The Midwest region of the United States stretches from Ohio to the Dakotas. It’s packed with monuments, parks, and lots of lakes, great and small.
Midwest road trips make great getaways for families, whether they’re for multiple weeks or a weekend. Road trips are perfect occasions for everyone to make memories, strengthen bonds of family and friendship, and take fabulous photos which will be treasured for years.
There’s plenty to do and see throughout the Midwest, especially while observing the scenery from the comforts and freedom of your own ‘family truckster.’ (A reference directly from “Vacation” — a favorite road trip movie!) Or you can rent a larger rig to get around, but it helps to do a lot of research when considering renting an RV.
Whether a weekend or a 7-day Midwest road trip, these vacations provide all sorts of freedom to be out on the open road, enjoying endless opportunities of things to see plus so many places to pull over and pull out the camera.
An upcoming exit promising the world’s largest rocking chair? Don’t mind if we do! You’re also free to eat wherever and whatever you want, including all sorts of tasty, hearty, and uniquely Midwestern culinary treats, including cheese curds, bratwursts, and lots of gravy.
If you’re ready for something more robust, Midwest barbecue is legendary and can be found just about anywhere. A good clue you’re in the right place is signage featuring a dancing, neon pig. Bonus if the pig is wearing a chef hat and sunglasses. You can’t get that kind of experience on an airplane!
A road trip is an essential part of any modern vacation experience as much as a local visit to the city zoo, a museum, a festival, or even grandma’s house. Midwest road trips pack all sorts of entertainment, education, and family time into one fun, mobile adventure.
Roaring rivers and picturesque mountain ranges aren’t the only special features of the Midwest. Charming towns with wonderful food, wine, and craft beers have rich histories and fascinating museums and heritage sites.
So, where should you go on your next Midwest family vacation? What kind of Midwest road trip ideas do you have in mind and what natural wonders do you want to see? And just as important, how do you avoid mistakes to make sure you have the best road trip with the kids? Continue reading for some super suggestions.
(And if our list of ideas for the best Midwest road trips isn’t enough, we’ve compiled an even more comprehensive list of the best road trips anywhere you and your family can take.)
Midwest Vacations Road Trips
1. Travel Midwest starting with Wisconsin cuisine and the big rivers
Consider using the Mississippi River as a natural starting point for excellent Midwest road trips. Launch your journey where the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers meet in the pretty town of Prescott, Wisconsin.
From there, the National Scenic Byway will take you on a 250-mile-long tour of the Mississippi. If you have little passengers who might be tired of the scenery, we suggest that you hand out travel-themed books for kids to keep them occupied.
Plenty of dining options are available along this route, from casual to upscale, like Chef Shack Bay City and the Driftless Cafe, both run by James Beard Award-nominated chefs.
The Wisconsin birthplace of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the classic Little House on the Prairie book series, is located a few miles away from the widest part of the river, at Lake Pepin.
Traverse the numerous organic farms nestled in green, rolling countryside and consider their contributions to the nation’s kitchens. Wine lovers will enjoy checking out some of the options for tastings and shopping on the Great River Road Wine Trail.
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2. Midwest Getaways in Illinois along Route 66
A classic way to motor through the Midwest is by taking Route 66, nicknamed ‘the king of all highways.’ This iconic motorway starts in Chicago and winds all the way west to the Santa Monica Pier in California.
Driving the Mother Road, another nickname for 66, is a memorable experience, whether you drive the whole thing or take segments, such as the 300-mile stretch through Illinois to St. Louis, where you’ll encounter nothing but pure Americana. Before you head out, be sure to snap a family photo at the “Begin Route 66” sign outside of the Art Institute in Chicago.
As you head west following your list of Midwest road trip ideas, stop by the Joliet Correctional Center, pictured at the beginning of “The Blues Brothers,” where Jake Blues was incarcerated.
Nearby is the Joliet Museum, the first of many roadside attractions, quirky museums, and famous birthplaces awaiting in the towns of Wilmington, Dwight, Odell, Pontiac, Bloomington, and Lincoln.
