Unfortunately, we can't all live close to some of the super picturesque places we see on Instagram and the like. However, while not exactly known for breathtaking hiking opportunities, the Midwest still offers a surprising amount of backpacking trips that are interesting and challenging in their own right. From the Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri to the Shawnee State Forest in Ohio, plenty of scenic and rugged hikes await you in the Heartland. Here are a few of our favorites!
This is the last section of this semi-long-distance thru-hike, which is around 310-miles in total length. Located in northeastern Minnesota, this section of the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) covers a distance of 54-miles, making it a great choice for a week-long trip just because or if you're tackling the SHT in sections. It's a bit of a roller-coaster with the frequent ups and downs, but the scenery is worth the quad workout with its numerous waterfalls, a beach walk along Lake Superior, and scenic overlooks dotted along the way with the grand finale of the 270-degree overlook of the Pigeon River and Canadian border. You can check out our post for more information and itinerary suggestion, but there are plenty of campsites along the way, making it easy to plan your own trip.
Garden of the Gods to Lusk Creek
Prepare to have your mind blown in one of the most arguably “out of place” wilderness areas in the Midwest. Known more for its flatness and never-ending sea of corn and soybean fields, Illinois is probably the last place you would expect gorges, intriguing rock formations, or even caves. But that, and so much more, are exactly what Garden of the Gods Rec Area and Lusk Creek Wilderness offer in the southern part of the state in the Shawnee National Forest.
This 26-mile section traverses part of the much longer River-to-River Trail. A favorite of hikers in Illinois and nearby Indiana and Kentucky alike, this point-to-point trip is a great option if you're looking for a short overnight with plenty of side trails to explore at your leisure. Start with the towering red, brown, and gray rock formations at Garden of the Gods, enjoying the views from the bluffs, before heading southwest through the aptly-named One Horse Gap, under a 50-ft waterfall, and finally making your way to the steep bluffs of Lusk Creek Canyon. If you're up for it, check out the short spur trail to Indian Kitchen as well.
Red River Gorge
Another premier “go-to” spot in the Midwest, hikers several states around love backpacking in the gorgeous Red River Gorge Geological Area in northeastern Kentucky. There is an extensive system of shorter, interconnected trails in the area, making the itinerary possibilities endless. On top of that, many hikers enjoy traveling part of the 333-mile Sheltowee Trace Trail through the area. This section covers about 11 miles, beginning at Natural Bridge State Resort Park, which is also worthy of exploring, and heads north to the Red River Gorge Area. Aside from crossing over a sizable footbridge over the Red River, you'll encounter numerous, large rock formations, such as Gray's Arch, Rock Bridge, and Chimney Top. It goes without saying that the vantage points from these bluffs are amazing and must be seen in person to truly appreciate.
Manistee River Trail and North Country Loop
For one of the best hikes in Michigan's lower peninsula and the Midwest at large, head out on the Manistee River and North Country Loop. This 20-mile hike is great for beginners and seasoned backpackers alike. More experienced hikers can get through the trail in 2 days while those starting out or looking for a more relaxed pace can easily make this into a 3-day, 2-night trip. With easy access to traditional campgrounds at two of the trailheads, this loop is a nice option for those who may still be easing into the whole backpacking experience.
Many hikers recommend starting from the Upper River Trailhead, heading out on the North Country Trail section first to cover the most rugged part while your body is still nice and rested. Along the way, you'll cross the longest suspension bridge in the lower peninsula, see the Hodenpyl Dam, a small waterfall, and plenty of overlooks affording views of the Big Manistee River and nearby rolling Udell Hills.
Located on the northern tip of the “Door Peninsula” of Wisconsin, Newport State Park is another great place for beginning backpackers to check out. Most state parks don't offer backpacking at all, but this one is unique with its 17 pre-established campsites that are outfitted more like primitive sites in a regular campground with fire rings, benches, food lock boxes, and pit toilets conveniently provided at each.
With 30 miles of hiking trails available, you can take a quick overnight trip or make it into a weekend-long excursion, exploring all of the trails! The Europe Bay Loop, which is about 10-miles altogether, comes highly recommended. It offers a nice mix of shaded woods hiking and nice views of the rocky Lake Michigan shoreline as well as Europe Lake, both of which have campsites nearby. You can find out more about hiking at this incredible park on our Hike of the Week spotlight article.
We couldn't have a list of the best backpacking locations in the Midwest without including the hidden gem that is Isle Royale National Park! Also located in Michigan, this park is unique in that it's literally an island that you must take a boat to get to. No motor traffic! However, this also means peace, quiet, and isolation.
There are numerous backcountry campgrounds on the island, 36, in fact, ranging from those accessible by trail-only and ones near Lake Michigan's shore accessible by motor and sailboats. Don't let the fact that it's an island fool you: There are 170-miles of trails and, perhaps more surprisingly, a high concentration of moose and wolves. Aside from wildlife, there are also plenty of inland lakes, dense evergreen forests, and, of course, great views of Lake Superior. Check out our recommended route for a week-long island exploration!
Southern Indiana probably isn't the first place you would think of to train for a long-distance thru-hike, but that's exactly what you'll find on the Knobstone Trail. It is Indiana's longest consecutive footpath at 60-miles and offers surprisingly rugged and difficult terrain for the Midwest. In fact, many Heartland hikers frequent it to prepare for longer stints on the Appalachian Trail and other long-distance hikes. It's also a great trail if you're looking for a secluded, challenging, week-long backpacking trip in the area.
Known for its rocky escarpments, you'll frequently find yourself high up on the bluffs overlooking the surrounding forest and farmland. Due to the nature of this geological feature, you'll be making plenty of steep climbs and descents. Much of the trail runs through state forests and a few shelters are provided along the route, but it's best to plan for dispersed camping. Maps, sections, and tons of other useful information can be found on Indiana Outfitters' page.
Shawnee Backpack Trail Loop
Known by locals as “The Little Smokies of Ohio”, you know you're in for an enjoyable backpacking trip. The aptly-named Shawnee Backpack Trail offers a few options for hikers. The north and south loops can be done separately (about 20 miles each) or you can combine them into one big loop that ends up being about 40 miles. If that's not enough, there are plenty of connecting side trails throughout the area. Several established campsites are available as well.
Aside from the hilly terrain, these loops are also rated as difficult because they can become quite overgrown during the summer, the trail can be hard to find in some areas, especially near water crossings, and the inclines can quickly turn into streams during a hard rain. In other words, if bushwhacking and way-finding are your thing, the Shawnee Backpack Loop is waiting for you!
Big Piney Trail
If you're looking for a traditional backcountry experience with no “luxuries” of footbridges or established campsites, the Big Piney Trail may be a great spot for your next Midwest backpacking trip. Located in the Paddy Creek Wilderness of south-central Missouri, this trail is relatively easy to get to for an overnight trip (17 miles altogether). It's perfect for hikers of all skill levels with its minimal elevation gain (500ft at the most, though there are some steep sections along the trail).
If one of the main highlights you're looking forward to are the views of the beautiful rolling Ozarks, any time but summer is your best bet. (It goes without saying that the foliage, while lovely with its abundance of hickories and oaks, gets in the way. Plus you won't have to worry about water sources and bugs as much in the “off seasons”!) The Big Piney Trail offers numerous rocky outcroppings, several seasonal waterfalls, and great vistas of Big Piney River. Touted as one of the best trails in the state, you won't regret checking this one out!
Have you been on any of these great hikes in the Midwest? Where is your favorite backpacking trip in this region? Let us know in the comments below!