel—and The Beach Waterpark.

Experience Warren County's countryside aboard the Lebanon, Mason & Monroe Railroad on cars built by the Pullman Company in 1930; narrated, hour-long rides span a six-mile scenic stretch all year long. Bonnybrook Farms is home to pony rides, corn mazes, lantern-lit wagon rides and a mouthwatering spread on the Chuck Wagon Dinner Ride. When it's time to burn off some of those calories, a zipline high above the Little Miami River is in order—you can even undertake an exhilarating zip ride at night.


Lake of the Ozarks

Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri

An outdoor enthusiast's dream, Lake of the Ozarks offers myriad activities no matter how active you want to be. The natural beauty of the area's 17,000-acre state park can be seen on horseback, one of the 10 hiking trails—the Woodland Trail takes you into 1,200 acres of undeveloped forest—or on the park's unique aquatic trail that has 14 highlights along the shoreline marked by buoys.  

Of course, water sports are the most popular way to enjoy the Ozarks' 85 miles of shoreline: speed boats, fishing boats, pontoons and more can be rented hourly from the marinas; you can also take a tour of the area on a water taxi or take a lake cruise. Those looking for an adrenaline rush can also go parasailing. For those who just want to while away their time by the lake the Inn at Grand Glaize sets you right there; or, get the feel of camping but with modern comforts when lodging at a lakeside cabin.

Even if you spend a wealth of time by the lake, a trip to the Big Surf Waterpark is in order; it has everything from a wave pool, water rapid rides and flumes to a splash pool for kids and a lazy river. Another great way to stay cool is by exploring Ozarks' caves. Don't miss the easily accessible Jacob's Cave, the largest in the area, which contains massive stalactites, soda straws, reflection pools, prehistoric animal bones and one of the world's largest geodes.  


Medora Musical

Medora, North Dakota

Named after the wife of its French nobleman founder, Medora sits on the edge of the Badlands. The town famously caught the attention of a young Theodore Roosevelt on a buffalo hunt in 1883. Roosevelt invested in the town's cattle raising ventures after that trip and eventually purchased two ranches in Medora. He called his time in the Badlands "the romance of my life."

Roosevelt's tie to Medora is alive and well today: a 70,000-acre national park is named after him with one of his temporary homes on site. The park is also a treasure trove for those who love to view wildlife with a climate that allows for diversity of habit—everything from salamanders to elk, hundreds of bird species and, yes, bison.  

A trip to Medora wouldn't be complete without taking in its Western flavor, so why not saddle up? From the beginning of June through Labor Day weekend, you can take a horseback ride through the canyon. At the Medora Children's Park, the young ones can play on playground equipment reminiscent of engines and stagecoaches, within the facade of a Western town. Then, jump aboard a carriage ride to learn about the history of the town from cowboys and girls.

Summer travelers won't want to leave without visiting the Medora Musical set in an amphitheater beneath the stars. When all this has got you in the mood for some great grub, the Pitchfork Steak Fondue is a true experience to behold.


Lincoln Home

Springfield, Illinois

Another city with presidential ties, none is more famous than Springfield, the state capitol of Illinois and hometown to Abraham Lincoln; it's why the state has its moniker of the "Land of Lincoln." Every member of you family can be inspired by a visit to sites that pay tribute the legendary president's influence.

The perfect place to start is at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, where history comes alive in artifacts such as the original hand-written copy of the Gettsyburg Address and Mrs. Lincoln's Attic, an interactive exhibit where kids can try on period clothes and play with toys of the day. Ghosts of the Library is the exhibit that uses holographs to tell its story. 

Get a taste of what Lincoln's early adulthood was like in the reconstructed village of Lincoln's New Salem; five-day pioneer camps are available throughout the summer. Then, visit the site of of one of Lincoln's greatest speeches at the Lincoln Depot, a restored 1852 train depot. For those who wish to continue their Lincoln tour, visits to the Lincoln Home National Historic Site and Lincoln Tomb are also musts.

Keep kids engaged at the Air Combat Museum, where they can explore fighter planes that date back to World War II. When something a little less adrenaline-driven is in order Prairie's Edge Farm, with its barnyard animals and fresh eggs ready to gather, provides a lazy afternoon jaunt. 


Loons in Brained Lakes

Brainerd Lakes, Minnesota

A nature-lover's paradise, there are more than 500 lakes and rivers in the Brainerd Lakes area—it is the land of 10,000 lakes, after all. One of the best areas for multi-species freshwater fishing in the United States, the area is a walleye fisherman's dream. A stay at Grand View Lodge is a must for anglers, or those in town to hit the links, the family-friendly Garden course is literally in your back yard.