You’ll pass through President Abraham Lincoln’s old stomping grounds of Springfield, the state’s capital city. Of course, your accommodations at the Abraham Lincoln Doubletree Hotel are definitely more luxurious than his early days in the family cabin.
The Pontiac-Oakland Auto Museum and the official Route 66 Hall of Fame Museum are in Pontiac. Then you’ll pull up to St. Louis where you can marvel at the Chain of Rocks pedestrian bridge that spans the Mississippi River.
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3. Can’t-Miss Midwest Vacation Spots in South Dakota
The Black Hills area in South Dakota, where many of the more prominent tourist attractions can be found, is best accessible from Rapid City. This area warrants a multi-day itinerary for Midwest road trips for families.
Cap your road trips in the Midwest with a visit to the majestic Mount Rushmore, where the faces of four past U.S. presidents are carved into the mountainside. Nearby is the Crazy Horse Memorial, another historical figure currently being chiseled out of rock.
From Rapid City, don’t miss a trip to Wall Drug, and then venture into the Badlands area for more tours. After your journey through this dramatic, rugged landscape of the Badlands National Park in South Dakota, there’s a multitude of other awe-inspiring parks, hiking trails, and sites, including Wind Cave National Park, Hot Springs, and Mammoth sites.
Continue to Keystone to start your exploration of Custer State Park. which provides illumination about a significant 19th century battle.
After exploring Custer State Park, you’ll also find opportunities to ditch the hiking boots and jump back into the car to take on the scenic byways of Iron Mountain Road, Needles Highway, and Custer Wildlife Loop Road, the first of many Midwest road trip loop opportunities.
4. Must-see Midwest Family Vacations in North Dakota
A Midwest road trip through North Dakota affords your family an amazing experience they’ll always remember, including Jamestown, home to the National Buffalo Museum.
Here, kids (and maybe parents too!) can boast about seeing the World’s Largest Buffalo Monument on the edge of the Old West-styled Frontier Village. The place pays tribute to the importance of bison and Native American culture to North Dakota and the Midwestern United States.
Fort Seward, also in Jamestown, was active from 1872 to 1877, and today, many artifacts remain on display inside the fort. The buffalo statue, Frontier Village and Fort Seward are free to visit. The Jamestown My Place is nearby, making it easy to plan your North Dakota sight-seeing.
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5. Family Trip Ideas for Minnesota
The source of the Mississippi River and known for the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota contains a trove of family trip ideas and there’s also no shortage of items vying for the title of the best things to do in Minnesota.
A classic Midwest road trip loop takes you along the North Shore of Lake Superior, from Duluth up to Canada.
The roadway has been designated as an All-American Road. Along the way, you’ll see the rocky, sandy beaches of Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes. Find opportunities to hike at Lutsen Resort and Gunflint Trail.
Your best Midwest road trips list can include stops at Gooseberry Falls State Park for a look at gorgeous waterfalls, and at Devil’s Kettle Falls to see the phenomenon of the disappearing Brule River.
Unless you’ve brought your passport, you’ll have to turn around from your northern journey at Minnesota’s highest waterfall in Grand Portage State Park, right at the Canadian border. Pick one of three decks for a breathtaking view.
If you’re continuing to check off all your “World’s Largest” attractions on your Midwest road trip itinerary, get ready for The World’s Largest Boot, found only at the Red Wing Shoe Store and Museum in the city of Red Wing. (It’s size 638-D if you were curious.)
Perhaps getting about big boots will inspire you to get your own to tackle the area’s gorgeous bluffs on a hike. Be sure to bring a travel cooler to stay hydrated.
Then, when you’re back in town, enjoy craft beer, local wine, and unique Midwestern dishes. You’ll find that Red Wing is a charming small town located along the Great River Road scenic byway. Stay overnight at the St. James Hotel, and on your drive out, swing by the Red Wing Arts Association, located in the train depot.
See Related: Best Minnesota Family Vacation Ideas
6. Michigan Family Vacations in the Midwest
The Southwest region of Michigan is another worthwhile Midwest road trip to take for a family vacation. The towns aren’t too distanced and there is a lot to do for the whole family.
