When we crave adventure, it’s natural to turn to the great outdoors, where variety and novel experiences are never in short supply. Especially in America’s national parks, no two wilderness treks or camping trips are alike. Whether you’re a local or visiting the Windy City and in search of an outdoor adventure, we rounded up the top Midwest national parks near Chicago that you can reach on a short road trip. Plus, we share a few tips that will make your adventure smoother and even more enjoyable.
Best Midwest national parks near Chicago
1. Indiana Dunes National Park
50 miles (less than 1 hour) from Chicago
This slice of heaven along Lake Michigan has plenty to offer daytrippers. Relax on golden sand dunes, enjoy water activities on the lake, hike along forested trails and explore preserved historic sites. Interestingly, Indiana Dunes National Park is also home to five houses built for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, featured in the “Homes of Tomorrow” exhibit. A tour is given once a year to those lucky enough to snag some of the fast-selling tickets.
Once you pay the park’s entrance fee — $25 for passenger vehicles, $20 for motorcycles or $15 per person for those walking, biking or boating in — your pass is valid for seven days, making it a no-brainer to visit again if one day isn’t enough for all the activities on your list.
2. Herbert Hoover National Historic Site
210.5 miles (3 to 3.5 hours) from Chicago
West Branch, Iowa, is the birthplace and final resting place of Herbert Hoover, the 31st U.S. president. Visitors can enter this National Historic Site for free and enjoy a variety of educational and outdoor activities. Learn about the former president’s life by visiting his birthplace cottage, schoolhouse, religious meetinghouse and his father’s blacksmith shop. When you want to break for food, you can eat under a picnic shelter, right where Hoover himself picnicked. There are also more than two miles of picturesque trails running through the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site that are open year round.
3. Cuyahoga Valley National Park
348 miles (5.5 hours) from Chicago
Don’t let the drive time to the park scare you off — there will be plenty of ways for you to stretch your legs once you arrive at this breathtaking Midwest national park that sits between Cleveland and Akron, Ohio. Hiking trails range from nearly flat and accessible to rugged and challenging. Those who prefer to navigate on two wheels can bike the Towpath Trail, a historic route that follows the Ohio & Erie Canal, or gear up and go down the mountain bike trail. There is also canoeing and kayaking available on the Cuyahoga River, as well as opportunities to fish, golf, go horseback riding and enjoy winter sports. Keep an eye out for local wildlife, too, like eagles, deer, beavers and herons.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park has no entrance fee and is open every day of the year. Given the distance of this park from Chicago, you’ll definitely want to stay a night or two to make the most of your time here. There are two accommodation options inside the park, one of which occupies a building from 1848 that is on the National Register of Historic Places. Although camping isn’t allowed in the park, there are nearby campgrounds and RV lots for those interested in a more rustic experience.
Tips for traveling to Midwest national parks
One of the best ways to get your bearings and learn about a park’s major attractions, as well as its lesser-known gems, is to stop by the visitor’s center as soon as you enter. You can talk to a park ranger, get a trail map and use the facilities before you begin your adventure. Take note of the park’s closing time while you’re there to ensure you’re on the correct side of the gates after hours.
Once inside a park, it’s unlikely that you’ll find amenities like restaurants and gas stations. Make sure your car’s gas tank is as full as possible before you enter, and pack plenty of water, snacks and picnic food in your trunk for you and your travel companions.
Although cellular service might be decent when you enter the park, you aren’t guaranteed a strong signal as you travel deeper into the wilderness. Download trail and park maps for offline use before you start your road trip to a Midwest national park.
Avail can get you there
You’ve got your national park adventure planned out and all that’s left is to rent a car. Skip the hassle and headache of traditional car rental counters by using Avail car sharing. Our dozens of convenient neighborhood locations around Chicago are self-service, so you can grab the keys for the car you booked and hit the road without ever waiting in line. Plus, every trip is protected by Allstate insurance and includes 24/7 roadside assistance, so you can enjoy your Midwest national park road trip with peace of mind.