For additional exploration, grab a bike and hit the trail—the Paul Bunyan State Trail, that is; at 112 miles long it's Minnesota's longest continuously paved trail. Full of charm, it passes 15 small towns from end to end in addition to more than 20 lakes. The trail connects to the 107-mile Blue Ox Trail that rides all the way to Canada. Brainerd Lakes is also home to the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Trail System a circuit of almost 30 miles of mountain bike trails full of breathtaking scenery.

Those who enjoy a more powerful set of wheels should visit Brainerd International Raceway; in addition to watching the world's best drag racers compete in the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals in August, visitors can get behind the wheel themselves at the BIR Performance Driving School. Among the many classes the school offers is a "streetsmarts" course for teens.


Custer State Park in South Dakota

Rapid City, South Dakota

A gateway to Mount Rushmore, the Black Hills and numerous state and national parks, Rapid City may be best loved by families as a destination for animal viewing—right in front of your very eyes. Adopt a herd mentality as you make your way along the 18-mile scenic loop at Custer State Park, where members of the 1,300-strong bison herd think nothing of using the path to free roam.

Another drive-though experience, Bear Country U.S.A., puts all eyes on black bears. Venturing deeper and deeper gets cuter and cuter: the center point of the loop leads you into Babyland, where you can interact with the park's youngest animals.

In addition to the world-famous (and must-visit) Badlands National Park and Mount Rushmore there are smaller and quirkier parks worthy of your time. Explore one of the longest and most complex cave systems in the world at Wind Cave National Park; a journey into Jewel Cave National Monument will find you in awe of the calcite crystals that light up its passageways. Finally, discover a place where the laws of physics seem to be out of whack; at the Cosmos Mystery Area, you won't even be able to stand straight.


Woman kayaks in Bayfield, Wisconsin

Bayfield, Wisconsin

With a lakeshore ranked as a "top place to visit" by National Geographic, starred-filled skies that are perfect for camping beneath and the Midwest's most luscious berry farms and orchards, Bayfield, "the berry capital of Wisconsin," offers a slice of small-town Americana as delicious as its famous apple pies. 

Bayfield's location on Lake Superior makes it a prime spot for water-related recreation and activities and one of the most popular pastimes is kayaking. Take a guided kayak expedition to the Apostle Islands, where you can set out on another must-try form of recreation: exploring the sea caves. Catch the ferry to Madeline Island, the largest of these islands, and stroll the sandy beaches, visit the proliferation of art galleries and enjoy a quiet night on the lake from a shore-fronting cottage at the Inn on Madeleine Island.

The aforementioned location on the world's largest freshwater lake makes for cool temperatures and moist air makes Bayfield's climate ideal for growing apples, cherries and berries. Opportunities abound for those who want to make an afternoon of it and pick their own bounty. 


Dodge City, Kansas

Dodge City, Kansas

The site of Indian wars and the stuff of Westerns, Dodge City had a reputation for being the most wicked town in the Old West—in its early years, there were no local lawmen and numerous shootings. But after the slaughter of vast quantities of once-prevalent buffalo law enforcement—Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Bill Tilghman and Charlie Bassett—came riding in. At the Dodge City of Trail of Fame you can learn about these famous men in addition to some of the city's more infamous residents.

The trail and historic trolley tour—available four times evert day between Memorial Day and Labor Day—both depart from Dodge City's visitors center. Learn more about the city's larger-than-life characters at the Gunfighters Wax Museum.

To get a true feel for the town, however, a visit to the Boot Hill Museum is a must: in addition to experiencing what life was like on the streets of Dodge City, you can visit a photo parlor, watch a variety show and chow down on a hearty country-style dinner. The summer is a great time to visit Dodge City as entertainment packs the town; during the beginning of August, catch the Dodge City Roundup Rodeo


Indiana Transportation Museum

Fishers and Noblesville, Indiana

One of the many railroad towns that popped up in the Midwest in the late 19th century, Fishers' original trading post is now the site of the town's largest attraction, Connor Prairie, Indiana's first Smithsonian Institution affiliate. This family-friendly museum and fun-zone encompasses 1,000 wooded acres that invite visitors to discover Indiana's history through a working farm with live animals, Civil War and prairie life reenactments, a walk through one of the area's original brick homes and the Treetop Outpost, a four-story treehouse that fosters a connection to the natural world.   

Kids can also take part in Indiana's "Get Outside—Play" mantra at one or more summer camps put on by Fishers Parks & Recreation; while the kids are away, parents can play at Four Day Ray Brewing. Many of the camps take place at the Ritchey Woods Nature Preserve. One of two preserves in the area, you can also take a self-guided or naturalist-led tour of Ritchey Woods.

Just a short 15-minute drive away, Noblesville boasts the county's only covered bridge, surrounded by a 66-acre park and 3.25-mile long nature trail. It's also home to the Indiana Transportation Museum, a heritage railroad with excursions to fairs, festivals and more.