You’ll be ready for a cold-water plunge afterward in bracing Lake Michigan. Spend the next day in town ogling fancy yachts, eating ice cream, and window shopping at the boutiques.
Pile back into the car and head up a short way to take in the charm of Dutch-themed Holland. Windmill Island Gardens. Holland State Park will provide plenty of scenery to appreciate.
Admission to both attractions is free. Your next stop is Sleepy Hollow State Park in Laingsburg. Its 2,600 acres large and contains a winding river and Lake Ovid.
There are plenty of activities here, including birdwatching and walking and hiking trails. You’ll end up in Lansing, Michigan’s state capital. Take a tour of the gilded downtown capitol or visit the Michigan History Center.
Another amazing Midwest road trip in Michigan doesn’t even have a road to get to: take the ferry to Mackinac Island.
Once you’re there, you can get around with bicycles, horses, or your feet. The drive along I-75 to get to Mackinaw City and the ferry docks takes you through the rolling countryside and pretty towns.
Mackinac Island is considered one of the best family vacation spots in the Midwest. (Of course, there are certainly other parts of the country with unique charm, especially this ultimate guide to California road trips.)
7. Midwest Weekend Getaway Ideas can include Kansas
Pack some snacks, your overnight bags, and gas up the car. These weekend getaways in the Midwest will make great road trips. Make Wichita, Kansas, your final destination and enjoy a vibrant arts scene, great restaurants, and more than 100 parks.
You need a family picture at the Keeper of the Plains monument. After that, occupy yourselves with excursions to the Old Cowtown Museum and Botanica Wichita. Bring one of these travel kettles along on your journey.
Kansas City is worth seeing as well, both the Kansas version and the Missouri one. Kansas City, Kansas, also boasts the Kansas Speedway, a NASCAR track.
Remember, Dorothy wanted to get back home to Kansas even after seeing the wonders of Oz!
8. Check out the Great Lakes Area
Kenosha, Wisconsin, sits along the shores of Lake Michigan and is a weekender’s paradise. Relaxing and sailing is the preferred lifestyle here, and there isn’t much better locally on the electric streetcars or the sculpture walk.
Tell folks at home about the time you rode a bike on the country’s oldest working velodrome in Kenosha—the Washington Park Velodrome. Sample the famous cheeses of Wisconsin at Mar’s Cheese Castle. You’ll also want to make sure you budget enough time to visit the town’s museums and history centers.
The attraction of the Great Lakes extends to Ohio, including Sandusky, right on Lake Erie. the city is also known as the home of Cedar Point amusement park, and the title of the Roller Coaster Capital of the World.)
If your schedule doesn’t accommodate waiting in theme park lines, take the ferry to Put-In-Bay and spend the day exploring, touring, sailing, golfing…whatever floats your boat. There’s also great dining and wine tasting.
Back in Sandusky, give the town’s other waterparks and amusements a spin or learn about Ohio’s boating history at the Maritime Museum of Sandusky. You can even combine fun with lodging, since some of the nearby hotels have indoor water parks, such as the Cedar Point Castaway Bay Hotel.
Finally, spend a delightful afternoon seeing how carousels are restored and riding a few of them at Sandusky’s whimsical Merry-Go-Round Museum.
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9. Explore the Ozarks and Other Missouri Sights
If you’re planning a Midwest road trip in Missouri, you’re in luck. The Ozark Mountains provide a wonderful natural playground of trails, rivers, and lakes. It’s simply beautiful scenery perfect for driving to or through, with more than 300 miles of winding, forest roads.
The area was once covered in water. You can learn more about what this ancient sea looked like with a trip to the Onondaga Caves.
Rent a log cabin or tent camp in the Mark Twain National Forest and make sure to contemplate a portion of the Trail of Tears at the Indian Trail Conservation Area. Cue up your Andy Williams playlist and drive to Branson in Missouri for family-friendly shows and museums.
Endless outdoor activities and natural beauty are minutes away in the Ozarks lakes and mountains. If you venture a couple of hours east on US-160E from Branson, you can scout the “Little Grand Canyon” of Grand Gulf State Park.
This natural wonder is a collapsed cave system, stretching for almost a mile between 130-foot-high walls. The best viewing is from the trails at the top of the gulf. More adventurous types scramble to the floor for a walk under the 250-long natural bridge.
One highlight of Kansas City in Missouri is the National WWI Museum and Memorial.
10. Take a Trip to Indiana
Don’t forget that there are great things to the east of the Dakotas and Wisconsin, like… sand dunes? Yes, you’ve heard it right! You’ll find these unique geologic features on the southern edge of Lake Michigan in Indiana Dunes National Park.
The park boasts 15 miles of beaches, dunes, breweries, and restaurants. There’s also lovely architectural history throughout the region that’s perfect for Midwest road trips.
The Century of Progress homes is also nearby the Indiana Dunes National Park, built after the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933. The boxy International Style homes were also inspired by the fair. Take a peek to see great examples of these beach-front vacation escapes of wealthy families from that era.
Then, make sure to explore the old homesteads of Swedish immigrants who settled in Northern Indiana in the mid-1800s. If you’re a family of foodies, steer southwest of Indianapolis to Bloomington. After sampling the fresh farm-to-table fare, you can take your exercise on one of the surrounding hiking and biking trails, like those in Hoosier National Forest.
See Related: Best Things to Do in Warsaw, Indiana
11. Iowa Beckons with Lots of Midwest Charm
A deep appreciation for corn and pork is really just the starting places for fun in the Hawkeye state. Iowa ranks high in overall friendliness and scenery, including the capital of Des Moines which is right on the Mississippi River.
If you’re planning a future Midwest road trip for families, consider doing so in August, which is when the state fair in Des Moines takes place. It’s actually considered one of the oldest and largest events of its kind at the national level.
It’s actually 11 days long so you can stay for a couple of days at the nearby Hotel Fort Des Moines Curio Collection by Hilton. It’s also close to the Science Center of Iowa. Interestingly, Iowa locations have been prominent in a variety of films, including “The Bridges of Madison County” and “Field of Dreams.”
The state always looks good, including the gold on the Capitol Dome. Another area that people like seeing is the National Mississippi River Museum operated by the Dubuque Historical Society. It’s an opportunity to learn so much about the mighty river.
So Many Great Midwest Road Trip Ideas
If you fly over the American heartland in a plane, you’ll miss out on so many gorgeous natural wonders of the Midwest, which spread from Lake Erie to the High Plains before the Rockies rise and the West officially begins. The best way to see it all is by a Midwest road trip or even a Midwest road trip loop to see a lot and then head back home while seeing more along the way.
Take a weekend at a time or block off a week for a 7-day Midwest road trip, maybe two (three?) to visit so many special cities, towns, villages, and state parks that give the Midwest its friendly charm. Cool lakes and timeworn mountains provide limitless activity and entertainment, while sunny farmland yields the freshest flavors.
Whether you like slow, meandering cruises through rolling hills or high-flying roller coasters, the Midwest delivers. There’s guaranteed to be something interesting to see and do on Midwest road trips for families when you start thinking of your Midwest road trip ideas.
Hiking, swimming, camping, skiing, seeing museums, exploring lighthouses (yes, they are a thing!), visiting a special state park, or just soaking up the sights from the top of a gorge will leave you appreciating the wonder found between the coasts.
With so many great places to see in the Midwest, where will you go for your next road trip?
How cold does it get in the Midwest?
Be sure to pack your cold-weather gear. With the exception of Alaska, the wide-open plains lead the U.S. in terms of cold weather resources. States like Wisconsin and North Dakota also make lists of coldest cities with an average daily temperature of 41 degrees throughout the year. A national park in the Midwest may be warm in the daytime but can cool down fast in the spring, fall, and even late summer.
What is Midwest food?
It depends on the state, but this style of food is often described as hearty, perhaps inspired by the meals cooked by early farmers and homesteaders. So lots of butter and gravy. Each town may have their own special place be it BBQ or brats.
What’s the best museum in the Midwest?
The venerable institutions in New York usually sweep these type of advertising competitions out of tradition and elegance. But few people realize that one of the best-regarded institutions in the Midwest is the Cleveland Museum of Art.
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